Author: Lenny

Biofuels for Airplanes: New Step In Green Technology

As many countries around the globe are making an effort to wean themselves off of oil dependence, the aviation industry is also in the midst of looking for alternative ways to power airplanes. While this may sound like an unrealistic scenario given the sheer amount of fuel an airplane consumes even during a short flight, steps are actually being made to integrate biofuels into global aviation. That is right, biofuels – Jatropha curcas, a native plant of the tropics in Mexico and Central America, grows about 20 ft tall and can power a Boeing 777 jet on an 11-hour flight from Mexico City to Madrid!

In August 2011, an Aeromexico plane made history by being the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight powered in part by biofuel. A blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and refined Jatropha curcas seed oil was used to power the plane. While this was a critical first step toward freeing the aviation industry from its dependence on oil, there are a number of issues that still need to be resolved before biofuels can be a commonplace fuel for the industry.


As one might imagine airplanes cause a lot of pollution because they consume a lot of fuel to operate. Annually, the global aviation industry is responsible for 2 % of the world’s total CO2 emissions. In 2010, the industry released 649 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. While the aviation industry is committed to taking on responsibility for the pollution it causes, alternative sources requires major financial investments, and this gets in the way of turning immediate profits, which for any commercial enterprise comes first.

Because of the global economic downturn, many airlines suffered heavy losses as a result of reduced consumer demand for travel, and have been less willing to take risks and invest into biofuels. The airlines’ financial troubles have been exacerbated by the rising costs of fuel, directly tied to the rising costs of oil. While many companies have tried to cope by reducing cost structure, switching to more energy-efficient planes, streamlining fleets and stripping their excess weight, profits for many remain razor thin.


Major issues standing in the way of integrating biofuels into the aviation industry are that raw materials or feedstocks out of which biofuel is made are limited in quantity and sometimes too costly. Moreover, currently many biofuels are harvested on arable land, taking away valuable space for harvesting crops used for human consumption and animal feedstock, which drives up food prices and causes a lot of backlash. Other plants such as agave and jatropha are currently being researched as alternative sources of biofuel that can grow on none-arable land. Additionally, issues with land availability and land reform in countries like Mexico, which is one of the top producers of biofuels need to be resolved before the idea of biofuels for aviation can be viable.


Despite all the hurdles facing the biofuel and aviation industries, Mexico is still determined to be the leader in producing biofuels for airplanes. Airports and Auxiliary Services (ASA), the Mexican government agency that oversees the biofuel flights and provides almost 100% of the jet fuel in Mexico, plans to commercialize and distribute biofuels globally. The projected goal by 2015 is to have 1% of all jet fuel in Mexico be biofuel, and by 2020: 15%. This is an highly ambitious goal as 1 % is actually equal to more than 40 million liters (10.6 million gallons)

However, for biofuel to take its place as a standard jet fuel supplement used throughout the aviation industry will take a lot more effort, investment and government support. Until biofuels can prove themselves to provide a more cost – effective fuel alternative than oil and comply with international regulations, most aviation companies are not likely to jump the gun and switch from the polluting, but tried and proven fuel derived from oil.

Advantages of Concentrated Solar Power Technology

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) is a technology which produces electricity by concentrating solar energy in a single focal point. This concentrated energy is used to produce steam, heat up fluids, and activate turbines that produce electricity. Today, there are many types of CSP technologies: towers, dishes, linear mirrors and trots.

What is a parabolic trough system?

Consider a parabolic trough system: parabolic troughs are large mirrors, shaped like a giant U. These troughs are connected together in long lines and will attract sun throughout the day. When the sun’s heat is reflected off the mirror, the curved shape sends most of that reflected heat onto a receiver. The receiver tube is filled with a fluid; it could be oil, molten salt, something that holds the heat well. Basically, this super hot liquid heats water in a heat exchanger, and the water turns this heat. The steam is sent off to a turbine, and from there it is business as usual inside a power plant. A steam turbine spins the generator, and the generator makes electricity. Once the fluid transfers its heat, it is recycled and used over and over, and the steam is also cooled, condensed and recycled again and again.

