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Piebalgs on Biofuels

by nanne Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 05:06:54 AM EST

Maybe I'm stealing Euan's schtick here, and maybe Piebalgs blogging is getting repetitive. But the energy Commissioner has written another blog post in which he takes the opponents of biofuels to task:

Commissioner Andris Piebalgs - Blog - Biofuels Good or Evil?

[Statements opposing biofuels] have been widely reported and set the dominant tone on the biofuel debate. Contrary views are hardly heard. Yet, these statements are misleading or plain wrong. I myself drive an ethanol-powered Saab 9-5 and certainly I would not even think of it if I had the slightest suspicion that I'm contributing in any way to global warming, or, even worse, to an international genocide. This is why I consider that it is essential to regain a sense of proportion in this debate and try to have a discussion on this issue that is less intemperate and one-sided. I'm confident that this blog can be a good place to do this, and I plan to have a number of entries on this issue, and of course, your comments to them will be extremely welcome. 

Increased attention to the pitfalls of biofuels is most welcome, and I do not think that views supporting biofuels have really been drowned out. Having bought in to biofuels personally, moreover, can hardly be an argument. Ethanol car drivers should take a page from Alan AtKisson instead of presuming that they could not have made a mistake.

Promoted by Colman

Piebalgs does have some more substantive arguments:

First of all, when biofuels replace fossil fuels, greenhouse emissions are almost always lower. Biofuels are produced from plants that absorb the CO2 they generate when they are burnt. This has to take into account the fertiliser used to produce the crops, the energy needed to convert them into liquid fuels and so on.  On this basis, biofuels produced in Europe from rape seed, wheat and sugar beet, typically reduce emissions by 20-50% compared to the oil they replace. Biofuels from sugar cane, waste vegetable oil and second generation biofuels can save 75% or more. Under our proposal, all biofuels used for the EU target will have to save, at least, 35%.  

Secondly, energy crops are a positive agricultural alternative for European farmers. The Commission expects most of biofuels consumed in Europe to be produced in the EU. That will reduce substantially our foreign oil dependency, expected to be of about 90% by 2030. The transport sector which relies on oil for 98% of its energy is particularly vulnerable to our dependency and biofuels is currently the only significant alternative to oil in this sector.

And this is why biofuels are so important. Today, there are only three ways to reduce greenhouse emissions: the shift from polluting modes to more energy efficient ones (i.e. rail, short sea shipping, collective transport); the promotion of less consuming cars, by establishing CO2/km targets; and biofuels. The Commission is actively promoting the first two (white paper on transport; proposal to limit the CO2 emissions from cars 19/12/07 COM/2007/0856 final). But biofuels ought to be supported as well because they are the most immediately feasible way of significantly slowing the worrying growth of greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

The question of available acreage does not get addressed. Piebalgs offers some consolation by talking about sustainability:
Certainly, the Commission is aware that biofuels can also be produced in ways which can cause environmental problems or other negative consequences. This is why the Commission has conducted a serious assessment of all the impacts be they environmental, economic or social and that is why we have included a sustainability scheme in our policy proposal. I would like to underline once again, that the Commission proposes a target of 10% of SUSTAINABLE biofuels in transport fuels, not just any biofuels.

Robert D. Feinman came in before me, but here's my response:

Here's an interesting bit of information from the FAO:

Any analysis of biomass energy production must consider the potential efficiency of the processes involved. Although photosynthesis is fundamental to the conversion of solar radiation into stored biomass energy, its theoretically achievable efficiency is limited both by the limited wavelength range applicable to photosynthesis, and the quantum requirements of the photosynthetic process. Only light within the wavelength range of 400 to 700 nm (photosynthetically active radiation, PAR) can be utilized by plants, effectively allowing only 45 % of total solar energy to be utilized for photosynthesis. Furthermore, fixation of one CO2 molecule during photosynthesis, necessitates a quantum requirement of ten (or more), which results in a maximum utilization of only 25% of the PAR absorbed by the photosynthetic system. On the basis of these limitations, the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In practice, however, the magnitude of photosynthetic efficiency observed in the field, is further decreased by factors such as poor absorption of sunlight due to its reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels. The net result being an overall photosynthetic efficiency of between 3 and 6% of total solar radiation.

