Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Crack dealer advises addict on how to quit

At the end of a long speech devoted to marshalling support for a war largely over oil, our dear leader managed to say a few words about dependence on oil. Here are his remarks on oil in full
Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22- percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero- emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy. (Applause.)

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. (Applause.)

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. (Applause.) By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum- based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past. (Applause.)
Hey look, he used the word “addiction”! Maybe he’s getting real about our situation. Or not. Maybe instead he's proposing to do in the long term stuff that should be done right now, give meager lip service to the stuff we should be doing in the long term, and ignoring whole swaths of things that could be done, but offend important constituencies.

It is awfully odd for a man giving advice to an addict not to mention actually quitting, or even cutting back. As the New York Times points out, there is no mention here about increasing fuel efficiency standards or taxing gasoline, the two surest ways to reduce consumption, and hence dependency. In fact, he doesn’t call on the energy industry, the car industry, or consumers to do anything at all, even, as we shall see, when the cooperation of these groups is needed to implement the solutions he gives lip service to. Refusing to talk about any form of conservation, or demand any changes from people’s current habits amounts to ignoring the policies that must be a pillar in any sustainable energy policy.

So a swath of any reasonable policy is missing. What has he talked about? Essentially, Bush has promised an incremental increase in research budgets, and mostly, he is interested in researching ethanol and other biofuels. This is not entirely stupid. Brazil has managed to attain energy independence using a combination of ethanol from sugarcane and conservation. We could actually do the same right now using off the shelf technology putting development costs mostly on car manufacturers.

First up, we need to face a basic fact: ethanol as it is produced in the US now is a net energy looser. One study by Tad W. Patzek in the Critical Reviews in Plant Science suggests that we use six times as much energy growing the corn we use to make ethanol as we get out of it. (write up here) Ethanol is also a net money loser. It wouldn’t be profitable for anyone to buy the energy equivalent of six gallons of gas to make one gallon of gas without federal subsidies. There are, however, ways to make ethanol and other biofuels energy gainers. That is how the Brazilians managed to attain energy independence using this technology.* From what I can tell, the main difference between Brazil and the U.S. is really that they have a lot of cheap labor. More of the energy input to the process just comes from muscle power. The Brazilians were also willing to make two other expenses for energy independence. They demanded that auto makers produce cars that would run on their sugarcane based ethanol, and, well, they chopped down a fuck of a lot of rainforest.

Right now in the US ethanol is just a handout to corn growers. It doesn’t have to be. It could be a useful, stop-gap measure that will keep us out of costly wars until long term solutions are in place. The first step would be to start importing ethanol from a country that has found a way to grow ethanol without a net energy loss, Brazil. I know that this undercuts the rhetoric of energy independence, and I know that there is no love lost between presidents Lula and W., but honestly, trading in a market based on Brazilian products is better than trading in a market based on products from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Importing Brazilian ethanol would also mean that we have an instant supply of biofuel. The second step would simply be to demand that car makers produce cars that can run on the fuel.

There are a lot of drawbacks to this strategy, not least of which is the clearing of rainforest. I’m not actually sure we should do it. But it is a way to more or less immediately implement the solution Bush is proposing to spend the next six years researching.

But no biofuel can be a long term solution. They are at best a little better in tailpipe emission than gasoline. And, as Paul Roberts points out, “Climate change is emerging as the only real driver for an entirely new energy economy.” Actually only ten words in the speech addressed the long term energy needs of our species: “we will invest more … revolutionary solar and wind technologies” As far as I can tell, we didn’t even get a dollar figure.

Update: The Oil Drum has dollar figures. Perhaps there were parts of the address that weren't on the transcript I saw?
* I know, the second law of thermodynamics says there is not really such a thing as a net energy gainer in a closed system. But the Earth is not a closed system, thanks to the profound generosity of the sun. An energy source counts as a net energy gainer if it releases more of the solar energy sent to the earth than it uses up.

1 comment:

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