Bring Back the Buffalo!: A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plainsby Ernest Callenbach, Carl Dennis Buell
With a new epilogue
Though the Plains have been in economic and population decline since the twenties, they are actually within closer reach of vibrant ecological sustainability than any other region of the country. This visionary book offers a constructive alternative to the decline of cattle ranching, depletion of underground water, and dependency on/i>
With a new epilogue
Though the Plains have been in economic and population decline since the twenties, they are actually within closer reach of vibrant ecological sustainability than any other region of the country. This visionary book offers a constructive alternative to the decline of cattle ranching, depletion of underground water, and dependency on outside energy sources. It shows how bringing back the hardy, majestic bison and using the region's winds to generate power are keys to renewed economic and social health for Plains communities.
- University of California Press
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- New Edition
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Bring Back the Buffalo!A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains
By Ernest Callenbach
The University of California PressCopyright © 2000 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBison and Wind Power
* * *
Bison and wind power offer us strikingly parallel opportunities - ways to utilize the endlessly renewable resources of grass and wind that can preserve the Plains ecosystem and support its human inhabitants indefinitely. They are thus not at all the unrelated subjects they might at first seem. In the great test case that the Plains present to us, if we learn to honor and use the bison and the winds we will have made a fundamental transition in attitude from reckless exploitation to respectful coexistence with the great natural forces of the planet. Both bison and wind are there, waiting to teach us the imperative lessons of sustainability.
Only two generations ago, windmills were the normal power source for wells throughout agricultural America. Windmill, water-storage tower, and house constituted the basic image of the isolated farmstead, imprinted on our minds through a hundred Western movies. Spinning day and night, the faithful windmills pumped up life-giving water, the creak of their gears providing reassurance that all was well. Even today, amazingly durable old-fashioned windmills provide cheap andreliable pumping to many farms and ranches. Finding and rebuilding an old windmill, in fact, has now become the pride of former city dwellers moving to the country - a sign of nostalgia for a time when it was universal for farmers to draw energy directly from sun and wind and live sustainably on the land with their animals. But wind power is poised to return to the Plains in a new, highly sophisticated, modern-technology form.
As in any region, people on the Plains use energy for many purposes. Transportation, heating of dwellings and other buildings, refrigeration and air-conditioning, lighting, and water heating are the biggest direct ways in which energy is consumed - most of it in the forms of gasoline, electricity, and natural gas. Plains coal is used in large quantities to produce electricity. But overall, the Plains depend on (as does the United States as a whole) imported fossil-fuel energy - a regime that cannot be maintained indefinitely.
A basic criterion for a society's sustainability lies in its material and energy "throughputs" - everything that passes through the industrial system. Mining and smelting of metals, casting and stamping, refining of oil and molding of plastics, painting and finishing - all the processes of manufacturing cause substantial environmental impacts, as do the combustion-driven shipping and distribution of products. Such are the scale and intensity of contemporary industrial activity that these impacts are overwhelming the capacity of the earth's natural systems to absorb them. Thus, either a scale-down of industrial production will have to be accomplished voluntarily or nature will enforce it. For instance, executives of major global insurance companies are beginning to think that increased floods and other weather-connected disasters may be due to carbon dioxide-driven global warming. Higher disaster risks translate directly into higher insurance costs, which feed back to reduce risk-exposed human activities.
Similarly, energy-intensive farming and ranching convert imported fossil-fuel energy (turned into fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, equipment and its fuel supplies, animal feed, and so on) into beef and wheat. The unsustainability of this situation is increasingly manifested through the rising operation costs experienced by farmers and ranchers.
On the Plains, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy (solar, both thermal and photovoltaic; wind power; and existing hydroelectric development) will actually be easier than in other regions because of the Plains' sparse population and rich resources of grass and wind. Whereas solar installations will probably not become widespread until the middle of the next century, wind power is on the verge of wide deployment now.
