Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fuelish Fantasies

I admit I get tired of playing the stereotype "doomsayer" - "voice crying in the wilderness" - etc.

It isn't any fun, in fact, saying things people don't want to hear. They call you names in return.

Ten years ago, I was one of the very few scientists willing to say, in public, to an audience of farmers- "Ethanol from corn is a bad idea." I made no friends.

Here we are, however- with even the farmers (who have the most to lose) now admitting that ethanol from corn "has limits" regarding how much of a fix it is for anything. And no, I don't blame the farmers for the ethanol rush- they rely a great deal on "experts" to suggest good directions for them.

We're already past "Peak Ethanol." Ethanol Glut Why? Because folks ignored the fact that technologies must be INTEGRATED; all the pieces have to fit into the real world, somehow. Ethanol has a dozen aspects where the concept will NEVER integrate with the needs of humans, or the world; but the one that has currently caused the price of ethanol to drop, and has caused plans for new ethanol plants to be canceled was obvious all the time; and talked about, and explained, and ignored: the corn is in the Midwest; the demand for fuel ethanol is on the coasts. You can't move enough of it, fast enough, to make it work.

A) the major existing fuel pipelines mostly run north/south
B) you can't put ethanol into the existing piplines anyway; it will corrode them.
C) you have to move ethanol via truck, or train
D) there aren't enough trains; or trucks - OR TRACKS OR ROADS.
E) nobody is building new tracks, or roads, or is intending to in the future.

We KNEW all this. And yet- neither our beloved government; nor our beloved universities, nor our blessed free enterprise system prevented us from idiotically going down this path. What stopped it was- hitting the end of the trucks and trains. They're full, and going as fast as they can, and the ethanol producers are already producing more than they can handle.

What does the future hold for ethanol? It's still kind of a sacred cow, out here in corn country; badmouthing it will not make the neighbors smile at you. But the reality is, everyone knows its days are numbered, and as a growth industry- it's over.

The new fantasy the experts are selling is that all those lovely corn ethanol plants will one day be converted to producing... ethanol (what transport problem!?) - but from switchgrass, instead of corn.

I'm sorry. I really am. But just as ethanol from corn was never going to work-

Ethanol from switchgrass IS NEVER GOING TO WORK.

Or Butanol, or "bio-crude", or whatever; from miscanthus, or hybrid willow, or "cellulose".

The systems required do not work; and cannot be made to work; this is a blind alley; a waste of resources needed to find real solutions.

So why so much noise? There's money to be made "developing" the new energy messiahs. $$$8-). Otherwise sensible people can just get sucked right into the fantasy when you wave million$- billion$ - of dollar$ at them. And, this fantasy perpetuates the delusion that we can still have all the SUV's we want. Lots of people are hanging on to that mirage for dear life.

I'm wincing as I write this; because I know I'm going to make a bunch of people angry. I really don't enjoy that, it's no fun being a target, and angry people seldom listen in a reasonable fashion. That, however, is exactly the problem; this entire discussion is not taking place reasonably- it's highly emotional, with a careful avoidance of rational dissection.

Here are the multiple reasons, in order of intractability, in modest but not complete detail. And for those of you not aware, this IS an area where some consider me an "expert" - I've been asked to speak at multiple conferences, including one specifically on "cellulosic ethanol".

Barrier #1) Fire.

This is part of what is making me write this post now; the very recent awareness we have that fires do happen- and may not be controllable. Perhaps people are primed to LISTEN. If it's very dry; and very windy- we are helpless in the face of big wildfires. (And again, in 2008)

This is a moderately good growth of switchgrass:
(Photo borrowed from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, www.nrel.gov/data/ pix/Jpegs/03246.jpg).

Look at the picture- then see yourself touching a match to the base of that dry grass. This stuff is HUGELY more flammable than corn, or wheat; both of which sometimes burn before harvest. It's the definition of tinder- explosively flammable when dry.

Assume that the whole fantasy is in full swing- you'll wind up with hundreds of grass-to-ethanol processing factories around the country. Each of these processing plants will be surrounded by... hundreds of thousands of acres of .... switchgrass. Millions of acres, altogether.

