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Is a low-carbon economy inevitable or impossible?

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Think global warming is a hoax? That America’s energy policy is in safe hands? Or that our children will never have to rely on alternative sources?

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Nobody knows for certain, but the Great Plains Institute (GPI) thinks biofuels are a good bet in any case. In his presentation “Toward a Low Carbon Energy System: Why the Transition Seems Both Impossible and Inevitable” at the St. Paul Student Center at the University of Minnesota on January 14, 2014, Institute Director Rolf Nordstrom acknowledged his own uncertainty regarding America’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Despite some pessimism “depending on what I read last,” he feels “optimistic down deep that we can change the system.”

Transitioning to alternative fuels does seem impossible. A “Rolling Stone” article identified a “cataclysmic disconnect” between our $27 trillion ownership of fossil fuels and their threat to the biosphere. Stock traders and utility shareholders suspect any development that threatens their investments. And no consensus exists on how to internalize the cost of transition while 80% of the world relies on fossil fuels for energy.

On the other hand, the demand for energy is flat or declining, cheap natural gas promises to close 1/3 of American coal plants, a fifth of our coal and nuclear plants need to be retired in the next 20 years due to inefficiency and safety concerns, and the younger generation seems less interested in car ownership.

So, what is the answer? There isn’t just one. Minnesota is the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” but wind occurs most often where the fewest people live. The same lack-of-infrastructure argument applies to solar energy, hydrogen and cellulosic ethanol which seem “always five years away.”

Critical factors are scope and diversity. Other fuel sources address America’s electrical needs, but not its transportation or heating requirements, nor the demand for new markets. Like oil and natural gas, biofuels can help meet our energy needs and supply the high-value chemicals that create rubber, plastics and other materials that found today’s lifestyle. Levulinic acid created from the Minnesota Arrowhead's “wood basket” could strengthen the state’s position in the fiercely competitive chemicals market and revitalize its declining forest industry.

Rather than a zero-sum game, GPI advocates expanding the definition and use of biofuel to meet Minnesota’s energy needs, “keep [its] overall infrastructure in place, and help energy producers “increase volume and build plants.” As Nordstrom says, “scarcity won’t drive change,” but by advocating biofuel as part of a “virtuous cycle of energy policy,” GPI can help Minnesota become a formidable player that conforms to the classical definition of a great society “where old men plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.”

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