Alternative Energy in the Media

As the world struggles with the rising price of oil, the media is awash with optimistic stories about the efforts of scientists to discover a cheap, abundant energy source that could replace fossil fuels. The idea is seductive: human ingenuity will soon discover a way to fuel our growth-based economy, and nothing will have to change except the products we buy. We may have to swap our petroleum cars with hydrogen cars, or heat our homes with wood pellets instead of oil, but the private sector will surely find a way to keep producing all that stuff we crave.

Here are a few ideas that have been turning heads in the news:

Moon gas

NASA plans to set up a permanent base on the moon – in part to mine for Helium-3. According to science reporters, Helium-3 fusion is a very promising source of energy. Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China’s lunar program, hopes to beat them to it:  “We will provide the most reliable report on Helium-3 to mankind! Whoever conquers the moon will benefit first!” he says.   Russian space geologist Erik Galimov frets that NASA’s moon colony will “enable the U.S. to establish its control of the global energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out.” I know, it sounds like something you’d overhear in the bar at a science fiction convention, but it’s not! These are real government scientists!

All we need to do, they say, is build a permanent settlement on the moon, discover a way to freeze He-3 for transport and invent commercial scale fusion reactors to turn it into energy, and we could be up and running in about 50 years!

You might think 50 years is a long time to wait, what with energy prices increasing exponentially every year, but there’s no need to worry, because huge advances are being made in the field of…

Pond scum

After decades of algae research, it is now possible to grow a tonne of the stuff for only $5000 – enough to extract two barrels of vegetable oil – enough to tide a typical American over for a month. The Wall Street Journal acknowledges that, if pond scum oil remains at $2500 a barrel “the price of crude oil would have to rise considerably above $130 a barrel for algae from these closed systems to be competitively priced”.

Nevertheless, pond scum coverage in the mainstream media is almost unanimously optimistic. The Edmonton Sun reports that “in the renewable energy world, the scum of ponds is being hailed as the latest, great answer to the global oil crisis and climate warming.” Australia’s The West raves that “Motorists sick of soaring petrol prices could soon be filling up on pond scum if groundbreaking Perth research succeeds!” “You know that greenish tinge the swimming pool gets when you run out of chlorine? The same one that showed up when the filter on the fish tank broke?” asks the Chicago Tribune “What if you could use that to run your car?”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can afford to pay $5000 a month to meet my energy needs with pond scum, so I was delighted to see that great leaps have been made in creating biofuel from…


A British company has patented a process that can produce 400 litres of ethanol from one tonne of dry organic waste.  I did some poking around and hauled out my calculator and learned that a Canadian who drives 30 km per day will need to produce about six times more organic waste than today’s average to run a vehicle on 100% recycled rubbish.

But don’t worry, because those who are unable to generate two extra tonnes of garbage every year can always turn to…

The surplus wine and cheese of royals

Prince Charles has been widely praised in the media for converting several Jaguars, an Audi and a Range Rover to run on biofuel made from used cooking oil. He’s also had his Aston Martin adapted to run on wacky royal moonshine distilled from wine and cheese. That’s “surplus” wine, mind you – something you’re unlikely to find at any dinner party I’ve ever been to. Some environmentalists might moan that surely owning an entire fleet of personal automobiles is not “environmentally conscious” no matter what they run on, but you can’t expect royals to take the bus with the rest of us peasants.

Looking at these stories, it seems the media would have us believe the solution to fossil fuel depletion and global warming is right around the corner. All we need to do is kick back, relax, and wait to be rescued by capitalism. One day we might be called upon to trade our mini-vans for moon-gas-fusion-reactor-propelled jet cars, but until then, there is nothing we need to do, because capitalism has it all under control.

I get the distinct impression, though, that the single greatest advance in the field of alternative energy is the ability to secure research funds. One thing you can count on in this day and age is that if you have some energy-related notion, no matter how preposterous, investors are tripping over themselves to finance your business venture.

What is utterly lacking in the mainstream media is coverage of alternative thinking. We love to assume we can continue forever with our cherished model of exponential growth. We can’t bear to consider the possibility we may one day have to consume less and abandon the growth-based economy.

Nevertheless, we will one day be forced to level off – even to retreat. That basic fact is made starkly clear in this video. I don’t know if it’s “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See”, but it’s certainly the most engaging math lecture I’ve ever seen.

Dr. Albert A. Bartlett does a fine job of proving that the crucial question facing us today is not “what new fuel technology can replace fossil fuels, now that they’re running out?” The question we must face is, “Will we change the way we think and begin to consume less on our own terms, or will we continue to assume there is no limit to the earth’s ability to sustain us – and face the unknown banquet of consequences that will inevitably result from our unchallenged assumption the earth’s bounty is limitless?”

I’m all for innovation, research and technology, but this mad dash to discover some form of energy that can replace fossil fuels is ill-conceived. Until every energy consuming home is fitted with a solar panel or a wind turbine; until every community is able, locally and organically, to produce enough food to sustain themselves, our attention and resources are being dangerously misdirected by this quest to replace fossil fuels.

Maybe one day science might discover a form of energy as cheap and abundant as oil, but it seems unlikely this will happen any time soon. So wouldn’t it be more prudent to make the best use of the technology we have already and begin to build communities that don’t need cheap and abundant energy to survive? If we can pull that off, the discovery of a replacement will be a pleasant surprise. If we can’t, and science fails to deliver, the consequences are likely to be dire.