Close your eyes, and see it: hundreds of thousands of contiguous acres- of DRY grass. 8 feet tall.

It has to be big, mature, and dry- for any of the fantasy to work. It turns out that if you cut it when it's green, you seriously weaken the roots- no crop next year. And if you cut it when it's green- you'll either have to use it right now, or spend energy drying it, so it won't rot.

Are those huge fields of dry grass going to burn? Yes, they will; and many times, the fires will be uncontrollable. Lightning. Sparks from harvest machines. Bubba, on Saturday night, after 8 beers, because it's fun. Revenge, after getting fired from the plant. Arson by hirelings of the petroleum industry. Arson by your switchgrass ethanol competitors, to bump their profits up. Terrorists, perhaps.

And. What will be the cost of maintaining fire fighting teams enough to pretend to cope with such fires? Lots of fire teams. Add the cost to the price at the pump, and be aware that just like in California last week, sometimes they're powerless. And sometimes firefighters, and others, die.

Will such fields always burn? Of course not. Will they burn often enough to make the whole proposition uneconomic? YES. Not only the grass will burn, of course- how many houses did we just lose in California? Any switchgrass growing region will be uninhabitable. Would you live in a house, raise your children, surrounded by switchgrass? I wouldn't.

Other cellulosic feedstocks will have similar fire problems, even hybrid willow. In order to be economic, these intrinsically flammable materials have to be grown in the highest density possible- increasing the fire hazard. Regardless of climate, a dry spell will occur; and Bubba, or lightning, will go to work. The profits will be out the window, the company will fold, the system will shut down.

In my trial discussions on this point, the responses have been:

a) "Well, you could put in firebreaks." Flames from mature switchgrass typically rise 50 feet into the air. Take a look at any of the videos coming from California last week- wind driven fires will jump almost any break you can make. Switchgrass is virtually designed to generate airborne sparks- the myriad leaves burn loose, then take flight on the fire generated winds- burning. Bubba, I guarantee, will wait for a windy night. And in any case, allotting substantial ground to firebreaks will cut into the economics- your grass resource will be even more diffuse; transport even more expensive.

b) "Oh, I don't think it will be that big a problem." See California. Ecologists have warned for DECADES that this was a bad place to build homes like this; it was bound to burn, out of control, some day. We knew it. (No, I don't really blame the folks who moved/built there- I DO think they have a right to expect the "government" to adequately warn folks of danger; that didn't happen. The scientists DID; the government didn't.)

"I don't think so" is hardly an adequate response. In this world of global warming, we can count on warm weather- and dry periods; getting worse.

c) "Look, technology is astonishing these days; we'll figure out something later." See nuclear waste. This is the attitude responsible for so many of our problems these days. We have to stop accepting it in the planning phases. "I know coal is dirty, but we'll figure it out..." Etc. The idea that we can solve any problem eventually, is not proven. See cancer.

d) "How dare you run down my fantasy! You have to give these things a chance! You're just being mean!" sigh. No, I'm not. I'm being a parent. I want Smidgen to have a real chance at a future- and I want hard answers to hard questions. I'm sorry if you think I'm kicking your puppy. But you don't actually have a puppy to kick- it's imaginary, and its legs were broken before I got here.

Barrier #2) Storage.

What? I hear you say. What has "storage" to do with all this? Nobody ever mentioned storage before.

Nobody mentioned fire, either.

We're talking here about setting up a large scale industry. All the pieces have to fit together.

If you build a fuel making factory, I guarantee you it will need to run 360 days a year in order to make a profit. Could you build a car factory and run it for 2 months a year? Nope. Corn-ethanol plants run 24 hours a day; as many days as they can. These kinds of biological fermentation processes are hard to start; hard to shut down; best kept running.

Dry mature switchgrass is available to cut in the field for at most 2 months out of the year. February-March-April, depending on your latitude. If you're going to run your factory the rest of the year, it's going to have to be running on grass you have stored somewhere, somehow.

