Heliophage


Soil isn’t fuel
January 21, 2009, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis
obabam-inaugural-wordle1

The inaugural address, wordled

I was a pretty damn happy man yesterday watching the inaugural address, and who wouldn’t have been. As my friend Geoff says, it was a mix of reconciliation and confrontation, and both were needed. It was  moving, inspiring and impressive in itself, leaving aside the historical significance of the man who was giving it.

I am, though, going to pick a nit with one phrase

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

I appreciate, relish and honour the rhetorical power of threes, and the deployment of soil as the third monosyllable after sun and wind works well; throughout he was stressing the notion of the nation, and soil, sort of elemental, fits well into that sort of discourse. But seeming to suggest that soil can be used to fuel things helps to foster bad biofuel thinking. To a first approximation, the desirability of a bioenergy system is inversely proportional to the degree that it uses soil up. Unlike wind and sun, soil is a materially finite resource, and treating it as a fuel to use up will always be a bad idea. You could argue that to “harness” means to use, not to use up,  and that even the very best bioenergy schemes use soil in a supporting non-extractive way (unless they are purely algal). But it seems to me that that is not the sense of the phrase; it is much closer to seeing soil as a source of energy when in fact it is a sink.

This is a specific form of the general argument that fuels are stores not sources; energy is at its heart about flows, not fuels.  The more deeply engrained in people’s thinking this becomes, the better. Cars don’t need fuel — they need power. Fuel is a means, not an end.

I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t think that people need to keep an eye on Obama biofuel policies and their Iowan bent. And I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression I didn’t still think it was a damn fine speech. Even if Jon Favreau can’t count

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1 Comment so far
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I too was snagged on the word “soil” though I couldn’t put my finger on why. Thanks for pointing it out. It is so very easy to confuse what makes everything happen – energy – and the source of a particular flow of energy – the fuel. Speaking from Minnesota, we’ll continue working to keep food out of the fuel tank!

Comment by Beth Hynes




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