Thursday, August 02, 2007

An inconvenient truth about biofuels

In 2005, the US consumed about 140,407,470,000 gallons of gasoline. On average, that’s around 1.25 gallons of gasoline per day, for each man, woman, and child in the country. We use it without realizing it: the oranges we buy in February traveled a very long distance; all of those cheap clothes are only inexpensive because they were produced somewhere far enough away to have a tiny cost of labor; and of course we love to drive ourselves to work, dash to the supermarket to grab this, then later to the hardware store for that, all the while complaining about traffic and gas prices.
W has laudably suggested reducing gasoline consumption by 20% by 2017. Business interests are encouraging people to "Go Yellow". And Chevrolet is greenwashing a fleet of gas-guzzlers under the pretense that buying a flex-fuel car is in and of itself good for the environment.
Unfortunately, domestic corn-based ethanol and soybean or WVO biodiesel do not now offer, nor are they likely to offer in the foreseeable future, a tenable solution to the problem of transportation fuels. While it's true that production of biofuels has accelerated rapidly in recent years, there simply isn't enough feedstock to replace a meaningful fraction of petrofuels. Replacing the rough equivalent of 2% of the gasoline we use currently requires about 20% of our corn crop. If we stopped eating corn and feeding it to livestock- mildly absurd hypothetical actions- we'd still only cover about 10% of our current gasoline demand. Cellulosic ethanol fuel does nothing for us now, and there's no telling how long it will be until economically feasible methods of production are available. Moreover, there are a host of concerns over the cultivation of large amounts of switchgrass and genetically-modified fast-growing trees.
Research remains important; horizon technologies have a way of becoming household words in the blink of an eye. Likewise, incrementally greater production of biofuels does achieve some benefit, although it would make more sense to exploit some of the other benefits of biofuels. Rather than spreading a very thin mix of blended fuels around a large region, we should use high biofuel blends for special applications: biofuels for school buses to reduce the exposure of children to particulate pollution; biofuels for government fleet-vehicles and buses in Clean Air Act nonattainment areas; biofuels for watercraft to minimize sulfur, particulate, and synthetic-volatile pollution in waterways.
Given the finite lifespan of oil and the lack of a meaningful or reliable supply of a direct replacement, we have to consider conservation in a new way. We need to rethink communities, values, and lifeways. We need to act on this new thinking.
It grows dim in our national memory, but a little over six decades ago, a generation of Americans fought and won a massive war, and in so doing reinvented their economy and that of the world. Why can't ending a myopic addiction to oil and creating a sustainable economy be this generation's legacy?

11 comments:

Sue said...

While working on a piece of speculative fiction, I was trying to think of a reasonable alternative to private autos and gasoline powered vehicles for the rural, mountainous eastern Kentucky. Suddenly I thought of something that used to common place in many U.S. cities (such as San Francisco where I grew up), and still is in European nations -- electric buses or trolley buses. Trolley buses require no rails, so can use the same roads as automobiles and other vehicles with tires. The amount of infrastructue (stringing electrical wires above major thoroughfares) is modest. And, if one uses sustainable means of generating electricity (wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc.) trolley buses are devoid of GHG emissions.

It irks me that so much emphasis is put on having to find new, cutting edge technologies to reduce fossil fuel use. We have many usable technologies already available. As I like to point out, I've been driving a 3 cylinder gasoline powered car (Chevy Metro)that gets 50 miles to the gallon all the time for the past 8 years. We know how to do this, people, we just need the will to do it.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I think the assumption of horizon-technology primacy is a pervasive problem. I’m reminded of Pirsig’s discourse on “What’s new?” versus “What is best?” This problem dogs environmental solutions, and as a student of management, I see it occurring and recurring in just about every enterprise.
Light-rail and similar technologies offer an excellent solution to the transportation problem for many. Rather than pretending that we’re all waiting for that breakthrough that will end dependence on foreign oil (and working for the fossil-fuel lobby in the meantime), our government needs to invest in public transportation and at least partially internalize the cost of carbon.
In the MD suburbs of DC, our leadership has opted to construct a new 14-mile stretch of highway, at a cost of two-and-a-half billion dollars, and continues to drag its feet about a long-sought Metrorail line to service a densely-populated suburb. With diagonal subsidies to the automotive and petroleum industries like this, it’s no wonder Americans can’t (or won’t) reduce their consumption of oil.
On the unrelated topic of speculative fiction, are you working on a short piece or a novel? Do you publish your fiction? I haven’t had much time to read fiction since last summer, but I can recommend the last three titles I read in that genre:
The Stolen Child
The Limits of Enchantment
A Brief History of the Dead

Sue said...

ERD, I have written and published both poetry and non-fiction essays (was privileged to have a one year stint in 2001 as a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and the occasionally will print my musings), and have sketched out ideas for novels (never seem to get around to writing more than a chapter or two). For the first time, I decided to try my hand at a short story. The idea seemed to fit that genre, and it seems like something that I might actually finish.

I will have to check out the titles you mention. Most recently my reading was more prosaic. I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Progressive said...

Thankyou for this piece...the unfortunate trend to ethanol for example is a travesty (but this is what happens when politics enters the race). What to do...what to do..

Pat Jenkins said...

erd, i am appreciative of your honesty about the lack of a feasible replacement for oil. it is refreshing a man of your knowledge can give us such an intelligent assessment.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
Where might I find some of your poetry?

E. R. Dunhill said...

progressive,
I hope all is well with getting settled-in for school.
I increasingly believe that mass-localization and conservation are important pieces of the sustainability equation. Enormous amounts of energy are wasted in the process of getting energy and/or fuel from one place to another. Likewise, people, especially N. Americans, do crazy things like commute an hour-and-a-half each way to work in their cars. If instead, people produced a substantial amount of their own energy and conserved much of the energy wasted commuting long distances in cars, biofuels and other alternatives could have a meaningful impact. Of course, more problems start cropping-up when monocultural tracts of switchgrass and GM poplars start competing for land that has traditionally been too wild for agriculture.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
Anyone who claims ethanol is going to solve all of the fuel problems in the US is selling either ethanol, flex-fuel vehicles, or corn. I think the best way to conserve oil is to reduce the demand. Biofuels may become more important if our overall petroleum consumption is curtailed, though this reduction in demand would have to be very considerable. Reducing demand means changing peoples’ thinking about where they live relative to where they work; changing patterns of development; changing fuel economy standards; and internalizing the cost of polluting. It also wouldn’t hurt if the federal government would bury the hatchet with Cuba (after all, we brook autocracies elsewhere, when it suits us), invest in security, agriculture, and industry in Haiti, and drop the $0.54 per gallon tax on Brasilian ethanol fuel.

Pat Jenkins said...

erd what you are asking for is a complete overhaul of individuals lives. no easy sell.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
It’s not easy. However, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it cannot or should not be done. That’s why I drew the parallel to the generation that lived the Second World War. The change I’m writing about is a revolution in peoples’ thinking and their lifestyles. Later this week, I’ll explain why such changes are necessary.

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