It is sometimes argued that the transition to a sustainable-energy system, on the Plains and elsewhere, can be postponed indefinitely or avoided through reliance on coal and natural gas. The discovery of new large reserves of gas, in particular, has been welcomed by some as a sign that fossil fuels can power a century of continued economic growth. New supplies of carbon fuels, however, are in fact a curse rather than a blessing, since they will encourage the already industrialized nations (and rapidly developing larger nations like China and India) to avoid adopting renewable energy systems. However, burning up the planet's fossil fuel reserves will almost certainly exacerbate global warming to disastrous levels. Though gas produces somewhat less pollution and carbon dioxide than does coal, it can only serve as a transitional fuel to the renewable era.
A few scientists have begun to suspect, incidentally, that natural gas is a geological product still being created deep within the earth and not, like coal and oil, a fossilized biological product. Even if this turns out to be true, the long-term picture does not change; the gas-formation process, if it exists, must be enormously slower than human use of gas. Gas can serve, to some extent, only as a "bridge fuel" between the fossil-fuel era and a renewable-energy future.
A Plains Resource
Writers have often described the Plains winds as overwhelming - indeed, a character in O. E. Rølvaag's Gians in the Earth goes mad because of them. But wind, like grass, is a fundamental, permanent resource on which the Plains can draw for a sustainable future. And, as we shall see, wind and bison make an elegant combination.
Generated by differences in solar heat distribution over different regions of the planet, winds blow most strongly where they are unobstructed by trees, buildings, or rough terrain. Thus, the strongest and most constant winds are found at sea, along seacoasts, and in relatively flat country like the Plains, which are sometimes called the "sea of grass." The energy available from wind is proportional to the cube of wind speed. That is, wind three times as fast has twenty-seven times the energy, so wind installations are most efficient in high-wind locations. Many places qualify on the Plains.
Bison have always lived in harmony with the wind, and they survive winter weather so cold that ice forms on their beards. They face into blizzards, not away from them as cattle do, so they never crowd up against fences and freeze to death. When winter winds thin the snow on a rise, bison go there to nose down and find the underlying grass.
Wind and bison have fit together in the ecological past, and they have a sustainable future together as well. They are both dominant features of the original Plains landscape, and we can learn to rely on them both.
Our daily experience does not equip us to grasp the massive energy potential of the winds. But North Dakota's wind alone could provide 36 percent of today's total national electric demand; the state has more wind-energy potential than California, heretofore the nation's leader in wind power. The Great Plains as a whole could meet the nation's energy needs many times over. And wind installations, including the narrow service roads they need, occupy only a fraction of the land's surface, leaving plenty of room for bison. Well-designed "wind-farm" roads and towers do not cause soil erosion; wind-farm transmission lines can and should be placed underground wherever scenic values are important. And an important economic appeal of wind power is that leasing land for wind farms can provide much-needed supplementary income to ranchers, helping to preserve open space that might otherwise be developed into condominiums and strip malls.
World Wind Power Today
The Plains need not play a pioneering role in wind power; they can merely follow along behind striking developments elsewhere. A wind farm may soon replace one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and there are twenty thousand wind turbines spinning worldwide. Northern European wind-power installations are expanding rapidly, but projects are also under way in Argentina, China, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, and other countries. In New England, the United Kingdom, and Poland, among other places, wind turbines producing large amounts of energy are being planned for mounting, like oil-well towers, in shallow offshore waters. Some energy experts believe that wind power will come to supply 20 percent of the world's energy.
In the past, public and media perceptions of wind power, along with the decisions of U.S. utility executives, were colored by a series of spectacular failed experiments with giant wind machines by Boeing, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The blades of some of these early monsters were as long as football fields, and, predictably enough, they vibrated dangerously. But the learning curve in developing more modest-sized and easily managed machines has been steep. Three or four technical generations of design experience in California and, more recently, in Europe have led to much more efficient blades and to more responsive, electronically controlled turbines. Wind is now a thoroughly proven technology.
Moreover, the maintenance and repair of wind installations is a nondemanding, medium-tech business for which the Plains could easily supply the work force. Working on wind machines does not involve the heroic precautions for radiation safety or drastic interruptions to service that nuclear plants are subject to; when a wind turbine needs repairs, hundreds of others nearby keep right on working. In certain damp locations, like Vermont's Green Mountains, wind machines are subject to occasional icing up in winter. But otherwise wind has become a reliable, almost humdrum source of power. It will be right at home in the American heartland, along with bison.
