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January 20, 2008
Biodiesel - palm oil's dark side
For more than 30 years, Indonesia's oil palm plantations have fed a global market for vegetable oil, most used in everyday food products from cream cheese to candy bars, cookies to hamburger buns. As concern about climate change and oil prices has grown, interest in palm oil as a green, renewable fuel has soared. The trend began in Europe a decade or so ago when governments began subsidizing companies to blend soybean, palm and other vegetable oils with diesel to reduce carbon emissions. Since 2004, biodiesel production has more than doubled in Europe to 4.9 million metric tons. Now biodiesel is catching on in the United States. Last year, the nation's largest biodiesel plant, supplied in part with palm oil, opened in Washington state. In 2007, 15 million gallons of palm oil were offloaded in Southern California, where it helped power cruise ships and semi-trailer trucks. ... We live in a world of wanna-be-green commerce, of guilt-ridden citizens eager to protect nature, shrink their carbon footprints and free themselves from Middle East oil. But not every new fuel and eco-friendly product soothes the planet. Some are saddled with environmental baggage of their own, with not-so-obvious links to pollution, climate change and deforestation. ... "People who buy palm oil have orangutan blood on their hands," said Biruté Galdikas, one of the world's leading primate scientists. There is no greater curse for orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra than palm oil plantations."
[Source: Tom Knudson, "Dark side of a hot biofuel | In Indonesia, oil palms feed world thirst for clean fuel, but forests, climate and species pay a steep price", The Sacramento Bee, January 20, 2008, p. A1]
November 4, 2007
Biomass could provide all transportation energy (20% of world energy use)
... if we could obtain 1 percent solar efficiency on 1 percent of the land in the world, that would be enough to provide all transportation fuels, or about 20 percent of our total energy use. ... It turns out that many plants, such as sugar cane, actually capture more than 1 percent of the solar energy that strikes them. In fact, the theoretical efficiency for plants is above 6 percent, and some plants will do around 3 percent. To give you a sense of how much 1 percent of the world is--it's about 13 billion hectares. So 130 million hectares would be enough at 1 percent efficiency. The Brazilians say they can devote 40 million hectares to sugar cane.
Q: The rap against corn-based ethanol is that it takes more energy to produce than it generates. Is that true?
A: That's probably not true. The best analyses that I've seen say that it's energy-positive. But there's an upper limit to what it's going to contribute, and probably that's in the 12 to 15 billion-gallon range.
Q: And what about cellulosic fuel, which is drawn from the whole plant, not just the grains?
A: We can actually make compounds that look a lot more like biodiesel and biopetrol from fermentation of cellulosics, and I think that within 10 years, we'll actually have not only cellulosic fuels but cellulosic fuels that look just like our current diesel and gasoline fuels.
Q: How so?
A: They'll displace them chemically, with very similar properties. But they will actually be net carbon-neutral--and that's very important because one of the challenges in the current biofuels economy is that we have 240 million vehicles in this country. Only about 5 million of them will burn more than 10 percent ethanol, and we don't have a distribution system for vast amounts of ethanol. So ultimately, the biofuel we want is something that looks a lot more like the fuels we are currently using.
[Source: Chris Somerville (Stanford U, director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Plant Biology), interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, "'It's Not a Silver Bullet'; A prominent plant biologist says that biofuels are only one part of a green energy solution", Newsweek, U.S. Edition, November 5, 2007 cover date, p. 54]
June 19, 2006
Ethanol - net energy loss as fuel
"I wish that ethanol were as good as all the claims are, because I'm an agriculturalist and it would help agriculture, but I must admit, it just doesn't add up," says David Pimentel, an ecology professor at New York state's Cornell University. Last year, Pimentel co-authored (with Tad Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkley) a study published in the Natural Resources Research academic journal, examining the energy costs and benefits of ethanol. They discovered that, where corn is used to produce the biofuel, the amount of energy used in production is 29 per cent greater than the amount of energy that will ultimately be derived from the ethanol. When wheat is used, the net energy deficit is about 45 per cent.
[Source: Cyril Doll (reporter - Western Standard), "Unpopular science: It's a lot better than Kyoto, but critics say a made-in-Canada plan isn't any more realistic about climate change", Western Standard (Alberta), June 19, 2006, p. 24]
* [2006-03-19] Can a bush solve rural energy needs?
September 1, 2004