• Three reasons for hope: energy, fuel and food

    by  • July 13, 2010 • Everything Else • 10 Comments


    I was recently asked if I had hope for the world. I do. There are lots of reasons why, but the three biggest areas are breakthroughs in energy, fuel and food production. These are not all technologies, but they are often technologies. Have a read and see what you think.


    Nanosolar has a huge investment behind them, something like 800 million dollars and a lot of it very smart money. Tech team includes senior manufacturing gurus from IBM etc.

    The pitch: thin film solar panels with a production cost of $0.30 per watt (vs. $2.30 per watt for normal panels). Now here’s the interesting part. Their machinery costs 160 million dollars for a machine which can make a gigawatt of panels per year. Capital cost for a 1 watt of panels printed each year is $0.16 in other words.

    Sale price for a panel is said to be around $1 for their tech. That leaves an _enormous_ amount of money available to scale with – they’ve got fifty cents on each watt of panels sold to be used for either scaling capacity (tripling it) or as profit. The possibility of very, very fast growth clearly exists here, limited by indium mining capacity probably, but it’s 1/3 as common as silver and has few other industrial uses so it’s likely a soluble problem.

    Weirdnesses: last time I checked they had 4.1 *billion* dollars of pre-orders and were printing less than a megawatt a month of panels. Why, I don’t know, but I’ve long regarded a really accurate understanding of what’s going on at nanosolar HQ as about the most important geopolitical question on the table. If we get them, we’ve got a way out on electrical power and much of climate.

    is in a similar state – an even cheaper panel technology, with Alan Heeger, who got the Nobel for conductive polymers in 2000, at the helm.


    On the transportation fuels front there’s two hot tips.

    3>Walter Adey and the Algal Turf Scrubber
    Dr. Adey was the coral guy at the Smithsonian. He started growing algae to clean water, so his algae growing technology is always cast as being about clean water, which confuses the picture. Here’s the clear version: he’s fixed biodiesel. How? You know the thick, hairy stuff that grows on stones in rivers? That’s an algal turf. They grow in seawater too. And most of the complexity of harvesting algae is separating single cell critters from the water that surrounds them, where as turfs you harvest with a snowplough type blade.

    It gets better. Turfs are multi-species, and include multicellular critters – they’re a complete ecosystem. Bonuses are two: firstly, you can grow them open tank and anything that drifts in becomes part of the mix. This means no evil pesticides or “monsanto-style” genetic engineering of algae for pesticide resistance. Second the lipid content of the turfs goes up with time as you get more and more little predators and such like which are just made of lovely, crunchy oils. You just wait until enough oil has buit up for your purposes.

    Did I mention this is all happening in a two foot deep seawater tank, kind of like a rice paddy, but in some desert or other? Completely doable. They’ve got something like a hundred acres under cultivation now, but, again, *how fast can it scale?* – as fast as you can flatten and flood desert areas.

    4> Biobutanol
    This is a bit more complicated. Nutshell version: ethanol is horrible for engines, pipelines and so on. Butanol is vastly better behaved.

    Note the possibility of running 100% butanol in an unmodified or slightly tweaked gasoline engine. Now that is still being worked on, but the energy density and lack of corrosion problems seen with ethanol are *very* promising.

    5> the switch economy
    So basically you wind up with gigantic saltwater algal swamps with amphibious snowplough harvesters scraping up the wet biomass. The oils you skim and turn into biodiesel, and the biomass you turn into biobutanol. Result: scalable biofuel economy that doesn’t put pressure on freshwater or croplands.

    And it runs in existing engines, certainly for the biodiesel, and _possibly_ for the biobutanol.

    All of this is doable. How fast can it be done? Well… if somebody gave Walter Adey the money we’ll spend cleaning up Deepwater Horizon, we’d be done already.


    6> Ivette Perfecto (great name) and her big organic food metanalysis.

    Ivette Perfecto of the University of Michigan in the US and her colleagues found that, in developed countries, organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture. In developing countries, however, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms.

    (New Scientist)

    Basically, global food yields could go up 80% if we went organic. Seems moderately solid.

    7>One Acre Fund
    12,000 farms in Africa. One year training program, kind of like health visitors but for farming. For a year they come to your farm, visit, and teach you things. Cost per farm $100 or so, taken as a loan by the farmers. Average results… wait for it…

    Doubled agricultural productivity. Halved infant mortality.

