Several weeks ago, I read The Long Emergency by James Kunstler. Kunstler is a critic of suburbia and in addition to his books, he has a blog with the rather blunt title Clusterfuck Nation.
The gist of Kunstler's argument in The Long Emergency is that the American suburban lifestyle will soon become unsustainable because it depends on a finite supply of cheap oil to sustain it. "The key to understanding what is about to happen to us," he writes on page 24, "is contained in the concept of global oil production peak. This is the point at which we have extracted half of all the oil that has ever existed in the world-the half that was easiest to get, the half that was most economically obtained, the half that was the highest quality and cheapest to refine."
With that, what Kunstler derides as our "happy motoring" way of life and the days of the "3,000 mile caesar salad" will soon be coming to an end. But what about alternatives to fossile fuels like wind power, solar power or biofuels? Nonsense, retorts Kunstler. "Based on everything we know right now, no combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil." Why? "To some degree, all of the non-fossil fuel energy sources actually depend on an underlying fossil fuel economy. You can't manufacture metal wind turbines using wind energy technology. You can't make lead-acid storage batteries for solar electric systems using any known solar energy system."
But in the chapter that Kunstler devotes to deconstructing fossil fuel alternatives, the part that I found the most amusing was where he writes about a company called Changing World Technologies, which claimed that it could make oil from turkey guts via a process called thermal depolymerization. "The company's first commercially scaled plant, a $20 million installation in Carthage, Missouri, was built next to a ConAgra Foods Butterball Turkey processing factory. Company spokespersons claimed that they would ultimately make oil by this method for $10 a barrel in 2003 dollars." This made me think of the end of the first Back to the Future movie, wherein Doc Brown powers his flying Delorean with the McFly family's household trash. Kunstler goes on to to dismiss it with "Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is."
And, as recent events demonstrated, it was too good to be true. Last week I read this article, which reported that Changing World Technologies was filing for bankruptcy. From the article:
Renewable diesel fuel from the Carthage plant cost more than $11.18 a gallon to make, yet Changing World was only able to sell it for an average $1.19 last year, the filings reported. Since it began operations in 1999, the company posted accumulated losses of $117.9 million, including $60 million in the last three years.
The Carthage plant also was the subject of odor complaints from residents and state officials, who hit it with a cease-and-desist order and fines and required odor-reducing retrofits. The plant suffered from regular shutdowns - it was 80 percent operational at best, the company said. When it wasn't operating, Changing World had to pay to "divert or dispose of [turkey parts] that we received but were unable to store or process."
The claim that the plant would also be able to self-produce all the fuel needed to heat the diesel-making animal parts turned out to be optimistic. Last year alone, the company spent $900,000 to buy natural gas, nearly 7 percent of its total cost of goods sold.
In a 2004 Newsday interview, Appel predicted the company would have 10 big plants across the United States by 2009.
So, it looks like leftover turkey parts are not going to help us reduce our dependence on imported oil.
Back to Kunstler, I can't say if the dire picture he paints for us is going to come to pass or not. Generally being optimistic by nature, I like to think that we will find a way to muddle through. And yet, at the same time, if I as an atheist am skeptical about faith claims when it comes to religion, shouldn't I also be skeptical about having faith that some technological solution will be found that will provide us and our children with cheap and abundant clean energy in the coming decades? The answer of course is yes, I should be skeptical, though I would not assume the worst either. At the very least, I can do my part to try and reduce my use of fossil fuels and educate myself on energy issues so that I can be an informed advocate.