One big advantage of these parabolic trough systems is that the heat can be stored and used later to keep making electricity when the sun is not shining. A major advantage of the concentrated solar power plants is that they generate power best during the late afternoon – during peak demand – and can therefore potentially displace the use of fossil fuel plants that emit the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Growth of concentrated solar power around the world

In 2005, Concentrated Solar Power generated a mere 0.025% of global electricity. However, the concentrated solar power energy sector is growing quickly. Currently, there are thousands of MW under construction/planning in many parts of the world including Europe, the US, North Africa, and the Middle-East. Today, the United States is the world leader in installed concentrated solar power capacity, with 429 MW operating in three states.  Approximately 7,000 MW from concentrated solar power is in development and the DOE projects that 2 million homes could be powered by concentrated solar power energy in the United States in 2020.

Spain has the second‐most installed CSP capacity at 182 MW and has much more under development. Israel has a demonstration power tower plant and larger trough projects in the works. Large‐scale concentrated solar power plans have also been announced in Jordan, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, Egypt, Morocco, and Mexico received financial support from the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank to build parabolic trough hybrid systems and are in the implementation stages of the process. Finally, the Desertec Foundation has a highly ambitious plan and is gathering the support of companies from Germany to potentially build a 100,000 MW CSP project in the Sahara Desert and power lines across the Mediterranean Sea to connect it to Europe.

Advantages of concentrated solar power

One major competitive advantage of concentrated solar power systems is that they closely resemble most of the current power plants. For example, much of the equipment now used for conventional, centralized power plants running on fossil fuels can also be used for concentrated solar power plants. CSP simply substitutes the use of concentrated solar power instead of combustible fossil fuels to produce electricity. This means that concentrated solar power can be integrated fairly easily into today’s electric utility grid. This also makes concentrated solar power technology the most cost-effective solar option for large-scale electricity generation.

Moreover, concentrated solar power production have been shown to create more permanent jobs and stimulate the economy as compared to its natural gas counterparts. Consider the statistics from the state of California:

1. Every dollar spent on concentrated solar power production contributes approximately $1.40 to California’s Gross State Product. By comparison, each dollar spent on natural gas plants contributes about $0.90 – $1.00 to Gross State Product.

2. The 4,000 MW deployment scenario was estimated to create about 3,000 permanent jobs from the ongoing operation of the plants. For each 100 MW of generating capacity, concentrated solar power production was estimated to generate 94 permanent jobs compared to 56 jobs and 13 jobs for combined cycle and simple cycle plants, respectively.

Environmental benefits of concentrated solar power

A huge environmental benefit that should not be overlooked is that simple and non-polluting concentrated solar power technology can be deployed relatively quickly and can contribute substantially to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Each concentrated solar power plant provides emissions reductions compared to its natural gas counterpart; the 4,000 MW scenario in this study offsets at least 300 tons per year of NOx emissions, 180 tons of CO emissions per year, and 7,600,000 tons per year of CO2.

However, the cost of these technologies is still high to enter the global market on a larger scale, and needs to decrease before such an entry can be possible. Today, concentrated solar power technology has a cost somewhere between those of Photovoltaics and wind (1W=4EUR). Consequently, additional large-scale research efforts are necessary to further advance concentrated solar power technology to make it profitable and compatible as an alternative source of clean energy.

Global Government Support for Developing and Sustaining Biofuel Production

Biofuels are products that can be processed into liquid fuels for either transport or heating purposes. Bioethanol is produced from agricultural products including starchy and cereal crops such as sugarcane, corn, beets, wheat, and sorghum.

Biodiesel is made from oil- or tree-seeds such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, palm, coconut or jatropha. World biofuel production is expected to quadruple to over 120,000 ML by 2020, accounting for about 6 percent and 3 percent of world motor petroleum use and total road energy use, respectively. This rapid growth and expansion in the biofuel industry is happening as a result of strong support and incentives from many governments around the globe. Some of the most effective and common of these government policies as well as future policy recommendations are discussed below.

Government support for biofuels

While biofuel technology has been in existence since the early 70′s, it is only in the last decade that countries have started to perceive biofuels as a viable alternative to oil, and have therefore begun investing in to biofuel research and increasing their production of biofuels with unprecedented speed. The key elements driving this new development are biofuels’ reduced carbon emissions compared to conventional fuels, their positive impacts on rural development, and the potential for countries to diversify energy sources, and enhance energy security. As a result of these perceived economic, environmental and social benefits, strong long-term government intervention is a feature in the two top biofuel-producing countries: the United States and Brazil, as well as the EU, China, and other countries. Governments aid biofuel ventures to overcome cost and scale disadvantages. Government support also helps biofuel companies weather the inherent volatility in profits.