By its nature, wind power is irregular - some days, even on the Plains, winds drop off - so heretofore it has always been used in conjunction with other power sources. But the peaks and valleys of wind generation will soon be smoothable by the deployment of a new generation of storage devices, including high-tech flywheels as well as new types of batteries. Sophisticated flywheels that store impressive amounts of rotational energy are a still-unfamiliar technology but one nearing commercial application. Essentially high-tensile-strength and virtually zero-friction motor-generators, they come in sizes small enough to supply power for cars or houses and also big enough for use by power companies. They will be particularly useful in regions like the Plains, with thin and dispersed populations. Meanwhile, wind is a natural complement to the new natural gas-turbine generators, which turn on and off quickly and can thus make up for drops in wind output.
Although Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas have sometimes been referred to as the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, to this point wind power in America has developed on a commercial scale only in California and Hawaii. The Altamont Pass area, in fact, supplies enough power for the city of San Francisco's 700,000 people - about the population of Montana. Strong, consistent winds produce even more power near the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Like many other American industries, the intensive wind-power development in California since the 1970s has been encouraged by accelerated depreciation allowances and other occasional incentives, but its development now relies on sheer profitability.
The costs of building and installing wind turbines have dropped steadily and will certainly continue to drop. Some observers feel that Belgium and Germany have now surpassed the United States in wind technology, and the Japanese are also actively in the race. The authors of a recent study of American competitiveness in environmental industries note: "As is the case with other renewable technologies, wind power's early significant advances in this country have led to a worldwide technology development effort that far surpasses current domestic expenditures. In Europe, seven countries and the Commission of European Communities are each spending as much or more on wind energy research, development, and demonstration as the United States."
But in America, wind power has made its striking advances despite the fact that government support still flows overwhelmingly to the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power industries. According to the Congressional Research Service, nuclear power has so far received some $97 billion (in 1990 dollars) and soaked up 65 percent of all federal funds for energy research and development from 1948 to 1992 - not including the future subsidies that will be needed for decommissioning of closed nuclear plants and for disposal or storage of wastes and, conceivably, accident disaster relief.
Through advanced turbine design, wind power currently costs, on the average, about 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to generate. This is roughly competitive with other types of newly built power generation - even with coal plants or natural-gas turbines - and markedly less expensive than nuclear power, which comes in at 10-12 cents per kWh, not including government subsidies and decommissioning costs. It is also less expensive than solar-thermal energy - produced by long reflective troughs heating fluid in a pipe to drive a generator - in sunny regions. Within a decade, wind power will probably be the cheapest known way to produce new electricity. It should cost 4 cents per kWh by the year 2000; if moderate tax incentives are provided, around 3 cents. A recent round of competitive bidding for power generation in California showed that wind turbines are already more economical than gas-plant repowering. They are also built very quickly, so when wind power really gets going on the Plains, it is likely to develop with surprising speed.
To assess wind power fully from a sustainability standpoint, a net-energy analysis should be carried out according to the same logic used to assess petroleum-based agriculture. How much energy goes into a wind farm's construction and, later, maintenance, versus how much comes out? A careful study along these lines has been done of photovoltaic cells - the devices now used to generate energy for roadside emergency phones, lighted buoys, and many other remote applications. Thin-film photovoltaic modules pay off in six months' to two years' time. It is almost certain that wind turbines pay off their energy investment in the first year of operation; thereafter, for the twenty or thirty years that an individual wind machine lasts, it generates net positive energy. Its maintenance causes hardly any environmental degradation, and it requires no mining or drilling, transportation of fuels, emission controls, or waste disposal.
Excerpted from Bring Back the Buffalo! by Ernest Callenbach Copyright © 2000 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ernest Callenbach is the author of Ecology: A Pocket Guide (California, 1998), Ecotopia (1975), and Ecotopia Emerging (1981).
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