    Bunch of .com guys who got interested in Africa, apparently. Heavily data-driven, but there’s no special tech. Apparently most of the farming boost comes from teaching people to plant seeds properly.

    8> Small Farm Multiplier

    “In all cases, relatively smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit area — 200 to 1,000 percent more productive — than are larger ones. In the United States the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms.”

    (Food First 1999)

    Basically big farms are more profitable (lower labor costs) but small farms are more productive, per acre. Food prices rise, small farms become more economic, people produce a hell of a lot more food per acre.

    A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.

    (Monbiot, but we’ll forgive him)

    I haven’t tracked down the original paper yet. Anybody got a link to it in the comments?


    So there you have it: reasons for hope in energy, fuel and food.

    Never believe that nothing can be done about the state of the world. It’s all here, right here, right now, waiting for you to do something about it.

    flattr this!


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    10 Responses to Three reasons for hope: energy, fuel and food

    1. joe
      July 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

      Here is the info on the Turkey research: http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/policy_library/data/01382

      I’ve not looked into it in detail, but there could be a lot of explanations – for example, small farms are in the most productive soils, bigger farms are owned by poorer farmers in nasty areas and hence low productivity.

      In the UK it might well be the same – the biggest area in the uplands has very low productivity due to poor quality land.

    2. July 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

      I think it was this:

      F.G. Unal, “Small is Beautiful: Evidence of Inverse Size Yield in Rural Turkey,” 2006, http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/policy_library/data/01382.

      Couple of other related papers:

      1. Anil B. Deolalikar, “The Inverse Relationship between Productivity and Farm Size: A Test Using Regional Data from India,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 63, no. 2 (May 1981): 275-279.

      2. Sridhar Thapa, “The relationship between farm size and productivity: empirical evidence from the Nepalese mid-hills,” MPRA Paper, March 2007, http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/7638/.

      It’s an important issue, but I don’t know how helpful it is to think of what’s more productive “per acre”. What counts is what’s more productive for all factors being input, not just labour and land. One then needs to know something about those factors.

      Similarly, when arguments are made about ratios of energy input and output, as Smil argues, the important number (or *an* important number!) is the conversion efficiency: converting of PAR (photosynthetically active radiation) into phytomass. To see why that’s true you can imagine a field using wind turbines, carrying out irrigation tasks (which is very common, of course.) That lowers the energy output-input ratio, but increases the PAR conversion efficiency.

      I’m not disagreeing about the problems of large-scale food production, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone exactly nail what the problem is, and exactly why e.g. agro-eco should work better. (One might argue, it won’t work better, but it’s what we’ll have to do when energy supply shrinks, of course.)

      cf. http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10178&LangID=E

      (Err… did I get that link via you???)

      Lastly: reading slashdot week from week is always heartening. Amongst the world-of-warcraftery, there’s a constant stream of new ideas and innovations that gives me some hope. Most recently, a method for battery charging that gets closer to the 25MW equivalent you get in 60 seconds of car-petrol-filling.

    3. July 16, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      Oh – also forgot, Monbiot always references his own articles on his blog versions:


    4. July 17, 2010 at 10:33 am

      Dan, thank you so much for the links and references. **Excellent**.

      I have some reading to do!

    5. joe
      July 17, 2010 at 11:04 am

      I have read the paper in more detail.

      For me, the great fallacy at the centre of the paper is that you can examine conduct a statistical analysis of size against yield in the absence of any other factors. The author includes a bibliography of why land quality is a factor, but then does not go the logical step forward and suggest that this invalidates any analysis of this kind and instead resorts to quasi Shumacher language.

      To me, that is obvious. Essentially land size is associated with economic (or if you are a subsistence farmer agricultural) productivity – so you have as much land as you need to provide the yield you need to live on or make money. And because land quality (ie the ability of the land to produce crops) varies enormously, in some places you are going to need a lot more land to live on than others.

      So, basically you’d expect farms to be smaller in areas where the land quality was higher and larger where it is not. If you then do that, you’re obviously going to find that small farms are more productive than large ones.

      As I said previously, in the UK you get larger farms in upland areas where you can’t grow anything much and the land is only suitable for rough sheep grazing. Of course, these are very unproductive per unit area, but then you have to understand that this land is not suitable for any other kind of agriculture.