Photovoltaic cells now on the market have a photosynthetic efficiency of up to 19%. Cells tested in laboratories have reached efficiencies of up to 43%. This contrasts with a theoretical maximal efficiency for biofuels of 6% (for algal biofuels that are still in the early development stage).

Currently, however, even the most efficient biofuel crops, sugar cane and sugar beet, yield about 25 times less than that.

It seems clear, then, that on the long run cars are going to be electric (probably directly, maybe indirectly through hydrogen or compressed air), and the EU, by investing in biofuels, is on the wrong path. It is going to end up with a big stranded investment. The right path right now would be moving towards plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

In addition, there is competing demand for biomass for energy, notably for biogas, which is a far more sustainable way to use biomass as it can be produced from agricultural wastes (whereas cellulosic biofuels are still in the development stage) while - as biofuel production can't - preserving their use as fertiliser.

Have at it.

More Piebalgs Blogging:
Andris Piebalgs on European Energy Security by Euan Mearns Sat Mar 8th, 2008
Andris Piebalgs' Blog by Euan Mearns Fri Mar 7th, 2008

Great comment and a good quote from the FAO, nanne.

The Commission expects most of biofuels consumed in Europe to be produced in the EU. That will reduce substantially our foreign oil dependency

Jaw hits keyboard. This is not going to happen, (even though Piebalgs will probably pull out and wave a GM maize flag...) I'll try to find time to update the numbers on EU land surface potential.

I must say I object to the spin about "intemperate and one-sided" debate. AFAIK the US and the EU have made their policy choice of backing and subsidising agrofuels. That's a pretty powerful "other side".

Rule N° xx : always marginalise the opposition by calling them "angry", "strident", "intemperate", etc. Especially when the power balance is totally in your favour.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Mar 14th, 2008 at 03:49:38 PM EST
Yes, it's not going to happen, especially if it has to be done 'sustainably'. All first generation biofuel crops are monocultures, if you want to grow them sustainably you'd have to grow them in a crop rotation system.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 07:24:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For electricity to become a more important energy source from sunlight, there needs to be several problems solved.

The first is the huge losses that long-range transmission causes. Some estimates are 25%. Moving generation closer to users would help, but this isn't an option for most solar projects. Attempts at superconducting transmission have not gone well to date.

Second is the (ultimate) resource limits on the rare earth elements needed in many solar panels. Panels using more readily available materials don't seem to have as high a yield.

Third is the need to store energy for when the sun is not shining. I've wondered about converting water to Hydrogen as a mechanism, especially for coastal windfarms. The Hydrogen could then be used as a fuel itself.

Transportation run by electricity is going to always have problems because of the need to drag batteries around. Perhaps it is time to investigate centralized power again. Aside from the unsightliness, electric trams and buses run off overhead wires were practical, non-polluting and reasonably quiet. Maybe highways could be outfitted with power and hybrid cars would connect for long distance and only run on batteries at the ends of the journey.

There is too much expectation that the personal vehicle model can (and needs to be) maintained. This is an innovation which is less than 100 years old. It's not clear that it is a necessity.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 10:28:08 AM EST
Saying that trams are unsightly may get you in trouble with a certain person from Hungary...

In comparison with biofuels, electric is going to be favourable even if you posit transmission and conversion losses of 50% and over. However, actual transmission losses seem to be much lower. Wikipedia states losses of about 7% for the US and the UK.

Converting water into hydrogen through electrolysis is still a very inefficient process, so whether hydrogen is a viable energy carrier seems uncertain.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 01:21:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed; recommended viewing for rdf: Trams and Un tour de tramways here on ET, and Local Rail (4/5): Light Rail, Tram-Bus over at dKos... and if you truly can't stand the sight of a catenary, there are solutions without, also discussed in the last-linked diary.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Mar 16th, 2008 at 12:16:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Did anyone read what I actually said. I'm in favor of light rail or electric transport. In the US all those who see nothing ugly with miles of strip malls suddenly become aesthetes when it is time to put up wind farms or add mass transit.

Don't blame me, I rode the train to work when I traveled to NYC.

Currently a plan to add a third track to the mainline of the Long Island Railroad to increase capacity is running into opposition because it will require removing about 15 homes and widening the right of way slightly. I guess the opponents favor the increased auto traffic that will result if the expansion doesn't take place.

