Part 1 of a 10-part series on how energy, technology, sunshine, carbon, grass, soil, cows, birds and the prosperity of all life on Earth are connected.
I am obsessed with energy. I love my wife, my kids, and now my grandkids, but my warped mind tends to see everything through the counting of kilowatt-hours and its equivalents.
This is unquestionably because I came of age in 1970’s when the problem was not having enough energy. Gas lines, reduced speed limits, cold homes and crappy cars that had lost their power outlined a problem that was clearly pivotal in the global economy. So I wanted to be a part of fixing it. I became obsessed with sources, uses, and most of all, the future of energy.
I recently came across one of several papers I wrote on energy for English class in my senior year of high school that so perfectly captures my assessment of the near and long-term energy future at that time in 1978. Sparing you the details, I concluded that: oil and gas were important for now, but had to end sometime; nuclear fusion was likely past; nuclear fusion was exciting but immature; and renewables might be able to make useful progress with a bit of investment. The heart of the paper was an argument to evaluate energy options using four criteria:
- Long-term abundance
- Ability to meet continued growing demand
- Economic feasibility
- Environmental impact
Those four still look pretty good to me. I am especially pleased with my foresight on the latter at a time when the "climate change" was not yet on anybody's lips that I knew. Still, I rightly concluded that the next several decades ahead of me then would be primarily about energy from oil and gas.
So I decided to become an engineer because engineers fix problems by applying science and technology. With the benefit of a college education on every way energy is converted from one form to another, I saw energy in much deeper ways. Like the text raining down from the screen in the movie “The Matrix,” where others saw gibberish, I learned to see mostly stocks and flows of energy.
These flows of energy formed my wider view. Where others see the morning dew, I see dew point – that phase transition in water from the air becoming a liquid that puts a floor on nightly temperatures. Where you hear a noise, I see energy loss through friction. Where you see a steak, I see a calorie. When I cook that steak, my mind is thinking of its thermal conductivity, heat capacity, and the various dynamics of conduction, convection and radiation going on in and around my BBQ grill.
I made this my professional career and spent 30 years in both the belly and brains of the energy industry. In the first half, I was in the belly, where in the process of finding and producing oil and gas, my specific (and later relevant) skill was using very advanced sensors and models to count carbon in sediments of the deep earth. Then I spent the latter half in the brains. I led investment and research into every possible new technological solution you have heard of and many you still haven’t: geothermal, hydrogen, solar, wind, biofuels, fission, fusion and oh yes, engineered carbon capture – been there, done them all. It all fed my passion and gave me a very unusual viewpoint at the intersection of energy past and future.
But it was always more than a job. As Exhibit A in my over-the-top obsession, I keep a spreadsheet of every kilowatt-hour of electricity energy equivalents of natural gas I’ve consumed every month since I first became a homeowner in 1986 (the gap due to brief period living overseas). Here’s a chart from that spreadsheet:
See, I’m obsessed. I’ve used this data to make decisions about continuous improvements to the energy efficiency of our home, but also to understand my own energy footprint in our world. In it, you can see the effect of a growing family, and a reduction as our nest began to empty and new technology allowed me to improve our home’s efficiency.
But wait, there’s more! 😉
Today, I do my best to capture the energy that freely falls on the roof of our home. I have solar panels on my roof, and batteries on the wall of my garage. I have written software that allows me to integrate data about my energy sources and uses with weather sensors in my back yard. The system even includes a special smart circuit panel that lets me see energy use by every circuit in my home. I’m just 3 months in, but even with all the instantaneous wiggles and wobbles of demand, production and storage, we’re averaging about 90% of our energy use coming from the sunshine that falls on the roof of our house. And although I've long known it, I now more clearly realize that that electrical energy stored chemically in my battery is only different in time, concentration and portability than the chemical energy stored in the barrels of oil I once dug up from the ground.
I am very happy pig wallowing in my energy data. See… here's more. 👀
Confidence that this kind of low-emission technology was coming was central in my thinking to leave the world of big energy 10 years ago when, from the perspective of my cat-bird’s seat, many solutions were already in the bag.
But even then, I knew that one big part of the problem – taking carbon back out of the air - was not yet solved. In that old job, we had been very active in exploring very novel solutions for carbon removal from the air, but I came to realize that that part was really hard. The laws of thermodynamics just do not favor us engineers when looking to remove a large volume of a dilute molecule out of a ubiquitous gas. Doing so with synthetic engineering takes a lot of steel and you guessed it – energy.
The part I didn’t see back in 1978, that would become the solution, was the other half of Earth’s carbon cycle. You know it as just “nature” and it has evolved precisely to do exactly that – remove carbon from air. This part of Earth’s bigger energy cycle uses the abundant energy in sunshine to take carbon back out of the atmosphere and store it in the biosphere, just like my home system stores energy in the batteries on my garage wall. Now that I see it, the key to fixing the unintentional negative consequences of bullets #’s 1, 2 and 3 in my high school English paper lied in a deeper understanding of #4.
In the forthcoming blog series, you’re going to get a glimpse inside my somewhat warped and energy-obsessed mind; how energy works in the bigger picture; how fixing it is a process of change and innovation; how my journey would lead me to a magical system of cows, grass, sunshine and soil; what that has to do with grassland birds, climate change; and how producing food differently can produce more and better food while healing a hurting planet.
Right now, I’ve scheduled it for roughly 10 parts, so sit back and hold on. When I’m done, my aim is to help you understand Earth’s energy system and the accumulation of carbon in soil like you understand gravity. I want to help you to see what I see with my energy-obsessed eyes and understand that when food is produced differently, the accumulation of carbon in soil, the cooling of the planet, and the prosperity of all life in a living, breathing biosphere is as inevitable as an apple falling from a tree.
In the end, you’ll be the judge of whether I have pulled that off. If interested, stay tuned for the next installment. If not, go grab a BoboLink, and go for a walk in nature, where at some point, I hope you’ll get the point.
Co-Founder & CEO of Blue Nest Beef