Alternate fuels: community ecology informs energy policy

There's little doubt that we need to move America off of its addiction to rapidly depleting fossil fuels. The challenge is that our current energy infrastructure is heavily dependent on there being a common currency of energy; cars and trucks all run on different formulations of the same product, factories and households tap into the same electrical grid.

While the electrical grid is basically agnostic to the source of the electricity, replacing petroleum products will be trickier. The reason we need them is that cars and trucks need to carry their energy source with them. While hydrogen or ethanol could both replace that benefit of gasoline, only one will win out, because gas station owners might be prepared to retrofit their equipment to handle one new fuel, but are unlikely to spring for two or three. Since biodiesel is already establishing itself in the marketplace as an almost-perfect replacement for diesel fuel (biodiesel can corrode some hoses), station-owners won't move until the winner is chosen. And of course, no one will move to either fuel source until station owners upgrade their pumps.

Gasoline, biodiesel, ethanol and hydrogen are basically ways of storing and transporting energy. Hydrogen can be produced with water and electricity; if electricity were cheap enough and the conversion efficient enough, you could refuel your car from a garden hose. Ethanol is stored solar energy from plants, and gasoline is stored solar energy from very old plants.

Hydrogen is a gas, and would require special equipment to be feasible. Coupled with a renewable source of electricity, it could be emissions neutral, since the output of the car would be clean water, the same as its input. Ethanol has the advantage of being liquid, so much of the transportation infrastructure could be kept intact, with upgrades to protect pipelines from corrosion, for instance. If farming and transportation were emissions neutral, ethanol would be too, since all the carbon released by burning it came from the air while the crops were growing.

Of course, farming and transportation are not emissions neutral.

I don't know now where I found this link, but thanks to whoever pointed me to an article in Chemical & Engineering News asking Ethanol—Is It Worth It? The debate centers on the claim that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the gallon of ethanol gives back. By some calculations, it takes about 13 gallons of oil to produce 10 gallons of ethanol, by which argument it would be more efficient to just burn the oil.

As is so often the case, the story is more complicated. To get that number, David Pimentel included a wide range of energy uses that go into ethanol production, energy uses which probably would not stop if we produced less ethanol, or even if we grew less corn. On the other hand, government estimates that claim you get 10 gallons of ethanol at a cost of 7-8 gallons of gasoline ignore necessary energy use. That suggests that the debate is a push.

Other argue that Pimentel's isn't even asking the right question:

Bruce E. Dale, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, backs the USDA numbers and has applied Pimentel's methodology to making gasoline. He found gasoline production has a 45% net energy loss, worse even than Pimentel's charges for ethanol [net losses of 29% for distilled ethanol, 50% for cellulosic]. He also looked at generating electricity from coal and found a net energy loss of a whopping 240%.

He asks rhetorically: Does that mean coal shouldn't be used to make electricity? Dale says the debate over net energy loss or gain is "irrelevant."

While there are many good arguments against coal-powered plants, I'm inclined to agree with Dale's point here.

One of the reasons that ethanol is almost sure to emerge as the winner over hydrogen is that it is produced from corn grown in, among other places, Iowa – home of the first caucus in the nation. So long as Iowa gets to pick the next president, politicians will be looking for ways to make corn more valuable, and ethanol has certainly been fitting that bill lately. Early work on the new Farm Bill is already running into tough questions about how much to subsidize corn farmers who have benefitted from rising prices driven largely by demand from ethanol producers.
Corn is the default source of ethanol in the US, but the success Brazil has had in becoming energy independent has come from its production of ethanol fuels from sugarcane. That's a much better source of ethanol, but high tariffs on sugarcane and ethanol produced from it mean that we cannot produce nearly enough ethanol from that more efficient source. Those sugar tariffs are another perk for corn farmers, who sell corn to produce high fructose corn syrup, and to sugar beet farmers.
Setting aside its energy costs, corn farming is also not the best thing for soils, nor for waterways. Fertilizers and pesticides get into waterways and damage ecosystems, intensive plowing and corn's nutritional requirements destroy the topsoil, and the water needs can deplete precious aquifers.

