Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes

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Daniel Larison

It costs more to build and maintain turbines offshore than on land, but an underwater foundation for a five-megawatt tower is cheaper per megawatt than a smaller foundation. Hence the German giant. There are other challenges. Like sailboats, wind turbines can be calmed for days.

To keep the grid humming, other sources, such as coal-fired power plants, have to stand ready to take up the slack. But when a strong wind dumps power into the grid, the other generators have to be turned down, and plants that burn fuel are not quickly adjustable. A wind-power bonanza can become a glut. Denmark, for example, is sometimes forced to unload power at uneconomic rates to neighbors like Norway and Germany.

What's needed for wind as well as solar is a way to store a large energy surplus. Technology already exists to turn it into fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol or harness it to compress air or spin flywheels, banking energy that can later churn out electricity. But most systems are still decades from becoming economically feasible. On the plus side, both wind and solar can provide what's called distributed energy: They can make power on a small scale near the user.

You can't have a private coal plant, but you can have your own windmill, with batteries for calm days.

Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes

The more houses or communities make their own wind power, the smaller and cheaper central power plants and transmission lines can be. In Europe's big push toward wind power, the turbines keep growing. But in Flagstaff, Arizona, Southwest Windpower makes turbines with blades you can pick up in one hand.

The company has sold about 60, of the little turbines, most of them for off-grid homes, sailboats, and remote sites like lighthouses and weather stations. At watts apiece they can't power more than a few lights. But David Galley, Southwest's president, whose father built his first wind turbine out of washing machine parts, is testing a new product he calls an energy appliance.

It will stand on a tower as tall as a telephone pole, produce up to two kilowatts in a moderate wind, and come with all the electronics needed to plug it into the house. Many U. Except for the heavy loads of heating and air-conditioning, this setup could reduce a home's annual power bill to near zero. In Germany, driving from the giant wind turbine near Hamburg to Berlin, I regularly got an odd whiff: the sort-of-appetizing scent of fast food. It was a puzzle until a tanker truck passed, emblazoned with the word "biodiesel.

Germany uses about million gallons 1. Biomass energy has ancient roots. The logs in your fire are biomass. But today biomass means ethanol, biogas, and biodiesel—fuels as easy to burn as oil or gas, but made from plants. These technologies are proven. Ethanol produced from corn goes into gasoline blends in the U.

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In the U. What limits biomass is land. Photosynthesis, the process that captures the sun's energy in plants, is far less efficient per square foot than solar panels, so catching energy in plants gobbles up even more land. Estimates suggest that powering all the world's vehicles with biofuels would mean doubling the amount of land devoted to farming. At the National Bioenergy Center, scientists are trying to make fuel-farming more efficient. Today's biomass fuels are based on plant starches, oils, and sugars, but the center is testing organisms that can digest woody cellulose, abundant in plants, so that it too could yield liquid fuel.

More productive fuel crops could help as well. One is switchgrass, a plant native to North America's prairies that grows faster and needs less fertilizer than corn, the source of most ethanol fuel made in the U. It also thrives on land unfit for other crops and does double duty as a source of animal food, further reducing the pressure on farmland.

But technically possible doesn't mean politically feasible. From corn to sugarcane, all crops have their own lobbyists. Frankly, one of the biggest challenges with biomass is that there are so many options. Nuclear fission appeared to lead the race as an energy alternative decades ago, as countries began building reactors. Worldwide, about plants now generate 16 percent of the planet's electric power, and some countries have gone heavily nuclear.

France, for instance, gets 78 percent of its electricity from fission. The allure is clear: abundant power, no carbon dioxide emissions, no blots on the landscape except an occasional containment dome and cooling tower. But along with its familiar woes—the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chornobyl, poor economics compared with fossil fuel plants, and the challenge of radioactive waste disposal—nuclear power is far from renewable. The readily available uranium fuel won't last much more than 50 years. Yet enthusiasm is reviving. China, facing a shortage of electric power, has started to build new reactors at a brisk pace—one or two a year.

