California’s green dream

Hi-tech solutions or the simple life?

Published on Le MondeDiplo, by Agnès Sinai, July 2009.

America is waking up to the reality of peak oil and climate change. In California there are very different responses to the crisis: some pin their hopes on new technology, while others advocate a radical change of lifestyle …

… Environmental amnesia:

Sapphire Energy, a competitor of Solazyme, hopes to use this process to produce 455m litres of “green crude” algae fuel a year by 2018. Sapphire – which is supported by Bill Gates and the Rockefeller family – boasts that its fuel can replace oil in existing refinement and distribution infrastructure. The production facility it is building in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will be the first commercial plant producing algae fuel. The only problem is that it could end up costing a billion dollars to produce a quantity of fuel that is tiny in comparison with domestic demand.  

David Fridley is a former oil industry executive who is now an energy specialist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He explained: “Ultimately, these kinds of schemes are simply a supplement to fossil fuels, not a replacement, since every stage of their manufacturing is based on fossil fuel usage. The ultimate test for a true renewable is when the output of the fuel can provide the input to its own manufacture.” These algae facilities, whether they are enclosed or in the open air, use huge amounts of energy, because of the water they require. Thousands of cubic metres of water are needed to fill them, to keep their temperature constant or replace evaporation. The biggest consumer of electricity in California is the system that pumps water from the north of the state down through the Tehachapi mountains to Los Angeles.

Fridley gazed at the vegetables and vines growing in his little garden of Eden in Sonoma County and said he was worried about the “environmental amnesia” of some of his contemporaries. He complained that they don’t seem to understand the vulnerability of our energy system, on which our food production also depends.

The psychology of Californians veers between technological optimism and a sense of doom. The San Andreas fault line runs right across California: a major earthquake partially destroyed San Francisco in 1906, and the state suffers regularly from huge forest fires and drought.

André Angelantoni, co-founder of Post Peak Living, which advises politicians and private individuals on how to prepare for the decline in oil production, doesn’t believe technology will be the great provider. He says these Silicon Valley start-ups will never be able to produce a replacement for fossil fuels quickly enough, at competitive prices and in sufficient quantities. He thinks a crash is inevitable: “We are confronted with a series of global problems: financial, energy, climatic – which have already reached such proportions that their consequences can no longer be avoided. Each new problem adds to the one before. It is as if we have been living beyond our means and we are just realising the coffers are empty.” Angelantoni suggests we start preparing for the coming crisis and learn to use less energy … (full long text).

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