Fire Good

The New York Times had an interesting article about biofuels this morning. The suggestion was that this approach was a losing proposition over the long haul with a growing population. So to move away from carbon different approaches were advised. The comments, for the most part, were typical as well — most were still stuck in the reality of a fire-based society and were more prepared to argue the different forms of fuel that step back and look at the big picture.

But I see it a bit differently and am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. My comment:

“‘Fire good…’ one of our ancestors must have acclaimed a long time ago. Yep, still doing it — just got a lot more creative about forming the fuel. Cut it down, dig it up, grow it and weave into baskets before burning… all pretty much the same. The rub is that there are more of us so using the atmosphere as an intermediary carbon store is not going to reduce levels. And the problem is that ‘biofuels’ are costly to produce — by substituting technology for time. Lets face it, fire is biological solar power releasing the energy captured by plants over time. Its virtue is energy storage in a stable form.

So sure, we can come up with technological equivalents for natural processes but the basic issue of more people makes this a losing proposition. And it diverts resources from other uses.

The challenge is how to live (or not) an energy-intensive lifestyle without burning stuff to do it. The key is storage and transmission of power and coming to terms with other forms of generation. Just changing the brand of what we put in the tank is not going to do it, regardless of how much their advocates claim.”

Think about it, really. Coal, oil, wood, gas are all carbon compounds produced at the end of some process that started with photosynthesis a long time ago. With the exception of wood, pretty much everything else requires heat and pressure over a very long time to transform the original biomatter into the present forms. But essentially it is just biological solar power. Sunlight transformed into a material that is burned to release the captured energy through a chemical reaction and return the bound carbon into the air — to be picked up by a photosynthetic organism someplace and recycled. The air is just an intermediate store in the whole process. Recycled… is that not the point of ‘renewable’ energy anyhow?

Problem is that the arc of our civilization is based on consuming more and more energy as we use technology to leverage our existence away from our primitive fore-bearers. Sitting here in the house writing on my computer, radio playing in the background, heating system keeping me warm, etc — probably using more energy every day than my distant ancestor in a cave used in his lifetime.

But with more people and each of them using more energy that is a lot of carbon that used to sit in the ground floating around and contributing to global climate change by absorbing heat directly. The problem is burning stuff to release energy, not so much IMHO the form of the carbon source being burned. So biofuels are really a diversion — we have been using biofuels all along, are just substituting technology (and consuming some of the released energy) to hasten the process. More people, more burning stuff, more crud in the air… not a good direction. (Take that, tar sands…)

The problem is really storage and transmission. A jug of gasoline or a pile of coal is a lot of stored energy sitting there. While it has been suggested (in the article for sure – a factor of 50) that solar panels were a far more efficient way to convert sunlight into power we don’t have a good way to save it for later. Even pushing it to the other side of the country is not without losses — and they do mount up. Losses upping the voltage, passing through the wires, dropping it to a safe level at the other end. There are a variety of views as to how much gets lost end to end — I have seen as low as 9% (how hydro grosses up our usage) to as high as 30% (Lawrence-Livermore Labs US energy flows). The reality is out there somewhere. One suspects that by making every larger and more interconnected grids we are making it worse [think one grid to rule them all…]. And like most things bigger is more brittle and harder to manage. Try telling that to politicians infatuated with ‘economies of scale’.

There is another problem to mention as an aside — our fire-based civilization (many of them, really) is a 24 hour beast. In the past life was driven by the sun unless you were very rich — the day started when the sun came up and wound down at the other end. Still, consider the lifecycle of someone using the sun for power, extended, most inefficiently, by energy storage into the night. Adding wind really doesn’t change much — the wind blows when it blows, not when you need the power it is producing. (And wind is driven by temperature differences globally — wonder how that will change as the planet continues to warm?) And backing all this ‘renewable’ power up with gas generators that have to run all the time to be ready and warm when needed isn’t as much a solution as a sort of slight of hand. We pretend the power is non-carbon but its an illusion, even ignoring the industrial processes and material needed to make huge swaths of solar panels and towering concrete, steel and fibreglass wind turbines. The natural gas keeps being burned day and night and the exhaust bubbles into the air.

What is the solution? Wish I knew — but it is probably electric in some form. Don’t think 9 billion people are going to go back to agrarian societies subsistence-farming their local patch of land. And neither will huge cities work well if the lights, heat and water all go off at sunset. To say nothing of the 1,000 mile oxcart run to bring in food. So there is still a need for large scale power storage and transmission. The later is less of a problem if generation and use are more localized — fewer extension cords and points of failure. Problem is some poor city-dweller is going to have to accept a power facility down the block. Sorry about that.

As I see it the big problem areas are mobile sources of power — cars, trucks and especially aviation. There are solutions for boats, mostly because they are almost small cities and adding tons is less of a problem. And rail has been electric for a long time in some places. Bullet trains are all electric, diesel locomotives are really electric with their own oil-fired dynamos (still burning stuff). Steam locomotives died out mostly because they had no way to recycle the water — a problem in many areas (and getting worse).

Personally, I would love to have an electric car. A lot simpler than the beast parked in the driveway [a small truck]. But I use that thing at most two or three times a week — ok because the gas just sits there and the starting energy in the lead-acid battery persists long enough. If it were much longer even that would be problematic. Most electric storage doesn’t work anywhere near as well and its heavy so the amount that can be carried is reduced [think amount of energy and the weight of the storage to hold it]. So even the best have a far shorter range than the beast with a full tank of gas and take a lot longer to recharge. Industry has used electric trucks in plants for a long time — but I don’t know anyone who is even trying to do a delivery van with batteries. Its all the same problem — energy storage.

So meanwhile, once again in my humble opinion, all this work at carbon capture and alternate biofuels is just a waste. Even if we succeed in some of these processes the growing population dooms us. Getting out of this mess without making an unlikely societal transform is only going to happen if we find new ways of producing and storing energy that don’t require burning things — its not a contest that burning chunks is bad but liquids are good [or somesuch]. May even have to face our fears about nuclear and perhaps admit that the first generation plants were not so good (although statistically enormously better than the alternatives — the fear is not based on what did happen, only what could have).

In a sense it is a far bigger challenge than going to the moon. And it will be hard. But like that latter effort the real benefit will be what we learn along the way. Would be encouraging to see more movement in that direction and less on making burning stuff even more inefficient. But so far, not so much.