The story on cars fueld by coconut oil on an island in Papua New Guinea sparked a lively conversation in our household about the various alternative fuels on trial all over the world. Coconut oil sounds like the perfect sort of island-based fuel that seems to make environmental sense. Apart from the lower concentration of sulphur dioxides, nitric oxides and general soot, not having diesel delivered to the island by diesel-burning ships also makes sense (apart from the fact that the ships are still necessary for trade and transport). While coconuts are probably not in as plentiful supply on tropical islands as us continental types would like to think, they do have more coconuts than they can use in terms of juice, meat, soap and cooking oil. This begs the question of just how many coconuts one would have to gather to fuel a moderately low mpg vehicle. And just how much energy is expended on processing the coconuts? Can the processing plants be run on coconut oil too? Can electricity generators be adapted to use it? How long does processed coconut oil last (the cooking stuff tends to ming after a while if not properly stored)? What nasty additives have to go into the mix to get it to burn nicely in infernal combustion engines?
And all these questions got me to thinking just how negative we were being. True, as part of our job, we think critically: always looking for flaws in the data or hypotheses, poking around to ensure data is not misinterpreted, second guessing. All without meaning to be cynical. Just careful.
And it also got me thinking of how news of alternative fuel is always met with a few “so what?”s from the commentators. They have a point: there is absolutely no way that the USA could ever grow enough corn to fuel all their cars with ethanol1; no way that every little Pacific island could be completely self-sufficient on coconuts for oil; no way that Asda’s recycling of cooking fat in their trucks could inspire every householder in the UK to rob their local chippy. But they also miss the point that every small number of converts means that the trend for increasing oil-driven energy consumption is ever so slightly diminished. Every solar panel installed, every wind turbine that gets past the “Conservative Communities Concerned for Conservation of their Beautiful and Historical Landscape”, every wave harvester makes a difference, however small. Slowly, one small appliance2 at a time, we can slow down the growth of energy consumption. It’s accurate to point out that demand for energy is still growing. The alternative energy sources will not fix that problem. That is up to individuals and governments to tackle. It may hurt attempts to invest in alternative energy if we keep lumping them together. For it to work, it must be economically viable, even if the early stages are heavily funded by rich governments.
It also seems fairly obvious to a numpty like myself that it is to the interest of growing super-powers to invest heavily in research in this area now. Countries like China and India already have enormous energy demands, which will no doubt increase. Peak oil may be upon us (although it is still heavily debated, but let’s not go into that now). Unless China and India (and any other super-power I don’t have the precogniscent ability to see) have ever-lasting supplies of coal or oil, or can twist OPEC’s arm, they will need to not just use current alternative energy sources, but drive the development of new ones. Which they probably are already doing (apart from nuclear power, that is; but let’s not get into that now either).
This didn’t start out as a rant, though it has turned fairly incoherent. I guess my point was that it is easy to be a nay-sayer when it comes to the real benefits of alternative energy sources, be they fuel for vehicles or to provide electricity to needy bloggers. But as the hegemon known as Tesco likes to say, every little helps.
Incidentally, this news comes as I’ve finished reading a recent LA Times Book Festival purchase: The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost3. I wonder if the inhabitants of Kiribati (pronounced Kikibas4, according to Troost) have the technological ability or drive to consider adopting coconut oil as a fuel? Or failing which, export their copra to their Pacific neighbours in exchange for some food that is not fish.
1 Speaking of which, doesn’t the harvesting, transport and processing of the corn crop suck up a whole lot of energy in itself? Oh me oh my, how easy it is to be cynical.
2 e.g. the iPod. Oh, we’re back on the greenness of Apple again are we? Incidentally, this reminds me that I desperately wanted a Solio before I left for LA because I thought there would be enough sunshine here for it to work. But they were out of stock then. Would it be naughty to buy one now and have it shipped here? Even more naughty than charging the iPod on the mains every other night?
3 And speaking of the book, this gives me an opportunity to have a photo in the post. Haven’t you missed my awful photography?
4 Typo: should be Ki-ri-bas. Thanks David. My fingers must have had the dog’s nickname (kiki) programmed in instead.