Many tons, per DAY. Can you just bale it up, and leave it in the field, the way they do hay sometimes? Eh. Not very well- if it's sitting in the field; no grass will grow where it sits; and somebody will have to come get that bale, with a tractor, at some point- driving over the growing grass. Those are significant costs to the system. Baling is not free- it has to be done exactly right, or the bale will be subject to wetting in the rain- which will make it start to rot. Your fuel value is disappearing, as it sits there. Hay bales are sometimes wrapped in plastic these days, to slow the wetting problem. More expense; more plastic. Could you store the bales somewhere else? More land. And a roof- piles of wet hay are a favorite source of fires- the heat of composting can build up to the combustion point. That's a really big roof- expensive.

The whole process of harvesting, stockpiling, storing- is very far from trivial. What we already know about storing grass, learned from experiences with hay, indicates that scaling it all up to the huge levels envisioned is not at all straightforward. And may just not be economic; ever.

There IS talk of "pelletizing" the grass; milling it into uniform particles, forming it into uniform pellets. Yep, that would make some of the handling easier, but it would add a tremendous amount of energy input to the process (higher price at the pump) and still would not get rid of the need for huge huge amounts of storage space. In order to be useful, the pellets would have to be very hard- or they will crush to dust in the storage bins- more energy inputs, and possibly material inputs- glue.

Ok, this is getting long. That's because we're talking about a really big, complex topic. But I'll try to wrap this up; realize that I'm cutting the discussion down to the bones; there's far more I could be saying here.

Problem #3) "We expect it to be working in 5 years..."

Yes, there are demonstration plants currently making ethanol from cellulose. The dirty little secret, though, is that ethanol made this way is costing 3-5 times more than ethanol from corn right now. The energy inputs are huge, the yields are poor. Can it be done? Sure. Economically? Not.... yet.

I'll give you a hint; when a researcher says "We confidently expect our spiffy new process to be fully commercial about 5 years from now." - keep your investment dollars deep in your pocket, and run. What they're really saying, in researcherese is "we're stuck, we desperately need a breakthrough, and have no idea if or when one will happen."

If they say "We expect to have a product in one year!" - that means they actually have a research direction established. Expect a real product in about 3 years, at the earliest- and a test of real world functionality in 5 years or so. When they say "we guarantee to have this figured out in 5 years" - it means they have no idea which way to turn. Not kidding.

The track record of the "biotech" industry is quite clear. After decades of promises and billions invested- they have virtually no products that work. Truly. Biotech Investment . The Fabulous Promise Of Biotech is pretty much a bust, apart from a very few simple products. The overwhelming reason is that lab-born scientists have a casual contempt for nature, and a universal tendency to underestimate natural complexity and the astonishing sophistication of natural systems. HIV Vaccine Abandoned.

Sorry to be so rude about it. It's their track record; not mine- extensive promises; few deliveries.

In detail, what they're promising now is that "soon" they will find a magic enzyme; or two; or they'll make one, from scratch, that will immediately make it possible to toss raw cellulose (ok, or lignin/cellulose) into their kettle, and have great quantities of (clean) ethanol popping out the other side.

Here's my big chance to become known as a prophet. No, they won't.

Think, please. What is cellulose?

It's a big long string of sugars. Hey, that should be easy.

It's also the basic structural molecule in... bacterial cell walls. And, oh, yes, plant cell walls.

But it's the bacteria that interest me. They've been around for a long long time; billions of years at least. And in all that time, other bacteria, and fungi, and what have you, have been constantly trying to figure out ways to break into the cells, and eat the goodies in there. And the bacteria have constantly been figuring out ways to prevent that. Layer, upon layer, upon layer of attack and defense.

Both the bacteria, and the plants, are extraordinarily good at preventing breakdown of their cell walls. REALLY REALLY good at it. Billions of years, good at it. But hey, we'll figure it out in 5. Take a look out your window. Any trees out there? Grass? They're all made of cellulose, and they are all busily preventing anything from eating their cell walls. Do they succeed? Manifestly, yes, they do. Granted, when the plant dies, the cellulose will eventually break down. But very very slowly, and usually it's the last molecule to go. Ever see a dead tree suddenly turn liquid? That's what they're saying they'll be able to do, in 5 years. Believe me, the fungi and bacteria would do it now, if they could.

