Energy

Do the Math

Human beings have been burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style. And they definitely are: We are running out of accessible oil, and we must dramatically cut back on our fossil fuel use to prevent the greenhouse effect from wreaking extreme ecological, human, and economic havoc.

Biofuels—a better term is agrofuels—are often presented as the silver bullet that will enable us to drive our SUVs merrily into the future. Any burnable plant matter can be an agrofuel, but ethanol (fermented from corn, sugar cane, or other food crops) is most common today; biodiesel, derived from soy, palm, or other vegetable oil, is also coming into use.

In theory, agrofuels seem like a great idea. Plants are a renewable resource, and, while burning agrofuels creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the feedstock plants absorb an equivalent amount of CO 2 as they grow.

So what’s not to love? That’s certainly the attitude of the U.S. government, which offers a 51-cent credit to fuel companies for every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline (U.S. ethanol consumption topped 5 billion gallons in 2006 and is climbing). The European Union aims to replace 10 percent of its vehicle fuel with agrofuel by 2020.

But the rosy picture collapses completely when you do the math. A “life cycle analysis” of our current system of corn ethanol production (including growing crops, distilling fuel, transporting inputs and outputs long distances, and making farm machinery) shows that the whole process burns nearly as much fuel energy as it makes. In many estimates, it burns more than it makes.

This is not a fuel source—it’s a massive exercise in greenwashing theater, a cycle that burns extra oil and adds to global warming. The force behind it is not environmentalism, but the political power of Big Corn.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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A Crumbling Infrastructure

Between 1950 and 1970, the U.S. spent 3 percent of its gross domestic product maintaining America’s infrastructure; since 1980, the country has spent “well less than 2 percent,” according to a report by the New America Foundation. As the August collapse of Minneapolis’ Interstate 35W bridge reminds us, this backlog can have fatal consequences. While Iraq war appropriations exceed $456 billion, America’s highways, bridges, waste and water facilities, harbors, and airports are poorly maintained (and public education and affordable housing are seriously underfunded)—and predicted to become significantly more so by 2015.

3.5 million public housing units could be built with $456 billion.

27.1 percent of U.S. bridges are listed as structurally deficient or obsolete.

30 percent of annual highway fatalities result from inadequate roadway maintenance.

45,800 elementary schools could be built with $456 billion.

1 percent: amount that annual expenditures to maintain the U.S. power grid have decreased since 1992.

8 million public school teachers could be hired for one year with $456 billion.

Sources: “Ten Big Ideas for a New America” (New America Foundation, 2007); “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure 2005,” (American Society of Civil Engineers); the National Priorities Project; “The Bucks Never Stop: Iraq and Afghanistan War Costs Continue To Soar” (The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation).

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Danger: Nuke Crossing

On May 31, a train left Wisconsin headed for the Department of Energy site near Barnwell, South Carolina, carrying a 310-ton decommissioned nuclear reactor core. Its route was a highly guarded secret.

The reactor core came from the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, which was shut down in April 1987. The owner of the nuclear power plant, the Dairyland Power Cooperative, is in the process of dismantling the facility and in May removed and readied the obsolete reactor core for shipment.

To the utility company and to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the process was little more than an engineering problem. A wide vertical hole was cut in the containment structure for removal of the 10-foot by 40-foot core. A contractor specially designed the crane equipment used to lift the reactor vessel, move it out horizontally on a conveyor, lower it into a huge steel "garbage can," weld it shut, and eventually lower the core onto a flatbed, 20-axle rail car, anchor it down, and even paint the cask before sending it from Wisconsin to South Carolina. Workers climbing on the packaged core most likely received elevated doses of radiation.

The entire rail route used by the train was inspected beforehand to ensure safe passage. In this case, chances of an accident involving radioactive release were minimal, since the entire vessel had been filled with concrete while still inside the containment building. But the U.S. government estimates that there are 1 million shipments of radioactive material on the roads every year—the vast majority of them done without public knowledge.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Is Nuclear Power the Answer?

At the dawn of the nuclear age a half century ago, the fledgling nuclear industry promised "energy too cheap to meter" from "our friend the atom." The 21st-century version of that promise offers not only freedom from dependence on foreign oil but also the antidote to global warming.

Is nuclear power the "alternative" energy of the future, the way out of our destructive reliance on fossil fuels?

