Category Archives: NRM/environment

Reframing “renewable energy” & “bioenergy”

Popular usage of the term “renewable energy” is problematic, because it includes two distinct classes or sub-categories of energy sources: On the one hand, forms of bioenergy that serve as fuels for vehicles, feedstock for power plants (i.e., biomassbiofuels, etc.), and all the way down to firewood for cookstoves; and on the other hand, a set of technologies that in effect harvest energy in nature (solar, wind, wave, hydro, and geothermal, along with smaller scale energy “scavenging”). The common opposition of renewable energy vs. fossil fuels obscures this important distinction. The various forms of biomass and biofuels that are generally considered as renewables are burned – or combusted – to release energy (along with pollutants and carbon dioxide), just as are the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.

It is important to point this out at a time when headlines tell us that various countries are marking new “firsts” in replacing fossil fuels with renewables – e.g., Costa Rica, Portugal, and Britain.  It is also essential to be clear on this as we plan our energy future.

How the dual nature of bioenergy fits in the energy picture

The range of biomass and biofuels that we burn like fossil fuels, are considered renewable, unlike those fossil fuels, due to the calculation that their production and use is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning (most significantly as carbon dioxide) is considered to be offset by the carbon taken in by the growing of plants comparable to those burned. (There are important debates about how carbon neutrality is calculated, and whether externalities are or are not accounted for in the equations, but for purposes of this article, these will not be discussed.)

Rather than renewable vs. fossil fuels, we might just as easily discuss “pure renewables” (for lack of a better collective name for solar, wind, etc.) vs. “energy from burning/combustion,” which would separate biomass, biofuels, etc. from other renewables and group them with fossil fuels. That would also reflect the substitution aspect of bioenergy with respect to fossil fuels.¹

It would be more productive, however, to think of the two broad categories of renewables and energy from burning as partially overlapping categories or sets. This can be illustrated in a Venn diagram, with biomass, biofuels, etc. in the overlap (brown region).

This portrayal highlights the unique position of these forms of bioenergy. It also raises the question as to whether we really should be talking about three categories of energy rather than two. I will come back to that but first will expand the context.

Subcategories of bioenergy & the place of nuclear power

In considering bioenergy in a broad sense, it seemed useful to account for a batch of relatively smaller inputs into the overall energy system that do not involve conversion of living matter to fuel or burning it: animal draft power (which was centrally important in the pre-industrial age, but only locally important in some regions today); human physical labor (never insignificant, even given the integration of the 20th century cohort of automation technologies into the economy); and harnessing microbial processes (from age-old use of micro-organisms for fermenting foods and beverages,² to newer technologies like industrial microbiology, biomining, and microbial fuel cells).

However, I am proposing to adding a twist in that the work of “organisms” (so as to put these diverse sources under one heading) is not treated as conversion of caloric sources (food as “fuel”),³ but is rather seen as a utilization of their energy and effort, which would have been otherwise expended had it not been harnessed or employed to accomplish some defined work. The difference here is that a machine doesn’t need energy to exist (once created), but then it cannot do anything without a source of energy. Organisms on the other hand exist (continue to live) because they are already consuming calories, and may be engaged in work from that state (although greater effort will require them to consume more to sustain the increase in activity). I’ve tentatively added these as a subset of renewables in the following diagram (the yellow circle).

So to review, there are in effect there are two sub-categories of bioenergy:

  1. One from plant matter (to include algae) burned as fuel, directly or after conversion into a more convenient form. This is the main or exclusive meaning used in most discussions of bioenergy, and it is the one I am contending should be thought of as being at the same time both renewable and burnable/combustible.
  2. Another more limited one, which involves in effect the (figurative) harvesting of work done by organisms. This accounts for only a small percentage of overall energy in industrial and post-industrial societies, and cannot yield the amounts of energy needed for massive industrial or consumer needs. Nevertheless, it is locally significant and helps us expand our thinking about energy sources and categories. (Also, development of intelligent autonomous robots with some means to sustain their own energy budgets might add another level of meaning to this sub-category.)

In this diagram I’ve also added nuclear power, although at this point it is treated as somewhat of a special case, not groupable with anything else. (Hydrogen fuel is not included here as it is more of an energy carrier than a primary source of energy.)

In the following diagram, the components of the preceding diagram are rotated and separated, to show five (5) categories of sources of energy (rather than three). These are of unequal importance, but the relative size of the elements in the diagram has no special significance.

