“An audacious new theory to compete with ‘Peak Oil’: Hydrocarbons forever,” reads the headline on a Fortune piece about what must be one of the dumbest perpetual-motion schemes since the Hydrogen Economy.
It’s got two parts, each equally fantastic.
Thank you for smoking
First, start with a new take on the perennial industry joke “clean coal.” But this time, don’t even bother capturing the CO2 from the smokestacks; just suck it straight out of the air. It’s “air capture”!
And it’s a geoengineer’s dream that sure beats shooting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to filter out solar heat. If air capture worked and if we had a place to store the CO2, it would mean the Chinese and Indians could join the US in burning every last shovel of coal on Earth — a 500 year supply for the US at least, according to self-styled coal-supply expert Newt Gingrich. And all 100% guilt-free.
Bye, bye climate change. Hello Nobel Prize.
But wait, there’s more. Global Thermostat, the techy startup behind this plan, joins this bold new take on carbon capture to a scrappy up-and-comer in the world of high-tech energy schemes: algae.
Talk about growth potential.
Money from thin air
“New companies say pulling carbon dioxide straight from the air could solve global warming and provide an infinite source of gasoline. Really?” asks writer Scott Woolley.
What if scientists could transform coal-fired power plants from giant carbon dioxide emitters into giant carbon sinks? Some say that they can, and will. Graciela Chichilnisky, a founder of Global Thermostat, admits it’s hard to believe: “The more energy the less the emissions—it’s mind boggling.” Global Thermostat and at least two competitors say they can pull carbon dioxide straight from the air, potentially at costs low enough to solve global warming and provide an infinite source of gas by using the CO2 to feed algae. Chichilnisky summarizes her company’s business model this way: “Take CO2 from the air and turn it into cash.”
When I discovered that this wasn’t an April Fools joke, I only had one question: Where’s Enron when you need them?
After all, they were the experts in turning air into cash. Or was it the other way around?
Anyway, I’m sure the Smartest Guys in the Room over there could’ve set up a smoking hot online trading system for all that newly valuable C02 that would make companies like Global Thermostat rich and provide content for dozens of future Fortune pieces.
Always about the techno-fix
It’s sad for those who might get suckered into investing in yet another cash-and-air scheme, but junk energy investments are hardly news.
What’s more troubling here is to see the techno-fix mindset at work. A worship of technology can turn otherwise clearheaded adults into idiots with a childlike naïveté that would be charming if it weren’t so dangerous for our society.
“At the very last minute,” says Naomi Klein of the geoengineering mindset, “we are going to get saved just like in every Hollywood movie, just like in the Rapture. But of course our secular religion is technology.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for developing clean energy technology that we know already works — solar, wind, small-scale hydro and even smaller-scale biomass. And some speculative ideas, if they’re simple enough, show much promise, like ocean energy or storing solar power in molten salt.
We know how to build renewable power. We just need to bring the prices down.
To get the clean energy we need to deal with peak oil and fight climate change, the innovation we need is not higher technology. It’s better finance.
— Erik Curren