Luckily, there are other options. The most exciting development, one that is supposedly very close to commercial viability, is cellulosic ethanol. Conventional ethanol production is a fermentation of sugars into alcohol, followed by distilling. Since most of the plant has no sugar, it is turned around as waste, for use as fertilizer or animal feed. Cellulosic ethanol is produced by specially produced enzymes that break down the cellulose that makes up most of a plant's structure. Most animals can't digest cellulose; bacteria in the guts of termites and ruminant mammals help them break down cellulose, given time.

At this point, cellulosic ethanol is still quite expensive, though the companies that produce the enzymes are making improvements at regular intervals, and government funds and researchers have been dedicated to moving that research forward.

The benefit of this technique is that it doesn't require sugary parts of the plant, almost any plant material could be used. President Bush's confusing comments about switchgrass in last year's State of the Union referred to this approach to ethanol production. Switchgrass is a fast-growing grass that can grow in arid areas without needing extensive fertilizing, irrigation or plowing.

i-f2cc565da9d8641918052801ad1f9df4-200701212302.jpgAnd in another example of the importance of ecological science to agriculture, research by the famed Dave Tilman at the University of Minnesota has found that high-diversity grasslands can produce more biomass more quickly and with lower fertilizer inputs than agricultural landscapes. The land where the experiment has been running since 1994 was too poor for farming, but the products of the land could produce more energy than cornfields.
In addition to being able to produce substantial amounts of cellulosic ethanol, planting grasslands stored carbon dioxide as rootmass underground. This rebuilds the soils and sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere. In their experiments on degraded soils, switchgrass was no better than other crop monocultures.

And where crop monocultures like corn or soy is, as discussed earlier, net carbon producers, these grassland plots were net carbon comsumers, taking in more carbon from the atmosphere due to carbon sequestration than they release when converted to fuel and burned.

Dr. Tilman and his colleagues calculate that widespread planting of such low-intensity, high-diversity plots could cut global carbon emissions by 15%. This would allow ethanol to be produced on lands like those participating in the CRP program, though with regular harvests of the naturally occurring species. Such grassland plantings could also replace wheat in drought-prone areas such as western Kansas.

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You may have already seen this since it's been making the rounds in the wire service over the last week. The Hopewell project in New Jersey is using solar power to produce enough electricity and hydrogen to power an average sized home and a hydrogen powered vehicle.

This is just one of many ways to address energy independence, but I kinda like this one because it allows one to live completely off of the grid (independent of both the electrical and gasoline infrastructures).

Mr. Rosenau has neglected another energy source, natural gas. Here in the Washington Metropolitian Area, the regional bus company has purchased some 400+ transit vehicles that run on natural gas. Natural gas has a lower carbon profile then gasoline and much lower then diesel fuel. My observations of these buses is that they are quieter then the diesel buses they replaced, thsy have better acceleration characteristics, and they appear to put out much less polution in the form of particulates. It may be possible to extract natural gas from coal in an environmentally friendly manner which would give us a supply that could last several hundred years.

The problem with liquefying or gasifying coal is that you still have all that toxic waste to dispose of somehow. It doesn't get into the air, which is good, but it costs energy to do, and just shuffles the pollution around.

And while it's true that the natural gas production and combustion cycle is less carbon intensive than coal, it still adds carbon to the atmosphere. CNG or LNG is better than dirty old diesel engines, but biodiesel is clean also, and has the potential to be carbon neutral. CNG and LNG definitely produce less particulate pollution, and that's important. They also produce less nitrogen and sulfur pollution, which contribute to acid rain. It's a step, and a good one. It just isn't the final step.