The biotech boys are already aware of some of the difficulties, since they've actually been working on cellulosic ethanol for at least 20 years (that's Four "just five years" ), and don't have it working yet. Turns out the cellulose in there is just really hard to get at. If it was a naked string of sugars, it wouldn't be so bad; but it turns out cell walls are incredibly complex; and most of the complexities are... SURPRISE! - kind of specifically there to prevent anything from attacking the cellulose. And.. SURPRISE!! when you break down one barrier... there's ANOTHER one waiting. Well, I'll be darned. Oh. And another. Take a look at lignin, and all the tangles there.

That's what happens, given a couple billion years of microbiological warfare.

Oh, and, just incidentally. Suppose the Biotech Boys DID come up with a magic enzyme, able to eat any cellulose, anytime? Wouldn't that be a nifty thing to turn loose, accidentally, on the world? Every hear of the nanotech "Grey Goo" nightmare? Say the magic enzyme accidentally gets incorporated into a wild fungus... (not at ALL unlikely) which gets out into the woods... how about "Brown Slime", as the end of the world?

------------------------------------------

We haven't even gotten through all the major non-scifi barriers; like #4- Water - and #5 -Plant Disease in a Huge Monoculture - #6 - Food (UN:Biofuels Criminal), and Transport...and on, and on.

My point - is not that all research on cellulosic ethanol should cease. My point is- we had really better be looking for other answers to our problems. This one is very very far from being a sure thing. If I were an AntiBushkovite, I'd ask when was the last time any good idea came out of Bush's mouth. And claim that his optimism on switchgrass is abundant reason to abandon it immediately. But I won't go there.

My plea is for hard, hard thinking, before we commit our hope and precious resources to blind fantasies. We don't have time or resources to waste. We need more discipline in our projections for the future. Does this work? Does this fit in place? What happens next? And next?

And next?

The only workable solution within sight for our energy disasters, and global warming, is that we must all use much less.

And as long as we indulge in the insane dream of an SUV in every garage- in India, Africa, China, and Mexico- we will not face the reality that we all must learn to live quite differently, and soon.

30 comments:

Sequana said...

Thank you so much for that. You make so much sense.

becks said...

Wow. I didn't know anything about switchgrass before reading this blog. And although I'm still not sure I understand it all, your passion has opened my eyes to the fact that they've been shut. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Because I am farmer and conservationist, I have been closely following the corn to ethanol developments since the early '80's. I agree that ethanol from corn is an environmentally and economically poor liquid fuel substitute. I make it a point not use "gasohol" in my small engines, the ethanol screws 'em up. In my opinion, ethanol is only good for drinking, and then not in excess.
Dwayne Andreas, former CEO of ADM Corp. bought both sides of the aisle and took us down the ethanol road with the taxpayer footing a goodly amount of the travel cost.
The reference to a "free market society" as possibly causing some of the problems puzzles me. There has not been a free market in agriculture since well before FDR was president. In fact, around 1938, Henry Ford was pushing for biofuel development and plastic manufacture from soybeans, working from German patents seized as reparations from WWI. Ford owned 12,000 acres of farm ground and undertood this, of course, would help help him-farm income, the potential for plastic bodies to be
used in his automobiles, and it would also help the farmer who was struggling during the depression. However, the ardent Mussolini admirer, FDR, decided to just to pay the farmers, probably because it was easier or more politically expedient. Of course, oil was much cheaper then and the US could produce what was needed here, so it was not the strategic national interest as it has been allowed to become today, producing needless conflicts. That means almost seventy years have slipped by for serious research into biofuels and bioplastics. From what I gather, about ten percent of petroleum consumption goes to plastic production.
Prior to mechanized farming, around thirty percent of the farmer's crop was devoted to oats, the fuel for the motive power needed-horses. (Don't know the woodlot acreage required for the farmer's and other's heat.) So the question becomes whether there is enough land available for everybody's food and fuel. Will Malthus finally be right? Hope not and doubt it, although there is a bunch of breeding going on out there.
Liquid fuel is handy stuff, good energy content per volume, etc. I've already bet on butanol (no transportation problem, better energy content, etc.)through BP and DuPont.
And there are high sugar crops that are extremely difficult to catch fire, sweet sorghum being one. Also, I believe that sorghum, beside making the wonderful molasses that it does, would keep quite well in Harvestore silos. I agree that an integrated approach to energy production and consumption must be used. I just believe that free flow of information, good and continuing education, technology and markets will provide a better answer than whichever ethically and morally impaired sociopath happens to be sitting in the White House.
For educated folks seemingly attacking things, rather than ideas or behavior, is more than a bit bizarre. Evil SUV's, guns, drugs, CO2, piston engines, dollars, or whatever is a concept that escapes me. Probably had too much ethanol tonight to understand.

