Friday, June 5, 2009

Of green fuels and earmarks

I was distracted by an article in the Tribune last week about some corruption-tinged lemon of an expensive plant in Chicagoland that was supposedly designed to convert human waste into fertilizer. Now the community that ordered it are hoping that the test runs fail so they can get out of the contract (with a former community official of course). I originally missed a much more important article about a proposed "green fuels" depot in Naperville with which the SSCP has more than a passing interest. One of my loyal readers (perhaps the only loyal reader) later alerted me to it. You can read it here if you so desire

In short, a small but energetic company in Naperville called Packer Engineering, which lies in the shadow of the (former) Amoco Research Center (where of course the SSCP once plied his trade) has developed a fledgling technology for converting yard waste (leaves, cornstalks and the like) into "syngas" - a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Instead of the old-fashioned approach of lighting a big bonfire and converting leaves into less than useful carbon dioxide (bad) and water, or finding some place to dump them all so they can quietly rot, this approach actually inputs chemical energy into the waste which can later be extracted in a number of useful ways. The products could be burnt and converted into electricity; the hydrogen could be separated and used to power fuel-cell cars; the syngas could be converted into alcohol fuels for use in conventional engines. At least one enlightened member of the Naperville City Council thinks it would be a cool thing for the city to be associated with and so the idea of a "green fuels depot" in Naperville was born. Throw Argonne National Lab and its transportation research and COD and education into the mix and that is what we have.

One slight problem remaining is actually paying for it. Despite the vast oceans of wealth (debt?) sloshing around the vulgar excesses of Naperville's bespoke subdivisions, it is unlikely that the citizens would be entirely happy about $12MM of their money being used to finance this experiment, even though it would represent a massive assuaging of their collective green guilt. And that is where the earmark comes in. Congresswoman Biggert has requested a nearly $5MM earmark to fund this project. Some months ago your loyal scribe spent a morning engaging in some low-level lobbying at her office in Willowbrook. Earmarks are those things that normally get one all riled up at the waste of public money in pet projects; bills slide through the system laden with welters of earmarks for often irrelevant special interests. So, should we be praising the congresswoman for the financial support of what is a really cool project, or getting upset at the use of public funds to do it? After all, every NSF grant is an application of taxpayers' money. Is an earmark different from writing a proposal to NSF?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm OK with it. In fact, much more OK with it than with the $300K of stimulus money Naperville is getting to install equipment in its parking garages that will let folks know if there are parking spaces available, thereby eliminating some wasteful driving around looking for parking spots that aren't there.

From a "loyal reader"