by Judith Curry
A few articles that I’ve collected on energy policy.
Examining biofuels policy
Last August, Chemical and Engineering News featured several articles on the topic of biofuels policy, with the lead article titled Examining biofuels policy. Some excerpts:
Over the past decade, more than 50 countries, including the U.S., have been scurrying to implement policies to integrate biofuels into the transportation infrastructure in the face of a number of pressing needs—national energy security, a sustainable agricultural sector, job creation in the rural economy, and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to curtail climate change. Producing fuel crops that would meet a country’s domestic fuel needs, revitalize rural economies, and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions appeared to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
With experience and hindsight, experts are taking a more measured view of biofuels and their promise to be affordable, available, and clean. Among the factors under scrutiny are raw materials, environmental impact, social cost, and infrastructure implementation.
“The biofuels business globally would not exist if it weren’t for the mandates,” Reijnhart states. Like the U.S., many countries have implemented a blending mandate, defining the percentage of biofuel that must be used in lightweight vehicle fuel.
So-called first-generation biofuels—ethanol from corn or sugarcane and biodiesel from rapeseed, soy, or palm oil—are meeting many of the mandates. But an NCB report on the ethics of biofuels production released last April acknowledges that in the rush to meet mandates, the large-scale production of first-generation biofuels presents problems. The report explores and finds instances of infringement of the rights of farmers, farmworkers, and landholders, especially in parts of the developing world. It also finds that some first-generation biofuels have severe environmental consequences, including pollution and the loss of biodiversity.
Unsustainable production is exactly what is happening in the U.S., according to Barbara Bramble, senior program adviser for international affairs at the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation group. She likens the current state of federal policy on biofuels to “a heavy foot on the accelerator of the car without really knowing where we’re going.”
But as the NCB report notes, experts have some concern that corn is a highly inefficient biofuel source with severe environmental consequences. The crop needs huge amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which require fossil fuels for their production. The fertilizers exacerbate the environmental damage when they run off the fields, which are concentrated in the central U.S., and into the rivers, eventually causing dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico
Others also blame corn for cramping the development of other biofuels in the U.S. “A sad impact is that we have so much corn that it crowds out the space for [next]-generation biofuels. Who would want to go out on a limb to develop more difficult technologies when corn is so easy?”
Growth Energy, a trade organization that represents U.S. ethanol producers, holds cellulosic ethanol, a second-generation biofuel, in high regard, calling it “the 50-state solution.” “Every state has some form of cellulosic biomass that could be converted into ethanol,” Thorne says. But cellulosic ethanol currently faces a bumpy road to commercialization , with R&D projects still mostly in laboratories.
Beyond infrastructure, biofuels will still face problems, such as the food-versus-fuel controversy. The most recent flare-up happened in 2008, when biofuels were fingered as the cause of rising food prices. NCB’s Buyx and others point out in various analyses that biofuels appeared to be only one of several factors in changing food prices. High energy prices and a weak dollar seemed to have been more significant.
The food-versus-fuel controversy also questions the use of agricultural land to grow biofuel raw materials. Experts note, however, that agricultural land need not be affected by biofuel production because DOE and USDA have been promoting cultivation of energy crops on marginal land that does not support agriculture.
To ensure that biofuels don’t cause more harm than good, RSB has developed a voluntary standard and certification system for sustainable biofuel production that the European Union has now recognized. The standard requires the entire biofuel production chain to meet various environmental and social criteria, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and not damaging lands with great biodiversity.
Going forward, Dale says, analyses of biofuels and their effects have to be more thorough to understand in detail their impacts on society and the environment. For the sake of accurate and fair analyses, he emphasizes, the consequences of biofuel production—on the environment, society, or technology—must always be compared with those of fossil-fuel production. If people want to continue to drive and fly and, simultaneously, reduce fossil-fuel consumption, increase national energy security, and mitigate climate change, biofuels are the only option for the immediate future, experts agree. Dale states, “We need to figure out how to produce biofuels correctly and then go do it.”
There are several recent articles of interest at oilprice.com:
A funny thing is happening on the way to the clean energy future–reality is setting in. There is ‘incontrovertible evidence’ about the economic growth and job creating effects of America’s unconventional oil and gas production boom – more than 600,000 jobs directly attributable to shale gas development. Even President Obama is praising the job creating benefits of ‘America’s resource boom’. America is getting its energy mojo back and that is good news but not the entire story.
Not easily summarizable, but here are the section headings:
- Global competition for energy resources from emerging economies like China
- Struggle over energy policy and greenhouse gas emissions around the world
- Growth in unconventional oil and gas from shales and oil sands
- Uncertainty of environmental regulations forcing power plant retirements
- Game changing technology is turning the energy industry on its head
About a month ago, Tom Fuller started a new blog 3000 quads, which refers to the amount of energy humans are expected to be using by 2075. He has a report entitled “Energy consumption in the developing world in 2030.”
Two recent posts that I found particularly interesting:
Check out Tom’s new blog and help him develop a bigger readership, which this blog deserves.
JC comment: let me know if you have spotted any other interesting articles on broad topics of energy policy.
Moderation note: this is strictly a Heartland/Gleick free thread