Sincerely,
Bubba

Greenpa said...

Bubba- thanks; good thoughtful post, and a good illustration of the erudition of today's farmers. Sorry if I abused your actual nickname, and I appreciate your not taking umbrage, since indeed I did not intend to insult any real person actually using the name. :-)

I didn't intend to imply that a "free market society" was causing problems- what I was intending to insinuate is that the 3 institutions mentioned just do not function as advertised or hoped these days, for reasons far too numerous to get into here.

The seeming attacks on "things" rather than ideas are not too difficult to explain- in most cases, the thing is a symbol for the ideas, or thoughtlessness behind it. Shorthand for the conversation, always, of course, a little risky.

Jen from Brooklyn said...

Greenpa -

Can you explain your comment about terrorists in this post? Not sure what you meant there.

Curious about your opinion on Brazil's development of sugar cane-based ethanol. I get your concerns here about storgage and transport. Do those concerns play out in Brazil?

Greenpa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greenpa said...

Jen- don't know if you had a chance to read my original response- but after a lot of thought, I did decide to alter the original comment, and delete the later one. Silly of me. Just too volatile a topic; too far from the purpose... too dang distracting and ultimately not constructive, all things considered.

Anyway; sugar cane is not as silly as switchgrass; being tropical, it's available almost year round- but ultimately you do run into questions and conflicts regarding food, biodiversity, and so forth. I'm not opposed to all biofuels- just to ill considered blind enthusiasms-

Kiashu said...

Interesting post. I've previously looked at the prospects of biofuels, and noted that even if the entire world switches to a vegetarian diet with minimum grain rations, and we devote half our vegetable and plant oils to it, and if you entirely ignore all the energy inputs to farming, harvesting, distilling, etc - you still only get a barrel of biofuel a year per person annually, not even 1/3 what the world uses, or 1/10 what modern Western countries use.

When you remove those obviously magical assumptions, the prospects look even less rosy. With your post, you've darkened them still more :)

Spice said...

One thing that always shocks me is that worldwide, our food typically travels at least 1500 miles (2414 km) before it reaches our table. So after the farmers have put hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel into producing foods, it then must travel to get to us.
Mostly I think this is because we (in developed countries) have become spoiled. We want out strawberries in January. We would drastically cut our fuel usage if we would just "buy local". We don't even have to do it all the time. Most major cities run a Farmer's Market in the summer. If we would just go to farmer's markets during the growing season, or choose to eat in the restaurants that buy local, we can each make a difference in fuel consumption without changing our lifestyles too much.
Think about it.

Carreen said...

I'd never even hear of switchgrass before this post, let alone using it to make ethanol. I live in the midwest too, but surprisingly it's not that big here yet.

I've been really curious about biodiesel lately as there is a local guy that converts cars to run on this stuff. (He also converts regular gas-burning cars to hybrids or electric, etc...)

Just wondering what your take on biodiesel would be...

Annette said...

Spice, I like the direction you're going. While it's blatantly obvious that most of us need to change our lifestyles, very much, it's heartening to hear about things we can do that don't seem like "preparation for the apocolypse." That's a point that sometimes gets lost in discussions about consuming less: the idea of drastic measures scares off some people who might otherwise be sparked by the conversation.

Though what No Impact Man is doing is certainly important, as he's said over and over again, it's not for everyone. And suggestions like yours are just what those intimidated by NIM's methods need to hear.

Christy said...

The thing that annoys me most about ethanol is that whatever percent ethanol is in the gas I'm using, I get that percent less MPG. Most gas around here is 10-15% ethanol, if I use this gas I get 10-15% less gas mileage. Driving a hybrid I keep exact track of my gas mileage. So I drive a little farther to get gas without ethanol in it. We aren't gaining anything by using ethanol.

