• Bothering Barnett on Biofuels

    by  • April 18, 2008 • Hexayurt, The Global Picture • 0 Comments

    Commenting on http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/2008/04/robbing_peters_meal_to_gas_pau.html

    I agree with you completely on hunger from biofuels. That’s been expected for a while. I wrote a paper predicting this scenario in 2003 and I was far, far from the first.

    Worse, biofuels are basically useless in the big picture unless you move to algae as a feedstock. Consider:


    Which is the chief scientist of BP noting that “biofuels could supply some 30% of global demand in an environmentally responsible manner without affecting food production.” The clear implication here – particularly in the context of what you need to do to *get* to even that 30% number (see the article – it’s a *lot*) is that, well… biofuels aren’t the solution.

    Then consider that global oil consumption rises about 2% per year.

    Biofuels at 30% of global demand buys the world the equivalent of 15 years of rises on oil consumption, even if you hit the 30% limit that Koonin suggest. By the time you have gotten to 30% of the global demand being biofuels, global demand has risen, negating the biofuels gains. Therefore pressure on crops in inevitable, and biofuels can’t solve anything like the whole problem unless you move to algae as a feed stock. Algae almost certainly can solve the whole problem, but it’s going to be more expensive than cheap solar feeding battery-driven cars.

    The thing about algae is that you can grow it in salt water ponds or tanks in desert areas. The world is not short of either deserts or salt water, so it’s potentially a very, very good thing. But it’s not going to happen because solar is going to be cheaper.

    Nukes are definitely not the answer either. They are vastly, vastly too expensive to use for generating transportation fuel, and the losses implicit in cracking water and turning it back into electricity in fuel cells hover around 30%. I think we’re going to find that batteries – possibly these ultracapacitors – are a better bet for power storage.

    And for power generation? We need an answer which is not nukes. Nukes, have horrible security implications – nothing says global security like every nation have it’s own nuclear electricity generation infrastructure, right? We cannot have both a massive global nuclear-electric infrastructure and meaningful nuclear weapons non-proliferation.

    So instead of arming the world, let’s try CIGS solar panels, like Nanosolar, which are currently being manufactured for $0.30 per watt of panel capacity, and sold at $1 per watt. First 1.5 years of capacity is sold, and they aren’t showing up on the open market, but at $1 per watt of panel capacity, the electricity goes into the grid at something like 50% of the price of the cheapest coal power.

    Nobody is safe with a world which is covered in reactors. The global security implications are unacceptable, and cheaper alternatives already exist, albeit not at massive scales. So we should stop subsiding the nuclear industry entirely and put that money behind cheap solar energy technologies.

    Finally, in terms of responses to the food crisis, did you see this from Chavez?


    Simple, direct action: fly food to Haiti. What nobody is mentioning is that this whole food / biofuels thing is a real opportunity for left-wing regimes to point at the famine and say “look what the Yankees did! that’s capitalism, the rich robbing food from your table to burn it in their engines.”

    Not “how to win friends and influence people.”

    As a counterpoint, though, consider this:


    Simple organic farming techniques look like they can massively increase food security all over the world, particularly at the bottom of the pyramid.

    So we have to get better about pushing the best of American research – organic farming practices that greatly increase global food availability – and not the worst – stupid plans that result in government-subsidized starvation.

    Just…. yeah. There was a lot more to say. This wasn’t the day.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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