Apr 29, 2010

The Biggest Failure in Energy is Thinking Bigger Is Better: Biochar Entrepreneur Jason Aramburu : TreeHugger

jason aramburu photoThis is a guest post from founder and CEO of re:char Jason Aramburu.
TREEHUGGER: What are the major advances have you seen (in your field) during the past 40 years? What, if any, were the major failures?
JASON ARAMBURU: I think one of the greatest advancements we've seen in renewable energy recently is cost reduction. Companies like GE continue to improve the capital cost of renewables such that they may soon compete with fossil fuels on a cost/kW basis. Achieving cost parity with fossil fuels is the only way to sustainably displace them. The biofuels boom and bust has taught the industry (and the public) that subsidies are simply not an effective long-term strategy.

I think the greatest failure in the energy field has been the notion that 'bigger is better.' The United States built its national grid to distribute power generated by large, centralized fossil fuel and nuclear plants. This design was predicated on the assumption of infinite, cheap sources of fossil fuel.

In reality, a centralized model is both inefficient and incapable of responding to changes in demand or fuel prices. Brilliant thinkers like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute have long supported a more distributed system, based around a diverse portfolio of energy technologies. The advantages of a distributed model include reduced logistical costs, improved efficiency and the ability to produce power where and when it is actually needed. Unfortunately, we have come to this realization too late. Our national grid (and our local utilities) are not set up to handle distributed, intermittent generation. Now, we must spend billions to upgrade the grid.

TH: What does a bright green future look like to you? What's the utopian vison?
JA: I envision a bright green future of true self-sufficiency, where ideas from the past blend with the realities of the present. We've become very specialized and almost totally incapable of providing for ourselves. We buy our power from the grid, our food from the supermarket and have no connection whatsoever to the production or disposal of anything. If one element of this support system fails, chaos ensues.

If we hope to survive in a greenhouse and energy constrained world, we must learn to be self-sufficient. We need to form a healthy and sustainable relationship with our natural resources, while limiting waste. We can learn a lot from Amazonian tribal societies. These tribes, while primitive, have existed for thousands of years without depleting their resources.

TH: How would we realistically transition into that sort of ideal situation?

JA: We first need to realize that the main hurdle to true self-sufficiency is laziness. If we can overcome this inertia, there are three areas where we can make massive strides with existing technologies:

Food - Every American Household is fully capable of producing basic foodstuffs like eggs and vegetables. If we could provide homeowners with the tools to produce some of their own food, we would realize dramatic improvements in health and nutrition, while saving money and reducing environmental impact.

Energy - All new constructions should be required to produce at least half of their energy on-site. A myriad of mature technologies exist to produce energy locally (solar, wind, biomass etc). Local production and consumption of energy would eliminate the need for a smart grid, and would encourage efficiency and conservation.

Waste - Landfills are a strange concept--they allow consumers to discretely and shamelessly waste. At the very least, all municipalities should institute mandatory household composting and recycling. It would be interesting to require households to dispose of the remaining solid waste in transparent trashcans. The fear of public shaming can do wonders to change human behavior.

photo courtesy Jason Aramburu

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