Sunday, March 11, 2007

SAVING THE DAY (LITE) -- Brazil Bush; The EU Biofuel Goals

It will surprise no one who lived through the great 'Opec' oil crisis of the 70's that Congress's rush to implement an early start to Daylight Savings may result in zero net energy savings. What's hard to accept about Global Warming is that it admits of no easy solutions. It's a 'global' problem: Savings in one area produce costs somewhere else.

In a study last year, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that, overall, this year's extension into March and November will save little — less than 1 percent of the nation's annual consumption. Another recent study, by the California Energy Commission, came to a similar conclusion. These estimates may be optimistic. The Golfing industry expects $200 million in added revenue from equipment sales and greens fees as a result of the extended evening hours. Factor in automotive use, multiply by millions of shoppers and what do you get?

Skeptics won't be heartened to learn its principle backers were Republican lawmakers who funded a post hoc $150 million study of the energy savings while tacking on subsidies for the oil and nuclear industry.

Like 'Evolution', Global Warming poses a hard set of facts. It doesn't care we suddenly 'care' and is fairly intractible. Consequently, like Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the public is prey to snakeoil salesmen, preferring hopeful solutions taken on faith to facing the grim realities.
The headlines from Brazil show Bush & Lula in an ethanol embrace. But bioethanol and biodiesel from energy crops compete for land that grows food and can return less energy than the fossil fuel energy squandered in producing them while doing serious damage to the environment. American corn-based ethanol, buoyed by trade-stifling subsidies, is less GHG-friendly (Green House Gas-friendly) than Brazil’s sugar cane-based ethanol, which currently can’t come to the U.S. due to stiff tariff barriers, but whose increased production will undoubtedly encourage more rain forest destruction.

A few years ago, politicians and green groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the country's early, rapid adoption of "sustainable energy," in part by coaxing electricity plants to use biofuel. In particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia. But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this fairy tale began to look like a nightmare.

Spurred by government subsidies, enthusiastic energy companies designed generators that ran exclusively on palm oil. Rising demand brought about the razing of Southeast Asian rain forest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer. Worse still, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peat land, sending huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Factoring in these emissions, Indonesia had become the world's third-leading producer of greenhouse gases.

"If you make biofuels properly, you will reduce greenhouse emissions," said Peder Jensen, of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. "But that depends very much on the types of plants and how they're grown and processed. You can end up with a 90 percent reduction compared to fossil fuels — or a 20 percent increase."

"Its important to take a life cycle view," he said, and not to "just see what the effects are here in Europe."

Biofuelswatch, an environmental group in Britain, now say that "biofuels should not automatically be classed as 'renewable energy.'" It supports a moratorium on subsidies until more research is done to define which biofuels are truly good for the planet.

Unfortunately, biofuels from energy crops cannot substitute for current fossil fuel use. The major constraints are available land surface, crop yields, and energy conversion efficiency, although economics also plays a large role. A one mile-per-gallon increase in car fuel efficiency would, apparently, far outweigh any gains from ethanol at present and the near-term future.

And there’s a huge debate about ethanol’s real energy costs. Some contend it takes more fossil energy input to produce the equivalent energy in biofuel. Recent analyses show that current production methods offer only a small positive energy balance and little if any savings in greenhouse gas emissions, even with the most favourable assumptions built in.

The much joked-about switchgrass, however, appears to be the best biofuel candidate for subsidies. A perennial native to the USA, it’s prolific, does not require much nitrogen fertilizer, and does the least environmental damage.

Grown for burning, as biomass, it would be the cheapest biofuel both in energy and financial terms, as it requires minimum processing after harvest. Substituting for coal it is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.7 t CO2 per t switchgrass.

The economic consequences of excessive corn production in Iowa, the largest corn producer, has led to a 10-fold price decline between 1949 and 2005 as corn yields tripled. Today, Iowa farmers earn a third for the corn they sell compared to 1949, while their production costs have increased many times because they burn methane and diesel to produce corn.

The price of methane has increased several-fold in the last three years. "Corn crop subsidies supplemented the market corn price by up to 50 percent between 1995 and 2004." an expert writes, "the United States has already wasted a lot of time, money, and natural resources…..pursuing a mirage of an energy scheme that cannot possibly replace fossil fuels…The only real solution is to limit the rate of use of these fossil fuels."


Biofuelsimon said...

This is an interesting analysis, of how traditional fermentation processes are not really going to be the best long-term solution to energy needs in the US. Harvesting and burning switch grass to generate heat and electricity is one option that appears to have a low environmental impact. But does the US produce enough grass for it to make any real difference. Celluosic biofuels could be a larger volume replacement of gasoline than ethanol produced from fermentation, but it is important to harvest these crops in the right way, returning enough humus to the soil to ensure that it does not turn into a desert in future years.
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Shantell said...

Well said.