Obviously I haven’t been posting much here lately. This is mostly been because I haven’t had much to say; while I have been pretty busy at certain points in the past few weeks, there were other times when I had plenty of time to write here, but nothing to talk about. Overall, I think this blog has never really worked out. I started it because I was interested in energy issues and had begun writing about them at my main blog, which focuses mostly on archaeology. I thought it would be better to have a specialized blog if I was going to write a lot about energy, and I do still think that’s a good idea, but as it turned out I didn’t know enough about energy to have much of interest to say. I’ve continued to learn, and it’s quite possible that at some point I’ll have more to say and will say it here, but recent changes in my life have put me in a position where energy isn’t going to be a major focus of what I do. Energy issues are big in Alaska, of course, and there’s even an interesting wind project in development very close to Anchorage, but realistically I’m not going to be dealing with energy very much in my job, and I won’t have much time outside of it and I’d like to focus that time on other interests. Of course, this blog gets very low readership, so this won’t be a big deal for anyone but me. Under the circumstances, stepping away for a while seems like the best option.
The idea of using the fat from farm-raised alligators as a source for biodiesel is fascinating. The main problem with biodiesel from soy has been the land-use impact, which is huge. A recent study done by Clint Andrews and colleagues for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy‘s 2010 Conference on Climate Change, Environment, and Land Policies evaluated the land-intensity of a variety of energy sources, both conventional and alternative. Biofuels in general had the highest land usage, but soy biodiesel in particular was way beyond any other energy source:
That’s right, using soy biodiesel for all of the world’s energy demand would require several times the amount of currently cultivated land for all crops to be devoted to soy. Obviously that’s an extreme and implausible scenario, but it gives a sense of the scale of land-use impacts associated with biodiesel from soy.
There have been some concerns with biofuels in general over whether they are actually carbon-neutral. This has been particularly unclear with wood, since trees can live a long time so it’s not necessarily the case that the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning wood has only been taken out of the atmosphere recently, which is necessary for biofuel use to not increase atmospheric carbon concentrations. With soy this isn’t really a problem, since it is grown and harvested over a short period.
It’s not totally clear to me where alligators fall in regard to these problems. If they are harvested at relatively young ages (compared to trees) they would cause few problems with carbon concentrations. Alligator farms also presumably take up less land than soybean fields, though it would be good to get some data on this. The NYT blog post on this discusses the amount of fat that could be rendered but that is currently thrown away, estimating a final volume of 1.25 million gallons of fuel from 15 million pounds of fat discarded a year. That sounds like a lot, but both the journal article and the blog post note that current US diesel consumption is about 45 billion gallons a year. Thus, even if all the alligator fat that is currently thrown away were converted to biodiesel it would be a drop in the bucket compared to the total demand. This implies that if the production process proves to be economical, and demand for alligator diesel develops, the scale of alligator farming could increase immensely. Figuring out the land-use and other implications of that would be an important task before anyone gets too carried away with this admittedly fascinating research.
Ayalasomayajula, S., Subramaniam, R., Gallo, A., Dufreche, S., Zappi, M., & Bajpai, R. (2011). Potential of Alligator Fat as Source of Lipids for Biodiesel Production Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research DOI: 10.1021/ie201000s
Obviously this is a much smaller leak than the likes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the authorities and ExxonMobil seem to be handling it okay so far, but it’s a reminder that the potential for oil leaks remains huge throughout the country. We move a huge amount of oil very long distances through pipelines, and it doesn’t take much to cause a devastating leak and long-lasting contamination.
This past weekend I saw Billy Elliott, which was excellent but got me thinking about some of the challenges involved in energy policy. The story takes place against the backdrop of the British coal miners’ strike in response to the Thatcher government’s attempt to shut down many of the mines, and while there’s a certain ambiguity in the way the show presents some of the issues relating to the strike, it’s pretty clear that the miners are being presented as the “good guys” trying to save their jobs and their town’s economy, while the “scabs” and the police are the “bad guys.”
That’s all well and good in the context of the show and the story, but it does point to some of the potential difficulties in attempting to shift away from dependence on coal. This particular event was mostly about labor rather than environmental issues (the government certainly had no intention of phasing out the use of coal entirely), but any policy today that attempts to discourage the use of coal and encourage cleaner fuels would likely meet a similar reaction in coal-mining areas, which are still quite numerous in the US. This is why we’re not going to be seeing any West Virginia politicians supporting cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, for example. The politicians are often in the pocket of the coal companies, of course, but there’s no avoiding the fact that moving away from coal would be an economic disaster for the miners themselves, a much more sympathetic group to much of the public. The fact that the United Mine Workers is one of the most prominent and successful unions in the country adds another complicating factor. It’s just very unlikely that unionized coal miners laid off when their mines close are going to be able to find new jobs that are anywhere near as good.
The environmental movement in the US has increasingly been focusing on coal, which makes sense since in a lot of ways it’s awful stuff. Not only does it emit more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, thus contributing heavily to global warming, it also has a bunch of serious local environmental effects that make it a pretty easy rallying point for people who might not be as inspired by the more abstract global threat of climate change. Coal companies are also so manifestly greedy and irresponsible that they make excellent villains in this drama. I think it’s really important to note, though, that while ending our reliance on coal is a very good idea overall it would inevitably cause a lot of very real economic pain to a lot of people who are poorly situated to deal with it. This isn’t a reason to give up on the anti-coal campaign, but I do think activists should acknowledge the reality of these concerns and come up with plausible ways to at least mitigate the damage. The extent to which more stringent environmental regulation would lead to economic damage has been wildly overblown, but that doesn’t mean there would be no damage at all. Not everything can be win-win for everyone.
The DOE blog has an interesting post on efforts by the Bonneville Power Administration to improve the design of transmission towers being built as part of new high-voltage lines to accommodate the increasing amount of wind power in the northwest. The key is really software and the ability to rapidly evaluate numerous possibilities for how to design the towers, which allows BPA to build towers that are both stronger and lighter. Interesting stuff, and if it works out it could be very important given how much new transmission capacity the country will need in the coming years.
Hydroelectric power occupies kind of an odd place in the energy system. It is clean and renewable, in a sense, but especially at large scales it is hardly without large environmental impacts. Building a big dam effectively destroys a whole river valley, after all, and we’ve seen the effects throughout much of the country over the past century. Nevertheless, once the dams are there we might as well keep using them, as long as we have sufficient water in the rivers (which at some western dams is becoming a questionable long-term prospect). There isn’t a whole lot of potential for adding additional hydroelectric capacity, however. We’ve dammed just about all the rivers we can, and the few we haven’t are generally that way for a reason. There is some potential for additional small-scale hydro, some of which wouldn’t have the same ecological problems of big dams, but that by definition doesn’t equal much power.
There is, however, a certain amount of potential for adding more turbines to existing dams to increase their capacity, and it’s interesting to see that Los Alamos County, New Mexico has just done this at Abiquiu Dam, adding a 3-MW turbine to increase the total capacity of the dam to 16.8 MW. That’s not very big as power plants go, but it’s something. And right now, we need all the renewable energy we can get.