Having disaggregated these categories, we can organize them by other criteria.

“Fuel-based” energy vs. “harvest-based” energy

In the following diagram I regroup the above categories in several ways without relying on the two main categories or sets discussed above “renewable” and “burnable”). The fundamental difference that emerges from this collection seems to be that between fuel-based (converting some kind of fuel into energy; this term is not new, though it is usually seen prefixed with “fossil”), and harvest-based (harnessing or employing energy not bound up in a fuel; this term, which is rare in this context, is not to be confused with the agricultural harvest of crops which may be converted into a biofuel or biodiesel).

Nuclear, fossil, and the biomass, biofuels group are fuel-based. Except for nuclear power, these are also carbon-emitting. The use of nuclear fuel, of course, has its own waste issues. Fossil fuels and nuclear material are extracted resources, which like other extractive industries have various economic and environmental implications. The fuel-based bioenergy sources include major use of land/soil and water resources – as well as energy – to produce plants for biomass or biofuels production.

The broad class of bioenergy, as discussed in the previous section, bridges the fuel-based/harvest-based categories. By far the main harvest-based energy sources, however, are solar, wind, hydro, wave, and geothermal.

Our usual distinction between “fossil” and “renewable” – and even my alternative of overlapping “burnable” and “renewable” – might appropriately and productively be replaced with this “fuel-based” and “harvest-based” distinction. Fuel-based systems in general seem to have a different set of constraints and possibilities than harvest-based, and to involve a different kind of infrastructure investment and commitment. Their cycles of use involve: extraction or production; refinement or conversion into fuel form; storage and distribution; machines to convert fuel to energy (which may be mechanical energy as in an internal combustion engine or the generation of electricity); and finally waste. There is also the demonstrated potential for environmental damage throughout the entire cycle of use of fuel-based energy sources – some systemic (such as ongoing carbon dioxide pollution) and some due to the possibility of error, accident, or natural disaster creating catastrophic scenarios.

Harvest-based systems (leaving aside the bioenergy subset of animal power, etc.) also involve various types of machines and infrastructure, but almost all these days produce electricity. With the exception of dams connected with hydropower, these energy sources do not carry the systemic or potentially catastrophic potential of fuel-based systems. The complexity and potential externalities after the point of harvest (solar panel, wind turbine) are much less than in fuel-based systems.

Fuel-based systems are not without advantages, and harvest-based ones do have down sides. But the emergence of increasingly efficient and cost-effective forms of harvest-based energy generation (and the storage technologies used in tandem with them) would seem to have the long-term upper hand. Solar cells and wind-turbines almost literally pull energy out of thin air – so what if rates vary with the hour or the weather?

Fuel-based bioenergy vs. harvest-based renewables?

Fuel-based bioenergy – outside of the interesting potential to turn waste into energy sources – would occupy increasing amounts of our agricultural potential in order to produce the biomass needed to replace fossil fuels. And it probably will also involve increased genetic tinkering along the way (it’s already being tried with trees). That’s an increasingly convoluted and costly game plan to keep fuel-based systems in play – systems that still put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere even if that is considered to be offset. All this seems hidden in the folds of the renewable energy vs fossil fuel dichotomy.

Harvest-based renewables (solar, wind, etc.) may not be a cure-all – the “future of energy” may indeed need a complex of sources. However, the implications of harvest-based approaches for infrastructure and a whole range of transportation and industrial technologies are different than those of fuel based, and at a certain point sooner or later, the decision will have to be made regarding shifting the dominant paradigm away from fuel-based energy of any sort.


1. Substitution depends on the context. Broadly speaking, one can say that all energy forms are substitutable given the means to convert the energy source to a particular use. The sense intended here is narrower: ethanol can be used instead of gasoline, partially or completely (though in the latter case some re-engineering might be needed), to run a car; and wood pellets can be substituted for coal to fire electricity generation (though some retrofitting of the systems may be necessary). But electric powered vehicles have a different kind of motor altogether; and solar or wind generation of electricity are different processes than that in a fossil-fuel or biomass fired energy plant.

2. The complex process of converting corn into ethanol actually uses this form of bioenergy (work of yeast for fermentation) to create the other form of bioenergy (a fuel that can be burned).

