Friday, August 11, 2006

The conceit of positive thinking

I at first ignored Bruce Sterling’s recent ethanol Viridian note. Though he exhibited an incomplete understanding of energy, and his conclusions were weak in this case, I have immense respect for his Viridian writings, not to mention his literary output in general. In terms of the Viridian list over the last few years he presciently discussed global warming issues and consistently frames the solutions as a solvable design problem, while heaping scorn on the correct targets. Exxon Mobil, for example.

Unfortunately, he followed up the ethanol note with - - a few more corny ethanol postings, reproducing in one a limp marketing screed authored by a Senator from Corn and Vinod Khosla, containing such unsubstantiated claims as - -

At the same time, the business case for
ethanol has never been stronger. With crude oil
at $70 a barrel, corn-based ethanol today is cheaper
to produce than gasoline before all subsidies and


Moreover, studies have debunked the old
anti-ethanol myths. We'll have enough land for
energy crops given the projected strides in ethanol
yield per acre

The first quote is news to me. Sounds like it time to cancel the ethanol subsidies, which range from 50 cents to 100 cents a gallon, depending on the tax break in any given state. As for the second, projections are not a sound basis for policy. Let’s see some of these ideas proved out.

What really concerns me is the lack of balance in these optimistic scenarios. A good engineer doesn’t live in the grandiosity of their future bridge or engine or widget – they make a pessimistic assessment of every single thing that can go wrong, account for them, or risk design failure. There are also physical limits that must be accounted for. Accounting for limits is not pessimism.

Let us re-visit Bruce Sterling’s original Viridian note in this light and answer some of his answers.

1. Most cars don't burn fuels that are rich in ethanol.

That's true. You'd need a new flexfuel fleet and "trybrids" would be even better. On the plus side, it's a positive advantage if these new cars are huge SUVs. The automobile majors are already selling flexfuel cars in Brazil. They know how to do it, unlike with fuel-cell cars. They can make money.

This is a non-starter without an adequate supply of ethanol. Brazil has been supporting ethanol for thirty years, using the premier ethanol crop (rum) in a country the size of the United States, and they have displaced 20 percent of petroleum usage, and per capita fuel usage in Brazil is much lower than, say, the United States. No other country in the world has as much rain forest which can be displaced for the farming of liquid fuel as Brazil.

2. What about the many energy needs that aren't transportation fuel?

You can burn the grass directly as boiler fuel, or even make electricity with microbes eating grass.

Or, wear a jacket and insulate your home. Granted, conservation solutions not involving technology are uniformly rejected by the average light-switch user at this stage, but when compared to harvesting miles of grass every year and lugging it thirty miles to the nearest switchgrass plant, conservation and awareness will suddenly be high fashion, and accomplished without any preaching by the so-called “hair shirt” environmentalists.

3. Ethanol raises the cost of corn and starves poor people in order to fill rich guy's gas tanks.

That's only true of the starch ethanol that comes from edible grains. Cellulosic ethanol comes from grass, cornstalks and leftover sugarcane bagasse. Poor people don't eat those.

What about Brazil, where poor people harvest plants for rich people who own cars? There are 1 million farmers and bagasse sweepers in Brazil. This is why EROEI is positive in Brazil. Human labor is used for processing. It is very efficient. Can’t wait for that model to be expanded to other industrialized countries.

4. Ethanol takes more energy to make than it contributes to our society.

This is a largely academic distinction. Furthermore, it isn't true even of old-school corn ethanol, while cellulosic ethanol is a new, unheard-of process, that, if it really worked, would be hugely efficient at turning solar radiation right into booze.

“ - Academic distinction - ” Wrong. And wrong about corn ethanol. Non-peer reviewed studies don’t count. This is crackpot territory. It shouldn’t be necessary to take a science fiction author to task on a point such as this. As James Kunstler often notes, there is a difference between technology and energy. (Should be Kunstler’s Law.) All technology and biology are activated by energy. Readers of this sentence are burning extra calories to process the text.

Sadly, it appears that Sterling in this case has convinced himself of a perpetual motion machine. I’m skeptical. I say outside inputs of petroleum energy are being masked as heavy subsidies for most ethanol production. Ted Patzek calls it an energy laundering scheme. Every step of the life cycle analysis for ethanol is well understood. Energy wasted or gained at every step is arguable, but the proof is in the final price. In Brazil, organic methods of production are used for sugarcane, including fertilizing the soil with industrial waste from the bagasse burning plants, as well as massive human labor. No other country in the world has the unique set of conditions as Brazil, particularly the largest fuel users in the industrialized world.

5. If this cellulosic microbe cracking worked, somebody would be selling me booze made of their lawn clippings now. So where are the big cellulosic refineries? They don't even exist. Show me.

We'll have to take that pressing issue up with Novozyme, Danisco, Diversa, Abengoa, and Acciona Energía. These new cellulosic startups may all pop just like dotbombs. On the other hand, if we don't somehow rapidly solve soaring oil costs and the climate crisis, there won't be any conventional economy left either. There are a lot of methods of going after the knotty problem of cracking cellulose, and we're getting better at most of them. This scheme is not yet prime-time, but it's not cold-fusion, either.

