That Carbon Dioxide Tipping Point

I file this under politics because it is politics that is blinding us.

The oil industry* and their paid shills (known as deniers)** made a few waves recently when, in a carefully-worded survey of climate scientists, fewer than half were willing to single out carbon dioxide as the single greatest contributor to global warming.

“Half of all Scientists disagree with climate change!” was the nonsensical conclusion. A slightly-less-nonsensical conclusion was “Humans create carbon dioxide; if that’s not the primary driver of global warming, then warming is not because of humans.”

But let’s look at that for a moment. There’s another conclusion, and while it’s much more reasonable, it’s also much more scary: Carbon Dioxide isn’t the the primary driver of global warming any more. We’ve crossed a tipping point.

Meet Methane, and the point of no return.

While CO2 was the problem, there was something we could do about it: produce less CO2. Let the algae and the rain forests (whoops!) absorb the surplus back, and let our planet return to its previous equilibrium. We dithered, and denied, and the tundra began to thaw. Now the tundra is burping up enormous amounts of methane.

As a greenhouse gas, methane makes CO2 look like a punk kid with missing teeth.

So if many scientists don’t think Carbon Dioxide is the biggest contributor any more, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe the surface of our planet is getting hotter, it means that the game has changed. It means things have moved to a stage that we cannot reverse just by suddenly not being so selfish and short-sighted. It means there is nothing we can do to stop the change, and the sooner we turn our efforts to dealing with it, the less it will hurt.

But man, it’s gonna hurt.

* shorthand for all carbon-based energy companies
** almost all the publicized climate-change deniers are on the energy company payrolls. I say “almost” only because there are probably a few who are just stupid.

Why the phrase ‘Zero-Emissions’ Irks me So.

A few days ago I made a comment on a Facebook post that rather cheesed some Tesla drivers. I said zero emissions was a lie. (I also said that if Tesla made a convertible on their new platform, I’d buy it.)

I linked to an article here on my Blog about that lie, and about the even bigger lie concerning the emissions of gasoline-powered vehicles. Whether they read it or not before rebutting me is debatable, but I’m going to spend a little time comparing the two lies in a different way. My goal is to have the drivers of electric cars reject the zero-emissions label, and insist on a full reckoning of emissions for all vehicles.

Teslas come out looking pretty good in that comparison.

Let’s talk for a minute about gasoline. It comes from oil. Oil comes from the ground. Those rocking-horse pumps scattered around our nation run on electricity. How much? In California, the energy to pull enough crude from the ground to make a gallon of gasoline is about 17kWh[1]. That’s actually quite a bit. Enough to send a Tesla about 40 miles.

So while I’m standing next to a pump with a bucket full of smelly goo, my Tesla-driving friends are forty miles down the road, thinking that the day would be perfect if they could only put the top down. Meanwhile, my Leaf-driving friends are more like fifty miles down the road, and are made even happier because from inside they don’t have to look at their hideously ugly car.

Meanwhile, my bucket of goo has to be transported, refined (a very energy-intensive process), augmented with various chemicals, and transported again. By the time that gallon of gas reaches my tank, my Tesla friends could be well over 100 miles away, all for a similar amount of environmental harm.

Yet, up to this point, nothing has come out of my tail pipe. The tailpipe emissions from burning the gasoline are dwarfed by the environmental harm getting the gas into my tank. Optimistically 60% or more[2] of the energy consumed by a gas-powered car is not reflected in the tailpipe emissions.

“I had no idea!” you say! To which I say, “EXACTLY!” The numbers I cite aren’t easy to come by, and as long as all cars were gas-powered, the film-flam didn’t matter much. But now we have electrics, and tailpipe emissions are a terrible way to compare the two.

And we’re not even talking about babies dying as a result of fracking-related pollution, or the cost of keeping our oil coming in from other countries, or mitigating climate change. We are just comparing the energy consumed to drive a mile.

Taking into account the inefficiencies of power generation and the electric grid[3], ‘zero emissions’ hides the impact of generating about 1kWh for every mile a Tesla is driven. And it lets the gasoline junkies have it both ways. “Those electric guys ignore their own pollution!” they say, while simultaneously ignoring almost all their own emissions. Focusing on tailpipe emissions allows Miata drivers like me to ignore the impact of at least 3kWh for every mile driven. And that big-ass pick-em-up truck? It’s not pretty.

