Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Flows, not stores

Oliver Morton, sounding a little like Walt Patterson, talks sense:
The fact that a great deal of energy was stored away in fossil fuels over time has conditioned people to think of energy itself as something embodied in fuels. But energy, which cannot be created or destroyed, is far better seen in terms of flows than of stores.

An extraordinary amount of solar energy flows through the earth-system, coming in as sunlight, leaving as infrared radiation. On its way through the system it runs through many different channels, like the wind and the waves and the carbon cycle. The challenge of the carbon-climate crisis is to put to work these flows and others — the flow of heat stored for billions of years in the interior of the earth, and of energy stored away earlier still in the nuclei of radioactive elements — in ways that make civilization independent of the fossil fuels stored away in the crust.

The question of how to use the biosphere against global warming is thus better seen in terms of harvesting energy from the carbon cycle, rather than storing away carbon. And there is much that can be done here. Biomass already supplies a lot of energy — a large part of the world cooks with it, for example — but the ways in which it is used are terribly inefficient. New agronomy, new crops and new technologies can all add to the flow of energy out of the plant and into the cooker battery, hot water or whatever. In that way, bioenergy can be substituted for fossil fuel.

But, Morton continues, "in itself, expanding the carbon cycle this way cannot be the whole solution."

Meanwhile, James Hansen and others make a stand against coal.

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