Absolutely - - let these companies try to make this work in a free market system, without government welfare checks. There is no evidence that ethanol will ever replace more than a fraction of current liquid fuel usage, currently running at 80 plus million barrels of oil a day (by volume comparison of actual energy, equal to about 100 million gallons of high grade ethanol.) Demonstrations to the contrary are eagerly awaited by this commentator. Prove the skeptic wrong. I’ll eat my hat. Rockets will never fly to the moon because there is no air for them to push against in space.

6. When you burn ethanol, carbon dioxide goes into our sky. That's bad, isn't it?

You're not getting it yet. This scheme means covering the USA with a Saudi Arabia of prairie. That means sucking CO2 out of the air and turning into a vast sea of sod. Most of the fuel plant is roots, so it remains underground. You're not going to burn that part. You're using green plants to suck the burnt coal and crude-oil out of the sky and turn it into topsoil. Unlike nuclear power, this scheme is a chance to actively grab the excess CO2 out of the sky and get rid of it. It's better than a closed carbon loop. It's carbon sequestration.

A simplistic and hopeful description. In this scheme, to initially achieve positive energy return, most of the plant material must be burned to run the production factories. This means there is little or nothing left to fertilize the soil with, except for outside inputs, so production will steadily decline. Thus next year switchgrass will not grow as well - - and extra carbon stays in the atmosphere. This is a hard and fast engineering constraint that must be solved. Not to mention transporting tons of grass to X number of production plants. Being carbon neutral is great, but without positive energy flows the scheme is a joke.

7. . Fuel-cell hydrogen is a much cooler idea than this hick-centric hay-bale nonsense.

Yeah, it is, but there is no giant Brazil already running on fuel-cells. By the way, Brazilian sugarcane consists of cellulose besides the sugar than makes rum, so Brazil's vast, well-established fuel canefields ought to at least triple in value under this dispensation. The Brazilians become the new Saudis. At least voodoo freaks don't blow themselves up.

As noted previously, Brazil replaces only a fraction of petroleum usage, although a significant one in comparison to most countries, due to human labor and well suited crop not appropriate for most climates.

8. . There's not enough room in the croplands to grow endless multitons of biofuels. We'll all starve!

It's not about fermenting our edible crops. It's about fermenting hay. There's plenty of room for hay. Hay grows where crops can't grow.

Who gets to harvest the switchgrass from all the oddball locations not suitable for food crops? This hay scheme has not been demonstrated energy positive yet. Prove it. The example of Brazil can also confuse if we are talking switchgrass. Two completely different methods of producing bio-fuels.

9. . Genetically modified organisms are the work of Satan!

So are heatwaves, warfare and genocide. We're getting way past the point of being picky here. If you really want to see renewable, sustainable solutions to vast, planetary-scale crises, there has to be some time and place where you are willing to take "yes" for an answer. The best is the enemy of the good, while the status quo will kill us. This is a very innovative game plan which could expand with great speed and which, at its basis, is all about grass. Are you really afraid of grass?

All the genetically modified patent pending nonsense in the world won’t help a soybean grow if the soil is fallow. I’m not scared of GM crops, I just don’t think they in any way address the problem. GM crops are generally poodles – weak, non robust strains needing specialized care. Primarily they provide a legal mechanism to lease seeds to farmers on a year by year basis. In that sense, they have negative value to society and a positive value to companies like Monsanto. Nothing whatsoever to do with bio-fuels.

To sum up.

- Bio-Fuels are demonstrably energy positive when human labor is used with the best crop. (Sugar.)
- Bio-Fuels schemes such as switchgrass operations (cellulosic ethanol) have potential as a niche fuel but this promise has not yet been demonstrated energy positive over time. (Soil degrades seasonally if not replenished.)
- Corn ethanol is a joke, and investment in it is an act of desperation due to tightening oil supplies.

Bio-Fuels is a technology with low energy returns in the best of scenarios, which “projects” out favorably only when the best cropland and crop are used. In other words, the marketing and the greenwashing are running far, far out in front of demonstrated, scientifically reproducible reality.

The conceit inherent in those who push bio-fuel as a replacement for oil is in ignoring the obvious points of failure, and the obvious subsidies, and the obvious slender returns on energy invested. In this case, the optimistic, can do attitude is not enough to solve the problem at hand. Physical limits must be accounted for. Farming on a massive scale is not equivalent to turning on ones Blackberry and writing a few lines of software code. There are grasshoppers in the mix, and hail.

I am not salivating over a future without oil. Yet, I am concerned and suspicious when dodgy solutions are presented that seemingly promise to keep our current industrial society working exactly as before, as if that were the best and only solution.

A little more imagination is needed for the problems at hand.

Whiskey won't help.


At 3:38 AM, August 14, 2006, Blogger Big Gav said...

Your spam filter isn't working...

But a nice post - however, I must warn you the pope emperor may ex-communicate you if you persist in debunking his epistles paragraph by paragraph.

My view is cellulosic ethanol will work out to a certain extent. Fields will need to be left fallow as per any crop, and vaious schemes implemented for helping to renew the soil.

It won't replace oil, but as they say - there isn't a silver bullet.

I'd rather see recognition of the problem and halting first steps taken to address it than waiting until we've invaded all the OPEc countries...

At 12:31 AM, August 18, 2006, Blogger JMS said...

I'm a big of of Sterling even though I disagree on him on this topic.


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