If you travel behind the “redwood curtain” to the Northern California town of Arcata, you’ll find on the campus of Humboldt State University a place called the Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC). It is where my son Tom works.
As a child, Tom created a “mad scientist laboratory” in our basement and even hosted a similarly themed Halloween party (which might have been more successful had he remembered to invite his friends). I was impressed by the way he could take random bits of hardware, a few batteries and a handful of LEDs and create devices that looked complex and actually worked. So I can understand how he — now an electrical and environmental resource engineer — is at home at SERC.
Housed in a new building that does not at all resemble a mad scientist’s domain, SERC is, in fact, quite pleasant. But, inside, it holds many secrets that might dislodge the fossil fuels industry from its place in Montana’s economy, a place, I might add, that is less significant than one might think. According to both the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the majority of “non-farm jobs” in the state are not in “Mining and Logging,” which ranks 10th. Of course, energy booms can pump up other employment, but let’s put things in perspective.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 7.4 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable from the Bakken oil play in North Dakota and Montana. That’s about 27 years’ worth of activity (according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune). The entire play equals a little over a year’s worth of oil at current rates of U.S. consumption — 18.8 million barrels per day, or so says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Not much to base a long-term future on.
At any rate, what makes SERC so exciting is that the engineers and scientists who work there use, from what I could see, a fairly limited range of equipment to develop simple (but not at all simplistic), community-based energy solutions. In one project with worldwide implications, standards have been designed to encourage people in Africa and now Asia to forgo the expensive and hazardous kerosene lantern in favor of lighting that functions well and lasts — and that happens to be powered by solar cells and other “stand-alone” sources.
Such ingenious and stable solutions to energy needs empower individuals, often require only small investments of time and money, and create stability. For example, Tom has helped install a gridshare project for a village in Bhutan, one utilizing an already existing if now inadequate micro-hydroelectric system and a series of hand-assembled electronic devices (my son suggests calling them “thingamajigs”) that warn cooks when the village as a whole is drawing too much power. By waiting a half hour to start dinner, an individual householder avoids brownouts and under-cooked meals.
Another research interest at SERC is the efficient use of biomass through on-site torrefaction, in which, according to Humboldt State University’s news website, “vegetative waste ... is heated without oxygen to temperatures between 250 and 300 degrees Celsius. ... ‘Often, the slash from logging or the residue from fuel reduction cuts just gets burned. It’s a waste of energy and it adds to pollution,’ says Schatz Lab co-director Peter Lehman.” Torrefaction produces a convenient transportable product that I perhaps incorrectly envision as biomass briquettes you might use for barbecuing your dinner.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology was the initial research focus at SERC, and, certainly, riding around Arcata in a hydrogen fuel cell Toyota SUV seemed no different and no more dangerous than riding in a gas-powered Highlander. According to Tom, “It takes more energy to make hydrogen than you get from burning it or using it in a fuel cell,” but hydrogen can be produced (currently at a little greater cost than if fossil fuels are involved) using renewable energy. Moreover, the emissions from a hydrogen car consist of water.
Clearly, centralized systems and fossil fuel dependence are not inevitable, though they are what we know. However, with emphasis on conservation and continued research, the next 20 years could form the transition into a more sustainable, community-centered way of life. Much of the technology is there, frankly. What is lacking is the will to use it.
Corporations must, understandably, cling to their steamer trunks of wealth while the post peak-oil ship goes down. But, unfortunately, our politicians favor the corporate players. By spreading nightmarish fantasies about power-crazed environmentalists and socialism, or by announcing, as Brian Schweitzer has, that the Bakken oil play is a “millionaire maker,” they ironically encourage dependence. While I begrudge no one the opportunity to make a bundle working in the Bakken and while I know that it has been a godsend for some, the fact is that by relying on it we are delaying and perhaps even forgoing the development of a healthier, more sustainable, and more democratic society.
Though it seems counterintuitive, it doesn’t take a mad scientist to see that our real riches lie within ourselves and our children.
Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.