Michael Pollan Advises Obama on Food and Agriculture

Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not
Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not!

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) gave some advice to the next president (Obama, as it turns out) in the NY Times October 12 Sunday Magazine. If he didn’t know already, Pollan warned him that food policy is going to be a big issue, and provides some advice on what to do about it.

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.

Modern U.S. agriculture (especially as embodied in “The Farm Bill”) is not only a giant user of fossil fuels, but also arguably the major contributor to health crises like obesity and diabetes.

Agriculture in the U.S. uses a surprisingly large amount of fossil fuels (about 14% of the total), and actually generates proportionally more potent greenhouse gases than other uses of the same feedstock. The green revolution was all about fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and monoculture. Furthermore, the incentives are perverse, especially in the U.S., anti-health and anti-family farm.

Summarizing Pollan’s article, the key recommendation is the “resolarization” of American agriculture:

Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. … Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

Pollan was also on Fresh Air on October 20, a fantastic interview following up on this article, which you can hear at http://freshair.npr.org. I have the mp3 of the show if you want to listen to it on your pod-player (let me know – I’ll make it available for download).

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Economic Stimulus Via Renewable Energy Transmission Grid

Let’s hope Obama focuses the stimulus package on things we know we need to do anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind energy and solar energy projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative.

Arizona sunset
Arizona sunset

Al Gore and I are in agreement that Obama can kill two birds with one stone by structuring his economic stimulus plan around improving the U.S.’s energy posture – which everyone agrees we need to do, both to achieve energy independence and to mitigate climate change. In his op-ed in today’s New York Times he said:

Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

So, following up on my post from Friday, let’s focus the stimulus package on things we know need doing anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind and solar projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative: Solicit the top five or ten proposals for new grid projects (a lot of organizations have already put these together), have a six month vetting process, and for the ones that pass the vetting process, provide substantial incentives for investing in those projects, or guarantee the first $100 million of financing for each.

It’s important that the incentives are given to worthy projects, hence the vetting process, but time is clearly of the essence in getting these projects started, hence the six month window. Who does the vetting? Could be a “blue ribbon panel” (assembled very swiftly), or could be an existing industry group that volunteers (again, in response to an incentive of some kind if necessary).

The idea here is that new grid is likely to be cost-effective and pay for itself (that is, investors will get their money back) but in the current financial market and given the curent set of regulations covering conventional energy it’s difficult to actually raise that money. So the Feds can step in and help make sure that these projects, that are desirable for the economy and the nation in the long-term, are able to get off the ground in the short term. You want to avoid the Feds from “choosing the winners” – that will still be done by the market. But you also need to give the market a nudge along the lines of “we’ll give you some incentives to invest in this rather than in a non-productive financial instrument or in conventional energy.”

There are lots of legitimate fears out there about economic stimulus programs – they’re expensive, they’ll have to be paid back eventually, and they solve the wrong problems. So what does Obama and his brain trust need to make sure we avoid?

  • Assuming they can “choose the winners”
  • Funding something that only benefits the already wealthy and doesn’t create jobs (Paulson bailout, anyone?) or improve the country and its opportunities structurally
  • A set of incentives that are too localized

Al’s and my proposals, I think, address all of these concerns:

  • My vetting process allows the market to choose the winners
  • The project will be of benefit to all of us – we need a new grid, and it will enable new kinds of business opportunities for both large and small entrepreneurs. And the projects demand a huge range of skills, from the electrical engineers who design the grid, to the mechanical engineers and technicians who design the transmission lines, to the blue collar workers who manufacture the equipment and build the grid itself
  • The nature of the transmission grid, and in particular the types of problems this grid needs to solve, are inherently non-local – the electricity has to get from rural areas like Arizona and Wyoming to urban centers like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago

I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea, and also your ideas for the initiatives Obama could pursue to address the financial crisis and the energy independence crisis at the same time.

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Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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Getting (A Lot) More Done Per CO2 Molecule

CIA World Factbook 2007 figures of total nomin...Image via Wikipedia

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report released at the end of July, the world economy will have to improve its “carbon productivity” – the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) created per unit of CO2 – by a factor of ten by 2050 to stop global climate change in its tracks while continuing to enable a healthy level of growth. The report predicts that the cost of this transformation will amount to 0.6% – 1.3% of global GDP by 2030. They note that this compares favorably to the cost of insurance born by economies, which amounts to more than 3% of GDP.

Helpfully, the report also suggests the most appealing opportunities for achieving this ten-fold improvement in productivity (referring to MGI’s February paper on the global cost curve):

It will be essential to identify and capture the lowest-cost abatement opportunities in the economy. Analysis of McKinsey’s global cost curve, a map of the world’s abatement opportunities ranked from lowest-cost to highest-cost options, identifies five areas for action to drive the necessary microeconomic changes: capturing available opportunities to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way; decarbonizing energy sources; accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies; changing the behaviors of businesses and consumers; and preserving and expanding the world’s carbon sinks, most notably its forests.

Productivity (“regular productivity”) increased by a factor of ten over the course of the Industrial Revolution – a period of 120 years. McKinsey’s call to action calls for a similar increase, but over a period one-third as long. But they warn that, if this goal is not achieved, we will all be facing lives of significant privation.

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Feds drop some pocket change on the California Clean Tech Open

The California Clean Tech Open, a three-year-old competition for clean technology startups, got a nice little present from the Department of Energy the other day – a $100,000 grant focused on sustainable building technologies.

The Clean Tech Open focuses on an annual “Business Plan” competition, where clean tech entrepreneurs compete for the six top prizes of a $100,000 “startup in a box” including office space, cash, and services. They’ve already awarded over $1.2 million in prizes, and over three-quarters of their winners are still in business and have raised nearly $70 million in funding.

The DOE grant, part of their Zero Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI),is intended to help the Clean Tech Open initiate a clean building category in the competition. Despite the relatively small amount of the grant (for now), it’s a significant milestone. This is the first disbursement in a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Lara Abrams covers this in much more detail at her Clean Tech Report blog.