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February 11, 2008


Previously, on ObWi!

i actually didn't see that comment thread before I wrote this. So I apologize if this is repetitive, or far less wonkish than what you all get into in the comments

I'm not sure it's a good idea to take these criticisms of one kind of biofuel and generalize them to all biofuels.

From the NYT article:

Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

publius, your links are actually better; we mostly got occupied wanking about nuclear power.

[this is good]

oh god not the sugar cane thing again

i almost got into that, but thought it might have been tedious. but still, the studies aren't limited to just corn. even grassland-based fuel causes problems. i can't read the pdfs, but the waste products seem to be a more narrow exception. but i'll welcome being corrected on this

publius, one thing I alluded to in the previous thread that I think is worth repeating is that, as you say, we already waste money on agricultural subsidies anyway, and that's not changing anytime soon, no matter who's running DC.

So, it seems to me that as long as we're artificially depressing prices anyway, we might as well use the excess supply to create something useful. The key fronts to push are, as you suggest, land use and to some extent the efficiency of refining -- we want to use otherwise-wasted excess supply, not increase supply.

The farm subsidies are designed to keep food prices high, and that's not gonna change anytime soon. But wringing some benefits out of the agricultural subsidies that would otherwise be a complete waste of money is at least something.

What I'm getting at is not that sugar cane will solve all our energy problems -- in fact, I'm certain it won't. My objection is this: saying that many existing biofuel technologies need to be reevaluated is a very different thing than suggesting that the entire concept of biofuels is doomed.

To elaborate on Gromit's comment, I know that there are researchers working on developing algae that produce diesel fuel. I think it's a bit impolite to lump them in with people turning corn into ethanol. It's just not the same thing.

"Biofuels" are a very diverse set of entities. The new studies clearly demolish a large set of crop-based biofuels as being able to do anything about greenhouse gases. There are biofuels that are based on waste products that will not have the same land use footprint and I think this is important to mention.

The problem is while you are busy figuring out what to do about your bio-fuel you reenforce the the "get subsidy, grow corn, look green" combo that Adam mentions in a more defeatist manner. These forces are not things you can turn on a dime. And your net effect is to waste progressive effort, tax money and consumers food budgets whilst pumping GHG into the atmosphere at an amazing rate.

But the worst thing of all is that no one seems to realize the magnitude of the problem. Throughout history the methods other than food to make productive use of wide spaces of fertile land were somewhat limited. Sure there was tobacco and cotton - but in the end you don't need a whole planet's worth of tobacco - but we DO need a whole planet's worth of biofuel - in fact the US alone needs almost a whole planet.
this means car drivers will compete with poor people around the world in a way they didn't before.

Then increases in agricultural efficiency have driven costs down allowing more people to be able to eat properly. Even with current food prices we meet people not eating properly - and in other countries there are certainly people dying because the increase in prices has pushed them over the edge - maybe not many yet - but there will be soon - and there is no natural limit.

The problem is while you are busy figuring out what to do about your bio-fuel you reenforce the the "get subsidy, grow corn, look green" combo that Adam mentions in a more defeatist manner. These forces are not things you can turn on a dime. And your net effect is to waste progressive effort, tax money and consumers food budgets whilst pumping GHG into the atmosphere at an amazing rate.

Yeah, assuming I understand what GNZ's saying, I fully agree -- with the caveat that at this point we actually do have to invest some positive effort in stopping the corn-ethanol behemoth, largely because of how badly we botched this issue in the first place.

We have to hold the line and at least prevent more subsidies from going down the drain, more cropland being eaten up, etc. It's going to be tricky to manage because we'll be demagogued as anti-green, etc.

And unfortunately, this tack probably means rejecting biofuel entirely for the time being. It should certainly be picked up later, and maybe some highly competitive alternatives (e.g. the algae mentioned above) can be added in on the sly in the meantime, but the present political situation just makes it too damn hard to disentangle corn-based ethanol from other biofuels. I just don't see another way out of this one.

Look, let me get gloomy here. Yes, I agree with almost everything you say about biofuels, but what alternative do you propose?

1) Oil

Greenhouse gas, plus demand seriously outstrips supply in ten years.

2) Electricity

From what? It would take ten thousand windmills to power the traffic in a city like Boston.

3) Wean people off their cars.