So come on, electrics! DEMAND an even reckoning. Mark your Tesla 30MPGe (due to the inefficiencies above), and insist that my Miata be rated at 8MPG[4]. Tops. Probably less. It’s a more honest number.

Even out the reckoning and watch your favorite electric vehicle flourish like never before. Say NO to ‘zero emissions’!

[1] State of California

[2] I backed these numbers way off from my previous post, as the sources I found back then have dried up, and 4-7kWh/gallon seems to be the consensus for electricity used in refining. That ignores very large amounts of fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) used alongside the electricity, but if the numbers are out there for that, I can’t find them anymore. Energy companies aren’t terribly motivated to make that easy to find.

Just know that I might be making things look way better for gasoline than they actually are. This is partially offset because I’m ignoring the other useful products of the refining process.

Updated to add: I tried, I really did, to get the answer from Unfortunately I could not make numbers that jive with other sources that seem trustworthy-ish, so I suspect my math and interpretation of the data are off. On the one hand, I came up with about 4.6 kWh/gallon strictly for the gasoline product of the refining process, much better than I expected. On the other hand, according to that document fossil fuels used in the energy mix during refining dwarf the electrical component, so if the electric estimates I use above are even remotely accurate, then my analysis of that PDF is way off. The latter seems more likely to me.

[3] American Physical Society

[4] Yeah, I know it will never happen. Both for political reasons and because the number varies wildly depending on where your gasoline comes from.


My Conflict Over the Attack on Rooftop Solar

Most of us now can become energy producers. We might not produce as much as we consume, but we can put solar panels on our roofs and reduce our energy bills. And if our panels produce more energy than we’re using at the moment, it seems like a good idea to put that energy back on the grid for others to use. Energy storage is inefficient. The burning question: how much do we get paid for that power?

The law differs everywhere but where I live right now, People can sell electricity back onto the grid at the same price they pay for it. While that is great for those with rooftop solar, I’m not so sure it’s great for all of us. The question is: Why is the electricity I sell back to the grid worth twice as much as the electricity utilities buy from other power generators? The utility is forced to pay way more for electricity homeowners produce than they pay anyone else.

The power companies are fighting back by imposing huge fees on solar homes. In some states now, like Arizona (which… solar… duh), if you put in a solar installation you’re slapped with a huge tax to pay for “your share” of the old-world electricity infrastructure. That is also ridiculous. The message in those states: if you go solar, go big enough to get off the grid. A total lose-lose scenario, since the surplus generated by homeowners goes to waste.

And in that battle, I am the biggest loser of all. My euphemistically-named ‘manufactured home’ can’t support the panels. Next-gen solar panels might be light enough. I hope so. But in the meantime, my rates are inflated because some of the electricity I’m buying was bought by my power company at a ridiculously high price.

If I make more electricity than I need, the price I sell that power back to the grid should reflect the cost to the power company to get that energy to its destination. Right now in my neighborhood the power company is required to buy electricity at a loss from schmoes like me. While I have no sympathy whatsoever for the assholes who run the power companies, assholes who endangered public safety to bilk Californians out of billions of dollars and then hid the money behind bogus bankruptcies, I still have to move forward on principles of fairness.

Brief aside: Documents sealed in the Enron trials could get a lot of energy executives serious jail time.

Back to the small. If I produce electricity I don’t need at the moment, I should be able to sell it. The value of that power should be a contract between me (or a collective of people like me) and the power company I’m selling to. The price could change minute-by-minute, based on demand. But it shouldn’t be retail. Sorry, my hippie friends, when I’m producing electricity I am just another power plant; I shouldn’t have an unfair advantage over any other electricity producer.

BUT! While I accept that I should sell my electricity at wholesale, that doesn’t mean I accept the ridiculous taxes on energy-producing households to maintain the grid. The power company can profit from the power I generate the same way it does with power it purchases from big producers.

Power companies across this great nation wish to punish the small producer. They have brought forth taxes to combat the little-guy-friendly laws in many states. Solar power is starting to make real economic sense, even with the government underwriting of fossil fuels.

I think the key was in a parenthetical a couple of paragraphs back: millions of rooftop solar owners combining to form a collective — a single power company that negotiates its rates with the power companies the same way all the other generators do. As solar technology improves, the cost of generation goes down, where the cost of the fossil competitors may enjoy periodic drops, but ultimately must move upward.

If our nation were to say in the meantime that poisoning our water and killing our children is illegal again, even for frackers, that would dramatically increase the leverage of alternative power generators.

