28 May 2007

Let's Talk About Biofuels, Baby

Biofuels (a happening thing right now in Colorado) are undeniably sexy in a number of ways. The concept of using something clean and friendly like corn or sugarcane for energy is a warm fuzzy one, and makes city dwellers feel connected to their country cousins, farmers who’ve been using ethanol for tractor fuels for decades. Politically, biofuels are a win-win, making urban and rural populations happy, satisfying eco-types concerned about global warming and policy types concerned about dependence on foreign oil. Biofuels are also cheap, from a funding perspective – it’s easy for federal sources to give biofuels research centers a few hundred million dollars and say they’re supporting clean energy. Even the big bad energy giants like BP are in on this, funding research centers, polishing their image at a bargain price, relatively speaking. And researchers like working on biofuels, because they’re manageable – the technology is sufficiently advanced that it represents mainly an engineering problem in scalability and efficiency. So SUV owners feel good about using E85, legislators and federal agencies feel good about doing their part, researchers feel good about solving real-world problems.

But here’s the discouraging math part: Right now the world burns energy at the rate of 13.5 terawatts. By 2050, assuming current birth rates, the world will need a minimum of 28-35 TW, assuming extreme energy conservation way beyond what we practice now. (If the whole world, in 2050, used energy at the rate of North America today, we would need 84 TW; US burn rates bring this number to 102 TW.) Some more math: if all the landmass in the world except for living space were transitioned to production of biomass (all crops harvested for energy, rather than food), and if biofuel technology improved from today’s ≤1% efficiency to, say, 10% efficiency, this would give another 7-10 TW. In other words, not nearly enough. (It also appears that maximizing biomass, clean nuclear, wind and hydro power, and continuing our current rates of fossil fuel consumption, bring us just about to the lower bound of 28 TW. For more on these numbers, see On the Future of Global Energy by Daniel Nocera, head of the MIT Energy Research Council.)

So biofuels and related technologies are a sexy, feel-good idea, but every dollar spent on them is a dollar not being spent on finding a new, viable alternative to make up that energy deficit (32 missing TW to get the world of 2050 up to the living standard of Western Europe). Add to this the fact that there’s about a 30-year germination period between a brand-new basic science idea and an efficient, scalable real-world power source.

Basic science research, of course, is frustrating from a real-world perspective, because there’s no way to know where to look; the answer could come from any direction. “Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing,” per German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun – not the best pickup line if you’re looking to get some action, funding-wise. Meanwhile, attractive, near-term options like biofuels are out there, giving the come-hither look to those who want to be seen as responsible global citizens. It’s hard to fault these types, who are trying to do the right thing, and who invariably argue that it’s “better than doing nothing.” But you sometimes want to shake them a little, tell them to play the field, keep their options open, and never go home with the first cute young thing they lay eyes on.