About ten years ago, I proposed doing a study for the US Department of Energy to determine the sustainability of producing ethanol from corn stover. One DOE staffer, whose opinions I respect a great deal, immediately squelched the idea of having DOE take on sustainability. It was, in his mind, a buzz saw. Only a fool would deliberately try to address such a controversial concept. In the end, he felt, we would invoke the wrath of those who saw sustainability as the rallying cry of anti-industry environmentalists, while simultaneously disappointing those environmentalists whose views on sustainable development could not be satisfactorily addressed by DOE. It would be, in short, a lose-lose proposition for the Department.
We did, in the end, prevail in keeping sustainable development as a key focus of the study. But I completely understand the reticence to engage in the political charged dialogue over sustainability. It has a long and controversial history.
While we think of sustainable development as a contemporary concept attributable to our more environmentally sensitive modern society, it is a notion that has a long--and unfortunately--negative history.
In my opinion, the origins of sustainability can be found in the writings of the 19th century writer, the Reverend Thomas Malthus--well. at least the doom and gloom side of sustainability. Malthus wrote, in his infamous (both now and then) treatise entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, about the inevitable clash between the limits of natural resources and what the modern day Malthusian E. O. Wilson called "heedless population growth."
Malthus--wrong in many of the details, but right at least in identifying a limit to the capacity of our planet--was the first of many to run into the buzz saw of sustainability. He offered a very simple, if stark, hypothesis based on two assumptions: 1) the planet has a limit in its capacity to support a given population; 2) the population will grow exponentially without regard to that capacity. When population exceeds the planet's capacity--according to his hypothesis--Mother Nature will step in makes things right. The tools of choice for correcting the over-reaching population? death, disease, war and famine.
This grim perspective didn't win him any popularity contests. It did win him the ridicule of Charles Dickens, whose character "Scrooge" was known at the time to have been an obvious attack of Malthus. Today, the Malthusian label is used to disparage and downplay anyone raising warnings about environmental consequences of our society, as when the Wall Street Journal named Al Gore "Senator Malthus" after Gore published his book Earth in the Balance. (With Nobel Prize in hand, one has to wonder whether Gore had the last laugh.)
Malthus didn't count on technology improvements and a fossil energy fueled fertilizer industry that spurred dramatic improvements in agriculture. Nor did he count on the ability of societies to voluntarily adjust their population growth rates, particularly as they grow in economic well-being. But does that mean his notions are simply quaint and naive? I don't think so. The question of our planet's carrying capacity is at the core of our understanding of what it means to be sustainable.
It's unfortunate that the stage for the debate about sustainability has been set in such dire terms. The ghost of Malthus has loomed large over the environmental movement, starting with Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the early work on Limits to Growth at MIT in the 1970s and continuing today with Lester Brown and the large number of environmental NGOs that have proliferated in the past two decades.
Views on sustainable development now seem to fall into two camps. On one side, there are free marketeers and economists who believe that profit driven innovation will always find an answer to our resource needs. On the other are folks like David Pimentel, who have concluded that we are already well past the carrying capacity of the planet. And biofuels is caught in the middle. If you are a market optimist, you see biofuels as a waste. If you are a resource pessimist, you see biofuels as a fool's gold for energy that will only aggravate the burdens on our planet. Neither view has it right.
I return now to something I started in my first blog--defining terms. Among the thorniest of the terms that run across my blog's banner is "sustainability." I have often suggested that the notion of sustainability suffers the reputation of being both a buzz word and a buzz saw.
I sympathize with those who see sustainable development as one more new buzz word to contend with. We hear the term a lot these days, especially in advertisements from companies vying for the attention and admiration of the public. With the ever increasing usage of the term, there comes, I fear, ever increasing confusion about its meaning.
Sustainability, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is some truth to this. A sustainable society for some may mean a return to simpler--less technologically driven--times (a return to Nature with a capital N). For others, it brings to mind the boy scout adage about camping, only in this case it is human society that leaves behind nothing but its footprints and takes away only its memories as it passes through in its journey on the planet. Both notions are overly romantic and unattainable. Then there are the pragmatists who see sustainable development strictly in terms of dollars and cents--sustained and continuous economic growth. This too is utopian and unrealistic, not to mention extremely narrow.
The dictionary doesn't help a bit. My computer's dictionary (The New Oxford American Dictionary) defines sustainable as "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level." There is a certain irony in their choice of "sustainable fusion" as an example for the main definition, given that technology's long history of a future promise never realized. The same might be said of many claims of sustainable technology that are always just beyond the blue horizon.
It is a sign of the times that even the dictionary has added an ecological definition--one which reads uncomfortably like the boy scout definition I mentioned above. It is one thing for a diligent troop of scouts to strive to have no impact when they camp. It is quite another to presume that human society can achieve such a goal on a planetary scale.
Perhaps the most popular definition of sustainable development comes from the United Nations. It too is overly idealistic. But it at least focuses on the true purpose of sustainable development:
"[S]ustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations."
