Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Article Critical of Biofuels in NYT

The New York Times recently published an article from the Council of Foreign Relations entitled "How Biofuels Could Starve The Poor".

This is a hot-button topic for me, having encountered any number of intellectually shallow and/or downright dishonest arguments along these lines.

However, this piece is different. It's well researched, and I largely agree with it's premise and conclusions. It contains a nicely summarized background on ADM's role in the biofuels industry, and how biofuel feedstocks came to be dominated by corn and soy largely by ADM's efforts.

There is an interesting take on the Mexican tortilla situation, highlighting the intricies of the global economy. The article notes that most tortillas in Mexico are made from locally produced white corn, but high prices for yellow corn - mostly used as a feedstock for processed products, including corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol - led Mexican agribusiness concerns to buy white corn instead, thus raising tortilla prices.

Nonetheless, there are a number of significant flaws in the piece. Most glaring is that little attention is paid to alternate feedstocks and their significance, except to point out that they are not presently economical. Well, with corn and soy so heavily subsidized, what do they expect? It is also frustrating to see biodiesel largely lumped in with ethanol, despite significant differences that are mentioned but minimized.

Where the article really goes off the rails is not on the discussions of food security, which seem to be pretty sound, but instead where the authors attempt to make the argument that biofuels will provide little benefit to offset the food security impacts. First, they try to argue that biofuels take a significant amount of energy to make, thus, do not provide much benefit from the standpoint of reducing foreign oil dependence; then, they also try to argue that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. Yet, the numbers they cite in the text give lie to their own arguments.

First on energy balance. Excerpting at length:

"Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the "net energy balance" of biofuels and gasoline -- the ratio between the energy they produce and the energy needed to produce them -- have raged for decades. For now, corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel -- but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.)"

This use of language completely glosses over several salient facts. First, soy biodiesel is clearly much more beneficial than corn ethanol - by something like a factor of 2. Their parenthetic disclaimer that biodiesel made from resturant grease "may be more energy efficient" completely buries the lead. This feedstock results in a much higher net energy ratio, simply because it is being produced from a waste product; thus the only energy that goes into it is that required to collect and convert it, which is relatively very small compared to growing, crushing, and transporting soy oil. Finally alternate biodiesel feedstocks are simply not mentioned. Again, massively improved energy ratios are expected from dedicated feedstocks.

But this is a mild gripe compared to their egregious treatment of perhaps the most salient issue:

"Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels."

Again, ethanol and biodiesel are lumped together - despite a 3 to 4 fold difference in the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions. I don't know about you, but I would consider a (conservative) 50% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from the use of biodiesel highly significant. From a climate change perspective, this is the functional equivalent of doubling the mileage of every diesel vehicle using the fuel! Minimizing this is basically irresponsible.

They cap it with this doozy:

"Another point of comparison is greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, which takes account of relative fuel efficiency. Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. If the blend is 85 percent ethanol (which only flexible-fuel vehicles can run on), greenhouse gas emissions fall further: by 23 percent if the ethanol is corn-based and by 64 percent if it is cellulose-based. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel, whereas blends with 20 percent biodiesel emit 16 percent less, and pure biodiesel (also for use only in special vehicles) emits 78 percent less. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the "green" virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops."

Where to start? First, the assertion that pure biodiesel is "also only for use in special vehicles" -- similar to flex-fuel vehicles for ethanol -- is obviously and patently false. Someone really fell down in the research department on this one. Second, again, we have this significant burying of the lead.

The article is stating that you can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2/3 compared to gasoline with E85 made from celluosic ethanol - and again, nearly an 80% reduction using neat biodiesel! Even the 23% from corn ethanol isn't too shabby.

This is extremely significant and has enormous implications, but the authors characterize these gains as "modest". I challenge them to find another near-term solution that has the potential to cut total US CO2 emissions by over 18%*! I would hardly call that modest; it's a huge "wedge".

Finally, I must point out that the NOx issue is very unfairly characterized here. Stating that biodiesel "can" increase NOx emissions is technically true. However, the jury is very much out on whether it actually does increase NOx emissions in real-world driving. Recent research has increasingly found this to not the case; yet the NOx increase found in a old testbed engine study always seems to come up, with the more recent and more comprehensive studies rarely cited.