Kiashu said...

Christy, you're not meant to actually gain anything from it except warm fuzzies that you're "helping the environment." It's like how in the last years of the Ottoman Empire the government was issuing bonds to pay the interest on the bonds they'd already issued... It looks good on paper, but in practice is not terribly helpful.

Anonymous said...

"My point - is not that all research on cellulosic ethanol should cease. My point is- we had really better be looking for other answers to our problems."

Aren't we doing that? To the best of my knowledge, millions of people around the world are working hard every day on alternative energy solutions. Ethanol from switchgrass hardly has a monopoly on research dollars.

You raise some good points in the article about the challenges that researchers face in making switchgrass ethanol practical. But ALL unproven technologies have challenges. You could have easily written an equally pessimistic article on solar, wind, geothermal, or nuclear. In fact, allow me to write an nice little pessimistic article of my own addressing your brilliant idea.

"The only workable solution within sight for our energy disasters, and global warming, is that we must all use much less."

Ain't never going to happen. The world's population is going to continue to do what it did since the beginning of the human race, and that is grow. And all of those people are going to demand more of everything. I know I have no intention of reducing my consumption.

biofuelsimon said...

There is an elephant in the room. Automotive fuel efficiency. Unless the US population starts driving more efficient vehicles, then there is no point in using biofuels, their alternative value as food is much too high for that. Using ethanol from any source is simply a way of keeping expensive oil in the ground.

Anonymous said...

The reason I fought a little on Confucius, is that I just finished teaching him for my Eastern Philosophy Class again this year. Last time I taught him hard, I thought he was just great, a bit conservative, but the sanest most thoughtful conservative I could think of. This time I looked more at his agricultural policy, and he's kinda an elitist snob. Maybe that just goes with being a brilliant thoughtful conservative but it bugged me more this time. He'd rather let people starve than cut back on the number of rulers or the role of the ruling class (Analects 12:7). Indeed, as Robyn and I slowly learn to garden we are violating Confucius' line that a scholar who worries about food is not a worthy scholar. As we advocate against parts of the farm bill we violate his position that when not in an official position do not be involved with its policies (8:14, etc). We live in a country where everyone is part-ruler, at least in theory, part-official, where everyone is required to go to school and be part-scholar, where everyone ought to be at least part-farmer. Confucius would hate this. Zhuangzi criticizes Confucius a lot, but also part-admires him. I think I agree with Zhuangzi, that there is much to be admired, and much to be criticized in Master Kung, and his dismissal of learning agriculture as beneath the dignity of a scholar, and eveidence that one is a petty man rather than a gentle man is one of the things to be criticized.

-Brian M.

Hank Roberts said...

Don't feed trolls. All they want to do is consume attention.

Astroturf biofuel busted:
http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/10/gee-whiz-geoengineering/langswitch_lang/fr#comment-64093

(((((HUGS))))) sandi said...

Keep talkin', 'cuz I'm listenin' and learnin' soooo much! (((((HUGS))))) sandi

Greenpa said...

biofuelsimon- yeah, we're in agreement, and we've talked about that on this blog-

http://littlebloginthebigwoods.blogspot.com/2007/05/cutting-gordian-crap-possibility-2.html

I still haven't heard anyone else talk about a horsepower tax, or a legal limit on horsepower. Seems obvious.

Greenpa said...

Brian M- I love it. I've been through similar gyrations with Master Kong (trying to shift to pinyin...) Of course he's a snob! Find me an egalitarian scholar in feudal China, at 500 BCE! I seriously doubt that the idea that a rice-farming peasant was his "equaL' in any way, ever entered his head. :-)

I admit I never thought of him as "conservative" before, but you're right, he was. In that time, and place, that made some sense; apart from all the wars, it was a very stable world, almost unchanged in the previous thousand years. Looking to the past for some good answers made some sense.

Our own world, willwe-nillwe- is changing, and looking back for answers doesn't seem too sensible to me. Political structure aside, he had a lot of very solid insights into human nature, that still hold true. Like warning folks you can't trust the food in the markets. He's always interesting.

