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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Appreciating What You Have

I was “off the air” for about a day. Here is why.

Sunday was a windy day…a very windy day. Steady at about 35mph most of the day, by mid-afternoon gusts were hitting an occasional 60mph. Still, our old maple trees seemed to be holding up well. Only a few twigs and small branches came down. We were waiting for the sun to go down and the winds to back off as promised. Some of our neighbors were not as lucky, much bigger branches falling. One neighbor had a rather large limb flatten their car. I was happy my DirecTV dish held up.

Wife and I settled down for the Pro-Bowl…a game we normally don’t watch…but our team, the Dallas Cowboys, sent thirteen players to the Pro-Bowl. So we decided to watch. It was supposed to be our last football fix until the next pre-season games. It was supposed to be…

During the first quarter…like in the first five minutes…our oldest daughter calls from the office (our home office just off our den) announcing that “things were beeping”. I got up, grumbling of course, and soon realized that it was the battery backups…all of them. So I checked the circuit breaker which just happens to be on the way. Hmm, nothing tripped. Yet sure enough, quite a racket in the office. It took a minute for it to dawn on me. All the power was out!

Since we have so many things hooked into backups, we frequently don’t notice the short outages. In fact, wife and I hadn’t missed a beat on the football game because the HD TV and satellite controller are both on a backup. It did not take too long to recognize that this one was not going to be a short one. There were already over 4500 homes in our area without power due to downed lines. In our case, the transformer at the end of our driveway was fried…and arcing…looked cool, but not. Temperatures were expected to get down into the mid-20’s and we were suddenly without heat, lights, and soon, hot water. Luckily the roast was close enough to being done that it could finish on residual oven heat. But we had not started the potatoes, green beans or rolls. Scrap the rolls…no oven for that now.

Good thing we are a family that camps and does rugged outdoor stuff. Flashlight in hand, I repaired to the shed and retrieved the propane, stove and camp coffee maker. Sunday night we had enough battery powered lights, candles and oil lamps to light our way. We only had two bottles of propane though, so that was devoted to the stove. I planned to get more propane the next day for the lanterns.

To preserve hot water for showers, we planned to boil water for the dishes. We instructed everyone to hit the showers early while the water was still relatively hot. By morning, there would be no hot water. The power company estimated 24 to 72 hours to repair. Now the silliness began.

It all started with Deborah’s parents, who live with us. While we are adjusting our dinner prep plans, Deborah asked her mother what they were doing for dinner. They normally “do their own thing”. Her mother answers that they are doing steaks on their little grill…the one with the electric cord. I replied, “Uh, no you aren’t. There isn’t any power.” Um, oops. Ok, so they decided to make Lipton soup and fry some eggs after we are done with stove.

Our eldest daughter fancies herself a vegetarian, but she is an ultra-lazy vegetarian who makes no effort to plan her meals to ensure proper balance. We did it for her for three months, but frankly, I tired of doing it for someone who is making absolutely no reciprocal effort. So we now simply veto meal choices until she gets it right. Well… “I’m just going to microwave some lentils,” she announces within five minutes of the discussion with Deborah’s mother…a conversation for which she was present. Needless-to-say…

Youngest daughter kept insisting that the power would be fixed by 9PM…how she came to this conclusion is anyone’s guess, but she just would not let go of it. Turns out, she’s terrified of the dark…too many horror movies. “How am I going to straighten my hair and put on makeup in the morning?” She wonders. Hey, let’s get the priorities straight!

For the better part of twenty-six hours, the time we actually wound up being without power, everyone attempted to use light switches. Deborah’s mother started to bring down a load of laundry on Monday morning and we all had to live without the Internet and email. It is amazing how hard living without Internet and email can be. Deborah and I do so all the time when traveling (though in recent years this is no longer an issue most places we travel) or camping, but when you have a house full of computers and an Internet connection that would work if the router had power, it is somehow much harder.

The kids have never really been “without” in terms of electrical comforts for a prolonged period, at least not in their own home. Camping is different and they understand that, but watching them fret about computers, hair care, makeup, and microwave was quite amusing. Wife and I both reminded them how easy this one was. Deborah and I have both lived places with well water and when the power went out, you didn’t have water either. We at least had water this time. Twelve years ago, before Deborah and I were married, I went ten days without power in the middle of January with temperatures in the house down around 20 degrees after a big ice storm.

American kids these days are so used to the reliability of things like electricity that they don’t seem to appreciate it. I would wager that Americans in general oft forget how good they have it. “I might have to do without Internet for a few hours!” Oh the horror! Think about it the next time you flick the switch and the lights come on. How many millions perhaps billions of people around the world can’t count on the same? We don’t really appreciate what we have, until we no longer have it.