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Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future

President Bush visits the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery in 2005. Photo: whitehouse.gov Biofuels won't single-handedly solve the climate crisis, nor will they deliver energy independence. But a base of widely dispersed, farmer- and citizen-owned biofuel plants can displace significant amounts of fossil fuels -- while also building local economies. What follows is a strategy for tweaking existing federal energy and farm policy to create such an energy landscape. Before getting to that, though, given the scorn heaped on biofuels by many well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned commentators, I'll make the case that biofuels have an important role to play in any …

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To fulfill its environmental promises, biofuel policy needs a kick in the pants

As war simmers in the Middle East and oil prices rise along with global temperatures, Midwestern farmers and politicians aren't the only ones banging the drums for biofuels. Now big-time investors, security hawks, environmentalists, and even George W. Bush have joined their ranks. But is environmentally responsible bioenergy a real possibility, or are we bio-fooling ourselves? How green is your biofuel? Photo: gov.mb.ca The question is key, because current U.S. public policy is pushing biofuel production without giving much evident thought to sustainability. If present trends continue, the public could find itself funding environmentally ruinous projects in the name of …

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Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla chats about the promise of ethanol

Venture capitalist and ethanol booster Vinod Khosla. Billionaires are piling onto the biofuels bandwagon. Bill Gates is doing it. Richard Branson is doing it. The Google guys are doing it. Less well-known is the billionaire who kicked off the whole trend: Vinod Khosla, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and former partner with Kleiner Perkins, the venture-capital firm that helped give rise to Google, AOL, Amazon, and Compaq. In 2004, he founded his own firm, Khosla Ventures, which has come to be known as a rainmaker in the ethanol world. To hear Khosla tell it, the burgeoning revolution in oil alternatives …

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An interview with David Pimentel

Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University. David Pimentel. Photo: Chris Hallman / Cornell University Photography. In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee's conclusion: ethanol requires …

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Three perspectives on the biofuels debate

Imagine how amazing petroleum must have seemed back when it was an emerging alternative fuel in the U.S. Drill a hole in the ground in some parts of Texas and Pennsylvania, and rich black stuff would come gushing up, loaded with energy. What could possibly be the problem with such bounty? In some quarters, biofuels inspire similar wide-eyed wonder today. They are, after all, renewable and carbon-neutral ... right? By now, most environmentalists are aware that biofuel production as currently practiced generates serious ecological problems. Moreover, it's dominated by a few corporations that, despite billions in public subsidies, clearly place …

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Native Shun

Representatives of more than 50 U.S. tribes gather for climate conference This week, representatives of more than 50 Native American tribes met in Arizona for a first-ever tribal climate-change conference. The crisis is hitting home on U.S. reservations, as species migrate and weather patterns change. "We basically have two seasons now," said Robert Gomez of the Taos Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. "Hot and dry, and cold and dry." With reservation boundaries fixed, options are limited: "As our [plant and animal] species migrate off, we don't have the right to follow them," says Terry Williams, natural resources commissioner for the …

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Eco-tech stuff

In one of my other lives, I'm a bit of a tech/computer/gadget geek, though by the high standards of online dorkdom, a mere amateur. Those interests don't overlap with my gristmillian preoccupations all that often -- but today, twice: First, an amusing post on ForeignPolicy.com reveals that the avatars used in MMORPGs use as much energy -- in hardware and server cycles -- as the typical Brazilian. (If the preceding sentence means nothing to you, well, perhaps it's time to go outside and shout at the kids to get off your lawn.) Second, ecogeek draws our attention to a truly …

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Flex-fuel vehicles greenwash Detroit’s SUV addiction.

David mentioned something about it when it came out a couple of months ago, but as Grist wraps up its first week of biofuel coverage, it's worth pointing to again: after much testing and comparing, Consumer Reports finds the whole live-green-go-yellow, E85 thing pretty much a sham. As Grist readers will know, the government gives automakers a credit against their mileage requirements for every flex-fuel vehicle (able to run on ethanol, gas, or a mix). CR's conclusion: Detroit is using it a lever to help it churn out more gas-guzzling SUVs, and the policy is working to increase fossil fuel …

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A handy biofuels glossary, and videos to boot

With all the talk of biofuels swirling around, things can get a bit confusing. So we've put together this handy glossary for your reference. Now you can pontificate at cocktail parties with the best of 'em. And just to keep you awake (yeah, we remember second grade too), we've included some explanatory videos thanks to the good folks at Current TV. Look! Real people using and talking about biofuels! See, it's not all just a journalistic fantasy. Got more terms to suggest? Add them in Gristmill.     Biodiesel: A fuel derived from biological sources that can be used in …

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Richard Branson chats about embracing ethanol and slashing airplane emissions

Does a music mogul who signed the Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson have what it takes to make a pop star out of biofuels? Sir Richard. Earlier this fall, publicity-chasing British entrepreneur Richard Branson made a $3 billion bet that he could do just that -- and help solve the climate crisis to boot -- via Virgin Fuels, a new company in his wide-ranging Virgin Group. An ear for music doesn't necessarily indicate an eye for energy technology, of course. Branson has proved himself remarkably versatile over the last few decades, expanding his Virgin brand beyond the record label into …