Greenpa said...

Hank- yup, you were right. Silly me.

I did look at your link, followed a little of the discussion there. One of the fantasies they're purveying- is that you could grow non-monoculture biofuels crops.

More evidence that the people talking haven't been out in the real world- ever. Yes, Tilman at the U of Minnesota is pushing the idea that multi-species prairies are more productive than monocultures. Yup. Now, ask the guy running the fermentation tank, if his magic enzymes will cleanly digest 15 different species, all in slightly different growth stages... a nightmare. No way. And- how long can you cut that prairie, repeatedly, frequently- before the diversity disappears? Not long, and not simple. Details, details.

Hank Roberts said...

I wonder if anyone's done the numbers on reverting the great plains of North America to tallgrass prairie and taking the excess off as buffalo steaks. Sustainable?

Probably only with a lower human population, from past evidence.

Susan Och said...

There's an article about the souring of ethanol in the heartland in today's NYT.

Shannon Hodgins said...

What an intriguing and well written post. I'm very excited to have followed links and found your blog.

Um, I'm just hoping for some sort of solar car soon. I'm keeping my car, be it 176,000 miles on it ticking longer because I just cannot justify entering into car payment territory again until I have a viable energy efficient alternative. I'm hoping to wait a year or so and see what technology might bring. Right now we try to limit and consolidate driving trips.

I *love* the title of your blog, the little librarian in me gave a big 'ole giggle. Shannon

Jay Sinn said...

Please bear with me, I'm long on ideas but short in the the grammar department.

A friend of mine and I used to talk about an energy based econmny called a technocracy (I believe). So in this you would barter on items based on how much
energy they cost to produce.

"Well Joe thats a better bicycle but it cost 167 more units to produce"

I feel that any singular method of alternative energy will run into problems. So why not embrace and develop all of 'em in a holistic manner? Wind is great for mechanical energy and solar energy is best suited to electrical energy.

I recall my biology teacher mentioning that smaller population centers are more efficent than larger ones. The idea is cellular, the greater the cell the less surface area it has.

I think we will evolve into a more agraian society out of neccesity and want but only after intial conflict with the depleation of resource.

Thanks for such a thoughtfull post and blog!
Jay Sinn

Mike said...

Jay: The Technocratic Party, now defunct, was run by a bunch of poorly socialized sliderule geeks.

In their utopia, each person was awarded "energy credits" at birth, to be used throughout one's life. There would be no gambling, no black market, no free market, just registered transactions through the government, with everyone equal.

Guess how long that would last?

The check for me on alcohol fuel is that I and someone who believes in the myth of global warming agree that it's a mathematical failure from the word go. When people in disagreement agree on an issue, watch out.

Still, I'm all for doing the research on a great many things. Breakthroughs do, in fact, happen all the time. It's dishonest (if I'm being honest) to say that X science has failed because it hasn't produced Y results. All this knowledge adds up and does eventually pay off, though often in a completely different direction.

For example (Ahem):

Everyone opposed to the space program please unplug your computer and stop reading right now.

Minor improvements in efficiencies, in scale, in attitude, all add up, and have done so throughout history. Britain ran out of timber and developed coal. Gasoline used to be a useless byproduct.

I'd argue a horsepower limit is impossible for several reasons--it depends what you use the vehicle for, and in what environment for one. Small home businesses will suffer first. Then you'd have to get it past the American people, which you won't, and then past the Constitution, which you might, thus validating Congress' theory that everything moves in interstate commerce and thus can be regulated (like air, for example).

In the meantime, luddite Americans will be buying nuclear power from a dozen nations who don't wet their pants over a minor issue of waste, that's easily resolved.

Greenpa said...

Mike - you seem like a generally sane person, but-

"In the meantime, luddite Americans will be buying nuclear power from a dozen nations who don't wet their pants over a minor issue of waste, that's easily resolved."

You've got a little reality disconnect going on here. If it were "easily resolved" - I gotta tell ya, I think it WOULD have been resolved by now. In case you hadn't noticed, it's still horrifically contentious. In this world.

This is much like Spice's perennial disconnect - "those scissors WERE out of reach!" she will insist; as we look at Smidgen holding them. Um. No.

