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November 2009 Archives

For years now, I have been a close follower of the energy "forecasts" from the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA). I refer to forecasts in quotes for a reason. What EIA projects about our future use of energy is really a projection of attitudes and ideas about our energy markets and society. 

The following figure illustrates my point. 

Turning the corner on gasoline.jpg

In this chart, I have plotted EIA projections published in 2006 and in 2009 for gasoline usage in the US through the year 2030. In the past, EIA's projections for their so-called "reference oil price" scenario have been a mindless extrapolation of our past appetites for gasoline. In polite analytic circles, we call this the "Business as Usual" scenario. This kind of ad nauseam growth in gasoline consumption is exemplified in the projections released in 2006. And so it has been for most of the years that I have followed EIA's Annual Energy Outlook reports. 

That's why this year's projections are so shocking, and in many ways encouraging. I never thought I would see the day when DOE would actually project a real decline in US gasoline supply (as shown in the green line in my chart). EIA's "reference" case now shows gasoline declining at the same rate at which it had been increasing for more than a decade. And, it's a decline that is not based on an economic downturn. That's what I call "turning the corner"--at least in our attitudes if not yet in reality. 

I shouldn't be surprised at the shift. After all, it is simply a reflection of real policy changes that have been enacted by Congress and signed into law by the previous Administration. 

Nevertheless I was curious to see how much of the decline in gasoline demand was due to the new Renewable Fuel Standard (known as RFS2) that was included in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). There we see something even more encouraging. If I add ethanol supply into the mix with gasoline (see the red line in my chart), I can account for only about half of the total decline in demand in 2030 relative the 2006 reference case projections. The rest (with the exception of a small amount of coal-to-liquids fuels) is most likely due to lower demand for fuel in light duty vehicles. 

This reflects another terrific change in attitudes. With the addition of more aggressive federal fuel economy standards, we see a return to policies that manage fuel demand and not just supply. The net result--we could see gasoline usage drop to pre-2000 levels by 2030. Is that enough to get our energy future on a sustainable path? No. But it is encouraging. 

For too many years, our attitude about biofuels has been that it must allow us to maintain our insatiable appetite for cheap fuel. The impossibility of that goal has translated into EIA projections that, in the past, showed no market penetration of biofuels. Meanwhile, the assumption of continued cheap oil has translated into continued growth in consumption.

Finally, we have policies in place that reflect a new reality in energy prices, and call on a more balanced approach to managing energy supply and demand in the US. We have a long way to go, but at least our policy has turned the corner.
Pardon me while I take a break from my effort to define the terms in my blog title. But I must take a moment to highlight a recent "inciteful" quote from California Air Resources Board (CARB) member Dr. Daniel Sperling regarding California's proposed Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). His quote appeared in a recent issue of the MIT Technology Review.

The LCFS is a ground breaking piece of policy that will force California to adopt fuels that have a lower carbon footprint than the current mix of petroleum based fuels. In the analysis done to date for CARB, corn ethanol and soy based biodiesel have taken a real beating in terms of their perceived carbon footprints. Of particular concern is the notion that diverting corn or soy production from food markets to fuel markets will cause new land to be cleared elsewhere around the world to make up for food production--what many insiders in the biofuels debate call the "indirect land use change" effect, or iLUC. The CO2 released by this land clearing could be much worse than the emissions of CO2 from burning petroleum. In later posts, I will spend much more time on this serious and controversial question. But, for now, I want to focus on a comment that Sperling made, which would seem to invite a major fight among current and would-be providers of low carbon biofuels. 

Though CARB has yet to report any  formal results of its own, Sperling argues (over-simplistically, in my opinion) that food based biofuels are "bad", while cellulose based fuels are "good" when looked at through the lens of land use change. He goes on to say that "The food-based interests have been very clever and effective at muddying the distinction and bamboozling those advanced cellulosic interests that have a lot to gain from including land use effects in a full life-cycle analysis." 

What's going on here? The author of the article writes that "Sperling says that he hopes that advanced biofuels developers, who have not played a large role in the [iLUC] debate so far, will recognize that their interests are in competition with those of the corn ethanol industry." He's itching for a fight between the two of them. This will only encourage more special interest "food fights" among stakeholders who may well have much more to gain by working with each other rather than against each other in their common goal to supply low carbon biofuels.