It is a truer definition because it acknowledges that it is for the benefit of all human kind (present and future) that we worry about what we do to our planet and how we manage our natural resources. For all too many, sustainability is more about preserving Nature (with a capital N) than it is about achieving a good quality of life for all. They confuse the ends with the means. Indeed there is a certain arrogance in the attitude that only we can preserve the planet. Our planet will survive just fine without us. What is important is finding a way to live and thrive (and survive) in the world we have been given.
The UN's definition doesn't get us around the buzz word problem, however. Sticking with my scouting theme, I've dubbed their definition the "Kumbaya" definition. It's something we can all join hands and sing along with. Who could possibly disagree with it? Don't get me wrong. I think it was a huge step forward for society that we codified the need to consider the future impacts of what we do today. But this definition offers little practical guidance as to what it means to be sustainable.
Drilling down in the definition of sustainability inevitably exposes the devil in the details. More on that in my next blog.
In my last post, I started a series entitled "Turning the corner on gasoline: the good, the bad and the ugly." In it, I pointed out the "good" news in the changes in our attitudes (that is, policies) on energy. DOE's projections show us truly turning the corner on gasoline consumption. But a closer look at the details of our renewable energy policy suggests some serious bumps in the road ahead. The biggest one is the looming "ethanol blend wall" (see my chart below). Here, then, is "Part 2: the bad."
In conventional gasoline powered vehicles, EPA determined a long time ago that ethanol can be added to their fuel tanks up to a limit of 10% by volume without any deleterious emissions or performance impacts. For these vehicles (the vast majority of cars on the road today), this sets a limit on how much ethanol can be sold in the fuel market.
The purple shaded area in the chart shows the 10% limit for US ethanol usage over time. Until 2005, when the first renewable fuel standard (and the anticipation leading up to it) spurred ethanol production and use, it seemed like we were a long way from having ethanol production come any where close to the ethanol blend limit. With RFS2 we are now on a collision course with that blend wall. In just three years' time, the RFS2 target of 14.8 billion gallons per year will slightly exceed the total amount of ethanol that can be blended for use in conventional gasoline. As Jeff Broin (CEO of Poet, a South Dakota based ethanol company) put it in a recent New York Times article, "The market is full." To add insult to injury, RFS2 essentially encouraged the ethanol industry to fill the available blend market capacity with existing technology rather than using this limited space in the market to introduce innovative cellulosic ethanol technology, which by all accounts will enhance the ethanol industry's ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It didn't have to happen this way. We have painted ourselves into this corner with policies that have not addressed the whole supply chain from fuel to vehicle. For more than a decade, we have had policies that encouraged automakers to make flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs). But the fuel grade ethanol supply was too small. Now we are promoting policies to increase the amount of fuel. But with no fueling stations and an inadequate distribution system, there is no way to get that fuel to the consumer.
There is another route for further US market penetration of ethanol--the so-called flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) market. These are cars that can use any mixture of gasoline and ethanol containing up to 85% ethanol by volume (a fuel mixture known as E85). EIA estimates that in 2007 there were approximately 7.1 million FFVs on the road. At 15,000 miles per year per vehicle and 25 miles per gallon, these vehicles could theoretically soak up another 3.6 million gallons of ethanol. Unfortunately, only about 360 thousand of these vehicles actually use E85. Why? Price is one issue. But, the fundamental roadblock to fueling up with E85 is that consumers can't buy the fuel. E85 fueling stations are too few and far between.
So, now industry and some government folks are looking for a quick way around the wall. They want to tweak the blend limit to allow more ethanol into conventional gasoline. This seems to me like a potentially short sighted fix to a longer term set of problems. I, like EPA, am currently undecided on this issue.
The benefit of bumping the blend limit to 15% is obvious. It buys us time. The targets for RFS2 would continue to be met for six or seven years (until around 2017) without having to make any difficult infrastructure changes (see my chart, where ethanol volume crosses the gray shaded arean for a 15% ethanol blend). Furthermore, it would provide some needed space in the near term market for cellulosic ethanol to come in.
On the other hand, I can't help but think that it is a path to continued procrastination. For over a decade, we have avoided relatively simple opportunities to open up the market to ethanol as an alternative fuel and not just a blend. Brazil has made these choices. Fueling stations and vehicles in Brazil now handle any fuel mix from straight gasoline to "neat" ethanol. Consumers there can choose the fuel they want to put in their tanks based on price.
And allowing higher blends of ethanol in conventional gasoline is not without its risks and complications. Older vehicles and simple two stroke engines may not deal well with the change at all. In EPA's letter announcing their decision to delay any changes to the ethanol blend limit, they talked about weighing options for new "fuel labeling" presumably to warn owners of pre-2001 vehicles about the risk of using the new legal higher blend. This sounds like a recipe for real problems. And problems at the consumer level are the last thing the ethanol manufacturers, the automakers and the regulators need at this point. Ethanol has come out of the dark days when automakers and others blamed it for all sorts of engine problems. Let's not go back there.
Finally, I hate to think of all the engineering, scientific and other resources being squandered on the question of how or whether to tweak the level of ethanol in conventional gasoline. We are spending time and money trying to understand a question that, in the long run, does nothing to make a big dent in our energy problem.
The blend wall problem is a classic example of how Congress over-prescribes answers for energy in ways that focus more on satisfying a myriad of interests rather than the longer term public interest.
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.
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.
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.