A Niche Around Every Corner

By Kolby Hoagland | July 11, 2013

In simple terms, the natural law of entropy states that as time passes systems become more complex.  This could not be more evident than in how modern society has come to produces and uses electricity. Electricity grids of the late 19th Century (calling them “grids” is a stretch, I know) were relatively simple systems of a super inefficient coal fired generator that provided intermittent power to an independent transmission system. Users would pay companies like Edison Illuminating Company directly for the connection and the power that they were provided. Today, spot market pricing, PPAs, and the highly advanced technology behind our electricity systems are a mere fantasy of what Edison must have imagined. The escalation in complexity of electricity generation and distribution has, without a doubt, benefitted the modernization of western society.

According to the natural law of entropy, power generation, distribution, and pricing (along with everything else in the universe) will only continue to expand in complexity. Indirectly related systems that were not previously a part of power production or distribution will become inherent parts of a new electricity paradigm, and we are currently seeing this happen. In the Rocky Mountain, the need for forest restoration and concern over clean air has incited forest biomass that was previously burned in slash pile to find its way to bioenergy plants. Entropy continues to lead us away from Edison’s original design towards a more complex system and provides our industry numerous niches for biomass derived energy.

The theme for this week’s DataPoints came after reading about the enormous algae bloom in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China. The more than 11,000 square miles of sea and shoreline that have been inundated by a green mat of algae is two times larger than the previous largest bloom in 2008. The presumed culprit of the bloom is agricultural runoff from the highly cultivated interior of Shandong and neighboring provinces. The algae bloom in the Yellow Sea and others of this nature put pressure on aquatic ecosystems and human health, forcing governments to accept complex strategies to remediate the issue. The removal and disposal of the algae is proving to be a burden for the Chinese government. The highly intentional increase in agricultural productivity of land in around Shandong has had unintended consequences and necessitates innovative solutions.

The nearly infinite number of unintended consequence of modernization on our natural world, like the massive algae bloom in Shandong, supports the theory of entropy. As progress down the path of modernization, the natural world delivers more complex repercussion that impede on our way of life. For the bioenergy industry, the expansion of complexity offers facets for economic growth. For example, algae and forest slash are not only burdens but also excellent raw materials for bioenergy production. Holding us back, however, is the painfully slow evolution of national and regional economies to value more complex remediation strategies that appropriately value environmental stewardship and bioenergy. That said, the silver lining in the cloud is that our industry appeases complexity by uniting environmental remediation with clean energy production. We, as an industry, must be ready to adapt and recognize these niche opportunities where biomass is readily available and necessitates disposal.