Let’s make solar power officially just another source of electricity. Solar is ready to compete on its own merits, without price controls, and despite the staggering portion of our taxes that is spent to maintain the oil industry. PG&E is not going to impose wacky grid taxes on its most cost-competitive supplier. But it’s the people making the electricity who need to speak, not governments. It’s time to take the training wheels off and let solar ride.

Comparing Mileage

Today I rode past a billboard advertising a Jeep SUV of some sort, proclaiming the beast gets 39 miles per gallon. That’s not too shabby — build a carpool around that vehicle and you have decent efficiency. It made me wonder, as I pedaled along: what sort of mileage am I getting?

Strava estimates that at my rather-slow cruising speed along a straight, flat road (fair for comparing “highway mileage”) I’m putting out about 150 watts of effort (or less, but I’m rounding in favor of cars). Pessimistically I’m burning about five times that in stored food energy (my gasoline equivalent); the rest of the energy winds up as heat in my muscles. So I’m consuming about 750 watts to roll along at 15 miles per hour. That’s fifteen miles for 750 watt-hours, or 20 miles for one kilowatt-hour.

A gallon of gas has the energy equivalent of about 37 kWh, so were I running on gasoline, I’d get about 20 x 37 miles, or roughly 740 miles per gallon — let’s call it 700 to avoid any pretense of precision.

700 mpg! Not bad! If I lost a little more weight my mileage would get even better (or more likely I’d just ride faster).

Simple Energy Policy

It seems that oil prices are at historic lows. OPEC is dumping their product on the market while fracking is increasing supply in the US, while the growth in China’s demand for oil is falling short of expectations.

There are lots of theories about why OPEC is continuing to pump oil into such a shitty market, but in the end their motivations don’t matter. Oil is cheap right now.

So let’s burn theirs! Let’s sit on our own reserves until the price goes up. The oil under American soil will be worth a lot more later than it is now. A lot more. The US trade deficit is largely about energy, but if you can balance that with an increase in the value of our assets, it’s not such a big deal.

Better, let’s use their cheap oil to produce a crap-ton of photovoltaic cells, and invest in other energy-up-front technologies.

However you figure it, you buy low and sell high if you want to succeed. Right now OPEC is selling low. I’m OK with that. I’d hold off on the domestic fracking; we can destroy our land later if it proves necessary. It will sure be a lot more profitable later.

A Random Energy Thought

It takes a lot of energy to make a photovoltaic cell. Once it’s made, it gives you almost-free energy for a long time. Photovoltaic electricity is about investing a lot of energy now for a long-term payoff later.

Recently, for reasons I’d probably understand if I were paying attention, energy costs have dropped dramatically. To my way of thinking, then, it’s time RIGHT NOW to make a crap-ton of photovoltaic cells. Like, this month.


Money for Nothin’ and Watts for Free

Think about your average solar collector. Even if you have no idea how the dang things work, you know that:

  • They are flat
  • They are black
  • They don’t work in the shade.

What else fits that description? With a few exceptions on the shade angle, the world has a lot of asphalt baking in the sun. A lot. Anyone who’s gone barefoot in the summer knows how hot a street can get. With that much surface area, you would only have to convert a tiny fraction of the solar flux into useable energy to make a huge difference.

So, come on, science (or maybe this is one for the engineers), give us a way to turn all those square miles of asphalt into cheap, low-efficiency solar collectors.

One Damn Mile

We all know that turning off lights in unoccupied rooms is not only economically smart, it’s good for the planet. Lightbulbs use electricity. Electricity costs money and its production harms the environment. Turning off lights is a simple win-win.

But here’s a thought experiment for you: How much does your car’s mileage change when its headlights are on? Is it even measurable? Even when your car is idling?

Let’s do some quick math. Based on sources I cite here, a gallon of gas is considered to be the energy equivalent of 34kWh of electricity (34.02, actually. You know this ridiculous false precision is the result of politics, but this is the number that MPGe is based on.) That’s the amount of energy needed to light 340 100-watt incandescent bulbs for an hour.

But to make the comparison fair, we have to factor in the energy required to get the gas into your tank, and the energy lost to bring the power to the socket in your wall. The math I used in the previous episode resulted in a gallon of gas requiring 5 gallons of gas to reach the pump (refining takes a lot of energy), while it takes 2kWh of additional electricity to bring you the 1kWh you burn. We then divide the gasoline energy by six, and the socket electricity efficiency by three, and that brings us to a slightly-more-honest conversion factor of 68kWh of wall-socket electricity per gallon-in-tank of gasoline. Let’s call it 70 to avoid any pretense of false precision ourselves.