In order to insure energy and economic independence as well as better economic growth without being blackmailed by foreign countries, our country, the United States of Americas Utilization of Energy sources must change.
"Energy drives our entire economy." We must protect it. "Let's face it, without energy the whole economy and economic society we have set up would come to a halt. So you want to have control over such an important resource that you need for your society and your economy." The American way of life is not negotiable.
Our continued dependence on fossil fuels could and will lead to catastrophic consequences.

The federal, state and local government should implement a mandatory renewable energy installation program for residential and commercial property on new construction and remodeling projects with the use of energy efficient material, mechanical systems, appliances, lighting, etc. The source of energy must by renewable energy such as Solar-Photovoltaic, Geothermal, Wind, Biofuels, etc. including utilizing water from lakes, rivers and oceans to circulate in cooling towers to produce air conditioning and the utilization of proper landscaping to reduce energy consumption. (Sales tax on renewable energy products should be reduced or eliminated)

The implementation of mandatory renewable energy could be done on a gradual scale over the next 10 years. At the end of the 10 year period all construction and energy use in the structures throughout the United States must be 100% powered by renewable energy. (This can be done by amending building code)

In addition, the governments must impose laws, rules and regulations whereby the utility companies must comply with a fair NET METERING (the buying of excess generation from the consumer at market price), including the promotion of research and production of renewable energy technology with various long term incentives and grants. The various foundations in existence should be used to contribute to this cause.

A mandatory time table should also be established for the automobile industry to gradually produce an automobile powered by renewable energy. The American automobile industry is surely capable of accomplishing this task. As an inducement to buy hybrid automobiles (sales tax should be reduced or eliminated on American manufactured automobiles).

This is a way to expedite our energy independence and economic growth. (This will also create a substantial amount of new jobs). It will take maximum effort and a relentless pursuit of the private, commercial and industrial government sectors commitment to renewable energy energy generation (wind, solar, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, energy storage (fuel cells, advance batteries), energy infrastructure (management, transmission) and energy efficiency (lighting, sensors, automation, conservation) (rainwater harvesting) (energy and natural resources conservation) in order to achieve our energy independence.

"To succeed, you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality."

Jay Draiman, Energy Consultant
Northridge, CA. 91325
Jan. 23, 2007

P.S. I have a very deep belief in America's capabilities. Within the next 10 years we can accomplish our energy independence, if we as a nation truly set our goals to accomplish this.
I happen to believe that we can do it. In another crisis--the one in 1942--President Franklin D. Roosevelt said this country would build 60,000 [50,000] military aircraft. By 1943, production in that program had reached 125,000 aircraft annually. They did it then. We can do it now.
The American people resilience and determination to retain the way of life is unconquerable and we as a nation will succeed in this endeavor of Energy Independence.

Solar energy is the source of all energy on the earth (excepting volcanic geothermal). Wind, wave and fossil fuels all get their energy from the sun. Fossil fuels are only a battery which will eventually run out. The sooner we can exploit all forms of Solar energy (cost effectively or not against dubiously cheap FFs) the better off we will all be. If the battery runs out first, the survivors will all be living like in the 18th century again.

Every new home built should come with a solar package. A 1.5 kW per bedroom is a good rule of thumb. The formula 1.5 X's 5 hrs per day X's 30 days will produce about 225 kWh per bedroom monthly. This peak production period will offset 17 to 24 cents per kWh with a potential of $160 per month or about $60,000 over the 30-year mortgage period for a three-bedroom home. It is economically feasible at the current energy price and the interest portion of the loan is deductible. Why not?

Title 24 has been mandated forcing developers to build energy efficient homes. Their bull-headedness put them in that position and now they see that Title 24 works with little added cost. Solar should also be mandated and if the developer designs a home that solar is impossible to do then they should pay an equivalent mitigation fee allowing others to put solar on in place of their negligence.

Installing renewable energy system on your home or business increases the value of the property and provides a marketing advantage.

Nations of the world should unite and join together in a cohesive effort to develop and implement MANDATORY RENEWABLE ENERGY for the sake of humankind and future generations.

By Jay Draiman (not verified) on 23 Jan 2007 #permalink