Still waiting to hear President Obama’s plans for the new “green” economy? Well, it arrived yesterday in the form of the “National Bioeconomy Blueprint,” released with great fanfare by the White House. It’s all there — the Age of Fossil Fuels is on its way out, the Age of Biofuels has begun.
Now to be fair, there’s a lot of good stuff in this 84-page report, in terms of medical advances, agricultural innovation, and new industrial technologies. Since the decoding of the DNA molecule in 1953, the biological sciences have made extraordinary progress and continue to do so today. Whereas the 17th and 18th century could be called the Age of Physics and the 19th and early 20th centuries the Age of Chemistry, we are now living in an era when biological research is the cutting edge.
To be fair again, all this happened long before Barack Obama arrived in the White House. In declaring government support for the Bioeconomy, the President and his Administration are essentially running to the head of a parade. True, there’s going to be lots of government funding to hand out and true, to this point the biologists have felt somewhat neglected. “Some people in the biotechnology industry have grumbled that the White House’s idea of innovation focused on electronic devices, social media and solar energy,” reports the New York Times. Yet ever since the Egyptians, priests and politicians have been claiming credit for every natural occurrence, from the rising of the sun to the blooming of crops, so there’s nothing new in this Administration claiming to make it all happen, either.
What is unique about the new Bioeconomy is that the Administration has taken this opportunity to trumpet the idea that in addition to medical, agricultural and industrial advances, the Era of Biology will be a time when we “grow our own fuel” and begin substituting “biomass” for the conventional fossil fuels that have powered the Industrial Era since the 17th century. Says the report:
The current backbone of our energy and chemical industries is carbon-based fossil fuels. Today we rely primarily on oil, coal and natural gas to run our cars, heat our homes, and provide the raw material for a wide range of products from drugs to plastics to fertilizers.… Now technologies are advancing to better harness the potential of microorganisms and plants to produce fuels, intermediate chemicals (e.g., the precursors for plastics), and other biomaterials.
This is an idea that does not appeal to a lot of people — including biologists, agronomists, ecologists, industrialists and some scientists. Instead, the enthusiasm is limited to a peculiar breed of semi-literate people known as “environmentalists.” Without giving it much thought, environmentalists have declared that the dirty, nasty world of “hard” energy is about to be replaced by a soft, green world of biotechnology. In truth, if this ever happens, it will be the biggest requisitioning of nature for human purposes in the history of the planet.
The idea that we could do away with fossil fuels by substituting crops and other biologically based sources has been around since the 1970s when we seriously thought we were running out of oil and gas. In his 1976 book, Soft Energy Paths, Amory Lovins first suggested we could replace one-third of our oil consumption by building a biofuels industry only ten times the size of the beer and wine distilleries. Unfortunately, he never bothered to calculate the amount of land that would be required. That was easy enough. From Lovins’ own figures, it was clear that growing crops to replace one-third of our oil consumption would mean cultivating an area three times the size of the continental United States.
Nevertheless, Jimmy Carter, who had read Soft Energy Paths, became an enthusiast and persuaded Congress to adopt a 4 cents-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol after the second “gas shortage” of 1979. The 4 cents a gallon eventually grew to 46 cents-per-gallon and as a result, 40 percent of our corn crop now goes into the nation’s gas tanks. Ethanol just passed cattle silage as the principal use of corn and each year we devote 100,000 square miles — the equivalent of Iowa — to its cultivation. Still, the dimensions of the problem have barely improved. In 2006, James Jordon and James Powell, two research professors at Polytechnic University in New York, wrote in the Washington Post:
It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition.… [T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand.… And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.
What keeps the advocates of biofuels going is the expectation that some miraculous breakthrough will change all this. For decades the Holy Grail has been “cellulosic ethanol,” a process that would use the stems, leaves, and other non-edible portions of the plant instead just the sugars and starches that are easily converted to alcohol. Breaking down cellulose is tough, however, and can only be accomplished in two ways: 1) heating the material in a way that consumes more energy than it produces, or 2) employing enzymes produced by bacteria that live in the guts of cows and termites. But duplicating the environment of a cow’s or termite’s stomach is very difficult. Although it’s been accomplished occasionally in the laboratory, every attempt to ramp up to an industrial scale has been a failure.