That number will move violently depending on where your gasoline and electricity comes from. 70kWh/gallon is just some wild-assed number based on broad averages, but it’s a number less false than most.

Let’s say, to keep the math easy, that you drive a car that gets about 30 miles per gallon (most of us don’t). That comes out to about 2kWh per mile. Roughly speaking, all the lights in your house, on all night, is about the same as driving one mile in your car (if your car is relatively efficient).

One damn mile.

Unless, of course, you’ve converted to compact fluorescent and LEDs in your home. In that case one damn mile could light your house for a week.

Let’s look at things another way, as long as we have our calculators out. The question: how much energy do I save if I choose a car that gets one slim mile more per gallon?

Of course, that depends on how much you drive. But let’s say you tune up your car and inflate your tires and your mileage improves from 30 to 31. And entirely doable scenario.

We’re going to have to go to unsupported decimal points here, so the numbers that pop out are only valid when compared to each other.

70kWhpg/30mpg = 2.33 kWh per mile
70kWhpg/31mpg = 2.25 kWh per mile

Savings: 700 Watt-hours per mile

Improving your mileage from 30mpg to 31 saves about as much energy as you use burning a 70w incandescent bulb for ten hours, every damn mile you drive. Improving from 20mpg to 21 saves more than twice that. Have your checked your tire pressure lately? That simple act could mean a lot. All your other good-energy-citizen choices are dwarfed by your choice of car, and the way you maintain it.

The takeaway here is simple: Yes, please do buy energy-star appliances. Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Be smart. But don’t go the extra mile. Not in your car, at least.


More on MPGe

Recently I wrote an episode about the lies that surround electric vehicles. First and foremost, that they are represented as zero emission vehicles, as if the electricity they use is magically produced with no cost. I proposed they be labeled “somewhere-else emissions” vehicles.

A comment on that episode, in which I had bandied a couple of numbers about willy-nilly, got me to thinking. So, what is this MPGe number anyway? Does it really compare to the MPG ratings of gasoline-powered cars? It’s complicated, but the answer is pretty resoundingly ‘no’. That’s the easy part; the real question is, how do the numbers actually compare?

Comparing the energy stored in a gallon of gasoline to the energy stored in a battery is tricky, but with effort you can come up with a rough equivalency. The EPA uses a conversion factor of 34.02 kWh per gallon. So if a car can go 110 miles using 34 kWh of electrical energy, it’s said to have an MPGe of 110. Simple enough so far.

But that’s not the whole story. According to the American Physical Society, roughly two-thirds of energy used to produce electricity is lost to various inefficiencies. So that 110 MPGe car is really a thirty-something car. Of course with different generation methods, like photovoltaic, it gets trickier to calculate (with PV it’s more about amortizing the energy spent to produce the cell over time). But let’s just go with the rough estimate: MPGe is off by a factor of three.

To be fair, then, we have to look at the energy cost of getting gasoline to the pump. Here’s something I didn’t know: In California, every gallon of gas requires (at least) 6 kWh of electricity just to pull it from the ground. If that electricity was generated from gasoline, and at the efficiency I mention above, that would be almost half a gallon of gas spent to extract that gallon of gas. And there’s natural gas used for extraction that’s not included in that number, and depending on who you ask, may be a much higher number. Then there’s refining, which is also energy-sucking. And transporting the fuel, which as far as I can tell is just a drop in the bucket.

Much of the electricity used to extract oil from the ground comes from coal, I read from a less-than-trustworthy site. If that’s true, then what we have is a system that burns coal to give you gasoline to burn in your car.

I wish I could give you a decent citation for the above, but the sites I read pointed to California 2006 numbers that are dead links now. It’s a pretty safe bet that extraction requires more electricity than it did a few years ago, however, since the oil reserves are becoming depleted and therefore more reluctant to give up their gooey goodness.

So many numbers flying around, and so many sources with obvious political axes to grind, it’s hard to get down to the bottom of it all. And THEN, just when you think you have the numbers lining up, you have to consider this: If the Middle East had no oil, we’d not be at war there. The World Trade Center would still be standing. We pay a lot — a shitload — for our oil, that’s not reflected in the price. Our children will pay an even bigger shitload dealing with the consequences of burning that oil, and for burning the fossil fuels to generate electricity. The numbers I’m throwing around here don’t reflect any of those costs.