And Japan, which lacks its own oil, gas, and coal, continues to encourage a fission program. Yumi Akimoto, a Japanese elder statesman of nuclear chemistry, saw the flash of the bomb at Hiroshima as a boy yet describes nuclear fission as "the pillar of the next century.

In the town of Rokkasho at the northernmost tip of Honshu Island, Japan is working to get around the limits of the uranium supply. Inside a new billion-U. I looked in on cylindrical centrifuges for enriching uranium and a pool partly filled with rods of spent nuclear fuel, cooling. Spent fuel is rich in plutonium and leftover uranium—valuable nuclear material that the plant is designed to salvage.

It will "reprocess" the spent fuel into a mixture of enriched uranium and plutonium called MOX, for mixed oxide fuel. MOX can be burned in some modern reactors and could stretch the fuel supply for decades or more. Reprocessing plants in other countries also turn spent fuel into MOX. But those plants originally made plutonium for nuclear weapons, so the Japanese like to say that theirs, due to start up in , is the first such plant built entirely for peaceful use. To assure the world that it will stay that way, the Rokkasho complex includes a building for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, who will make certain that none of the plutonium is diverted for weapons.

That doesn't satisfy nuclear energy opponents. Opposition has mounted in Japan after fatal accidents at the country's nuclear plants, including one that killed two workers and exposed others to radiation. Shortly after my visit to Rokkasho, about a hundred protesters marched outside the plant in a blizzard. A bigger controversy would greet what some nuclear proponents think is a crucial next step: a move to breeder reactors.

Breeders can make more fuel than they consume, in the form of plutonium that can be extracted by reprocessing the spent fuel. But experimental breeder reactors have proved to be temperamental, and a full-scale breeder program could be an arms-control nightmare because of all the plutonium it would put in circulation. Akimoto, for one, believes that society has to get comfortable with fuel reprocessing if it wants to count on nuclear energy.

He spoke to me through an interpreter, but to emphasize this point he jumped into English: "If we are going to accept nuclear power, we have to accept the total system.

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Sometimes we want to get the first crop of fruit but forget how to grow the trees. Fusion is the gaudiest of hopes, the fire of the stars in the human hearth. Produced when two atoms fuse into one, fusion energy could satisfy huge chunks of future demand. The fuel would last millennia. Fusion would produce no long-lived radioactive waste and nothing for terrorists or governments to turn into weapons. It also requires some of the most complex machinery on Earth.

A few scientists have claimed that cold fusion, which promises energy from a simple jar instead of a high-tech crucible, might work. The verdict so far: No such luck. Hot fusion is more likely to succeed, but it will be a decades-long quest costing billions of dollars. Hot fusion is tough because the fuel—a kind of hydrogen—has to be heated to million degrees Fahrenheit million degrees Celsius or so before the atoms start fusing. At those temperatures the hydrogen forms a roiling, unruly vapor of electrically charged particles, called plasma. Now scientists in Europe, Japan, and the U.

They hope that a six-billion-U. At Culham I saw an experiment in a tokamak, a device that cages plasma in a magnetic field shaped like a doughnut—the standard design for most fusion efforts, including ITER. The physicists sent a huge electrical charge into the gas-filled container, a scaled-down version of JET. It raised the temperature to about ten million degrees Celsius, not enough to start fusion but enough to create plasma. The experiment lasted a quarter of a second. A video camera shooting 2, frames a second captured it. As it played back, a faint glow blossomed in the chamber, wavered, grew into a haze visible only on its cooling edges, and vanished.

It was—well, disappointing. I had expected the plasma to look like a movie shot of an exploding automobile. This was more like a ghost in an English paneled library. But this phantom was energy incarnate: the universal but elusive magic that all our varied technologies—solar, wind, biomass, fission, fusion, and many others large or small, mainstream or crazy—seek to wrestle into our service. Taming that ghost is not just a scientific challenge.

