New energy chief’s enthusiasm for cellulosic ethanol makes me uncomfortable
"World demand for transportation fuels is growing fast, and biofuels have a major role to play in meeting that demand. That’s why BP is investing in a range of biofuels-related activities around the world, all aimed at bringing biofuels into the mainstream by making them more widely available to motorists."
— From a BP press release hailing a partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
On Gristmill and other parts of the greenie blogosphere, the nomination of Steven Chu as secretary of energy has inspired a a kind of euphoric reaction. The title of a recent post by Joe Romm sums up the reception Chu has gotten: "A Nobelist for energy secretary who gets both climate and energy efficiency?"
No doubt, after eight years of knuckle-dragging by Cheney and the assorted oilmen who made up Bush’s energy policy, it’s remarkable to see a decorated scientist who understands climate change taking charge.
But Chu’s leading role in promoting cellulosic ethanol as a "solution" to both climate change and energy scarcity make me queasy. Here’s why:
Oil prices are hovering at about $50 per barrel. That represents a breathtaking $90 plunge since the summer — but oil is still pretty expensive. In today’s dollars, oil is up by a factor of about three since 1998. That’s a pretty steep gain. And by most accounts — see, e.g. this extremely interesting recent interview by George Monbiot with the chief economist of the International Energy Authority — prices will soon continue their long-term upward trend.
The upward march of oil prices, combined with accelerating climate change, means human societies need to start thinking of ways to use less energy and generally tread more lightly on the earth.
For me, that means rationalizing our transportation and food/agriculture systems, both of which suck in vast amounts of fossil energy while spewing out titantic amounts of greenhouse gas. Simultaneously, it means we have to switch to low-impact energy sources like wind and solar. For food and energy alike, regional, decentralized systems based on appropriate technology seem like the way forward.
Also, conservation, not substitution, will have to be the hallmark. The sun is powerful, but harnessing its energy will never be as easy as generating electricity by burning coal or moving cars by burning petroleum.
Will Chu push energy policy in these new directions? Possibly, but it doesn’t seem likely. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu works with the BP Energy Biosciences Institute, a consortium of oil giant BP, Cal-Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
BP is lavishing the effort with $500 billion over the next 10 years; the California state of California chipped in $70 million in startup funds. Rather than asking, "what are viable and energy-efficient systems for public transportation?," the institute is essentially asking, "how can we concoct liquid fuels from plants that can keep cars on the road, in a form that benefits the incumbent oil giants"?
Among its projects is one to genetically modify various grasses to make them more suitable to ethanol production.
The BP Energy Biosciences Institute presumes that plant matter is a "renewable resource" — when actually it takes decades to replenish an inch of topsoil. Topsoil is generated when plant matter decays on the ground; cellulosic ethanol is predicated on the harvesting billions of pounds of plant matter.
And here’s a problem that can’t be sorted out in a lab, no matter how tricked out it is in corporate and government cash: how are you going to haul around all those billions of pounds of bulky biomass from fields to factories?
I don’t intend in this post to argue the merits of cellulosic ethanol — which after all remains, as it has for decades, five (or 10) years away from viability (as Chu himself acknowledges.) I do want to question the wisdom of devoting national research resources into pursuing it when there are less-baroque options, like reinvesting in trains. I hope Chu charts new directions.