Well, it's not all bad; they do point out that:

"The benefits of biofuels are greater when plants other than corn or oils from sources other than soybeans are used. Ethanol made entirely from cellulose (which is found in trees, grasses, and other plants) has an energy ratio between 5 and 6 and emits 82 to 85 percent less greenhouse gases than does gasoline. "

Right...meaning that celluosic ethanol could cut oil imports for vehicles that are today gasoline fueled by something like, conservatively, a factor of 6. An 83% reduction. Oh, but wait:

"For now, however, the costs of harvesting, transporting, and converting such plant matters are high, which means that cellulose-based ethanol is not yet commercially viable when compared with the economies of scale of current corn-based production. One ethanol-plant manager in the Midwest has calculated that fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass, a much-discussed alternative, would require delivering a semitrailer truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day."

This just made me laugh. I mean, this sounds like an awful large volume of material, until you think about oil tankers and coal trains; a single large coal-fired powerplant requires 10,000 tons of coal daily; that's a hundred, 100 ton rail cars daily.

The question is not how much material needs to be transported in, but how switchgrass compares to corn. Presumably a significantly larger volume of switchgrass would need to be transported, but I doubt that this is really a deal breaker on the economics.

What is significant - and the article does an excellent job on this - are the massive subsidies given to corn and soy that make any other feedstock uncompetitive. Really, the purpose of the article is to point out that the incentives for corn and soy feedstocks to make biofuels are truly perverse. These incentives, in concert with speculative hedge fund activities, do have the affect of raising food prices for the poor by significantly affecting agricultural markets globally in highly complex ways. Moreover, the benefits -- both from the standpoint of petroleum dependency and greenhouse gas emissions -- are suboptimum with these feedstocks.

I completely agree with this assessment. What gets me is that the article does a poor job of distinguishing the current state of the biofuel industry from where it should go, and needs to go, which is actually extremely promising. The piece mentions, but fails to discuss in any depth, that these other approaches - based primarily on crop waste, wood crops, and dedicated biofuel crops grown on degraded land - will have negligible impact on food security.

From the title on, the piece gives the impression that biofuels are not a solution, minimizing the benefits and maximizing the spectre of the starving poor. Rather than encouraging excitment about the right way to do things, and highlighting why these approaches are different, it pretty much lumps all "biofuels" together as either destructive or infeasibile and undermines attempts to move towards more appropriate feedstocks by marginalizing biofuels in general.

*Transportation is 33% of CO2 emissions. Gasoline is 60% of this, or ~20% of total emissions. Cutting this by 66% reduces total emissions by 13%. Taking diesel to represent half of the remaining 40% of transportation fuel emissions (a swag), and reducing this 20% by 78%, gets another 5% of total emissions. So, about 18%.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Shipyard

I was remiss in not mentioning in the previous post that the current home base of the Mechabolic project - the Shipyard - is, at this moment, in grave danger.

Details here.

Please do what you can to help, in particular, emails to the City of Berkeley seem to be having an effect.

A Carbon Hat Trick?

Terra Preta. I don't know where I've been, but I had never heard of it until last week. But I'm starting to get very interested in Terra Preta. "Dark Soil", in Porteugese. A sort of miraculous earth found in the jungles of the Amazon, and apparently, for quite some time posing a mystery to science as to how it was formed. No natural process explains it.

Well it turns out that the answer was under the nose of the scientists. It is, in fact, the creation of technology -- a technology of the native peoples of the Amazon, who effectively used it to terraform amazingly productive food forests.

Terra Preta was formed by a type of slash and burn agriculture, not the kind we today associate with the loss of biodiversity and destruction of the forests, but a technique that did just the opposite. In actuality, there was no burning - the technique seems to have involved allowing the biomass to smolder, creating an incredibly carbon rich biochar.

This method, of thermally converting organic matter in the absence of oxygen, actually absorbs prodigous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks the carbon into the biochar. In other words, its an excellent carbon sink - something we need right about now.