Some environmentalists think so. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace in the early 1970s, argues that "Every responsible environmentalist should support a move" away from coal-generated electricity and toward nuclear plants. "This would go a long way," Moore maintains, "toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions." That's a bit different than Moore's assessment in a 1976 Greenpeace report, in which he called nuclear power plants—next to nuclear warheads—"the most dangerous devices that man [sic] has ever created. Their construction and proliferation is the most irresponsible, in fact the most criminal, act ever to have taken place on this planet."

What has changed? Is it the technology, or is it Moore? Some of his former associates think it's the latter. Paul Watson, another co-founder of Greenpeace, charged Moore with being a "corporate whore ... an eco-Judas ... who has grown rich from sacrificing environmentalist principles for plain old money." Moore is currently paid by the nuclear industry to serve as co-chair of the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition," an industry front that promotes increased use of nuclear energy, according to The Washington Post. He previously had stints as a hired spokesperson for the timber industry (for whom he proclaimed that "clear-cuts are temporary meadows") and for purveyors of PVC products (the "Vinyl Institute").

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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News Bites

  • Resucitó. Human rights activist Rufina Amaya, 64, above, one of the few survivors of the 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 peasants by the U.S.-funded Salvadoran military in El Mozote, El Salvador, died in March from a stroke. "God saved me," Amaya said in a 1996 New York Times interview, "because he needed someone to tell the story of what happened."
  • Ban the Bulb. In February, Australia announced that it would completely phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs by 2010, thus cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 4 million tons within five years.
  • Never Again. Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance museum in Jerusalem chose a creative response to remarks made by prominent Arab leaders who have denied or diminished the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is translating most of its Web site into Arabic and Persian and producing audio guides in Arabic for the Holocaust museum.
  • Burma Blues. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and United Nations Watch addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council in March, protesting violations of religious freedom for Christians and Muslims in Burma/Myanmar. They called for the HRC to condemn the human rights violations, investigate abuses against religious freedom, and pressure Burma to embrace a stronger commitment to freedom for all.
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    Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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    Would Jesus Drive a Mercedes?

    In 2002, the Evangelical Environmental Network launched a campaign asking “What would Jesus drive?” Though my Amish ancestors would be pleased if I answered “a horse and buggy”—or maybe a bicycle—I’ve come to depend on a car for running errands, visiting family, and hauling around carless friends. So when my trusty ’88 Toyota Camry wagon was stolen a little more than a year ago, I scanned Craig’s List for a replacement, trying to find a Christ-like car.

    At first, there was Prius-envy. All the cool kids have hybrids; they get a million miles to the gallon and their exhaust smells like fair trade coffee—or so I hear. But I was on a waiting list to buy affordable housing, and saving for a down payment (still am). So a more modestly priced listing piqued my curiosity: 1985 Mercedes Benz 300TD station wagon. Green. Biodiesel compatible. $3,700.

    Biodiesel? Pull up to McDonald’s and pump out their deep fryer? Totally renewable fuel with lower emissions? Though they were asking more than twice what I’d spent on my last two ’80s station wagons, it was justifiably affordable for a car that cared for creation. And the exhaust would smell like french fries. Literally.

    But would I need to study diesel mechanics in case an errant McNugget got lodged in my catalytic converter? Would dedicating all that extra effort to a car be good Christian stewardship or simple living—the very principles guiding my choice?

    Then I learned the best-kept secret of biodiesel: This Mercedes didn’t have the special conversion needed to burn waste vegetable oil like the “grease cars” that get all the press. But, like any diesel engine, it could, without modification, burn commercially refined biodiesel made from soybeans. Renewable fuel without the mess? I was sold. When the police recovered my stolen Camry a few weeks later on Thanksgiving Day, I counted my blessings...and began to covet every diesel I saw.

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    Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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    Less is More

    While the rich and famous may be able to afford expensive solar panel installations or hyperefficient $

    While the rich and famous may be able to afford expensive solar panel installations or hyperefficient $2 million homes, even those of us with (much) less money can make a dent in the amount of energy we consume. What follows is a small list of steps almost every one of us can and should take to reduce our energy use. Our particular motivation - to walk more lightly on the earth, to live more frugally, or to direct more money to humanitarian organizations rather than large utility companies - isn’t as important as is making some change. While up-front costs for some of these steps can seem daunting, your investment will be recouped in later energy savings.

    Putting the heating and cooling of your house aside for a moment, the next two biggest energy hogs in the average U.S. household are lights and the refrigerator.

    Lights. The first real step for many of us is to change our mindset: Turn lights off as you leave a room. No exceptions. Never leave a room lit when you aren’t in it. That’s simple and free.

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    Sojourners Magazine May 2005
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