Thursday, July 24, 2008

Energy from Garbage an elegant solution to the wrong problem

On the face of it, extracting fuel from garbage seems like an excellent idea.

  • why bother consuming non-renewable resources when garbage is generated globally every day?
  • why bother talking about a garbage crisis when garbage should be in as much demand as there is demand for energy?
  • why talk about unemployment when there is so much to do collecting garbage, generating fuel from it, and then distributing it to the marketplace?

And, make no mistake, we have an insatiable demand for energy, so much so that even thinking aloud about going after oil in US coastal waters and under the Arctic Circle is not rejected outright. Quite on the contray, Big Oil is having these conversations, because the demand for energy - which we feed primarily with fossil fuels - is forecasted to continue to rise for many reasons, not the least of which is that the population of the planet continues to grow.

Why is it so difficult to see the value in putting a whole lot more effort into cleaner energy derived from renewable sources, and making conscious choices to reduce generating energy from dirty non-renewable fossil fuels? One would think that the sheer amount of renewable energy that the planet has enjoyed uninterrupted for, well, forever - sunlight, wind, geothermal and hydro - should have been sufficient for earth's inhabitants. After all, that was the only energy available up through the evolution of society, and it was good enough to build the pyramids.

Look at it again - clean renewable vs dirty non-renewable. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

The problem is that the powers that be are blinded by a sure thing - as non-renewable fossil fuel sources deplete and the supply dwindles, the price will continue to skyrocket. Any for-profit corporation whose primary obligation is to stockholders is compelled to procure this stuff, hold it in reserves as assets on the balance sheet, and pay to its stockholders handsome ROI as the price of the reserves continue to go up, taking the price of the stock up with it.

As such, there is no motivation to switch to renewable energy. Renewable means the supply is never-ending. Supply that is not going down equates to value that won't go up.

Some might ask "well, if supply is the problem, then getting more oil is good, right?" Unfortunately, not exactly. The idea of going after new sources of oil is not so they can sell it at today's prices (and allow for too much of a drop in price based on new supply in the channel); the idea appears to be to reserve it and let the price rise. It's not the sales, it's the asset value rise on the balance sheet, that's attractive.

The problem, therefore, is a conflict of interest between what's best for stock value vs what's best for planet earth and all its inhabitants. Granted, any corporation can simply say they are not responsible for the laws, and if corporate law requires that a corporation is responsible first to its shareholders from a financial point of view, then a corporation is absolved of prioritizing environment except where other laws trump. The problem is short-sightedness and a lack of vision due to greed, a corporate right before which the greatest ideas will fail without legal support.

Laws helping good ideas have shaped society for the better. Laws have prevailed to change society's views of use of tobacco, alcohol, firearms. Laws have ended slavery, child labour. Laws have forced closer equity in pay for women doing the same job as men. Laws can and do win in battles with corporations to create a better society in which to live.

There are a whole lot of great ideas waiting in the wings for legal support to have a chance to make the world a better place. And more than laws, we need strong lawmakers not to allow good idea laws to be repealed, as has occured with the offshore drilling ban being lifted.

I shudder to think what this world would look like if laws had failed in the past. I shudder even more to imagine what might happen if they fail in our near future.