What with all the this and that and whatnot, it looks like the true energy efficiency of a petroleum-powered vehicle is about one-sixth what the sticker on the window at the dealer says it is. My 27 MPG Mazda really consumes six times as much energy; its actual mileage is more like 4.5 MPG. Most of that cost is picked up by taxpayers, and that doesn’t even count the cost of getting the oil to our shores.

In Jerry’s Perfect Economy, the cost of a gallon of gas and the cost of a kWh of electricity would be the total cost, including the cost of extraction, protecting supply, and mitigating the ecological consequences of consumption. In Jerry’s Perfect Economy, there would be no need for environmental protection laws. Conservation would be its own reward.

It’s hard to imagine Jerry’s Perfect Economy without a massive bureaucracy. So maybe it’s not quite so perfect. Still, a guy can dream.

So, in the end, how do MPG and MPGe compare? Well, your car rated at 30 MPG really gets only six. Your car rated at 90 MPGe really gets only 30. Score one for the electrics.

Other citations: I refer you to this California Pamphlet because the very first word of regular copy is a grammatical error. I didn’t read the rest.

ADDENDUM: It never occurred to me to actually tell the state of California that they had the pamphlet wrong. My sweetie, guardian of the English language, found someone in the government to raise the issue with, and hours later, it was fixed! Crazy! Here’s a link to the new version. The link above still points to one that is incorrect.

The Electric Lie

Ride with me on this one; I’m kind of all over the place.

I read an article today that was the rebuttal to another article and both managed to miss the point entirely. I will summarize here, to save you the trouble of wading through tiresome posturing.

The seminal article was all about how the ‘drudges’ at the oil companies are the ones ensuring America’s energy future, while media darlings like Shai Agassi get magazine covers but don’t actually change anything. Mr. Agassi wrote the rebuttal, saying that his efforts to make electric cars practical were gaining traction, and were entirely relevant.

The only problem is, the two sides in this ‘debate’ have pretty much nothing to do with each other. Making all our cars electric will not solve our energy issues. The electricity has to come from somewhere.

I’ll give you that a massive power plant will produce more kWh per ton of carbon than an automobile engine. If that were the only part of the equation then we’d all be driving electric already. It would be the cheapest way to get around. Even today if everyone had to pay to mitigate the carbon put into the atmosphere for their activities electric might be ubiquitous, but I’m not so sure. There are other inefficiencies we have to take into account.

For instance: transmission costs. Even if the power plant is more efficient than a car engine, every mile of power line the electricity traverses represents loss. I once read (so it may or may not be true) that only 13% of the power generated at the Hoover Dam that sets out for Los Angeles actually gets there. The rest is broadcast into space. (It is actually warmer near the power lines. That is energy lost.) So, first step toward an energy-wise world is to generate locally. Solar panels may not be as efficient but if you put them right on the spot you can minimize transmission loss.

The thing is, energy pricing in this country is a joke. The US government puts crap-tons of your money behind fossil fuels, both directly and indirectly (rhymes with Iraq). We’ve all got together and put a couple trillion dollars into the pot to keep gas cheaper at the pump. Electricity prices are similarly skewed toward big producers. If the government were to get out of the energy price-fixing business, a few things would happen: 1) energy costs would skyrocket; 2) Efficiency would leap and waste would plummet – wind and solar would compete favorably; 3) The economy would crash, dragged down by industries that had come to rely on the taxpayer energy-subsidy crutch; 4) We would have to decide as a society how we’re going to deal with 86-year-old Pittsburgh resident Gladys Pulchowski, who can’t afford her heating bill this winter.

In my happy economic neverland, everyone would bitch about higher prices, but they’d buy more efficient products. They’d put extra insulation in their homes and drive something smaller than a Cadillac Escalade to work. Excess packaging would directly drive up the cost of a product. Folks would not bitch about the reduced federal deficit, but it would be there. People would pay for what they used, without the government artificially spreading the cost around (mostly to our kids).

The price of Perrier would include the energy cost of dragging a dang glass bottle of water over the ocean. Seriously. How does the current situation make sense?

Back on topic: Listening to the electric car guys, you’d think that generating electricity produced no emissions at all. In fact, around here there is a government stamp for ‘zero emissions vehicles’. That, my friends, is a lie. They are Somewhere-Else Emission Vehicles.