3. For example, Adam J. Liska and Casey D. Heier frame bioenergy in this context this way: “For more than 10,000 years, the foundation of society has been bioenergy in the form of grass, crops, and trees for food for humans and other animals, as well as being a source of heat.” (2013, “The limits to complexity: A thermodynamic history of bioenergy,Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref, 7: 573-581.) I am departing from this apparently standard definition, distinguishing between food and feed “burned” as calories on the one hand, and vegetative matter literally burned (in whatever form) on the other hand. And in the former case, I shift the focus to the organisms whose effort (however fueled) is being used.

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Earth Day 2018: One family’s small example

This Earth Day I’d like to share some small measures my household has taken and/or does take for the environment. These are not that special (well they were a little bit to us), but such efforts small though they be are not insignificant, especially on the very local level, and if joined by those of others has cumulative value.

Of course individual and even collective efforts to be environmentally responsible pale in comparison to the potential positive or negative effects of policy decisions affecting whole waterways, air quality of entire regions, and vast hitherto unspoiled natural areas. But we have our parts to play.

Composting

For the seven years we were in Falls Church, Virginia, we used a backyard compost pile. Into this went virtually all readily decomposable vegetative matter from the yard – to the extent that I even stripped green leaves off of pruned branches before discarding the latter (this went quickly with garden gloves) – as well as all kitchen scraps (non-animal and non-cooked) from meal preparation. The kitchen scraps were buried in the existing compost to reduce potential smell (which we never found to be a problem). Ashes from the fireplace insert also went into compost. If there was any hint of any animal getting into the compost, I’d add powdered red pepper.

System was 2 pile, with 6 month rotation (each batch having 6 months active, and 6 months curing), and use of the old pile in late autumn and in spring. Mainly on the vegetable garden.

Compost pile. Left was active, then shifted to right in compost ring. Pole separating halves is marked with a red dot.

Lawn serf

We had a very modest front and back yard, which were easy to mow with a manual push mower (once as late as December), which also was a kind of exercise. Grass clippings were allowed to fall back into the lawn (not collected). Some hand weeding – moderately extensive on a couple of summers – with the plants of course going into the compost.

Never put chemicals on it with the exception of a couple of products (one supposedly eco-friendly) in 2011 or 2012 to reduce the mosquito population.

The big autumn leaf-fall went on the curb for pick-up (hand-raked and carried, not blower driven). The payback in Falls Church was leaf mulch offered by the city in the spring.

Yard wood

One ash tree brought down by an ice-storm, one magnolia branch that fell on my car in a thunderstorm, and a range of cut branches over the years from a small but exuberant lot, all were cut for use in the fireplace insert. Only the thin branches and thorny ones would go out for pick-up (again, probably the only household that had those stripped of leaves).

Fireplace insert

We had an insert put into our fireplace to allow for efficient use of firewood. This was expensive, but the year we did it we were able to take advantage of a significant tax deduction. Ultimately it paid for itself, notably one winter when the old furnace gave out and had to be replaced. We used yard wood, in one case a neighbor’s tree that had to be cut, and purchased local wood from felled or cleared trees. (My writing on criteria for “good” biofuel, in 2016 and on Earth Day 2017, were influenced in part by this experience, as well observations from living in rural West Africa.)

Rain barrels

We ultimately had five 50-60 gallon rain-barrels out during the warm months to collect rain for use on the flowering plants and vegetables. This was useful, but it sometimes seemed the barrels were full to overflowing during rainy stretches, but then empty during the dry spells. It is significant how much water one can use on gardens even in a humid temperate zone.

Vegetable garden

We had two 3′ by 11′ raised beds for vegetable gardening (size convenient from four 14′ planks (I think they were 2″ by 8″).  The story of the garden itself would be a whole different write-up, but suffice it to say that it was a mixed success depending on crop, but on balance a lot of production and some very tasty results. The residues were all chopped up into the compost in the fall.

Kitchen

As mentioned above, all kitchen scraps went into compost. For a while we included eggshells as well. These were collected in a double plastic bag held in a small container attached to one of the under-sink doors. So basically things to throw out were: 1) trash (see below); 2) recycling (handled by the city); 3) compost; and 4) the few items that went down the disposal (minimal food waste is fundamental for any environmentally-conscious system).

Cooking is cooking, but since I’m currently living alone, I’ve added an innovation to steam something on top of whatever I’m boiling to get double use from one burner (e.g., pasta below, and broccoli on the steamer insert on top of that pot). Conservation in meals is another topic for another day, however.

