Out With the Old, in With the New, continued

Grow Local

“Oil,” writes farm and food activist Michael Pollan, “is one of the most important ingredients in our food.” After automobiles, agriculture accounts for the largest share of the fossil fuel consumed in this country—some 19 percent. The dominant agricultural mode of centralized monocropping requires oil in the form of fertilizers and chemical sprays, machine-intensive planting and harvesting, and above all, transporting food from one part of the globe to another.

What’s more, this dependence on petroleum isn’t primarily the result of competitive pressures or the free market, but of federal policy. Through a combination of crop subsidies, conservation programs, foreign aid conventions and policies like those dictating school lunches, the federal government virtually commands that farmers rely heavily on oil to make a living off the land.

Pollan is one of a growing number of advocates for shifting these federal policies to encourage diversified farms that require minimal petroleum inputs and are located close to the markets they serve.

By way of example, Pollan points to the meat industry. Currently, farmers grow petro-chemical intensive feed crops that are trucked to centralized, gigantic animal confinement operations where excrement causes major pollution problems. Raising beef cows on pasture that is rotated to crop farming solves the problems with sunlight and nature: Cows eat grass, their excrement fertilizes the soil—no oil, no pollution.

Experiments in diversified regional farming are legion. At the most basic level, these include direct agricultural markets like farmers markets and subscription-based farms. Researchers in Oakland, Calif., took the concept a step further in an experiment in urban agriculture. “Our intent was to demonstrate the capacity of dense urban areas to be more self-sufficient in meeting basic needs,” explains Kirsten Schwind, program director of Bay Localize, a project of the Earth Island Institute.

Working with structural engineers, GIS mapping experts and farmers, Schwind and her colleagues established rooftop gardens, as well as solar and catchwater systems, in a dense neighborhood of Oakland. In this experiment, the airborne vegetable gardens produced enough leafy green vegetables to meet the neighborhood’s USDA dietary requirements.

If the Oakland experiment can achieve these results in today’s market, imagine what could be accomplished with a shift in federal policy away from monocropping and toward regional and urban farming.

“There are a lot of wonderful ways of producing food closer to where people live, whether it’s making use of rooftops or providing tax incentives to urban landowners for long-term food production use, or restructuring urban public lands like schools or parks, or even housing developments, to incorporate a food production component,” says Michael Ableman, founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens and author of Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It.

The result would be not only green jobs and energy savings, but better nutrition and a more secure agricultural sector.

Drive Light

In certain circles, nothing breaks up a friendly cocktail party faster than the question of which fuel should power America’s transportation fleet. It makes sense that a culture as focused on the automobile as ours would care the most about electric versus biofuel, hybrid versus plug-in, and hydrogen versus compressed air, to say nothing of mass transit.

In truth, all of these fuel alternatives offer unique advantages, and pose their own problems. As a result, it’s likely that our future oil-free economy will use a variety of transportation alternatives.

In the meantime, we should take a good look at our current fleet. In 2001, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy did just that. According to their research, by using existing technology and methods such as lighter materials and increased aerodynamics, the U.S. fleet would achieve an average fuel improvement of 47 percent. Add in some newer approaches like hybrid engines and the overall fuel economy skips up by 72 percent.

National standards for fuel economy for passenger cars flatlined in 1990 at 27.5 miles per gallon, and in the decade preceding that, they remained virtually unchanged. (The most conservative ACEEE model predicts 40.8 miles per gallon for moderate-sized cars.)

Obama has pledged to impose stricter standards, but it’s worth asking the question of whether these regulations are the most effective approach or if it makes more sense to leapfrog the gasoline engine entirely.

If that’s the path, the growing consensus on alternative fuels is lining up behind electric cars. Electricity has a number of advantages over competing alternative fuels; it’s arguably cheaper, cleaner and more efficient. And, unlike many other proposed transportation fuels, it’s ready to go.

General Motors and Chrysler both have electric prototypes, some with gasoline-powered battery chargers, ready for production, while a dozen smaller companies like AC Propulsion and Tesla Motors are already manufacturing electric cars. Compared to other engines, electric motors produce more torque and better handling, features not to be taken lightly in the U.S. auto consumer market.

Most importantly, plug-in electric cars can play a critical supporting role in managing our electricity supply. In a decentralized, open electricity market, every charged-up automobile is a mobile battery that can contribute a little power to the grid. Multiplied by thousands of cars (which generally sit parked at work or home most of the time), this power source has real value.

Willett Kempton, a researcher at the University of Delaware’s College of Marine and Earth Studies, has demonstrated that plug-ins could play a key role in balancing out our existing power supplies, which must be constantly adjusted to respond to consumer demand. Moreover, with the demise of cheap coal and the dawn of cleaner, albeit intermittent, sources like solar and wind, plug-ins could provide critical stability to the power supply chain.

Again, the technology exists for the two-way power sharing of plug-in electric cars. In fact, Kempton uses the system at his home. “I called an electrician, he put in a big plug, and I paid him $600. That’s all there is to it.”

The only barrier to widespread implementation is an affordable supply of the cars. “There’s plenty of demand,” says Kempton, who has conducted marketing research on the concept. “What we need is to get production going.” Larger automakers have focused on gasoline hybrid engines instead of electric, and smaller electric-focused companies can’t produce cars at a price comparable to the current models.

“You’ve got to have somebody kickstart it,” says Kempton. “Obama could do this for about $15 million and I could direct him toward the places that could do it. The bottom line is that someone has to be ready to say that we want to do this. If we don’t, it’ll be BMW or someone else—just one more U.S. technology that goes abroad.”

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