Moreover, this biochar material makes for very productive soil, something else that seems pretty useful.

OK, now that's very cool. But what really got me going is yet to come.

You see, the method to produce this biochar - from organic wastes of any type, really - is pretty much precisely the same as the used to produce woodgas.

And woodgas, my friends, can be burned directly in a gasoline engine. Or it can be converted into liquid fuel. Or it can be converted into hydrogen.

So just to make sure I've got this straight. A fuel cycle that converts waste to usable, transportable energy while absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and locking it into a highly fertility enhancing soil amendment. Wow.

So I got turned on to all this from the Mechabolic project, spearheaded by Chicken John and Jim Mason . The famed Burning Man artists / engineers / tinkerers have already built a gasifier in the bed of Chicken John's truck and drove it around Berkeley. But that's just the start. The Mechabolic project is audacious and super cool; check it out.

Meanwhile, hey, this is America. It seems like you could make a good living from something like this. Well, if I was the first one to think of it, would I be telling you? Seriously though, there is a company out there commericalizing this, Eprida. It looks like good stuff.

That said, the potential here is clearly enormous. From a commerical perspective, this may not be the most lucrative proposition - since the basic concept was put into practice thousands of years ago (talk about prior art!), and woodgas has been around for 150 years or so. But I'm sure there are tweaks to take it to scale.

Moreover, this is just the ticket for the Permaculture scene. And if the petroleum economy takes a dump, boy will gasification come in handy!

All that said, what I'm really excited about is witnessing the creations of these Burning Man folks; massively fire-spewing mechanical monsters that suck CO2 out of the sky and deposit in their wake fecund black earth.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

California Solar Incentives...Revisited

Gov. Schwartznegger today announced sponsorship of legislation to fix the California Solar Incentive program in Southern California.

For months now, there has been a flaw in the program that virtually shut down the solar industry in Southern California Edison (SCE) territory. An article in the LA Times yesterday gives background on the issue. Interestingly, the announcement from Schwartznegger's office came late this afternoon, but actually advocacy groups (CalSEIA, PV Now and Vote Solar) have been working behind the scenes since January.

This is a major serving of humble pie the the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), who really should not have launched a program with such a glaring flaw.

The problem, basically, is that SCE required PV customers to go on time-of-use (TOU) rates. TOU basically means that you pay significanylu more for electricity in times of peak demand. In theory, this actually works quite well with solar as rates are generally highest when PV systems put out the most energy. However, SCE's rates stayed high until relatively late in the afternoon, when output would start to trail off. This made PV uneconomical unless you could put in a large enough array to ensure electricity usage in the late afternoon was adequately offset by generation. Unfortunately this proved impossible for most small customers, who were constrained either by space or available capital.

Schwartznegger's bill will immediately and retroactively allow PV customers to go back onto the standard rate.

It is good to see this problem resolved. However, it could just be the tip of the iceburg for issues in the CSI program. Many of the concerns raised previously about the New Homes program have yet to be resolved. Since no systems applied for under the program have been fully signed off on to date, the system has yet to be fully tested. There are also a number of inconsistancies between, and hiccups within, the performance modeling packages used in the New Homes and retrofit programs. Meanwhile, in the large commercial program the performance-based incentive program seems to be going more smoothly, even as installers adjust their product mix to best take advantge of it's structure.

The hope was that the CSI program would be a shining example of an optimized incentive program, but unfortunately it's rollout was rushed due to a legislated start date of January 1, 2007. Meanwhile, the understaffed PUC and CEC, were heavily dependent on consultants who worked with limited oversight. Some of these were not actually PV experts and others brought their own agendas to the table. Additionally, the PUC and CEC efforts were not well coordinated (if they were coordinated at all). All in all, the concept was good but the execution and details rather half baked. Now everyone is trying to sort out how these programs will actually operate in an ad-hoc manner, and the PV industry will pay the price for the CEC's and PUC's bungled rollout. The added overhead and churn effectively reduces the incentives by increasing the costs incurred by the industry to comply.

Schwartznegger's bill is a step in the right direction. It will hopefully resolve this one major problem, but it seems likely that other issues will shake out of the woodwork as the year goes on.