One of the most commonly practiced policy interventions is a requirement to blend biofuel with its fossil fuel counterpart to provide a guaranteed market for biofuels. The specifics of this requirement vary around the globe in the extent to which this requirement is mandatory, whether a nationwide or regional strategy is used, length of the phase-in period, the volume or blend percentage mandated, etc.

Countries also rely on tax credits, subsidies, and preferential taxes to overcome the higher cost of biofuel production relative to gasoline and diesel, as well as to encourage consumers to buy biofuel-containing gasoline or diesel. For example, the US government provides a $.51 per gallon tax refund for blenders of ethanol and $1.00 per gallon for biodiesel from vegetable oils and animal fat ($.50 for recycled cooking oil or animal fat). Europe offers an 18.7-euro per acre energy premium for production of biofuel feed-stocks. Similarly, India’s government offers sugar mills, who are willing to build ethanol production facilities, sizable subsidized loans for 40 percent of project costs. Brazil encourages consumption by imposing a lower sales tax for hydrous ethanol (containing water) and E25 (25 percent ethanol) than for gasoline. Moreover, Brazil is the only country promoting biofuel use beyond minimal blending levels by allowing consumers to choose it as a fuel substitute. The Brazilian Government has promoted the availability of ethanol at almost every gasoline station and the manufacture of flexible fuel cars (capable of using pure gasoline, E25, or pure hydrous alcohol).

Many governments are also using import restrictions to promote the emerging biofuel industry. Effective tariffs range from 9 percent in Canada (for ethanol imports from Brazil, 0 tariff for renewable fuels from the U.S.) to about 45 percent for undenatured and 24 percent for denatured ethanol in the EU. The EU waives import duties and tariffs for many developing countries (not including Brazil). The U.S. tariff on ethanol is currently about 25 percent when the 2.5-percent tariff is combined with the $.54 per gallon duty.

Global concerns regarding biofuel production

While the current policies in place are helping to create a sustainable global market for biofuels, there are still many issues that governments need to address in order for the global community to reap the full economic, environmental and social benefits of biofuels. As more farms and forests around the globe are utilized for biofuels production, careful consideration of feedstock production practices and location of biomass conversion plants will be required to avoid devastating impacts on existing food, feed, and fiber markets, and the quality of natural resources upon which all of us depend on for clean air and water. Countries will need to invest into research and development of new technologies and alternative processes to improve economic and conversion efficiencies for biofuels production, improve current biofuel delivery programs and create trade policies and agreements that would allow developing countries to enter and compete in the biofuel global market.

Consumerism Stands in a Way of Green America

Poking around green living blogs, it is easy to notice a trend in the products that people are drawn to and purchase: most tend to go for “cheaper” eco-friendly products such as organic food, organic clothing, eco-friendly toys, green beauty products, energy efficient light bulbs, etc., while only a small handful of people make major changes, such as switch to a fuel-efficient car, install an energy efficient roof, or geothermal heating, or solar panels or energy efficient windows and insulation, or go for any other “expensive” green alternative.

The argument that explains this pattern goes something like this: many people want to help out the environment and they do their best by purchasing products they can afford, still choosing to spend more money than they typically do, as most green products cost 1.5-2 times more than regular merchandise. On the other hand, most people cannot afford the more expensive green products, as they cost significantly more than traditional ones, with the difference being many thousands of dollars. I find this logic deeply flawed, one that keeps us within the confines of consumerism and prevents us from actually living green rather that merely talking about it.


I find that while we as consumers have started to shift our preferences toward green products in many areas of our lives, we continue to buy them with the old-mind set. As a result, we neglect purchasing the things that would really make a difference in curbing our waste and pollution. Here are a couple of key ideas that we swear by without questioning, that keep us going down the wrong path.

-We buy the latest, most fashionable, cutting-edge new products, even if we just purchased this product 6 months ago, when it was also “the latest, coolest, etc”.

- We hunt for “sales” “specials” “deals” and think we are getting a bargain, when in fact we often end up spending more money than we initially intended to.

