Energy

The Weekly Carboholic

nonukesGermany has made a decision to abandon nuclear energy. No nation has to use nuclear energy for their electricity needs – there are abundant alternatives, and Germany has a plethora of alternatives. Unfortunately, according to the Washington Post, Germany is finding that their anti-nuclear, green impulse has had an unintended consequence – they’re transitioning away from nearly carbon-free nuclear energy and back to the dirtiest energy source there is – coal.

This is a huge problem because the EU has demanded that Germany cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, and yet Germany is also phasing out nuclear energy, a source that provides a quarter of Germany’s energy needs. According to the Washington Post article, German environmentalists are torqued off over the fact that Germany is building even more coal plants to meet the nation’s energy needs. Instead, environmentalists desire even more solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric energy in place of Germany’s growing dependence on coal. But the sun doesn’t shine all the time, the wind doesn’t blow all the time, biomass is hard to scale appropriately, and there are only so many rivers that can dammed. Every energy source has it’s environmental problems – flooded terrain for hydroelectric, strip mines for coal, radioactive waste for nuclear – but too many environmentalists want a perfect solution. There isn’t one. There is no way to escape the law of unintended consequences, and abandoning nuclear energy has created an ugly tradeoff for Germany’s environmentalist community.

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In another story about energy generation, NPR aired a story about how Costa Rica may have its hydroelectric power cut dramatically by global heating. In a nation where over 80% of it’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power, if global heating interferes with rainfall patterns, the nation’s economy and future could be at risk. I didn’t know this, but Costa Rica’s economy is based on high technology and tourism, two relatively energy-hungry industries, so if Costa Rica’s clean hydroelectric power is cut dramatically due to reductions in rainfall, it will dramatically affect the nation’s two main industries. And it’s high-tech industry has already begun to feel the effects of altered rainfall patterns – there have been rolling blackouts across the capitol due to insufficient water in the resevoirs used for the hydroelectric power.

It’s almost obscene that a country as green, both literally and figuratively, ultimately might have to start burning coal just to power its own industries, but that’s one of the downsides to becoming too dependent on any single source of energy. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and Costa Rica will be able to adapt to their energy problems without resorting to coal.

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When natural plants are cleared and the land converted from its natural state to farmland, the process releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide. This information has been known for a while. A new study released last week has found that the amount of carbon emitted through this process may, in fact, overwhelm the amount of carbon savings from any biofuels that are created using crops grown on that newly converted farmland. According to the National Geographic, a new study has found that this “carbon debt” usually takes decades to pay off using biofuels, and in the case of tropical forests, the carbon debt is too great to ever repay.

According to the National Geographic article, the fastest that any current biofuel crop can pay off the carbon debt is 17 years for sugarcane. Carbon debt is paid off when the aggregate carbon emissions saved by the biofuel exceed the emissions released when the land was originally converted over to crop use from its natural state. Corn ethanol takes 93 years, and if the land is peatland rain forest cleared for palm oil, the debt is an outrageous 423 years. Unfortunately, we need solutions that can take hold in 50 years or less, and that means, barring dramatic improvements in cellulosic ethanol production that don’t require clearing land for crops, every existing biofuel crop except sugarcane will actually make global heating worse instead of better. Using palm oil is the worst, though, because the average lifespan of a palm oil plantation is 100 years – 323 years less than the payback period of the carbon debt.

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tap waterAt the moment, I’m drinking a glass of filtered tap water. Generally speaking, I drink tap water instead of bottled water because it’s cheaper and easier, and unless I’m in one of the few places with truly nasty water, I adapt to slight flavor variations within a day or two. But I do drink bottled water from time to time, like when I’m going on an airplane – it’s hard to justify the annoyance of taking an empty Nalgene bottle through security only to fill it up from a drinking fountain out on the concourse. But given just how bad bottle water is for the environment, I may have to change my thinking.