The other unresolvable issue with nuclear power is - humans. We screw up. ALWAYS, given enough time. Hence Chernobyl. France, always pointed to as the perfect example of good nuclear power- WILL have an accident, someday. Not might - WILL. Have you ever worked with humans? Ever known any who never never ever screwed up? That's the requirement - engineers claim it's possible. The same engineers who designed and inspected the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis... "oops" is not a word you want to hear around nuclear power plants.

china said...

i don't really feel qualified to comment on the other barriers to ethanol from cellulose but the cellulase family of enzymes can be used in concert to degrade cellulose to sugar otherwise plants would never rot. the processing of cellulose to sugar requires carefully mediated steps of different temperature, pressure, pH, and chemical conditions for each cellulase enzyme to work optimally. streamlining this process will take time of course, but it doesn't seem impossible nor do i think all cellulose will be reduced to "grey goo"

also biofuel is never going to fix the problem. we've got to cut back on our energy usage. we could go back to burning cow dung and we'd be better off in the long run. (natural fuel from grass! yay!)

The Wolf said...

It is irresponsible to draw comparisons between fighting wildfires in California and fighting switchgrass fires in the Great Plains states.

Firstly, the areas where switchgrass would be grown will be accessible to fire-fighting equipment. Since the grass must be mechanically harvested, it must be accessible to farming equipment.

Secondly, we already have significant experience with related forms of agriculture. Hay is the fifth largest cash crop in the Unites States - farmers harvest in excess of 150 million tons of it each year. Cellulosic ethanol is merely an additional end-market for a similar crop.

Thirdly, many cattle farmers burn their rangeland on a regular basis, so there is already significant experience with fire management.

If there were any validity to your fear-mongering, then the pioneers would have been presented with a burnt and desolate landscape between St. Louis and the Rocky Mountains. Instead, they found nearly endless expanses of prairie and huge herds of bison.

Greenpa said...

response to "The Wolf": At first I deleted this comment, but then decided it would be better, just once, to respond to this kind of thing.

No, I am not in the least irresponsible, nor fear-mongering- you- on the other hand, are desperately blinded by your infatuation with switchgrass. Do your brain cells still function? Listen, please; and open your eyes:

"Firstly, the areas where switchgrass would be grown will be accessible to fire-fighting equipment. Since the grass must be mechanically harvested, it must be accessible to farming equipment."

Yes, of course it would be accessible; if you actually read my post, you'll note my objection here was to the cost of firefighting; maintaining equipment, stations, and teams. It will be very expensive; and cost lives, too. Which will make the economics much much less attractive.

"Secondly, we already have significant experience with related forms of agriculture. Hay is the fifth largest cash crop in the Unites States - farmers harvest in excess of 150 million tons of it each year. Cellulosic ethanol is merely an additional end-market for a similar crop."

You clearly, clearly- have never harvested hay.- nor have you done your homework to allow you to compare. "Hay" is harvested when GREEN- and it is virtually never more than 2' tall when cut. Switchgrass is harvested dead dry- and is 8' tall if it is a reasonable crop. There is no comparison whatsoever in terms of flammability- nor in handling, nor storage. The fantasized increase in grass handling would triple, or quadruple the amount of material. In order to make any difference to the fuel economy of the country- it would need to be an increase of at least an order of magnitude. Worth contemplating.

"Thirdly, many cattle farmers burn their rangeland on a regular basis, so there is already significant experience with fire management."

Oh, yes, cattle "farmers" - you clearly need to talk to a rancher, or two. There is no comparison between careful controlled burns of short-grass prairie, and wildfire in thousands of acres of 8 foot tall tinder dry switchgrass. None. Ask an actual rancher. I'm not aware of ANY who burn tall-grass prairies; only short-grass, or sometimes mixed.

Sorry- no fear-mongering here- just hard thinking. I have no hatred of cellulosic ethanol- if it could be a workable system, I'd be in favor. But just like ethanol from corn- it's a fantasy- with fanatic believers who desperately want it to be true. Would you care to invest in a corn ethanol plant today? I have several friends who would be delighted to sell you their shares. They can't find any buyers.