The US is the world leader in NIMBYism.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Mar 17th, 2008 at 11:53:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Something that could, should be fought by making clear that rail can even have sightiness.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Mar 17th, 2008 at 11:58:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A couple of random comments on your post:

  1. What are the circumstances under which you will have losses of 25% on long-distance electricity transport? Using higher voltages (up to 1MV) will help. So will going to DC instead of AC. Superconducting cables may not be necessary.

  2. Solar thermal power plants and concentrating PV need a sunny climate, but normal PV works quite fine in climates with less solar radiation since it also uses the diffuse light (light from the sky and clouds).

  3. Raw material constraints are not an issue for solar thermal power plants. For PV your kilometrage varies. ECN in the Netherlands did a study of how much of each type of PV you could possibly use given the constraints of raw materials. For silicon-based PV the limit is so high that you could produce several times the total power needs of the world using only Si-based PV before you run out of the limiting raw material (silver). For other technologies the limits are a bit more severe (something like 1/3 of the total power consumption of the world).

  4. Running an electric car with a battery will be a bit different from your normal petrol/diesel car, but not that different. You should still be able to go a few hundred km between charges. And I see no fundamental reason why you can't have battery replacement stations the way you have fuelling stations now. Someone recently suggested to do just that in Israel. I would say that having an electric car with a range half that of a petrol car is much less disruptive than your suggestion that we may have to do without individual transport at all.

  5. Storage of energy is an issue for solar energy if it reaches really high penetration in the energy production of society. But in this case electric car batteries will actually help, since all the cars in Europe together would have a lot of storage capacities in their batteries.


Real capricorns don't believe in astrology.
by tomhuld (thomas punkt huld at jrc punkt it) on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 06:15:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The main problem with biofuels is the miserably low efficiency when considering the whole field-to-wheels chain. Even if you can produce the actual fuel in a sustainable way, you then waste 80% of the energy just between the fuel tank and the wheel. In this way biofuels will only help to prolong the life of an outdated technology. Far better to aggressively promote electric vehicles.

Piebalgs does mention increased fuel efficiency as one way to reduce the oil dependency, but even the new proposals from the Commission are very modest, and seem not to do anything to promote radical new alternatives that would really reduce CO2 emissions.                                                                
Additionally, from the point of view of CO2 reduction, biofuels are up against competing uses for the same biomass. There are considerable losses in the conversion of raw biomass to biofuels, whether it is starch/cellulose to ethanol or vegetable oil to biodiesel. CO2 abatement can be reached more effectively if biomass is burned to produce electricity (replacing coal). This works even better if it is combined with production of heat for district heating, as already happens in Denmark.  

Of course it would be silly to completely exclude biofuels as some might be made from residues from existing agricultural/forestry production. It is also possible to produce a modest amount in a sustainable way and without increasing imports from places where it may be produced by, say, cutting down the rainforest. But you have to very careful about it. For instance, if you use sunflower seed oil for biofuels you can only use whatever extra can be produced within Europe, because as soon as you start reducing the amount available to existing consumers they will respond by finding alternatives, such as palm oil.

I should stress here that my only qualification to speak about biofuels is as a European citizen!


Real capricorns don't believe in astrology.

by tomhuld (thomas punkt huld at jrc punkt it) on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 12:40:29 PM EST
Let's throw out the nice talk. Biofuels would not be taken seriously if the public were aware of the irrefutable numbers involved. It isn't complicated. The equations couldn't be simpler. There are no complex closed loop systems involved that we can't model properly. This is not economics or climate science. All you do is multiply yield per acre for the crop of choice by the available farmland. Optimistic yields still do not deliver the needed results. And that's before taking into account all the humans that get to starve to death due to this practice.

The motherfucking baboons (and that's what they are - motherfucking baboons - "caveman oog make electricity by burning food!! caveman oog genius!! caveman oog get all the cavegirls now for sure!!") that promote this shit would piss me off more than the wall street parasites if they were in a position to do as much damage to our civilization. Call these cavemen what they are.

I promise to speak with more dignified language tomorrow.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Mar 18th, 2008 at 03:32:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't insult baboons and cavemen!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Mar 18th, 2008 at 05:28:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's about it.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Mar 18th, 2008 at 01:09:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
From a month ago.

Think Big.

Also noticed a week ago that some scientists had discovered another bacterium that shows great promise in breaking down the cellulose in woody biomass and trees.

