From point A to point B in the USA: enough energy to feed the world

Yesterday’s Seattle Times carried news of AltAir and Imperium Renewables recent testimony at the US Senate. The companies say they plan to build 100 million gallon (AltAir, “in the Tacoma area”) and 80 million gallon (Imperium, location unstated) facilities to make aviation biofuel. If both facilities were built in Washington State, it would bring the state’s biodiesel/aviation biofuel production capacity to over 280 million gallons.

Biofuels are problematic enough without this kind of hype, and these projects will hurt the sustainable biodiesel industry whether or not they are built. They also bring to mind Peter’s comment (in the TEDx thread) about the damaging influence of Tribe 2.

One challenge we all face when thinking about biofuels and renewable energy is that we have little sense of just how much energy we use.

According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics (data here), the  total U.S. consumption of liquid fuel for car/truck/intercity bus transportation was 176,202 million gallons in 2007. The same source says aviation fuel consumption (presumably nonmilitary) was 14,759 million gallons.

Those are such large numbers, we need another way to think of them, so let’s think of them in terms of food Calories (recall that 1 kcal = 1 Calorie). A gallon of fuel contains about 30,000 kcal. Now let’s compare U.S. fuel consumption to global food Calorie consumption — the amount of food eaten by everyone on Earth. The graph  shows the amount of Calories produced and consumed since the early 1960’s.

The red circles and text on the graph below show the food equivalent of annual U.S. fuel consumption for ground and air transportation, excluding urban transit systems and international flights. Ground transportation consumes about 5.3 billion million Calorie-equivalents of energy, while domestic air transportation consumes about 0.44 billion million Calorie-equivalents of energy, for a total of about 5.7 billion million Calorie-equivalents, enough to feed almost everyone on Earth.*

Think about that. It means that if all the agriculture on the planet were used to make fuel, it would barely satisfy the fuel demands of the United States. This is the problem of biofuels: people seem to expect them to be able to replace all, or a substantial fraction, of fossil fuel use, even though that’s obviously impossible. Smart people are doing dumb things with money as a result, and aviation biofuel hype is the latest in a string of invitations to poor investments.

*This is not meant to raise a food vs. fuel concern; these numbers are to give a sense of scale. It is true, however, that for the last hundred years food has come from the surface of the Earth, and fuel has generally come from underground. Clearly, moving a great deal of fuel production to the surface will put the fuel in conflict with food: very large scale biofuel development can’t fail to affect food production, and will likewise increase human appropriation of net primary productivity, discussed earlier here.

TEDx crowdsourcing followup I

Many responses to the crowdsourcing/call for abstracts message! In addition to lots of great comments, several suggestions for speakers, and a couple of volunteers. Thanks to everyone, and stay tuned.

The call went by e-mail to a variety of colleagues, associates, friends, and listservers. Responses came to the comments section of the blog post, to the original listservers, and in the form of (many) e-mails directly to me. As seems to be usual for topics related to climate change, there are a lot of excellent, nuanced points made, and a few rougher ones. I’m still digesting it all, but here are a few quick thoughts.

There was a surprising contingent of Tribe 1 people on one of the listservers, in spite of the fact that the industry discussed by the list makes most sense (in developed countries, at least) in the context of global climate change concerns. Tribe 1 (the climate change is not happening/not a problem tribe) is very much alive, and many of these people seem to view global climate change as a political issue that has no place in scientific/technical discussions. In this way, global climate change resembles evolution/creationism, another fundamentally scientific issue where both sides have dug in their heels for decades. Unfortunately, while creationists and scientists have been merely annoying one another, with little at stake, there is a lot at stake when it comes to climate change. Unless, of course, the Three Tribes are all wrong, and climate change just Is.

In a blog comment, Peter made a very interesting observation about Tribe 2, the entrepreneurs/we-can-innovate-our-way-out tribe — Peter calls it the R&D group. He wrote:

[This] group has contributed to the delaying of action on climate. There is clear superficial appeal to the approach (politically, nothing has to change currently). It also has some powerful adherents (monied interests) who have political clout and who see big, centralized, capital intensive (profit-making) solutions to GHG emissions problems. This is an extension of conventional thinking that does not seem to apply well to climate change solutions. The end game of R&D only is a highly geo-engineered planet.

Regarding Tribe 3 (the passive and active hopeful), some correspondents called for splitting it into two. Indeed, the list originally had had four tribes, with the fourth being more active, but the last two tribes were lumped for the sake of brevity in the crowdsourcing/call for abstracts. There are clearly many people working hard on climate change issues, and Rueben’s comment mentioned some of them.

Finally, this idea for at TEDx theme received many responses that were simply positive. One e-mailer wrote, “Your idea to consider the “tribes” and debate the potentials is a really, really great idea.  I don’t usually get involved in these type of group activities but I will figure out how to plug in.”


TEDx crowdsourcing/call for abstracts



We’re organizing a TEDx event, and we appreciate your help in thinking about it.