Shopping bags, not trash bags

I forget where we started this, but it may have been in China. We have used smaller waste receptacles that permit use of plastic shopping bags or the smaller bags you put loose vegetables in to take to the checkout. We really didn’t need bigger bags even in the kitchen given we recycled or composted so much. I can’t recall buying packages of trashbags except for a specialized packing need almost a decade ago. We also bring reusable bags to market, but it always seems that one collects plastic bags from stores. Some of these handle trash no problem; the rest can be recycled.

Hardly exceptional, any of this, but useful perhaps in illustrating one family’s system, and more or less coherent approach to the proverbial reduce, reuse, recycle.

 

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Earth Day 2017: Let’s stop industrial-scale burning of wood for energy

EarthDay2017This year’s Earth Day (22 April 2017) has as its theme “Environmental & Climate Literacy.” In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that environmental and climate literacy require attention to the impact of industrial scale burning of forests, and the question of whether it makes sense as an investment in reducing carbon emissions.

Yesterday there were articles in the press celebrating Britain’s first full day of energy without burning coal since 1882. You have to dig in some articles (not all) to find out that they’re still doing a lot of burning to produce energy, including of imported pelletized wood, which comes mainly from a combination of waste wood (which is limited in quantity) and cutting forests in the southeast United States.

The rationale for cutting, processing, transporting, and burning massive amounts of wood to generate electricity is that it is “carbon neutral.” That is, the carbon released in burning the wood can be accounted as part of a cycle with growing trees (which captures carbon, as part of the natural plant growth process).

But is burning wood on this scale really carbon neutral? And are other externalities, such as environmental impact at points of harvest, adequately taken into account? Should industrialized countries, which otherwise have been pretty good about managing forests – and have been preaching to developing nations about forest conservation and management – be exploiting its forest resources as “nature’s powerhouse” (in the terms of FAO‘s unfortunate slogan for International Day of Forests last month)?

In a recent article entitled “Can We Have Our Forests and Burn Them Too?,” former CIFOR director-general Frances Seymour questions the rush to use wood for power generation based on the current approach to carbon accounting. and points out that the carbon cycle for trees is a very long one. A study by Chatham House, “The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests,” analyzes the accounting issues in more detail, concluding among other things, that “a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.” Similar issues are summarized in a paper on the Friends of the Earth-UK site entitled “Burning Wood for Power Generation The Key Issues Explained.”

The push to burn wood to generate energy, in short, is policy-driven (the science of the matter being read in a way favorable to certain outcomes), and may actually be worse in total impact than cleaner fossil fuels.

Big plants, big impact, small energy?

Among the big biomass/wood burning energy plants in Britain are Drax and Steven’s Croft. (BiofuelWatch has a map of all plants). Taken together, they seem to be having a big impact on forests and the “biomass market” (see for instance this EU press release about the potential impact of Drax), but surprisingly not accounting for that big a proportion of Britain’s overall energy – only 6.7% on the coal-free day, according to the UK Electricity National Control Centre (thanks to Steve Patterson for the pointer):

And the conversion of facilities from coal-burning to wood-burning was expensive (again regarding Drax, see this critical opinion piece). Might it not have made more sense to convert to gas and/or invest in other non-burning renewables?

“Transgenic” forests in the future?

As bad as the pelletizing of forests for electricity generation is today, it could get worse. Research on genetically engineered trees aims to enhance growth and change wood characteristics, with one of the main aims being production for energy (pellets but also biofuel). The continued use of wood to generate power on an industrial scale will generate funds and interest in further developing and planting these organisms, unfortunately probably without regard to impacts on the environment.  (Two older pieces give some perspectives – in The Guardian, 2012, and Earth Island via Salon, 2013.)

Missing the “sweet spot” for wood energy

I have some small experience with wood energy, and my perspective on the larger issues comes in part from two sources. The first began with work on forestry projects in Mali and Guinea which had as part of their purpose, helping rural people grow trees for firewood to use in cooking, rather than cutting natural growth. I’ve maintained an interest and awareness of the problems involved in this source of energy, and various programs and proposals to ameliorate environmental, health, and other problems associated with it. The second is installing and using a fireplace insert in our home, which uses purchased local firewood (coming from cleared and fallen trees in the region), as well as smaller branches and in a couple of instances fallen trees near our residence.