The ITER project has been held up by a seemingly simple problem. Since the participating countries—including much of the developed world—have been deadlocked over where to build the machine. The choice has come down to two sites, one in France and one in Japan. As all energy experts will tell you, this proves a well-established theory. There's only one force tougher to manage than plasma: politics. Although some politicians believe the task of developing the new energy technologies should be left to market forces, many experts disagree. That's not just because it's expensive to get new technology started, but also because government can often take risks that private enterprise won't.

Without a big push from government, he says, we may be condemned to rely on increasingly dirty fossil fuels as cleaner ones like oil and gas run out, with dire consequences for the climate. But it doesn't have to end that way. We have a choice. It's a matter of self-interest, says Hermann Scheer, the German member of parliament. Already, change is rising from the grass roots. And in Europe financial incentives for both wind and solar energy have broad support even though they raise electric bills. Alternative energy is also catching on in parts of the developing world where it's a necessity, not a choice.

Solar power, for example, is making inroads in African communities lacking power lines and generators. For filling the needs of remote villages, renewable energy is highly competitive. In developed countries there's a sense that alternative energy—once seen as a quaint hippie enthusiasm—is no longer alternative culture.

It's edging into the mainstream. The excitement of energy freedom seems contagious. One afternoon last year, near a village north of Munich, a small group of townspeople and workers inaugurated a solar facility. It would soon surpass the Leipzig field as the largest in the world, with six megawatts of power. About 15 people gathered on a little manmade hill beside the solar farm and planted four cherry trees on the summit. The mayor of the tidy nearby town brought out souvenir bottles of schnapps.

Almost everyone had a swig, including the mayor. Then he said he would sing to the project's construction supervisor and a landscape artist, both American women. The two women stood together, grinning, with the field of solar panels soaking up energy behind them. The German mayor straightened his dark suit, and the other men leaned on their shovels.

Fifty years ago, I thought, there were still bombed-out ruins in the cities of Europe. The Soviet Union was planning Sputnik.

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At the most, we have 50 years to make the world over again. It is only here that their love can exist. He engages in the pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphising the land as an entity capable of reciprocating his desires. And yet the landscape remains impassive; a love destined to be perpetually unrequited. As with all desires, there is the hope that a kind of deeper essence might somehow be attained; that was the promise of all those alluring depictions of this once faraway land.

Eventually, however, he begins to sense that in order to know the unknown, one must unknow the known. He attempts to lose himself to the landscape, to his feelings, surrendering his position at the centre of it all.

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He occasionally experiences feelings that are associative to the things in front of him but they exist between and beyond emotions, so translation is impossible. He wants to see things as they were. He wants everything to be just what it was. His search has thus come full circle, from the analytical to the sensual and back, with the fear of a loss of control proving an unbearable obstacle.

He picks up a guitar and begins to strum a simple, cyclical tune. He starts to gently beat a drum, to pluck the strings of a banjo, to add track upon track of wordless vocals. As the layers of lo-fi sonic texture begin to mount, the wistful intensity builds. The music acts as both a love song to the sublime, and a lament for what has been lost in its pursuit. Audible as a whole only in this final multi-channel edit, the arrangement also serves to highlight the fragmentary nature of experience and the illusory allure of images.

There is a simultaneous sense of joy, absurdity and disappointment in this act. Once the perfect perspective is found, an inherent failure reveals itself, foregrounding the discrepancy between visions and reality — each lacking something of the other, and neither encompassing the desired whole. Inevitably in these pieces, the artist is seen vanishing into the distance, never once looking back towards the lens, carried away on a current of musical earnestness. David Blandy is another artist whose quests have led him to faraway lands.

Blandy adopts a range of alter egos in his works as he pursues the fantasies and mythologies of popular culture in search of self-transformation. Endearingly, however, he is never quite able to fully transcend his own self-effacing identity. Blandy predictably becomes cannon fodder for his onslaught of alter ego opponents, as they hurricane-kick and sonic-boom his avatar to oblivion.

Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes
Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes

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