Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Trend in Biofuels Has New Risks - New York Times

New Trend in Biofuels Has New Risks - New York Times:
Published: May 21, 2008

ROME — In the past year, as the diversion of food crops like corn and palm to make biofuels has helped to drive up food prices, investors and politicians have begun promoting newer, so-called second-generation biofuels as the next wave of green energy. These, made from non-food crops like reeds and wild grasses, would offer fuel without the risk of taking food off the table, they said.

1 comment:

Felipe said...

Many arguments against ethanol. One point usually missed is the major impact the questionable US Central Bank (Fed Res Brd) measures have had on price levels. This may be a major driver feeding price spikes in commodities and oil.

On bio-fuels the danger is to throw away a good idea because it had a miserable implementation. Corn-ethanol has an energy rate of return estimated at 1.3 (1.3 units of energy generated by one energy input). Corrosive ethanol transportation further decreases its EROR However there
are more competitive alternatives (sweet sorghum 8, sugar cane 8-9, crude oil EROR 20). A reasoned debate would distinguish the bad implementation (corn ethanol) from the good idea. Not all bio-fuels are created equal. Since the US will continue to face a security challenge on its energy supplies this dependency on foreign supplies could be in part addressed by smart use of bio-fuels.

Cellulosic biofuels still need research--specially with enzimatic brakedown of starches and of the lignun ring surrounding core material. But allocative inefficiency may waste taxpayer's resources. Influential groups have gained access to public grants to build to cellulosic plants when those funds might have been significantly better allocated to cellulosic research and development.

Nuclear plants, frequently suggested as the solution, must overcome a major killer issue. Scientific American recently noted the quantity of spent fuel so far accumulated by the U.S nuclear industry (about 58,000 metric tons) currently nearly equals the capacity of the cooling pools used to hold such materials at the reactor sites. By midcentury, the amount will roughly double. Thus, instead of carbon dioxide production, our people will end up with radioactive material with pretty long half lives.

Wise energy action is indispensable. But past experience shows govenrment policies have been significantly counterproductive. A strong lobby has been created around corn, one which will be difficult to neutralize. Why? Because while many US citizens may have to pay a few pennies more, a few harvest millions. This creates a political asymmetry: an extremely attractive rate of return to their campaign financing and other "investments" in our legislative and executive bodies for the very few who milk the federal trough while the taxpayer only loses marginally and their numbers are legion.

Lessons from massive subsidies to the oil industry, and more recently the Farm Bill, demonstrate the lack of functional interest by the American polity on these vital issues. This is compounded by the cost of our energy inertia. When our voters had the option to support legislation imposing a modest energy tax (e.g., initially $ .10/gallon increasing gradually over the years) they rejected it. Now, instead of keeping those taxes in the US and benefit from solutions with lower energy consumption, we are transferring our hard earned income overseas, frequently to unsavory characters our nation can ill afford to trust.

Lack of will in the past is making our on-going energy transition more painful. Will Ford, GM and Chrysler face bankruptcy because their large profit makers (SUVs, Vans, Trucks) are no longer bought by our pummeled middle class families? Or will those families see their tax dollars allocated to massive bailouts of these firms which, knowing the price energy trends, continued their profligate ways (and bonuses to their senior) and are now paying the cost (or shifting the cost to us?).

The most recent experience on a similar behavior raises worrisome concerns: the current travesty with corn-ethanol subsidies where the middle class pays for the subsidy, and then at the pump and grocery store for higher prices caused in part by those subsidies--a negative rate of return on taxes paid?)

It is amazing we have put up with this for so long...and more startling that we might continue to do so into the future.

What can we do at the personal and local level?

1. Use public transportation
2. Burn carbohydrates instead of hydrocarbons--walk, bike
3. Don't drive above 60 mphs.
4. Empty the trunk of your cars from "storage" loads (no golf clubs stored there--very fuel expensive); keep proper air pressure on your tires, use less electricity--yep, turns the lights off and follow other common sense measures; no one needs to freeze in the summer.
5. Organize car-pool networks
6. Write cohesive letters to your congressmen and senators. Team up with those who can provide technical information and economic impact data on your communities and their "voting pool". Ensure those letters are read. Yada-Yada-Yada notes or acclamations in public fora are routinely dismissed.
7. Form or join politically active groups established to gain back control over our political lives. May I suggest a key point in the agenda: improve smart public transportation in your communities.

Washington is important, but in the energy and food conundrum, local government and actions may determine the future strength of our country. In the short to medium run, some believe it may be difficult to regain power over our elected officials in Washington because we lack the deep pockets required to influence them. But we have a powerful weapon: votes, and with the Internet, small political contributions ($50) from "the masses" have become cost effective. Let's organize those votes to laser on specific issues--and hold our elected officials accountable for the delivery of suggested legislation and measures.