In 2007, a company named Range Fuels claimed to have finally mastered the process. For this it won the 2008 North American Fuels Technology Innovation Green Excellence of the Year Award before it had ever produced a gallon of fuel. Backed by $156 million in grants and loan guarantees from the federal government, Range Fuels opened its first plant in Georgia in 2009, promising to deliver a significant portion of the 100 million gallons per year of ethanol mandated by President George W. Bush. By 2010 the mandate had been scaled back to 6 million and Range was discovering it couldn’t deliver that. In 2011, after making one test run, the company closed its doors and declared bankruptcy. (The test run allowed it to fill requirements of the loan guarantee so that investors were reimbursed while taxpayers were left holding the bag.)
Advocates of “biodiesel” often talk about using other existing sources of organic material such as restaurant wastes and cooking grease as raw materials, so let’s look at that. The U.S. consumes 18 million barrels of oil per day, enough to cover 220 football fields to a height of ten feet. The EPA estimates that the nation’s restaurants produce 300 million gallons of waste oil per year. That’s one gallon for every American. There are 15,000 McDonald’s restaurants in 80 countries on six continents. If we made the wild assumption that each one of them produced five barrels of waste cooking oil a day, that would mean 75,000 barrels, which would be enough to replace 0.4 percent of our daily oil consumption.
Every other scheme to harvest supposedly useless organic materials such as forest or crop wastes quickly runs up against the same obstacle. There simply isn’t enough of it around. Moreover, biofuels have very low energy density and are widely scattered. Just harvesting and transporting them would consume massive amounts of energy. Economically, it would never make sense — which is why it is not already being done. That’s why President Obama has now set his sights on yet another miracle — algae. It’s the only one left.
ETC is a non-profit in Montreal dedicated to protecting the rights of peasants and tenant farmers in the developing world. Originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, the initials stand for “erosion, technology and concentration” — the last being the concentration of economic power in the hands of international corporations. “Our mission is to monitor the impact of new technologies on the lives of indigenous peoples around the world,” says Jim Thomas, ETC’s project research manager. “We’re hardly the tool of the oil companies.”
Nonetheless, ETC has emerged as one of the leading critics of algae and other biofuels, mainly because of the anticipated impact on Third World agriculture. “The problem with biomass is that it has very little energy density,” says Thomas, who works out of Montreal. “It doesn’t even compare well with solar, which is very dilute. Photosynthesis is only 1 percent efficient at turning sunlight into useful energy while a solar thermal plant can manage about 20 percent. The big problem with algae is that you can’t grow it more than one or two inches deep or else you lose the sunlight. So it’s going to require ridiculously large quantities of land. In order to match the output of a single oil refinery, you’d need to cover an area the size of San Francisco.”
With this kind of land requirements, the only place where biofuels are going to make any kind of sense is in the developing world. “The cheapest biomass will inevitably be grown in the forests of Brazil and Central Africa,” said Thomas. “It’s already happening. Right now the search for biofuels by investors is the largest land grab of the last 300 years. Peasants are being pushed off their land. There are conflicts and battles going on and people are even being killed over this issue. Any technological advances are only going to make it worse. Switching from fossil fuels to biofuels is essentially an appropriation of the biological resources of the developing world by the developed world.”
So there you have it, Obama’s brave new world of soft, green energy.
In truth, the current era will probably be looked back upon as a brief episode when crackpot ideas gained the upper hand — when we ruined whole landscapes by littering them with useless windmills and solar collectors and took the preliminary steps toward dragooning the entire world’s biological resources in trying to replace the more dense and useful resources of oil, gas and the atom that nature has offered us. Hopefully, it won’t last long.