Corny Energy PolicyJuly 20th, 2011
Energy. It’s kind of important. I’m not going to sit here and bother writing out the hackneyed warnings that you’ve all heard before. I won’t cite the growth of the world’s population, industrial emergence of less-developed economies, and expanding requirements of new technology as key factors that will multiply our already high demand for power for years to come. I also won’t repeat the obvious truth that these factors, coupled with the problems associated with the generation of electricity from fossil fuels, necessitate that we develop new ways of providing energy to power all of these applications.
How the world fuels its growing appetite for energy is a problem that involves many stakeholders, but the subject most relevant to the discussion might be chemistry. The problem falls squarely within the realm of chemical research, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from espousing positions that don’t pass chemical muster.
A blog post on public misperceptions about energy could easily turn into a book. (My new favorite is from a conversation I recently overheard that high-octane gasoline is “premium” because it burns more cleanly and gives you better fuel mileage.) While you can find people that believe just about anything, I’m sure that all of us—scientists included—have misconceptions about energy that are based on ignorance, counterintuitive phenomena, and misinformation. But that’s not my concern today. My concern is the bigger picture and how our government (not just a few random people) is putting its weight behind ideas that don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Perhaps the worst example has to be the growing use of ethanol from corn as a fuel. The United States has already invested and is continuing to pour a hell of a lot of money into working more ethanol into the fold of the fuel we use for transportation. Acts of Congress have ensured the growth of the technology by setting minimum levels of ethanol production, and the Government provides tax breaks for domestic producers and places tariffs on imports. These subsidies are a signal that ethanol technology is not something that makes the most sense economically, but government intervention can be a good idea for fledgling technologies that show promise for the future. Is that the case for corn ethanol?
It is very hard for me to believe. The only real advantage of ethanol is that it removes some of our dependence on oil, whose price is essentially controlled by a cartel run by unfriendly countries. I appreciate the desire to wean ourselves from “foreign” oil, but ethanol is a drop in the bucket in the energy picture and it introduces considerable costs for (questionable) short term gain. First, we eat corn, so its use to produce ethanol places a higher demand on the crop and drives up food prices. This problem will only get worse as the population increases and demands for ethanol fuel grow. Next, we don’t have the infrastructure for using ethanol. As used today, expanding ethanol production is going to require new distilleries, and increasing the percentage of ethanol in fuels is going to require things like engine modifications and different fuel pumps to support it. (Congress has already allocated money for getting more of these pumps installed.) These projects and similar ones would, perhaps, be reasonable investments if ethanol were a long-term solution, but it doesn’t seem to be (for reasons discussed below). Finally, corn ethanol is woefully inefficient in terms of harnessing energy, even relative to other forms of ethanol production (e.g., sugar cane). Distilleries are still largely powered by coal, and the best estimates are that when you consider all of the factors that go into producing corn ethanol, it only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by ~25% versus gasoline. The technology doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as “carbon-neutral”.
Yes, I know many people have made these arguments (and others) against corn ethanol before. That makes it all the more depressing that the technology continues to be a major focus of domestic energy policy. Perhaps the better question to focus on is what strategies do seem viable to meet the energy demands of the future?
This is where things get a little depressing—even scary. Nate Lewis (a professor at Caltech) has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations about how fast the global demand for power will increase and how realistic it is to meet these needs with various forms of energy production. He’s published his analysis in several easy-to-read papers and he gives a great talk.
What does the analysis have to say about solving the “energy crisis” with…
Nuclear? It’s “clean” in terms of CO2 pollution, but we’d have to build a standard-capacity uranium reactor every other day for the next 50 years to meet energy demand. Or…nuclear chemists/physicists could finally invent a fusion reactor.
Hydroelectricity? It’s really a pittance. You could dam every river on Earth and not generate enough energy for today’s needs. Furthermore, you’d flood a lot of people out of their homes.
Geothermal? Again, there’s not enough that is practical to access.
Wind? In regions with high wind velocity, this technology is definitely economical, but there’s not nearly enough accessible wind energy for everyone.
Biofuels (like ethanol)? Unfortunately, photosynthesis is only ~1% efficient and CO2 only makes up 0.04% of the atmosphere, which introduces severe mass-transport limitations on how fast plants grow. If you used the most efficient crops and (impossibly) found a means to farm them without using energy, you’d essentially have to plant all of the arable land on the planet to meet what we’ll need in terms of long-term energy consumption.
Fossil fuels? Fortunately, there is plenty of oil, gas, and coal around to last for many decades, but this does nothing to solve the problem of pollution/CO2.
Solar? This is the only real option. Well over 1,000 times more energy from sunlight hits the surface of the Earth than we need to meet even the least conservative estimates for what the world will need down the road. Today’s best systems generate energy at ~4-5 times the cost of the same unit produced by burning fossil fuels, which is why solar is not yet a practical alternative. We (chemists) need to improve the efficiency of these systems, find better catalysts, less expensive materials, and find a way to store energy so that we can run things at night.
I think all of these alternatives should continue to be the subject of research because they are interesting from the perspective of science and engineering. But, to me, solar is the only thing that makes sense in terms of serious (big $$$) investment. All of the focus on corn ethanol has been, and continues to be, a distraction and a waste. The problem is that the public has been sold an incomplete story.