Biofuels Are Sustainable and Economical, Say German Researchers

Ablaze
Blaze (image by Nicholas T, CC 2.0 license)

Oh Snap! Now some German scientists have (in effect) taken a swing at Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, who concluded in a recent paper that biofuels are a bad policy direction (see summary post here).

In their paper Sustainable global energy supply based on lignocellulosic biomass from afforestation of degraded areas, Prof. Jürgen O. Metzger from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany and Prof. Aloys Huettermann from the University of Goettingen in Germany say that growing and using biofuels for all the earth’s energy needs is not only possible without jeopardizing the global food supply, but also economically feasible.

Their key discovery is that by reforesting land that has been “degraded by human use in historical times”, they found:

… the global energy demand projected by the International Energy Agency in the Reference Scenario for the year 2030 could be provided sustainably and economically primarily from lignocellulosic biomass grown on areas which have been degraded by human activities in historical times.

(H/T to Science Daily for the link.)

Obama’s Green Opportunity

US Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Ham...
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On Wednesday, the Freakonomics blog asked:

If you had a seat at one of the tables where Obama will be meeting over the next days and weeks, what would be some of your suggestions for how he should shape his administration, address the economic mess, consider the energy future, engage the global community, and so on and so forth?

My suggestions for the president-elect:

  1. Energy independence is the biggest lever you have – it generates jobs (including lots in the red states for solar and wind farms and transmission lines as well as high tech jobs in the blue states), technological leadership, economic growth due to new global industries that should be based here in the States, a “sending a man to the moon” type of national goal, and the potential to change the political calculus with the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela. Yes, we want a market-based approach, but you have a great opportunity to accelerate the revolution through good policies and emphatic “nudges.”
  2. Quick action to start rebuilding relationships with the rest of the world, especially the parts that are not already our close friends – we really need friends everywhere, not just in Europe. Many options here, from driving worldwide action on climate change to a dignified drawdown in Iraq to, yes, drawing Iran, Cuba and some of our other “enemies” into the world community to reduce their threat to us.

At this critical juncture for the U.S. and the world, and with the world-changing potential of a new administration, energy and sustainability are the common thread leading to a desirable outcome.

In the comments, please let me know your thoughts on Obama’s next steps.

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Is this solar energy analysis is too simplistic?

According to this analysis from Clean Edge, (which I saw originally in the San Jose Mercury News, Solar energy cost may rival other forms soon, study says – SiliconValley.com):

Solar energy will cost the same as power produced by coal, natural gas and nuclear plants in about a decade, a report released Tuesday suggests. By then, the price parity could propel solar adoption so that it accounts for 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2025

If you listen to this kind of thinking, solar energy (which is defined as what, by the way?) is still far more expensive than other kinds. But solar energy, even today, has a finite payback time – if I put solar collectors on my roof, for example, eventually they will pay for themselves.

So that’s one way it’s wrong.

Secondly, the study assumes that conventional energy prices will go up by 3% per year. That could be a slight underestimate. Didn’t we just experience a three month period where gas prices nearly doubled? (That’s 100%, folks!).

I can’t make any argument about the assumption that solar energy prices will come down 18% per year. That’s a lot, by one metric, but we’ve certainly seen large and faster price drops in high tech in the past. Even the iPhone last month, which dropped in price by almost 50% in less than a year. Sure, that was partly through some magic AT&T financial pixie dust, but to the user, it’s a clear 50% price cut. There’s no reason similar magic pixie dust, whether from the government or from the utilities themselves, won’t contribute to market price declines.

The claim that solar currently accounts for less than 1/10th of a percent of the U.S. energy supply today is fine. But the assumption that it will still be less than 1 percent in 2015 (seven years from now) is curious. If we start at .1 percent, and double our solar usage every year, we end up at 128 times as much – 12.8% of today’s total. This is the amazing power of Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Even if it takes two years for each doubling, we’re still up a factor of 32x in seven years. That means 3.2% today’s usage. Our total energy usage may also go up (although there are very good reasons to think it may not go up much and and will be starting a downward trajectory), but for a 32x increase in solar supply to translate to 1% of our total energy use, total energy use would have to double. Not too likely in the U.S., where population growth has stopped, and SUVs are starting their long decline.

Finally, there’s good reason to believe that solar energy will actually have a much larger share of U.S. energy usage, due to the power of “negawatts” (as explained brilliantly by Amory Lovins in this series of talks at Stanford in 2007), in which efficiency turns out to be the most cost effective way to power industry and create profits. Oh, and by the way, it significantly reduces our energy usage, by as much as a factor of five to seven!

The article combines a couple of types of fallacious thinking – that technological progress is linear, for example, rather than geometric, and that other factors, such as the desire to reduce greenhouse gases or realizing the benefits of negawatts throughout the economy, don’t have an additional accelerating effect on technology changes.