Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Cure Worse Than The Ill…Ethanol and Other Biofuels

The scientific community is currently demolishing all the underpinning assumptions of the latest energy bill from Congress. It’s also a slap at Al Gore, on whose coattails some legislators are attempting to ride to collect “green votes”. Specifically, trendy climate-change policies involving ethanol and other biofuels are under attack because said fuels are actually worse for the environment than fossil fuels. Oops!

Two new studies in Science, a peer-reviewed journal, lead the way. One study was completed by ecologists at Princeton and the Woods Hole Research Center. The second was completed by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy. Both studies looked at environmental issues relating to biofuel consumption that hitherto had not been studied. Too bad decisions were made without this information.

The incentive for enacting the latest legislation which increased the mandate for ethanol production to 36 billion gallons by 2022 was that by adding corn-based ethanol and other “additives” to gasoline, we could achieve very modest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Of course, no one really studied this assumption comprehensively…using scientific methodology. This notion gained steam, however, based upon Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” coupled with the political issues of relying on Arab oil and all added to the great economic benefit to American farmers that would come from such policy.

The first fundamental accounting error that pro-ethanol supporters made was that they never took into account the increase in carbon-dioxide that would result with the clearing of forests and grasslands to grow biofuels. It turns out that 2.7 times more carbon exists in soils and plant material than in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as carbon-dioxide when these areas are cleared. Clearing occurs by burning and tilling, both of which contribute to carbon-dioxide release. Compounding the problem is the loss of “carbon sinks” that absorb atmospheric CO2 in the first place. We have already been seeing this in the loss of rain forests around the globe. This issue has been studied extensively by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), though not in the context of the added pressure to produce biofuels. It should have been an obvious “red-light”.

When the hidden costs of conversion are included, greenhouse-gas emissions from corn-based ethanol over the next 30 years will double as from regular gasoline. It will take 167 years for ethanol use to “pay back” the carbon released by land-use conversion. In other words, biofuels actually exacerbate the problem they are supposed to solve.

The Minnesota study, which explored the “carbon debt” problem in greater detail, found that the debt for corn ethanol in the US is between 48 and 93 years. Indonesia and Malaysia, which have a 1.5% annual rate of deforestation to support palm oil production for Western European biodiesel, will have a carbon debt of 423 years.

Worse, biofuels are creating new environmental problems like deforestation (as mentioned above in places like Indonesia and Malaysia) and accelerating the reduction in biodiversity that may be worse over time that whatever the importance of observed climate change. In the US, increased corn production to support biofuels will produce a net increase in nitrogen, a known pollutant of water sources. Additionally, production of ethanol requires massive quantities of fresh water both for irrigation and the actual production process. Where is this water going to come from? Going down the biofuel highway may be damaging the planet more than it is helping it.

In the rush to fix a “problem” we are not analyzing our solutions in a methodical and careful manner and ignoring “Inconvenient Facts” that may impact upon our decisions. Arguing that such approaches (biofuels) are a “stop-gap” until some better solution comes into play is simply playing a grand bait-and-switch. When the added financial costs and dislocation of such a herky-jerky approach to environmental problem solving are added, you might argue that the status quo is preferable.


Stephen Parrish said...

Some scientists have been arguing from the beginning that growing biofuels is inefficient to say the least. That it helps farmers is like the old argument that paving the highways with bubble gum will help the bubble gum manufacturers.

Solar energy, John. We need to pour our research money into increasing the efficiency and decreasing the cost of solar panels.

SmartlikeStreetcar said...

Good post.

Stephen actually doesn't go far enough. Just about everyone in the environmental community knew that biofuel was a dumb idea, and they've known it for 10 or 15 years. The politicians embraced biofuels because it was something that farmers could do, and small towns could embrace, and it provided some hope for the future.

But it's been one of the poorest solutions for the plane for years. No one in the environmental community was surprised by the recent studies. And truth to tell, it's going to lead to more hunger and poverty, as farmers in poorer areas are planting biofuel crops to feed cars, instead of feeding their countrymen and women.