I'm not advocating for or against the legitimacy of including iLUC effects, nor am I trying to be an apologist for existing biofuels producers. I simply cannot stand by while policy makers help to draw battle lines among fuel producers in the name of gaining support for inclusion of indirect land use change effects in the LCFS. The fate of the LCFS and its provisions for indirect land use effects should not rest on whether one industry group or another serves to benefit from it. The responsible position for policy makers is to encourage the best science and analysis in support of policy that catalyzes low carbon fuel production for California and the US.

And a word of advice to those "advanced cellulosic developers" who may be tempted by Sperling's bait. Land use is a complex issue. Don't try to use land use change as a competitive weapon. It's a double-edged sword. There are a myriad of factors that will effect whether or not (or how much) biofuels expansion will cause land clearing. The advanced cellulosic biofuels developers appear to have no stake in the debate for now because of their claims that they will use only residues from farm fields or that they will only use "marginal" land that won't be used for agriculture. For a large scale industry based on cellulosic biofuels, this may not be true. Cellulosic biofuels producers could easily find themselves competing for primary agricultural land. Thus, all biofuels producers have a stake in understanding and influencing the future direction of global agricultural land use change. Sustainable use of land for food, feed, fiber and fuel is a problem that we must all work on together to solve. It is not a political football to be used by one side of the industry against another.

Let's keep the debate about low carbon fuels focused on real public benefits, and not special interest spats.

My debut as a blogger

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You can teach an old dog new tricks. Take me for example. With the help of a lot of smart and web savvy folks here at the Institute on the Environment, I am learning how to blog. While I am learning, please bear with me as I learn the do's and don'ts and the proper etiquette of blogging. 

Here, and in the next few entries, I want to spend some time introducing the topic of my blog by defining the three terms that comprise the title I've chosen. My apologies if that seems a bit tedious. But, it is my experience that our failure to communicate is often attributable to a lack of common understanding of even the most basic terms of a discussion.

Of the three terms in my blog title, biofuels is the easiest to explain. That's just a technical term. So I will come to that last of all. It's the other two terms that are troublesome. 

Why do I start with "common sense"? Because, in the words of Rogers and Hammerstein, "it's a very good place to start." And it's what is most often missing in the debate about alternative energy and the choices we face as a society about our energy future. 

I think that many of us equate common sense thinking with logical thinking. But for me common sense also relates to the events and ideas that all of us as human beings share based on our own experiences living in the world from day to day. Science, in that  sense, is anything but common sense. It's a specialized kind of experience. For that reason, when scientists enter into the public debate over issues like energy, they often fail to communicate their ideas. Likewise, the rest of us who don't know or have the special knowledge and experience of these scientists, are frustrated in our attempts to understand what they have to say.

But there is more to the gap between science and common sense than just knowledge or experience. There are many common sense problems that cannot be resolved using the arcane experimental and theoretical devices of "the scientific method" we were all taught to practice and admire in high school. Common sense problems are complex. They don't lend themselves to careful and controlled experimental design. They are usually a tangled mess of influences, ideas, uncertainties and values. So, when scientists speak to such problems, they are often at a huge disadvantage (to put it politely). 

I can think of no better example of just how ill-equipped and unprepared scientists and academics can be in confronting common sense problems than the recent example of the expert panels who have recently opined on the proper approach to diagnostics and screening for breast cancer. These well intentioned experts touched off a firestorm of debate in their attempt to offer objective scientific advice on what is a deeply ethical and emotional problem.

While biofuels may not be as controversial as health care or education or "the war on terror", their role in our society does have very serious "third rail" issues that can be hazardous to those experts who dare to touch on them. In twenty years of experience working on biofuels, I have finally come to believe that biofuels can and should (note the ethically loaded term there) play a role in our energy future. That's what I want to talk about. 

My goal in this blog is to improve the dialogue about biofuels by bridging scientific and technical experience and common sense experience. This involves untangling scientific and technical uncertainty from political and ethical uncertainty. It requires translating or at least relating the specialized knowledge of the scientist and the technologist to complex common sense world in which our energy problems exist. I won't always succeed, but I think it's worth the effort. After all, what is at stake is nothing short of the future survival of future generations.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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