      Of course, there are other factors which affect farm size, for example the inheritance practices might mean that the land is divided amongst all offspring, leading to some very small parcels of land.

      That said, I have heard of some interesting analysis on the productivity of allotment sites. But then, in a sense you’d expect that – these are small areas with a lot of inputs (in terms of labour, water and mineral inputs), no doubt if all land was subject to that kind of active micro management it would be more productive. But imagine the workforce you’d need to make that happen! I’ve not been able to find a paper on this, I’ll keep looking.

      As a footnote, the citation indices indicate that this paper has never been referenced, hence indicating dubious academic value. It is also not peer reviewed. These things are not everything, but give an indication of the value.

    6. joe
      July 17, 2010 at 11:19 am

      This is an interesting table (which I’d like to investigate some more) http://propertylore.co.uk/node/101

      There are some interesting things coming out of Cuba (which you may already know about) – see here http://environmentportal.in/files/Diversity%20and%20efficiency_0.pdf (not a journal paper, but there has been quite a lot of academic research on this subject)

    7. Nathan Koren
      July 19, 2010 at 6:37 am

      I have a more fundamental qualm about the small-farms initiative. While I am reasonably sure that it offers real benefits to those who participate in it, I doubt that this translates into actual societal benefit. Here’s why:

      Economies which are dominated by subsistance farming are fundamentally poor economies. Always. This isn’t because of the inadequacy of their farming techniques, but because the majority of the population is engaged in work which is not unique to any substantial agree. If you’re a potato farmer in India and you bring your potatoes to market, then on any given day 50 million other potato farmers are also bringing their potatoes to market, competing against you. Your competitive advantage is nil. Your power as a seller – vs. your buyers – is nil. You will therefore be poor, because you are in an economic monoculture. The nature of agrarian / subsistance economies is such that they do not produce enough diversity & differentiation of skills and goods to give sellers any sort of advantage. Only urbanisation does that.

      So, if you receive training and become twice as efficient at producing potatoes, then you will indeed be substantially better off than you were before – but unless the market for potatoes has increased by an equivalent amount, then all your potato-farming brethren will be fractionally worse off than they were before. If all of them receive the same training and double their potato output, then you’ll all be exactly as poor as before, only you’ll now be surrounded by rotting, unsold potatoes. It’s a zero-sum game. There’s no virtuous cycle to be found in this kind of economy.

      So I think a program like this will undoubtedly be good for its recipients, as long as they are few in number. It doesn’t stand up to game theory, however, and if implemented on a large scale would only perpetuate the problem.

      Only when enough people leave the agricultural sector to make it a relatively uncommon skill does it acquire the kind of unique value that gives the sellers some power, lifting them out of poverty. This is why farmers in industrialised countries are able to do alright for themselves. So from a poverty-alleviation perspective, the efficiency of agricultural production per person is all-important, versus the efficiency of agricultural production per unit of land.

    8. July 19, 2010 at 8:27 am

      Interesting stuff Nathan. I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as you say, though. There are many factors to lay out, and it’s not at all clear to me on balance which would win out. The classic cop-out response, of course – on the one hand, on the other hand.

      Dani Rodrik, when he was still blogging, got to one point clearly:


      “it depends on whether a poor household is a net seller or buyer of food (that is, whether it grows more or less food than it consumes). This means that the rural poor generally tends to benefit from higher food prices, whereas the urban poor generally get hurt. How large the impact is depends, in turn, on the size of the food account as a share of total expenditures or income of a household. And whether the change is good or bad for a nation’s poor as a whole depends on the geography of poverty in a country.”

      Which highlights that most food is produced by households that also consume their own produce – so it’s never so easy just discussing the price at market. These markets also tend to be differentiated: prices for goods produced locally have a different structure to larger markets.

      Then there’s resilience: “Even if [external trade] was more efficient, we ought to at least discuss how much inefficiency we would tolerate from the direct route [local production] in order to reduce the risk of our lives being blighted and our livelihoods being disrupted by instabilities in the external world.” (Douthwaite, Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World, 1996, p.34)

      cf. the story today about central purchase of cocoa – exactly the same story, really, as recent food crises caused by buyers in Chicago:


      So, question: if ‘large-scale’ must always correlate to ‘meshed in Chicago futures market’, is that a price worth paying for losing control of prices? A not dissimilar story to the Euro, really: losing regional setting of prices, through locally transmitted signals about what’s required, has consequences.