Then there’s the batteries. Depending on the car, there’s all sorts of toxic stuff in there. Lead is a favorite, but there are others. And the things are heavy. Most of the energy spent by a car is to move the car. Driver and passengers hardly figure in. Massive batteries just make things worse.

I’m going to toss that out again, so you can ponder and appreciate it. Almost all of the energy spent by a car is to move the car, not the contents. That’s not terribly efficient. Currently the auto makers of the world are managing to improve their engines enough to avoid the inevitable truth: sooner or later we aren’t going to be willing (or able) to pay to move a big pile of metal and plastic around with us wherever we want to go. (Defying that math are the scooters of today getting less than two hundred miles per gallon – less than one-tenth the mass, but only getting three times better mileage. Clearly I’m oversimplifying, but by that much?)

I think someday we’ll all be driving electric. If energy were priced rationally, we already would be, charging our batteries from local sources.


Dust in the Wind = Opportunity

While driving through southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, I noticed that the horizon was brown — the air is as dingy and grim as the air in Los Angeles ever was. It is tinged with particulate pollution that at one time was part of one of the richest topsoil systems on the planet. Now our soil is floating on the breeze, not doing anyone any good.

It’s time to do something about it.

Back in the prairie days, before the plow reached the plains, there was grass to hold down the soil. Then came farmers and soon after came the dust bowl. When there wasn’t enough rain, crops withered and the desiccated soil was exposed to the wind. These days, the main reason we don’t have more dust bowls is irrigation. Mighty pumps draw water from below the surface and spray it on the crops. This is still not as effective at erosion control as the prairie grasses were, and the activities of farming just plain raise a lot of dust. Not much one can do about it.

Or is there? What if we could do something about the other element in a dust storm — the wind? Slow the wind down and the air won’t be able to carry as much particulate matter. If we can slow down the wind enough, we might even begin to accumulate soil from less-enlightened neighbors.

Oh, I hear you now: “Hold the phone, there, Sunshine! Slow down the wind?” Yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but in fact we already have machines that slow down the wind, and as a special bonus they give us electricity. Yep, windmills are machines that take energy out of the air and turn it into juicy, useful, power. There are already wind farms popping up in Kansas, giant pylons standing in neat rows across the very fields that are losing topsoil to the wind.

The difficulty with the current setup is that the windmills are put way up in the air, where there is less interaction with ground winds. This is done on purpose, as the giant rotors’ primary purpose is electricity, not erosion control, and the wind is steadier up there. (Also, it makes sense to get those giant rotors up where they won’t be whacking into things.) For this job we’re going to need windmills closer to the ground, which probably means many smaller windmills. Since efficiency at generating electricity is no longer the top priority, we can put them closer together. Each will generate less electricity, but the rows of them will make a more effective windblock.

How much do windmills slow down the air? I’m not really sure, but I’ve heard about habitats being affected downwind from them. It’s all a matter of taking enough energy out of the system.

That might be enough to make a difference, but we can add a low-tech modification to our fields to deflect the wind up off the ground and into the whirling blades. Simple scoop-shaped fences, perhaps configured in V shapes, can funnel the air whooshing along the ground up and into the windmills. More electricity, even less soil erosion. I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the water needed for the crops was reduced as well. Less water per acre means more land can be irrigated, which means more food.

The fence system assumes that wind usually comes from the same general direction; I imagine that when the wind is blowing parallel to the fences they might do more harm than good. Judging by the way the wind farms are set up, I think the direction is pretty steady, however. The V-shaped fences may prove to be a hassle for the farmer; modern machinery likes straight lines and big circles. Perhaps the fences could be replaced by long rows of grape vines. They would be less efficient at deflecting the wind but they would provide a significant additional crop. Another type of food makes the farmer less vulnerable to crop-specific pests and to random market swings.

I picture the ideal field as having some of the giant turbines to slow down the air up above, with rows of closely-spaced windmills below to slow the surface wind. Air moving over the field would be slowed enough that it’s carrying capacity was reduced, and rather than picking up sediment would deposit some of what it was already carrying instead. Free dirt!

The cool thing about this get-poor-quick scheme is that while it may not have the same immediate return on investment of a traditional wind farm, the watts per acre will be pretty high. Assuming energy prices keep climbing, it could even pay for itself. Then, when the aquifer runs out and the dust bowl returns, maybe America will still be able to feed itself.