Here’s the idea:

When it comes to energy and global climate change, most Americans can be loosely grouped into 3 tribes, each well-meaning in its own way:

  1. Global climate change deniers;
  2. Entrepreneurs and others who believe we can innovate our way out of any problems, and that new energy sources will be found to replace existing ones as needed, soon;
  3. Citizens who are quietly concerned, hoping and trusting that someone else has the situation under control; some of these citizens are making personal changes in response to their concerns.

What if all three tribes are wrong? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to practice thinking about it?

What might be some costs or benefits of behaving now as if all three tribes are wrong? How long should we wait before deciding or acting? If the three tribes are wrong, how will it change our business ideas, our approach to education, to planning and policy? Are there businesses or others that are acting now as if the three tribes are wrong? How are they doing it, and how is it going?

What are your thoughts? Please comment here or e-mail .

Ideas about speakers are particularly welcome: feel free to send a proposal/abstract of your own, forward this e-mail to possible speakers, or suggest speakers for us to contact. Thanks for joining the conversation!

Biofuels and land use conversion II

Continuing the earlier post, below is Figure 3 from “Our share of the planetary pie,” a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. The upper map shows the percentage of net primary productivity used by humans for food; the lower map shows the percentage of net primary productivity (NPP) used by humans for non-food and luxury crops such as cotton and coffee. See Figure 1 at the link for a map showing croplands and pastures.

A few things worth noting: compare human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP, the biosphere bounty humans skim off before flora and fauna can get it) in the US Northwest and Europe. Look at the equatorial regions, where most biofuel-related land use changes have and would occur and where most biodiversity lives. Look at Borneo, the big island northwest of Australia: the purple in the lower map probably represents palm oil plantations, which result in nearly 100% HANPP where they occur. In general, areas with no HANPP are tropical, temperate, or boreal forest, arctic/antarctic regions, or desert.

Biofuels and land use conversion I

Food vs fuel issues, and agriculture and use of agricultural products generally, are so complicated that they have emergent properties. We can think about them most easily by intentionally oversimplifying. So here goes.

Before the recent increase in expectations for biofuels as a solution for energy/global climate change problems, human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP) had reached a kind of equilibrium. (HANPP is the amount of biosphere bounty humans skim off the top, before flora and fauna get to dine.) Agricultural production has increased roughly in synch with population growth, mostly through improved plant breeding and agronomic practices. This has meant that large increases of farmland area haven’t been as necessary as they might have been without yield increases. Population growth is slowing, and most concern is about the consumption of material goods by people, not the number of people per se.

The difference now, post-biofuels, is that each gallon of biofuel consumption is equivalent to additional increases in population. A gallon of ethanol (the ethanol itself, not including production) contains about 90 MJ (21,500 kcal) of energy, enough energy for 10 days of a 2000 Calorie/day diet. For a gallon of biodiesel, then numbers are more like 140 MJ or 33,000 kcal — enough for over 2 weeks of human power.

I haven’t examined new reports from Europe about biofuels and indirect land use conversion, but increasing use of biofuels without decreasing overall energy use unavoidably leads to increasing land area in agriculture. New land is not being formed, so land use change is inevitable. This only makes intuitive sense. Of course there will be improvements — a recent news story suggested that limited replacement of corn with miscanthus (a hybrid grass) would have a variety of benefits, including increased ethanol production. However, there is a hard theoretical limit to possible increases.

By the way, use of non-food crops and materials for biofuels isn’t an improvement, from a biosphere/HANPP perspective. The problem is energy consumption, not biofuel production.

I think the real question is, what are the implications of apparently changing attitudes toward biodiesel for our regional biodiesel economy? How will we respond if and when European-style indirect land-use conversion concerns are raised here? See the next post for a map showing global HANPP for food and non-food crops — it will suggest why Europeans may be more sensitive to land use conversion issues than those of us in the US Northwest.

In the old days, I hoped that conceptual linkage between biofuels and food would cause people to examine their own energy consumption, rather than blame biofuels. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Biomass ever unsustainable?

A recent post on a biofuel listserv asked, “For us great unwashed masses – what is the definition of “unsustainable biomass”, exactly?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question: I’ll take a swing, but it’s not simple.

First we have to define “sustainable,” a famously slippery term. Wikipedia currently offers this, “For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.” The dimensions are all kind of stretchy, as we will see.

Now, what is biomass? Biomass is generally plant material, formed at some point in the relatively recent past. Basically solid (or liquid) solar energy that can be used to make biofuels. Fossil fuels are ancient solar energy too, but with the disadvantage that the carbon dioxide that’s released when fossil fuels are burned hasn’t been in the atmosphere for millions of years — causing an increase in the carbon dioxide levels in our modern atmosphere. Biofuels have the potential to be nearly carbon neutral: clearly biofuels can be better than fossil fuels, from a global climate change perspective.

So it might be natural to think that, since it is basically solar energy, biomass energy has no downside.

What could ever be wrong with biomass use for fuel? Lots of things, it turns out. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a biofuel guy. I’ve been making and selling biofuels, and thinking and writing about biofuels for years. But there’s a lot of irrational exuberance around biofuels these days. A quick answer to the question of what constitutes unsustainable biomass: it depends on how much you like driving and flying, but generally it would be unsustainable to use most biomass (forests, food crops, the trees that line your street) for fuel.