The only technically sensible solution, except that getting a driver's license has evolved into our society's only universal equivalent of a puberty rite. I suspect you may have to deal with a few million people who think that giving up their car keys means turning back into children. Not rational? Maybe not, but a real problem.

And let's not mention that the design of hundreds of American cities means that without the car, millions of homes may prove just about unlivable. I know I wouldn't want to ride a bicycle in the suburbs of Phoenix in August, and I ride Toronto in winter, and like it.

So what do you do?


Support research into new methods of biofuel production.

Support research into more efficient human powered vehicles (preferably ones that can cope in hot or cold weather).

there is still alternatives to promote

Hydro power, solar power, wind power, tide power and all of that sort of thing. Also allow energy prices to go through the roof - in fact encourage them to go there with carbon taxes great enough to achieve Kyoto targets (whether or not you actually sign up) emission standards etc also nitrogen fertilizer taxes, cow taxes etc.

Also locking up areas of rain forest and oil and coal in the ground so that the market cant get at it.

All those same tough decisions you'll have to make in a decade or two just earlier so it hurts less.

Bicycles are the most energy efficient transportation machines availible. It helps not to have moved to dixie though.

A new version of the old Messerschmitt Kabinenroller could be all the rage and reduce fuel consumption significantly. Think of it as an extremly fuel efficient and inexpensive Porsche with an extra feeling of piloting a fighter jet. That could actually draw a lot of people away from the SUVs (and given the size could also ease the traffic congestion a bit).
A car as light as that could also be interesting for a pure electric engine (also reducing total consumption since big power plants are more efficient than car motors even considering the conversion losses in the batteries).

http://www.bentrideronline.com/reviews/cabbike/cabbike1204.htm>This also looks interesting for bicycling under adverse weather conditions.

That looks good mostly for the protection against getting doored.

@Hartmut: a friend of mine had something similar, because she wanted to bike to work (24 km) in winter too. But the weight makes it hard to get started, so if you have a route where you frequently might have to stop (traffic lights, crossings) it is much harder than a normal bike. She sold hers again.

Bike paths can be build, or reserved on motorways. It has the added advantage that it combats being overweight and it makes people more healthy. There are so many bikes: you can put lots of shopping in them, or several kids, or have one that goes really fast, have a foldable one so you can go part of the route by public transport, have an electrical bike when you are a bit older or have to go uphill a lot, have bikes where you only need your hands, have bikes where you can lie flat, have bikes with three or four wheels if your balance is less good.

Biking is good (said the Dutch person ;) )

In a nation that doesn't do infrastructure anymore, really doesn't do any innovation in alternate energy, and can't finish big projects on time or on budget anymore, the most likely outcome is cars for the rich, and bicycles for everyone else. The suburbs will be largely abandoned when people can't afford them anymore (it's already started). Wind will steadily increase, because it's low-tech and can be built locally in small manageable chunks (assuming we can get the parts from foreign suppliers). Switchgrass ethanol, algae biodiesel, et al, besides not being ready for prime time at present, will require scads of infrastructure investment that's not going to be around in a declining ecomomy.


Much of what is used for creating ethanol in Brazil is the bagasse, the waste after the cane is pressed for the juice.

By biofuel you mean food right? Like we should stop walking and biking because we'll have to eat more and that is bad since it takes more co2 to make a hamburger than it does to make a gallon of gas?

My understanding is that biodiesel was pretty worthwhile- particularly as the WVO versions can be made from already used oil, so it's presumably reducing an already existent footprint.


Here is a biofuel for you: Create it out of our sewage sludge, instead of spreading those toxins on our agricultural lands (ie, which supply our food). Talk about a renewable resource! There is now the technology from Europe, Australia, Isreal, Sweden to create a synthetic fuel using an anaerobic gassification process that does not pollute the environment. You would actually decrease pollution using any of these methods. There would be no conflict between food or energy. The process can be used to create electricity and ultimately should be able to pay for itself. What are we waiting for????? Sorry. I don't have a link for you, but you can Google "Pyrolysis" and should be able to find some of them.

This also looks interesting for bicycling under adverse weather conditions.

Not for nothing, but velomobiles are *fast*.

There are also very good, readily available, dialed in, fully faired recumbent bikes that will keep up with cars in local (non highway) traffic.

Above about 15 miles an hour, most of the effort of riding a bike is overcoming wind resistance. Any kind of enclosed bike renders that relatively moot.

Plus, riding a bike is just plain fun.

Thanks -

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