Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Burn Or Starve

It looks like the biofuels guys have plans for our future. Biofuels are supposed to be the great panacea for the burning problem of the day - man made global warming. Hey not so fast. It turns out biofuels could cause food shortages.

Climate Feedback tells us of the new threat.

Warnings that switching to biofuels as a ‘clean’ energy source could threaten food security and increase deforestation have become increasingly stark this week.

A UN report, released last Monday concluded that, despite offering considerable benefits such as clean energy for millions and the creation of wealth and jobs in poorer countries, biofuel production also has the ability to cause real destruction.

The report warned that increasing production of liquid biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, could increase the price of agricultural commodities with negative economic and social impacts, especially for the world’s poor who spend a large proportion of income on food. It also raised the issue that, where forests are cleared to make way for energy crops, GHG emissions may actually be higher overall from biofuels than from fossil fuels.
Uh oh. Biofuels could make things worse. You mean the answers to our problems may provide more problems than answers?

Some one is going to have to answer for this.

Cross Posted at Classical Values and at The Astute Bloggers


A Jacksonian said...

That is why I really loved that Popular Mechanics article on biofuels and alternative fuel sources.

America can, indeed, grow enough to power all of its cars just on biofuels!

What are we going to eat?


And those pointing at Brazil miss the point of the tiny size of its needs and the fact it is exchanging rainforest for temporary arable land... and that the US would need something like 30 Brazils to actually meet its needs. This idea of moving from third-world oil barons to third world agriculture and its problems for fuel really does strike me as a bit wrong headed. And those putting forth algae production have yet to point out at the need for massive upsizing of production for that, retrofitting into installations, and the actual time to build such equipment on a feasible scale as the company handling that has little experience in this field.

Ah, timelines, industry, maintenance, replacement rates, infrastructure, and all of that fun stuff needs to be addressed, also, whenver talking about source changes for fuel. Even a totalitarian system couldn't get such a thing done and sustain an economy if it was done quickly... and when you look at transitions and such you *still* get into a few decades. At best.

Go green *and* eat the rest of the world out of house and home!

What a trade-off!

Tom Cuddihy said...

Obviously the only technology answer is portable, high-density energy storage. Even without fusion, a battery-like or super-capacitor with several times the energy storage potential of Li-ion batteries would be required to relieve the world of the need for oil, regardless of what happens with fusion.

Of course, noone's figured out quite how to do that yet...

Reliapundit said...

bottom-line: co2 is BS, so doing anything like this to save us from too much man-made co2 is idiotic.

energy diversity is a good thiong.

but let the marketplace and consumers decide for themselves.

let people who want incandescent light bulbs or flourescent ones can buy either. those who prefer the latter and can afford the elctr. should be free to do so. DITTO gas v diesel v bio v bio-diesel v electric v hydrogen cell cars.

the marketplace is MORE efficient decider of these things than any politburo.

this is counter-intuitive, but true.

on all things.

i try to explian this to lefties this way:

imagine that the marketplace is every PC in the world (each with it's own special unique and extremely detailed expertise) networked. and imagine them competing with a few super-computers programmed with a limited amount of knowledge by a a few dozen very smart people.

the netwroked PC's would be mo' smarter on mo' topics BY FAR!

DITTO the marketplace.

if someone thinks that biofuels are the next sliced bread, then they should/would get the foinancing to "build it - and they will come."

nobody who thinks they have the next wave needs to run to BIG GIOVEWRENMENT for help.

and they can find all the venture capital they want.

if we start starving or if food becomes more expensive due to using agriculture for engine fule, imnstead of human fuel, then regualkr ol' food prices go up and the trend reverses.

the market is ALWAYS self-correcting.

let it be.

M. Simon said...

The idea is that you use the low cost energy to distil alcohol or in some way convert the energy to motor fuels.

No super capacitors required.


Yes. The market must decide. Which is why I like this idea. Cheaper energy is always a winner.

It is important for government to take the lead in some kinds of reasearch.

Sure, in a Libertarian utopia there would be lots of money to try out stuff like IEC Fusion. However, we are not there yet and it may be a while.

The biggest gain to me would be getting us off the oil standard. If electricity is cheap enough we will find a way to turn it into liquid fuels.

A Jacksonian said...

In my review I take a look at the complete power input for ethanol, methanol and such and the resultant amount of energy *left* once you get to the fuel. Energy in is more than energy out, that is a basic law of thermodynamics there with absolute perfection being 100% conversion and the real world being far less than that due to it being a 'real world' and not perfect, thus all the nasty things that make this an imperfect world show up. Basically, with amorphous silica solar cells you get the same net energy yield as you do through any form of plant to fuel conversion. You can get *higher* conversion solar cells but those require much more intensive manufacturing and energy input to create... nanotech should be able to help there in about 20 years or so.

One of the problems with a pure electrical system is energy density for storage plus recharge/refresh time. As the one Far Side cartoon shows a scientist working and finding that time *is* money, and for practical real world applications the more time it takes to recharge/refresh the system the less viable it is due to our outlook on our time having a non-zero monetary value. Thus liquid fuels are relatively good for energy transport and storage and have an acceptably low recharge time for use. It is one of those multivariate graphs that have certain intersecting low points of intersection and anything that tries to move you out of that low point moves to unacceptability on one of the axes.

In theory a small, portable energy unit that is a miniature generator and has an acceptable fuel source that either takes up little time to refresh or is easily disposable or has such a readily available fuel that no one thinks of it as a cost/time overhead is *perfect*. The H. Beam Piper universe of miniature nuclear 'batteries', in truth miniature reactors/converters, that are self-contained and cheap is pretty close to optimal. From there the Larry Niven uses for room temperature superconductors and dense storage batteries in Known Space look to be the next best thing. The PJ Farmer 'batticitor' falls a bit below that, but still gets an instantaneous 'lightning recharge' and then slow drain of that over time (refreshing like a capacitor, discharging like a battery). Each is high energy density, long term output and relatively easy to refresh, with the Piper stuff being disposable and cheap, to boot.

Each of those is a societal *low point* along those axes. That also includes relative safety of the devices (with Louis Wu being entirely dismayed that the 'absolutely safe' batteries can be turned into explosive devices). These *do* vary by scale, of course, so developments of energy sources, storage types, transmission, safety, cost, time to refresh/recharge, etc. all hit different sweet spots for different uses.

Changing the current infrastructure over to something *different* requires the examination of those things, plus the replacement of infrastructure cost if it is a 1:1 swap-out deal. Different fuels and gases have different characteristics which is why ethanol cannot be put down unmodified gasoline pipelines: corrosive effects require changes in internal systems for that infrastructure, although less for one's own vehicle. If there is something absolutely compelling about an energy type, then it will drive that equation, just as CD's pushed vinyl out of the market for compelling sound quality and less media care. Thus a compelling utility or perceived benefit that is personally measurable helped that change-over. The Beta vs VHS all finally hinged on tape recording length, with Sony being obstinate on production of longer tapes and quickly losing Beta market share because of that. Touting GW for green fuels isn't showing that immediacy and the actual idea of human driven GW is crumbling as the models, numbers and science all show extremely deep flaws in outlook and our understanding of what climate is and how it changes.

Why we have things the way they are is just as interesting as to how we use the things we have....