-We use credit cards rather than cash to make most purchases, which enables us to buy immediately and think later.

- We buy what we can “afford” in the moment with our credit line from underwear to homes, rather than saving for and buying what we really want and need.

- We have been taught to look for labels like “organic” “eco-friendly” “environmentally safe”, and buy we items with these labels feeling extra good about ourselves, without delving too much into what is actually behind these labels.

- Most us find the idea of recycling much more appealing that the idea of reusing. But contrary to popular belief, it is reusing that truly helps curb waste and pollution.

- We opt for immediate gratification through buying brand new stuff of lower quality that has a short life span, rather than saving to purchase more expensive, high quality product that has a long service life.


It is this mind set that enables us to live ultra-comfortably and shop incessantly, while keeping us in deep slumber about the devastating impact our every day actions have on the environment. The reality is that buying more eco-friendly products has done very little to curb our waste and pollution. Consider these sobering statistics compiled by the EPA:

- The average person produces 4.5 lb of waste per day. Only 1.1 lb is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills

- About 40 % of food in this country goes to waste.

- The average person uses the equivalent of one 100-foot-tall Douglas fir tree in paper and wood products per year

- Americans use about 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste per year

- In 2010, Americans disposed of 384,000,000 electronics items (mobile devices, desktops, laptops, TV’s printers, digital copiers, scanners, faxes). Only 19% was recycled, the rest went into landfills and incinerators. When obsolete, these products leave behind lead, cadmium and mercury, which are all toxic and hazardous to the environment.


We convince ourselves that we cannot afford a new cool roof or solar panels, or a geothermal heating system, because these items are out of reach for average consumers. And yet, check out how much money we dump on all the things that we really don’t need. In 2011, Americans spent a mind-blowing 10.7 trillion dollars on shopping!

- The average household spends $1,700 on apparel, footwear and accessories per year

- The average household spends $1,179 on consumer electronics per year. The average household owns 24 discrete consumer electronics products.

- The average woman spends $100/month ($1,200/year) on beauty products (skin care, cosmetics, etc)

- The average household spends $749 just for Christmas (gifts, food and candy, decorations, greeting cards, flowers)

- Americans spend $1.7 billion on flowers and $16 billion on chocolate per year.

- Americans spend $65 billion on soft drinks, and $117 billion of fast food per year.

- Americans spend $17 billion on video games and 25.4 billion on professional sports per year.

- And this is a killer statistic: Americans spend $ 30 billion on Dollar Store Purchases and $ 5 billion on ringtones per year.

Surely we can channel all this disposable income that we spend on disposable stuff to save for purchases that would make a real difference in our quality of life and the environment. Consider the tremendous positive impact you will make by saving up for major green home improvements and an energy efficient car.

Fuel – Efficient Cars


It is no secret that the US consumes more gasoline than South America, Europe, Africa and Asia combined. Obsession with over-sized energy-inefficient cars, relatively low gasoline prices ($4/gallon is still almost 50% less than most people pay at the pump in Europe and Asia), and long travel distances create a driving culture that demonstrates little concern for the pollution it creates. There are 244 million vehicles on US highways ( 755 cars for every 1,000 people), which collectively drive 7 billion miles a day! It is then no wonder that transportation in the US accounts for a third of its CO2 emissions and produces more emissions than any other country in the world ( with the exception of China).

High gas prices are making many of us reconsider our car choices with big auto makers Ford, GM and Chrysler all reporting increases in sales for their more fuel-efficient models as compared to 2011. Toyota is reporting selling 28,711 Prius hybrids in March 2012, a monthly historical record. Hybrid vehicles help the environment by reducing polluting air emissions by up to 90 percent and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 50 %.

Electric vehicles are best for the environment and are the most fuel-efficient cars that can save you the most money on gas. Their electric motors convert 75 % of the chemical energy from the vehicle’s batteries to power the car, compared to conventional gasoline-powered cars, which produce only 20 % of the energy stored in gasoline. Moreover, there are no tailpipe emissions with electric vehicles and because electricity is a domestic source of energy, by owning an electric vehicle you help reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Green Home Improvements


Our homes are a source of serious energy waste. In fact, energy wasted by 75,000 US homes in one year is equivalent to the BP Gulf Spill ( the biggest oil spill in US history). It costs an estimated $40 billion to clean up the oil spill, while it would only cost $ 1 billion to retrofit these 75,000 homes and make them energy efficient, thereby saving the energy equivalent of the gulf oil spill every year. It seems obvious that instead of spending money on cleaning up oil spills which are caused by our over-consumption of oil, we should invest into making long lasting and energy efficient improvements to our own homes.