Five key concepts are involved here (I discussed four of these – not transfer – in more detail in the post, “Biofuels reconsidered“):

  1. local;
  2. small scale;
  3. minimal processing;
  4. more direct transfer of heat energy; and
  5. use of waste – that is wood that would otherwise go into a landfill, I am told.

When you get these five together, that’s what I’d consider the “sweet spot” for wood energy, the optimal position for energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable wood use. Sometimes it is hard to stay in that spot, or next to impossible, such as in communities in West Africa I have known – so small scale plantations, and medium-distance transport of wood becomes necessary. Or in the US, the market drives producing wood for fireplaces and firepits (those small mesh-packaged batches of split wood for sale outside supermarkets).

On the scale of, say, Drax and its suppliers, however, they’re off on all counts, pretty much by design: long distance between supply and use; very large scale; medium processing (not as bad as wood to liquid biofuel); indirect transfer (the heat released from burning only indirectly produces electricity, so there is energy loss); and due to the scale of demand, live trees are harvested and plantations made, with all kinds of externalities. Industrial scale burning of wood for energy in advanced economies, in other words, misses all the five criteria for optimal energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. So, if the “carbon neutrality” of this practice is also contested, why are we doing this?

Decoupling forests and energy

Which brings me back to the FAO’s disheartening – from the point of a former (re)forester and lifelong environmentalist – slogan for International Day of Forests (IDoF) on March 21: “The forest: nature’s powerhouse.” Their effort to link the small-scale household use of firewood (which for many is a simple necessity, not a preference) with industrial scale power generation from pelletized forests was misguided, in my opinion (and I believe that of many others). Their attempt to point to a long-term role of forests in energy generation and need for policy support to that end seems shortsighted. Do we really expect to devote a significant percentage of our dwindling forest lands to inefficient energy generation? (I annotated their infographic, which is included at the end of this post.)

Wood energy is a reality for many today, but it is not a vision for long-term development. It is time to plan for the gradual split between energy – the technology for which is “ephemeralizing” away from burning and combustion – and forests – which have critically important climatic roles in addition to supplying wood and other forest products for our use.

Of course, we will always like to sit by a wood fire on a cold night or at a campsite, or to grill over charcoal, but that kind of use should be as close to the “sweet spot” of optimization as possible.

Ms. Seymour in her article cited above had a memorable summation of the arguments she made (it’s not a long read, and highly recommended): “Whether temperate or tropical, we can’t have our forests and burn them too.” Hopefully FAO and other major agencies and organizations concerned with the future of forests and/or energy will take that assessment to heart.

Comments on FAO infographic “Forests and Energy” from IDoF 2017.
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Settlements on Mars? Start in Earth’s deserts

Elon Musk’s introduction of SpaceX’s plans to go to Mars was long on the how to get there, but short on the “now what?” once passengers land. What would cities on Mars look like, and how would they solve the material and social challenges they would encounter from the moment they arrive at their destination?

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    OXO Architectes “Tour des sables” concept

A practical place to start looking – and planning – would be Earth’s driest deserts. It’s not by whim that scenes in the 2015 movie The Martian were filmed in the barren Wadi Rum of southern Jordan. While no place on Earth is really comparable to Mars, the most arid areas are as close as one can get in many respects.

Urbanization in sparsely populated “deep deserts” – areas away from water sources where most ancient and modern desert cities are located – is a path we will have to consider in the wake of population growth and environmental change. But such urbanization will need to be much more concerned with water conservation and efficient protection from the harsh climate than say Las Vegas or Dubai.

The technologies necessary for creating sustainable communities in these harsh arid environments exist, such as solar and wind power, water recycling, thermal insulation, and food production in controlled and even vertical environments. Their combination and application in deep desert cities would have benefits for humanity on Earth – and potentially on Mars.

In fact, if SpaceX’s (or any other) Mars venture really is to take flight, its organizers would do well to have first collaborated on development of cities in deep deserts. Many technical issues could be worked out which could both be scaled on Earth and implemented in Mars colonies.

Examples of potential candidates for such collaboration might include the French architectural firm Manal Rachdi OXO Architectes which has a concept for a city-in-a-tower in the Moroccan Sahara, and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates which has a plan for a sustainable city in the desert there.

Beyond the relatively straightforward (which is not to say easy) engineering problems of getting to Mars or creating a sustainable built environment, are a range of social, cultural, linguistic, health, and governance issues that will arise where hundreds or thousands of people are housed in a more-or-less self-contained habitat. Better to have a practical experience dealing with such issues closer to home before attempting to do the same on an another planet.