Solar energy is one solution that deserves a lot more money, and in concert with wind and wave powered turbines, renewable energy sources really could save the planet.

I live in a small province with a long coastline, and I've been told (by a guy who knows) that if Nova Scotia created wave energy farms along our coast, already technologically possible, we could produce enough power to supply all of eastern Canada and most of the North Eastern US.

But Canada and the US still aren't getting the message, perhaps because we're both run by leaders from oil-rich regions. In the last US budget, for discretionary spending in energy, Bush increased spending for fossil fuel technology, biofuels, and nuclear power, while decreasing funds available to solar power and hydrogen research.

In other words, he's moving in the wrong direction. Again. Just like Harper in Canada.

J. L. Krueger said...

First of all, thanks for stopping by.

In the last US budget, for discretionary spending in energy, Bush increased spending for fossil fuel technology, biofuels, and nuclear power, while decreasing funds available to solar power and hydrogen research.

In other words, he's moving in the wrong direction. Again. Just like Harper in Canada.

It seems that both leaders are grabbing for the quick-fix...the easy solutions given the limited time they have to affect anything.

I concur on sources like solar, wave energy and others that have a lot of promise if they were made more economically viable. The roof of my house collects enough solar radiation to provide electricity for every house on my block and then some...if I could afford to install the best of the currently available systems.

J. L. Krueger said...

Here's another alternative discussed in this press release from Los Alamos National Laboratory, 12 February 2008: Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a low-risk, transformational concept, called Green Freedom™, for large-scale production of carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuels and organic chemicals from air and water.

Currently, the principal market for the Green Freedom production concept is fuel for vehicles and aircraft.

At the heart of the technology is a new process for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making it available for fuel production using a new form of electrochemical separation. By integrating this electrochemical process with existing technology, researchers have developed a new, practical approach to producing fuels and organic chemicals that permits continued use of existing industrial and transportation infrastructure. Fuel production is driven by carbon-neutral power.

"Our concept enhances U.S. energy and material security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Initial system and economic analyses indicate that the prices of Green Freedom commodities would be either comparable to the current market or competitive with those of other carbon-neutral, alternative technologies currently being considered," said F. Jeffrey Martin of the Laboratory's Decisions Applications Division, principal investigator on the project.

Martin will be presenting a talk on the subject at the Alternative Energy NOW conference in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, February 20, 2008.

In addition to the new electrochemical separation process, the Green Freedom system can use existing cooling towers, such as those of nuclear power plants, with carbon-capture equipment that eliminates the need for additional structures to process large volumes of air. The primary environmental impact of the production facility is limited to the footprint of the plant. It uses non-hazardous materials for its feed and operation and has a small waste stream volume. In addition, unlike large-scale biofuel concepts, the Green Freedom system does not add pressure to agricultural capacity or use large tracts of land or farming resources for production.

The concept's viability has been reviewed and verified by both industrial and semi-independent Los Alamos National Laboratory technical reviews. The next phase will demonstrate the new electrochemical process to prove the ability of the system to both capture carbon dioxide and pull it back out of solution. An industrial partnership consortium will be formed to commercialize the Green Freedom concept.

SmartlikeStreetcar said...

I'm doing some work for an online environmental publication, so I've read about this discovery, and it really is intriguing. The Sandia National Lab has also discovered something similar, a process that concentrates solar energy to create a fuel from carbon dioxide... If memory serves, they're calling it solar fuel.

You can read about it here, or you can listen to a podcast interview by following a link from the CBC's Quirks and Quarks science show (where I first heard about it).

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am on retainer as a writer for a wind farm, so I'm with Streetcar in thinking we need to look at things other than biofuels.

What, as always, is problematic, are the bastards who put huge profits and an easy vote in front of really solving our planet's problems for our children and grandchildren down the road.