Friday, February 24, 2006

An alternative energy source that really stinks

A couple of days ago, I came across this article about a "crappy" way to produce methane.
S.F. Examines Power of Dog Droppings

SAN FRANCISCO Feb 21, 2006 (AP)— City officials are hoping to harness the power of dog doo. San Franciscans already recycle more than 60 percent of their garbage, but in this dog-friendly town, animal feces make up nearly 4 percent of residential waste, or 6,500 tons a year nearly as much as disposable diapers, according to the city.

Within the next few months, Norcal Waste, a garbage hauling company that collects San Francisco's trash, will begin a pilot program under which it will use biodegradable bags and dog-waste carts to pick up droppings at a popular dog park.

The droppings will be tossed into a contraption called a methane digester, which is basically a tank in which bacteria feed on feces for weeks to create methane gas.

The methane could then be piped directly to a gas stove, heater, turbine or anything else powered by natural gas. It can also be used to generate electricity.

Methane digesters are nothing new. The technology was introduced in Europe about 20 years ago, and more than 600 farm-based digesters are in operation there. Nine are in use on California dairy farms, and chicken and hog farms elsewhere in the United States also use them.

Neither Norcal Waste spokesman Robert Reed nor Will Brinton, a Maine-based recycling and composting consultant, knew of anyone in the United States who is using the $1 million devices to convert pet waste to energy. But Brinton said some European countries process dog droppings along with food and yard waste.

"The main impediment is probably getting communities around the country the courage to collect it, to give value to something we'd rather not talk about," Brinton said. "San Francisco is probably the king of pet cities. This could be very important to them." ...

Some experts believe methane digestion must become more attractive economically before it gets popular. Landfill space is relatively cheap, and natural gas and electricity also remain fairly inexpensive....
It's highly doubtful that dog poop and other radical forms will ever be economical unless traditional fossil fuels become too expensive. With the human labor and million-dollar technology required to collect the animal waste, and the time , we're better off using regular, plentiful natural gas.

But the biggest problem is that San Francisco's government is willing to throw people's hard-earned dollars into a more expensive source of energy. Democrats are suddenly the party that continuously cries for mythical "energy independence," but both they and President Bush support massive subsidies for alternative fuel industries: inefficient ethanol whose subsidies benefit only corn growers, and wind and solar energy that only socialists think are worthwhile. There's a very good reason we don't use any of these sources: they're too expensive when we have traditional energy sources to fall back upon.

Once again, the free market is the only answer: if government ceases all subsidies, including special tax incentives that favor one technology over another, and regulatory burdens that unfairly target a specific industry, then new sources can compete fairly with traditional fossil fuels. They can't, though, so their proponents make up untrue allegations about "the playing field" not being level; they'll claim there are "barriers to market entry" because traditional energy sources are well-entrenched. But oil and natural gas are entrenched for a reason, because right now they're far more economical.

Some proponents are in it strictly for themselves: they're representatives or hired lobbyists (often in the guise of "environmental experts" who claim a nice-sounding agenda of a clean environment and clean energy) who seek government assistance to boost their industry. Corn growers are but one example of what Bastiat warned us in The Law:
This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations—and in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law—which may be an isolated case—is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.

The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.

Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.
As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The United States today, with so many different industries competing for subsidies, has governments at all levels willing to indulge each one, no matter how contradictory. The left hand knows not what the right hand does. Tobacco subsidies are a notorious example, and though not as great as the billions in federal subsidies being poured out for ethanol production, it defies common sense to encourage the growth of a certain crop whose finished product is heavily taxed.

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