Seem to see a news blurd on Yahoo on a new development   in the tree area every three months or so.

I really like what I've read about some of the tree ethanol projects. I think they'll come along and amount to something, perhaps providing 10-20% of the answer.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 05:52:07 PM EST
May I assume that most readers here are familiar with the following recent analysis?

Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.


by asdf on Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 07:03:21 PM EST
WorldChanging is running an in-depth series on biofuels, which is moderately pro-.

The first installment discusses this study and another one:

WorldChanging: Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels

Biofuels received a fresh surge of bad publicity with recent publication of two studies in Science that looked at the greenhouse gas releases caused by land use changes connected to biofuels production.  

The studies make complex and nuanced statements that were predictably mangled by the press, with headlines easily interpreted as a general condemnation of biofuels. Typical was the New York Times, "Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat," The studies were creating new uncertainties even among biofuels supporters and tipping others toward a skeptical position.  At very least the studies add to substantial public perception problems facing biofuels.  

So it is crucial to line out exactly what the studies say, what they do not say, and what the critics are saying about the studies.  

The second part is more interesting, and makes the very important point that it's all about soil:

WorldChanging: Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels, part 2

The future of the Earth could well hinge on the future of earth, the soil beneath our feet.

One statistic makes clear why - soils and plants growing on them contain 2.7 times more carbon than the atmosphere.  Outside the oceans they represent the Earth's largest store of biological carbon.  Using soils and plants in ways that release carbon intensifies climate change.  This is the second greatest source of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases after fossil-fuel burning.  

On the other hand, employing the land to soak up atmospheric carbon increasingly appears central to averting global climate meltdown, quite literally.  Carbon levels in the atmosphere may have already reached a point where simply stopping the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations may not be enough to stop the worst climate change impacts. Whether massive loss of polar ice and sea level rises measured in the tens of feet can be prevented may very well depend on the skill of farmers and foresters in growing soil carbon.  

My gripe about this is that even sustainable, cellulosic biofuels are not going to add up to enough oil. Maybe a 10% target could be reached, but that's still a partial and not a long-term solution. Perhaps algal biofuels will have more potential, but those are even more hypothetical, and are in comparison still far less effective than solar. At the same time, with oil you keep the ambient emissions from the internal combustion engine.

The money available for public investment in green technologies is unfortunately limited, and I would prefer to see it spent on the most promising solutions, which means not on biofuels or, for another example, carbon capture and storage, but on concentrated solar, photovoltaics, wind, tidal, electricity storage either in batteries or by other means.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Mar 16th, 2008 at 02:34:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary.

I should point out that I think second generation biofuels should be investigated.

Science and research grants for second generation fuels is more important than supporting first generation biofuels. It would be better to change the car-road structure to electric....we have plenty of energy but no cheap oil.

Nevertheless second generation research is promising... in a couple of decades we may be at the same place wind is now (and solar in a decade).

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Mar 17th, 2008 at 05:09:07 PM EST
Here's someone who really wants to make us believe in cellulosic, anyway:

AETE Announces One Dollar Ethanol

The Alternative Energy Technology Center ahs announced its plans to produce ethanol for the U.S. market at less than $1 per gallon. AETE will refine biomass into fuel products using its exclusive technology. Most new automobiles built in the U.S. by General Motors and other manufacturers are equipped to run on 85% ethanol.

To fuel these cars ethanol production must be expand significantly. With corn at over $5 per bushel, current plants spend nearly $2 to produce a gallon of ethanol that sells for $2.60. AETE's process using common cellulosic biomass will produce ethanol for less than $1 per gallon.

"One dollar ethanol will allow us to operate profitably without government subsidies or incentives," noted Brown Marks, AETE's President. "We expect to produce over 100 gallons of fuel per ton of cellulosic biomass which costs about $65 in today's market," he stated. "We have designed our technology to use low cost feed stocks that are widely available at low cost. We use a low energy input design to increase efficiency and we can place our plants wherever there is abundant biomass available," he concluded.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Mar 18th, 2008 at 03:29:04 AM EST
I'm sure that some companies can turn a profit selling a form of biofuels with today's oil prices. The problem is that when you start scaling it up to make a real dent on crude oil consumption, 'today's market' will be yesterday's market.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Tue Mar 18th, 2008 at 06:16:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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