However, building materials tend to be expensive, and our instinct is typically to choose the cheapest option with little regard for the fact that cheaper materials are more harmful to the environment, typically cannot be recycled, are not energy-efficient and have a relatively short service life, forcing you to either repair or replace them. The right thing to do, however, would be to research green building products, save money and invest into them, gaining long term energy efficiency.

In fact, by making an investment into high quality green building materials such as metal and cool roofing, spray foam insulation, energy efficient windows, solar panels and geothermal heating systems that we can make a long lasting difference for the environment and increase the comfort of our our own homes. These materials are 2-3 times more expensive than their cheaper counterparts, but they also typically last from 25-years to a lifetime, require virtually no maintenance and repairs, and can slash your monthly heating and cooling costs by as much as 40% When all of these factors are taken into account, investing into these products and systems seems like the only sensible thing to do for anyone who claims to want lead a green lifestyle.

All About Daylighting

So we all know that windows can provide a great view, right? But, if they are placed in the right locations, they can also save you money on your utility bill, as well as keep you more comfortable and productive at home or at work. This type of window placement is called daylighting, and it takes a simple concept to a whole new level.

What is daylighting?

Simply put, daylighting is the practice of using natural light to illuminate building spaces. Daylighting combines different variables: everything from the type of window, to window placement, to interior design, to controlling how sun light comes in, all of which work together to maximize benefits from natural sunlight. Good daylighting creates beautiful, appropriately lit spaces while saving energy. Geographical location and climate, building architecture, use and orientation are big factors in designing a successfully daylit building. Such a building is always the result of a combination of art and science, engineering and architecture.

Different daylighting practices

Consider this: windows that face south are best in the US: they let in the most light during the winter months, but little direct sun during the summer, keeping the inside cooler. North facing windows are also good for daylighting: they let in even natural light with little glare and little summer heat. Windows that face east and west don’t work nearly as well for daylighting. They do provide lots of light during the morning and afternoon, but this often comes with lots of glare and excess heat during the summer months. The fact is clear glass windows actually let in too much light, far more than what’s needed for effective lighting.The sun provides 7,000 to 10,000 foot-candles of light, while indoor office spaces only require around 50 foot-candles.

All of this extra light causes glare and also creates the “cave effect”, where the back of the space appears dark compared to other surfaces. When this happens, people start closing blinds and turning on overhead lights to reduce the contrast in the room. In an energy efficient daylit office building, the windows team up with sky lights to provide the most light you need. Also, adding a light colored ceiling helps it reflect and enhance the day light so that it fills the room.

What about the overhead lights? Most of the time, you don’t need them. The electric lights in modern buildings produce a lot of heat, while properly directed natural lighting generates almost no heat at all. Properly designed daylighting screens out 99 percent of the sun’s heat while providing 50 foot-candles of light, which is more than enough for most tasks. Additionally, the decrease in internally generated heat enables designers to downsize the air conditioning system. As a result, reduced costs can help pay for more daylighting improvements.

To account for glare, you can place hoods outside and around the windows. The hoods also cut down on summer heat, keeping the home or office cooler and more comfortable. On the inside, louvers or tinting reduce glare and also direct light to reflective surfaces inside, allowing plenty of natural light to come into the work areas. One big help to daylighting is the window technologies available today. Windows are now way more energy efficient. They insulate while still letting in the light you want. There are also electro-chromic windows: they are special windows that change with the brightness of the sun light outside. As the sun tracks across the sky, the window darkens to keep excess heat out. It is like giant polarized sun glasses.

Benefits of daylighting

Daylighting has real immediate and long term benefits both for homeowners and businesses that choose to adopt this practice. The big financial benefit is that daylighting reduces lighting costs, reduces cooling costs (in almost all climates, almost year round), and in new construction it can be accomplished without increased construction costs. All of these savings are good for your bottom line, whether you are a home or business owner. Thinking long-term, on a larger environmental scale, by consuming less energy, daylit buildings reduce fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions associated with global warming and climate change. Lastly, daylit buildings have proven psychological benefits for the people that live and work in them. Studies have shown that students perform better on tests, shoppers in daylit stores linger longer and buy more, office workers demonstrate increased alertness and productivity, as well as are absent less often.