 

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Biofuels reconsidered

CPL Press, Biochemical routes to liquid biofuelsBiofuels – fuel derived from organic matter – are generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels in that they are renewable and, in theory at least, “carbon neutral.” However there are downsides to biofuel, such as the energy and resources to produce them, and in the case of fuel produced from food and oil crops, potential impacts on food markets. The picture is more complex.

Are some biofuels more environmentally friendly and beneficial to the socio-economy than others? What is the place of biofuels in the overall energy equation of the future? Without going into a long discussion, here are a few proposed maxims that may be useful in considering such questions. These are derived from some discussions a few years back and intended as relative measures rather than absolute binary choices:

  1. Gathered is better than purpose grown. For example deadwood chopped into firewood is less costly to produce (land, water, inputs, energy) than crops grown for biofuel. Waste matter is a potential energy source that could be “gathered” for that purpose, although requiring processing. Jatropha seeds collected from hedgerows costs little in land compared to a plantation of jatropha created for seed production. Production of algae for conversion to biofuels requires infrastructure and much water. One problem with gathering biomass suitable for energy from nature or human activity is that it tends to be diffuse and limited (with the possible exception of human waste products). For example wood waste as a byproduct from logging and sawmills is a source of energy but the volume produced (which can be collected) is a function of other activities and not one easily increased.
  2. Less processing is generally better. Processing does have the advantage of yielding a more concentrated and often more portable energy source, but it has energy costs and externalities. A simple example is turning firewood into charcoal, which involves burning off the volatile constituents (energy generally wasted) but yielding a lighter and more concentrated energy source. Towards the other extreme, fuel ethanol production from corn (maize) is a multi-step process. The energy balance (output from a given input) of such processes is a matter of some controversy, but probably all would agree that if it were possible to produce a given unit of biofuel with less steps and inputs, the outcome would be more positive.
  3. Less distance is generally better. Getting firewood locally (as we do in our home for a fireplace insert) involves less cost, and in theory at least, more potential for responsible management, than shipping firewood around the world. Of course no one proposes import-export of firewood, but other diverse biomass is exported for production of biofuels. One example is palm oil from Southeast Asia to make biodiesel in Europe. A big part of this is transportation, which of course is part of the fossil fuel market too, but with less flexibility in the case of biofuels (one can find petroleum sources in various locations, but some types of biomass inputs like palm oil are very region-specific and possibly not substitutable).
  4. Small is beautiful. Smaller scale production of biofuels has less of an impact on the environment and economy than larger scale operations. A big issue is use of finite land and water resources. Some years back I worked on a project in Mali which had as a major goal promotion of planting woodlots with villages which could then, so the thinking went, harvest wood from those lots for their their cooking needs. Small and local, this might seem to make sense, but in fact it meant taking land out of agricultural rotation for an uncertain future outcome. An even smaller and apparently more successful approach in another region of the same country a few years later was planting of jatropha in lines along roads and field boundaries – no lot required. Contrast with large plantations of annual biofuel crops which can have enormous impact in an area to serve needs far away (impacts being potentially both positive and negative, but with clear opportunity costs for types of land use and agriculture).

Another perspective on biofuels is worth adding to the mix here. Generally biofuels are considered along with technologies such as solar, wind, and wave energy as cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. However biofuels work on the same paradigm as fossil fuels – burning something to release energy (with byproducts such as carbon dioxide). It can be argued therefore that biofuels are actually more like fossil fuels except for the premise that they are carbon neutral, and the fact that diverse biomass sources for biofuel production are arguably less substitutable than say crude petroleum from diverse locations.

Again the picture is complex, and all this is not to say that biofuels as a whole are bad. Rather there may be some types of biofuel and approaches to incorporating them into the larger energy equation that make more sense than others. Conversion of waste into fuel would be elegant – turning a problem into a resource. On the other hand, devoting land and water to growing crops or other biomass specifically to process and ultimately burn doesn’t seem sustainable in a world faced with a growing population and impending climate changes.

Longer term, the energy market will certainly follow Buckminster Fuller‘s observation about the “ephemeralization” of technology, which we see the beginnings of already with advances in utilizing solar and wind power. Eventually the burning of substances for energy will become marginal in the global energy equation.

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