Government Failure, Grassroots Success

By Daphne Bishop

Presenters Jack Oswald, CEO Syngest; Heidi Garrett-Peltier, Policy Economy Research Institute; Lora Wondolowski, MA League of Environmental Voters

This summer brought us the Senate’s egregious failure to pass a comprehensive climate change bill. But it also witnessed a burgeoning collaborative effort to ride the “wave of the future,” and get down to the nitty gritty of building an economy that is not tied to fossil fuels or fossilized ways of thinking about energy.

The Western Massachusetts Clean Economy Round Table took place in the former paper mill city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. That’s a place already known for its progressive models of building reclamation and farm to school food programs. Sponsored by RuralVotes, the Clean Economy Network and Ceres, the conference brought together civic leaders and entrepreneurs in emerging “clean energy” industries; employment specialists and researchers into the economic pluses of green manufacturing.

Attendees noted the link between desperately needed job creation and the need to wean ourselves away from unsustainable energy practices. And while Massachusetts may be blazing trails by having the highest energy efficiency rate in the nation, according to data provided by Lora Wondowloski of the MA League of Environmental Voters, adequate leadership on a national level is sorely lacking. More banks and private investors need to be involved in what will be a gradual transition from an economy held hostage to dwindling fossil fuels. The bread and butter concerns of businesses small and large need to be addressed with concrete solutions.

There wasn’t any speculative discussion about whether greenhouse gases are warming the planet. In fact, the conference highlighted green energy projects that already exist or are in development. These include: the Northeast Biodiesel plant that just broke ground in Greenfield, MA and plans to produce 3.5 million gallons of recycled vegetable oil biodiesel by early 2011, and sweeping energy efficiency measures in the Chicopee school system. The latter have already saved the city two million dollars, according to city Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette. That’s money that can be better spent on saving teachers’ jobs and upgrading textbooks, no mean feat in these tough economic times.

The keynote speech by entrepreneur Jack Oswald, CEO of San Francisco based SynGest, Inc., was about an ambitious project to create nitrogen fertilizer with clean energy.

You might not see the relevance of that last one until you consider that most of our country’s food supply is grown with nitrogen fertilizer. And sixty- percent of it is made and imported from places like Russia, Trinidad and Venezuela.

A little more concerned now? As Oswald emphasized, the safety of our food growing and distribution system should be a priority. And yet little or no attention is being paid to this as a national security issue that is at least as important as terrorist threats.

Oswald has spearheaded the development of a novel project that is about to get off the ground with the construction of a first manufacturing plant in Iowa. It’s a new process for converting non-food biomass like corn cobs and wood chips into nitrogen fertilizer. He calls it the intersection of energy and agriculture or “The Three F’s: Food, Fertilizer and Fuel.” After an earlier career in Silicon Valley, Oswald had what he called “the conversion moment.” He began to educate and recreate himself as “a clean energy person,” something he said that any of us can readily do.

He believes that utilizing and refurbishing our existing infrastructure – instead of trying to create it from scratch – is the way to go. Changing human behavior is very difficult, he notes. Yet if you can show that an old way of production is more costly and a new “greener” way that uses materials already on hand is cheaper and more efficient, people will invariably go for the green model.

Finding a way to take the wasteful energy out of nitrogen production became his goal. This meant creating a process that efficiently utilizes each component of that corn cob rather than just grinding it up into one undifferentiated mass. He wryly compared the two methods to food production to make his point. The old method would be like grinding up a whole cow into one big mass, rather than carefully separating the animal into discreet, fine cuts of meat.

The commercial slogan utilized by this soon to be built biorefinery plays up that refined process by noting that, “You can now have your fuel and eat it too.” The best part about splitting the corn cob into multiple parts isn’t just multiple products, according to Oswald, but the fact that the model is cost competitive. That is something of increasing concern in a world where countries like China have surpassed us in producing most of the goods we consume.

Our elected officials have also failed to grasp that China is heavily invested to win in the clean energy future, says Oswald. That country’s dramatic conversion to alternative energy sources from solar hot water heaters on rural shacks to urban freeways illuminated with LED lights should scare us out of our complacency. We should demand that our senators go and see for themselves how far ahead of us China is yet again, rather than arguing about whether a climate change bill is part of an anti-business agenda.

If the clean energy sector offers the largest growth potential in human history, as Oswald believes, than maintaining the status quo will not only lead to more and more American jobs lost, but it will hold us in thrall to countries that do not have our best interests at heart.

The potential for new jobs and for completely recreating our once thriving manufacturing system exists in every sector of our economy. One example Oswald mentioned was the company Proterra which creates zero emission electric buses that can travel thirty to forty miles before needing a recharge, and can then recharge in about ten minutes. The best part about these buses, says Oswald, is the fact that ninety- percent of their component parts are made in America.

Oswald and other conference participants suggest we don’t waste time arguing about “climate change,” but talk to our leaders, as well as our neighbors, about a comprehensive economic development model that happens to be “green” and that will revitalize our economy That is the real bottom line affecting everyone in this country, regardless of political party or beliefs.

Ed Maltby of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance expressed concern that Oswald’s clean energy model will be supporting an arguably wasteful industrial model of food production. Oswald agreed that much of American farming is currently devoted to monoculture, not the small or organic family farms that more Americans want to get their food from. But as he noted, this is a transitional time in our history.

I can’t change the food model overnight,” he said, “but I can take the energy out of it.” Oswald sees SynGest’s work as a way to “sneak into the tent,” and thereby be a conduit for new practices that could remold our economy and improve the lives of more citizens.

The means to that gradual but methodical transition, and to imagining a future in which more of us can thrive, was what the Western Massachusetts Clean Economy conference was all about. And you can be sure that RuralVotes will continue to bring you the latest ideas and accomplishments as conference participants join with others to get this vital work accomplished.

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3 Responses to “Government Failure, Grassroots Success”

  1.  Thank you for the recap of what sounds as if it was a great local conference. You mention small businesses, a mayor and also an organic dairy person.  Were there community development specialists there too? It seems to me that looking for land to build new places to manufacture things like those bus parts it’s wise to include local development officials –building inspectors and city engineers. My head is spinning at the possible collaborators to help make the future start happening now.

  2. It is so true about other countries getting ahead of us in installing more renewable energy.  Did you see the article in the New York Times yesterday that said that the tiny country of Portugal is pushing hard to become more energy efficient?  It is also using all different kinds of renewables and was able to get a significant portion of its energy from renewables in just a few years by being very aggressive in changing to them.  If they can do it, so can we.

  3. This is a fantastic post. We’re always looking for smart resources to show our residents, and your article is absolutely worth sharing!

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