Liquefied Coal: A Competitive Fossil Fuel Alternative to Crude Oil

High oil prices have drawn attention not only to biofuels, but also to a range of other liquid fuel alternatives. Large investments are being made in developing more difficult-to-access conventional oil resources located in remote areas or deeper waters, unconventional sources, such as oil sands and heavy crude oil, and the conversion of coal to oil. According to the US Department of Energy, while world oil production is expected to increase 30 percent by 2030, production from unconventional fossil fuels will increase even faster. One alternative source of energy is converting coal to oil, which is of particular interest to economies with abundant coal resources, such as South Africa, China, and the United States.
What is coal liquefaction?

The coal-to-liquids technology has been well-established for many decades. It was originally invented in Germany in the 1920s and developed there and in the US in the 1930s. During World War II Germany used to produce up to 600,000 barrels a day of petrol and avgas. There are two different methods for converting coal into liquid fuels:

Direct liquefaction works by dissolving the coal in a solvent at high temperature and pressure. This process is highly efficient, but the liquid products require further refining to achieve high grade fuel characteristics.

Indirect liquefaction gasifies the coal to form a ‘syngas’ (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). The syngas is then condensed over a catalyst – the ‘Fischer-Tropsch’ process – to produce high quality, ultra-clean products.

Benefits of coal liquefaction

The coal liquefaction process has the added benefit of a wide range of by-products such as petrochemicals, waxes, feedstocks for plastics manufacture, and fuel gas. Moreover, coal-derived fuels are sulphur-free, low in particulates, and low in nitrogen oxides.The coal-to-liquid technology has been greatly improved in South Africa, especially during the years of Apartheid when there was a great national need to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Today, there are three large coil-to-liquid plants, operating in South Africa, converting coal into 150,000 barrels a day (equal to the output of a medium-sized oilfield). Consequently, unlike the rest of the developed world, South Africa does not need to worry about the oil-supply shock, as it supplies about 40% of its oil needs with the domestic coal-to-liquids technology.

South Africa’s success with the development and production of coal-to liquid has lead the US and China to take note and follow suite. The US has the world’s largest coal deposits, with 268 billion tons of recoverable reserves. At a standard conversion rate of two barrels of synthetic fuels from one ton of coal, US reserves are equivalent to 20 times the nation’s current crude oil reserves. Yet, the US it continues to import 60% of its oil requirements, 27% of which come from OPEC. Researchers estimate that it would take 70-100 coal-to-liquid plants in the US to replace all the oil currently being imported from OPEC. The average per-barrel production cost would be about $48, including the cost of carbon dioxide removal. China is also building its own coal-to-liquid plants and is less constrained by environmental concerns and regulations than the US.

Challenges of the coal-to-liquids technology

One of the most significant challenges related to the coal liquefaction process is the negative impact on the environment with its high production of carbon dioxide, known to be one of the causes of global warming. Efficient and effective carbon dioxide removal is a key consideration, since a standard coal -to- liquid plant produces about 2.5-times the carbon dioxide than a standard refinery puts out. At this point the technology is not effective enough to deal with the excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

An analysis by the US Department of Energy has found that liquid fuels from coal, even with carbon capture and storage employed, still produce at least 20% more carbon dioxide than petrol and diesel made from oil. Another problem is that the energy-intensive conversion plants also require massive amounts of cooling water to stop them overheating. Overall, while it is evident that coal-to-liquid production has the potential to significantly reduce our national and global dependence on oil, a lot more funding needs to be invested to make these technologies more environmentally safe, if they are to take the place of oil in the future.

Benefits and Prospects of Wind Energy

We have all seen those creaky old mills on farms and although they may seem about as low tech as you can get, those old wind mills are the predecessors for new modern wind turbines that generate electricity. The same wind that is used to pump water for cattle is now turning giant turbines to power cities and homes. Today’s wind turbines are much more complicated machines than the old prairie wind mills but the principle is the same: both capture the wind’s energy.