      Then there’s the basic fact of control: in many parts of the world (all?), large-scale production looks nothing like either basic economic or game theoretic models. E.g. in Mato Grosso in Brazil: the governer of that state is also head of Brazil’s largest soya company. Swathes of the Amazon are cleared – some by World-bank funded road-building – in order to get soya out to the West, where much of it goes to feed livestock and broiler chickens for western plates.

      (me ranting about this: http://www.coveredinbees.org/node/261)

      I’ve nothing against international trade per se, but it’s important not to forget actually existing power structures, something I’m often guilty of myself. It’s very hard to see how you can disentangle those power structures from the requirements of large-scale production. (That’s pretty much the story of the EU and the CAP, isn’t it?)

      That said, the economics still stands – you’re right about the effects of technology (the Baumol effect, I think they call it in the US) and also Engel’s law, the effect of the income elasticity of food being less than 1.

      So, err… wow, it’s complicated. That’s the reason I favour the idea of food sovereignty, and that we shouldn’t be opposing economics to democracy, as global structures currently do (the WTO being, as one author described it, a ‘mast that politicians can tie themselves to to avoid the siren-like calls of lobby groups’).

    9. Nathan Koren
      July 20, 2010 at 2:55 am

      Oh yeah, I completely agree that when industrial agriculture becomes politically engaged (ie, always), it distorts the markets and policies to the point of being absolutely grotesque. No argument there! I hail from the US originally (now living in the UK & India), and our agricultural policies — both in the internal subsidies which only benefit corporate producers, and the external tariffs which have kept would-be sugar- and cotton-exporting countries mired in poverty — are absolutely fucked.

      Acknowledging all of the wrongness inherent in that (including your excellent example in Brazil), I still think that the good of agricultural industrialisation outweighs the bad. This is for two reasons, actually – the first being the promotion of urbanisation / economic diversification, as mentioned above. The second one is demographic: small-scale agriculture encourages ever-larger families.

      The conventional wisdom about population growth is that it is linked to poverty, ill health, and ignorance; and that increasing wealth and education (particularly women’s education) and decreasing infant mortality will reduce the fertility rate to sustainable levels. Although all of these things are strongly correlated with decreasing fertility rates, I believe that this is because they’re all correlated with urbanisation; I don’t actually think they’re causative factors themselves. As I see it, the key causative factor in the decision whether or not to have another child is what the child’s rate of return to the family will be. In a small-scale, manual-labour farm, a five-year-old can start to do some economically productive work, and a ten-year-old is certainly a net producer for the family. You don’t even need to spend any money on educating them; just feed ’em for a few years and soon they’ll start paying you back. With an IRR that good, you’d be a fool not to make that kind of investment as often as possible.

      Compare this to Japan, where the average child takes (last time I looked) $360,000 and 26 years to reach economic independence — owing to the very specialised and high-tech nature of the economic base — and never returns that investment to its parents — and it’s clear why Japan has negative population growth.

      So, I argue that for economies to stay based on small-scale agriculture is to both keep poverty entrenched and court a long-term Malthusian catastrophe, because that entrenched poverty will be growing at a rate that the rest of the world can’t compensate for. Far better to shift to urban economies and industrialised agriculture — despite its myriad problems, which should not be ignored!

      On the resilience front, I think that everything cuts all ways: I don’t see local production as necessarily more resilient than remote production with trade. During the recent Icelandic eruption, when air travel was cut off and supplies of fresh fruit and flowers and such to the UK began to dwindle, I saw a lot of people saying that this was evidence of the need for less reliance on imported foodstuffs. However, if you think back to other, larger Icelandic eruptions — Laki and Grímsvötn in the 1780s — these disrupted the climate in northern Europe to the extent that there was large-scale crop failure and famine. Had the recent eruption been on that scale, then the prior existence of an industry which grows and imports food from the tropics (by boat rather than air) would have been the absolute key to resilience, not the bane of it.

      Because disruptions can be both internal and external, it seems to me that resilience isn’t about internal production nor external production, but both. Either one by itself should be able to provide a bare level of sufficiency, while both in combination will necessarily provide an over-abundance. Anything more efficient than that is unlikely to be sufficiently robust.

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