Monday, July 14, 2008

Energy Worth Its Salt

It used to be that when you would read a more seemingly off-kilter story of some scientist and his or her ideas of how to save the world you would chalk it up as a cartoon version of life. But not anymore. The world is looking to scientists more than ever to help us solve some of our climate change and environmental problems.

Such is the case with Scientist Carl Hodges and his Seawater Foundation who was recently featured in any in-depth story in the Los Angeles Times. Hodges has found a successful way to cultivate coastal deserts with rising sea water, producing a unique crop of salt-loving plants called salicornia that can be used for food, cooking oil, ground into a high-protein meal -- OR, and this is the kicker, converted into biofuel.

This is the kind of biofuel that I talk about in my upcoming book, The Mom's Guide to Growing Your Family Green: Saving the Earth Begins at Home (St. Martin's Press, March 2009). On a scale of which current and future fuels would be the best to pursue, this salicornia falls into one of the best categories. It's the kind of development we want to support and nourish with dollars and public support, including writing to our government representatives to let them know what kinds of energy we'd rather see available to us. Our government regulates and provides incentives to many industries, so we want the more sustainable and environmentally friendly ones to get the best advantages -- industry then changes its focus after government regulation, including emissions cap and trading which is talked about so clearly in Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp's book Earth: The Sequel.

Hodges is currently down in Mexico's northwestern coast developing his salicornia crops. There has been some concern about the conversion of a desert landscape to farming. If the farming only lasts a few years and then stops, then the desert that was sacrificed for farming could pay a destructive price. But on the other hand, these desert areas are projected to likely be covered with rising sea levels anyway due to climate change, so I think Hodges is right to consider all the options and make the best environmental choice available -- including the choice to look for ways to divert those rising waters and try to avoid catastrophe. Besides, Hodges' seawater farms also create commercial opportunities for farming shrimp and fish, and the ocean canals also create man-made wetlands and mangroves that are sold as emission offsets -- multiple environmental benefits. And the Sonora, Mexico people also benefit from jobs.

According to the LA Times story, Hodges says that "diverting the equivalent of three Mississippi Rivers inland would do the trick" enough to build 50 good-sized seawater farms that would counter the rising sea levels. NASA has estimated that if salt-water-loving crops like salicornia were planted on an area, or multiple regional areas, that would add up to be the size of the Sahara Desert then the resulting plants combined with technology could supply more than 90 percent of the world's energy needs.

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