Tap water is cheap, nearly always safe to drink, doesn’t require disposable (albeit recyclable) containers created from oil or natural gas, and takes relatively little energy to create. All that’s required is some settling ponds, chemical treatments, inexpensive filtration systems, and ta da! safe, drinkable water. But much bottled water requires energy to produce via reverse osmosis, energy and oil to create the plastic bottles, may contribute to cavities, and is no safer than tap water. In fact, plastic bottles not only decompose into small fragments that are often fatal to wildlife, but if you try to reuse the bottle instead of recycling it immediately after it’s been used, then you’re exposing yourself to diseases that you left there the last time you drank out of it. After all, anyone who’s tried to clean out a narrow-necked water bottle knows that it’s much harder to clean than a wide-necked Nalgene bottle. So drink your tap water with pride, and if you don’t like the flavor, filter it or add tea to it – you’ll do yourself, your local wildlife, and the climate a favor in the process.

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According to the San Jose Mercury News, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) announced last week that all governments and companies would start paying fees for contributing to global heating by emitting carbon dioxide. For every metric ton of CO2 emitted, the emitting business or governmental entity will be charged 4.2 cents, resulting in tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in new taxes on the most polluting industries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Industry has all but pledged to pass the additional costs on to their customers, especially the local oil refineries and power plants. At 4.2 cents per metric ton, the tax on carbon emissions is far below the EU cap-and-trade value of $40 per ton, but I agree in principle with the environmentalists:

“[S]omebodyhas to go first.”

4 replies »

  1. I was travelling through Germany yesterday. It’s vastly amusing how this nation of cold, rain and cloud-covered skies has latched onto solar power. German subsidies to consumers of solar energy has set off a world shortage of solar panels in this, a country with a terribly low payback on such technology use.

    As I’ve said before, to fuck things up completely frequently takes an act of government.

  2. The carbon debt of crops as opposed to land in its “natural state” has no relation to the type of plant being grown. It stems from the process of cultivation. And it is wholly possible in a good many cases to use land as a food source without the cultivation. For example, grass fed livestock…where the animals feed on perennial grasses. Even on the small scale, tillage is less, and fields are not generally left totally fallow…for example, cover crops like vetch. Industrialized agriculture, however, is incredibly tillage intensive. Over tillage disturbs the soil ecosystem, and this disturbance has significant, negative effects on crop yields over the long term.

    Damned if you do, and damned for doing it.

  3. The point isn’t that the crops disturb the land more or less depending on the crop, but rather that the carbon savings you get from one crop or another takes a long time to overwhelm the carbon debt caused by cultivation – corn ethanol is so inefficient (and may in fact be negatively efficient) that it takes 93 years to pay off a carbon debt that would take sugarcane only 17 years to pay off. Switching to cellulosic ethanol would change the equation some, but I’m not sure that anyone really knows by how much.

    At least, not yet.

  4. Brian,

    Without a doubt, corn ethanol is one of the worst scams in the world. I should have been more clear, my apologies, because i do agree that devoting more land to cultivating corn (in particular) for producing ethanol is one of the worst ideas in the world.

    The actual motivating factor behind it has nothing to do with reducing dependence on oil and everything to do with the profit margins of companies like Monsanto. We’ve known that you can distill plant matter into fuel for a very long time, but its current popularity stems from political developments that get very little press.

    GMO crops became usable in roughly 1996. At that time we exported 3.15 M metric tons of corn to Europe. (82% of their corn) Less than a decade later, our exports to Europe totaled 33,000 metric tons. No one wants our GMO agricultural products. Obviously, farmers will factor the market into their planting decisions, and the bottom was dropping out of corn prices. Monsanto makes their money on the sale of seed and peripheral chemical products. Non GMO seed is actually free to the farmer.

    Corn ethanol programs have driven market prices up, which puts pressure on food supply…it also pressures farmers to cultivate more land in an attempt to make more money. But the people who make the real money on ethanol are the companies like Monsanto who own the plant patents (note: the US government is a patent partner on some of these plants).

    I certainly wasn’t trying to debate your point; i agree with it. My original post was meant as further explanation of how the process works. And i would add that corn is not only an inefficient fuel crop, it is also a terribly inefficient food crop as well…for the same reasons: the carbon debt.

    We’ve done very little research on which plants would be the best producers for ethanol because the people who fund the research are set against the crops that would almost certainly be the best crops, i.e. crops that require little cultivation and few inputs in the way of fertilizers and pesticides. There is no profit in those crops for the agribusiness giants. It is simply another story of corporate profit made on public debt.