Monday, March 15, 2010

Just the Fax, Maam

Remember fax machines? They are those things we used to use before scanning and sending an email attachment. For the younger set, you put a document into your fax (short for "facsimile") machine, then dialed a number and the document was transmitted over phone lines to a receiving fax machine on the other end. In the early days, they required thermal paper, so receiving a fax was more akin to receiving something from The Holy Land. I have heard that some are still in use to this day.

There was, of course, a time when fax machines were ubiquitous. If you were important enough an executive, you even had one right in your office! These days, they're a bit less common, and have been reduced in size and importance to be on a tiny card in your computer. But at one time, they provided a critical function, and one would be foolish not to have embraced the technology. Looking back, we have the luxury of seeing them as quaint, but it's easy to forget that they were once the bleeding technological edge.

To me, this is a lot like ethanol. "What?!" you say. Yes, ethanol. In virtually any issue of the Biofuels Digest, articles discuss variously how ethanol will be a key fuel source, or why it won't work. (If you're in this space and not subscribing to the Biofuels Digest daily email digest, do it now.) Ethanol will certainly play a role in the world's fuel supply, but I believe it is the fax machine of the alternative energy space - it is not a long range solution. I won't debate the entire industry here, but let's just agree that there are good reasons why it makes sense to add it as a component of our supply, as well as excellent reasons why the infrastructure and other changes necessary provide significant barriers. In any event, and in case you haven't noticed, the industry is upon us. My view is that we should certainly keep working and researching and investing, but let's not lose sight of the long range view. Will we ever be a global society that runs on totally ethanol vehicles? I seriously doubt it. That doesn't mean we should stop developing the technology.

Entire companies were built on fax machine technology. The products improved, got faster, went to color -- all kinds of technological advances. Despite the fact that far fewer are in regular use today than even five years ago, I would not support an argument that we shouldn't have made the investment, or exploited the technology. Similarly, people who point out all the warts on ethanol are missing the point. No, I don't think it will be with us for the long haul, but that doesn't mean we won't learn anything by developing the technology.

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