Sources of Energy

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biofuelpump.jpg
An ethanol-blend gas pump. Couldn't say where, exactly, but it's off this DoE page on biomass technology.

Good news; I got one of the research grants I was applying for last month. It's a small one, just a few grand to buy materials for a specific project, but every little bit helps. That brightened my day. Over and beyond the glorious mid-70s sunny weather and finally managing to break out a road bike, that is.

I've been digging into this After Oil special report that I mentioned yesterday. The first two articles are about the economics and politics of a biomass economy -- principally, replacing petroleum with plant oils. This is an attractive concept for a couple of reasons. Unlike solar or wind-generated electricity, oils behave like the oil we're used to: you can easily transport them, or make things out of them. Gram for gram, liquids like ethanol have vastly higher energy content than any battery, precisely the reason why gasoline and diesel are by far the dominant energy sources for transportation needs. Moreover, you can't weave clothes or mold containers out of pure energy, but the long carbon chains found in both organic and mineral oils are perfect for transforming into plastic.

The other big advantage to biomass energy is that, in a very real sense, it doesn't pollute. Yes, your biodiesel car will still have an exhaust pipe and the grass-fired powerplant will retain the smokestacks. But with plant inputs, most of the gases belched out into the atmosphere -- carbon dioxide, most significantly -- are just returning from whence they came the previous season. Assuming best practices for sustainable cultivation and clean combustion, energy from biomass is every bit as free as sunlight, and a good deal cheaper to collect than with photovoltaic cells. Ditto biopolymer plastics, which more often than not biodegrade right back into dirt and air.

Brian Schweitzer is seemingly a political anomaly, the popular Democratic governor of theoretically stolidly Republican Montana. His campaign revolved around what used to be thought of as tree-hugging environmental issues, wilderness conservation and sustainable energy. However, in a state that straddles the American farm belt and the mountain West, that's a powerful mix if you apply some common sense to the problem. One can't hunt, fish, hike, camp, if there's nowhere unspoiled to do it. On the question of energy, the article lets Schweitzer summarize with a story (that reminds me for some reason of the scene in Good Will Hunting wherein the title character improvs to the spooks why he doesn't care to work for the NSA, so I'd imagine delivery is everything):

After a recent speech to a Montana audience, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of agriculture took questions from the audience. Governor Schweitzer was allowed to pose the first question. The United States currently spends $6 billion a year to subsidize the grains we export, Schweitzer began. Farmers then give 40 percent of the price of their crops to the railroads to ship the grain to port; multinational corporations then use more energy to ship the grain to the Third World to sell it below the production costs of subsistence farmers driving them out of business, Schweitzer continued. We then send boats full of oil back across the ocean, with oil and grain tankers passing each other somewhere on the high seas. The unloaded oil is then refined and shipped back to rural America, where farmers again pick up the cost of freight. With farmers losing their land at home and abroad, energy prices out of control, and new threats to our security, Schweitzer concluded, shouldn’t we just invest that $6 billion a year in the production of oil seed, help farmers own a piece of refineries, and break our addiction to oil?

To which the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture replied: “Next!?

Sounds like simple common sense, but there's a potent economic argument to be made here. As the Morris article observes at length, farmers do rather poorly if all they do is grow food (except the organic farmers, whose niche is going gangbusters). The real value of a bushel of corn has been falling steadily for decades, just like most every other staple crop. However, in Minnesota and elsewhere they can make up much of that lost ground by starting coop ethanol plants (biorefineries, they call 'em), and at least here something like a third of corn farmers have bought shares in one. Unlike oil, biofuels can be produced anywhere, and since it's considerably cheaper to transport liquid fuel than trainloads of grain, the economies work out nicely to favor refinining in local or regional facilities that keep most of the profits in the region. Minnesota's been busy subsidizing this sort of thing, because someone worked out that three quarters of every dollar spent on gasoline leaves the state, but three quarters of every dollar spent on ethanol stays here.

But plants can't replace petroleum.

Harvesting every crop plant on Earth would handily replace the fossil carbon used in petrochemicals, and would maybe just barely cover the liquid fuels used for transportation in the United States. But all told, you're talking about ten to twenty percent of the coming century's energy needs, and we certainly still want to use plants for things like food and fibers and construction, too. In the end, plants are collectors of solar power, and their efficiency stinks. At best, photosynthesis captures a few percent of the solar energy falling on a plant. So while the solar energy irradiating the Earth's surface exceeds human needs by a factor of many thousands, the photosynthetic processes of all plant life on Earth captures perhaps ten times as much energy as we use. Presumably, it would not be sustainable to annually harvest a tenth of the world's total plant growth for energy alone. Ultimately we need either fusion or good (i.e. both efficient and cheap) solar conversion technology, but there's decent reason to believe that at least the latter will arrive in the next few decades. In the meanwhile, biostuffs will be an invaluable stopgap, and even in a solar world will play an important role in a fully sustainable economy.

3 Comments

Indeed.

Biomass has much potential, as a crop-fuel that the United States has a lot of resources for. Converting to it would go a long way to wean us off oil.

Photovoltaics have advances far from the days when they were just good for small applications. The materials for efficient cells are dropping in cost ($/kwh).

Combination PV cell/Fuel Cell generators could power large buildings and factories, while biomass is excellent for transportation in the short-term.

I've been an advocate of community sustainability, wherein cities and town generate their own power using a variety of sources (biomass, wind, solar, hydrogen, geothermal, etc). To achieve maximum efficiency for lowest cost, all the millions of little pieces must be worked, not just a single source. No single alternative energy is itself a panacea, but collectively they could beat oil, even in today's economy.

Community sustainability is a wonderful goal, but there are parts of the world that are populous and energy intensive yet lack good local sustainable resources (much of northern Europe, e.g.) due to poor insolation. Iceland can get away with it due to being a volcanic island, and the British Isles *may* have enough wind and tidal energy to get by, but this won't work for the states bordering the Baltic, or for the cities of northern Russia.

Longer term, a power grid that is vastly more efficient at transmitting energy over long distances is needed. This could be done with superconducting power lines, piping hydrogen, etc. But somehow we'll need a way to get energy from sunny equitorial regions to populous sub-Arctic ones.

As a bonus, if you can do that, you can probably also ship solar energy from the day to the night side of the globe. In that case there isn't quite so much need for regional energy storage.

What we need are ten-trillion hampsters with wheels.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on April 12, 2006 7:39 PM.

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