Continue reading

Looking to the Future: Cellulosic Ethanol

While there are clear benefits in alternative sources of energy such as ethanol, its future as a viable competitor to oil remains uncertain due to number of concerns that range from environmental trade-offs, economic competitiveness, sustainability, etc. One major stumbling block for the ethanol industry is the extent to which the land intensity of current biofuel production can be reduced. While to be competitive with oil, current rates of production need to increase significantly, such a huge increase is not viable due to present intensity of land use. The good news is that cellulosic ethanol is an alternative energy resource that can potentially resolve this issue, and significantly reduce world’s dependence on oil with less negative consequences for the environment than other sources of energy.

What is Cellulosic Ethanol?

Continue reading

Ethanol: Environmental Trade – offs of Biofuels

One of the major incentives in developing and increasing biofuel production is its environmental benefits, including the potential to reduce green house gas emissions. It is estimated that around 25 percent of man-made global carbon dioxide emissions, a leading green house gas, comes from our road transport. Global road transport has grown rapidly over the past 40 years and it continues to increase, especially in countries that are currently undergoing rapid economic growth, middle-class expansion, and urbanization. Biofuels provide an alternative to gasoline because while they also give off CO2 when burned, it is carbon neutral. Gasoline and other fossil fuels increase the supply of CO2 in the atmosphere by giving off CO2 absorbed and trapped in plant material millions of years ago. On the contrary, biofuels release CO2 that has been recently absorbed from the atmosphere by the crops used to produce them. However, along side this important advantage, biofuel technologies carry a number of environmental disadvantages that need to be carefully analyzed to determine whether the trade off is worth it for us a global community in the long run.

Life-Cycle Analysis

When you examine the production and processing of the feedstock into fuel and not just combustion, this “life-cycle” analysis makes the initial advantage of biofuel less obvious. Research indicates that the net energy balance of biofuels is positive (energy output is greater than energy input), but these estimates vary. Net balances are small for corn ethanol and more significant for biodiesel from soybeans, as well as ethanol from sugarcane and cellulose. Biofuel with the highest net energy balance reduces green house gas the most when compared with that for gasoline.

Water Scarcity and Pollution

Another major concern is the fact that ethanol production apparently requires large amounts of water. In fact, ethanol production requires so much water, that this issue alone makes it a highly costly fuel, one that puts water scarcity on the other side of the trade off scale. For example, researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology report that ethanol derived from corn grown in Nebraska, requires 50 gallons of water per mile driven, when all the water needed in irrigation of crops and processing into ethanol is considered. Deriving fuel from sorghum requires even more water to produce – as much as 115 gallons per mile!

Another issue is that increasing production of biofuels from row crops may cause more water pollution due to soil erosion and the increased use of pesticides to grow enough crops to meet US federal mandates for more biofuels. To mitigate this problem researchers suggest that using drought-tolerant, high-yield plants grown on little irrigation water to produce biofuel would have less impact on water resources. One such plant is miscanthus, a fast-growing perennial grass that grows an impressive 9-10 feet a year. However, currently there is no technology that could convert the cellulosic biomass of miscanthus into biofuel and produce it in large quantities.

Issues with Land

Not be overlooked is the environmental concern of the potential land requirements, if biofuels become a more mainstream fuel. According to the University of Minnesota, devoting all U.S. corn and soybean acreage to ethanol and biodiesel production would offset only 12 percent and 6 percent of gasoline and diesel consumption for transportation fuel, respectively. These numbers are even smaller when adjustments are made for the fossil fuel requirements for producing the biofuel. These statistics point to the fact that it does not seem to be economically savvy or sustainable to to use so much land to meet a relatively small share of transportation fuel demand. The resource commitment to meet domestic fuel demand would be less in lower income economies of countries in Asia Africa and Latin America. However, in many countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil, expanding feedstock production in way that would encroach on rain forest areas and wildlife habitats is a grave environmental concern.

What is next?

It is clear that at the present stage of biofuel technology there are many negative environmental trade-offs to massive biofuel production that greatly decrease its potential to downgrade oil’s dominance in the world. This means that as a global community, we need to make a commitment to continue investing, researching and developing alternative biofuel production crops and processes that will optimize biofuel production and minimize its adverse environmental impacts.