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Standard US gasoline pump — your 87 and 89 octane gas contains 10% ethanol. Photo by Fritz Hasler.

Biofuels

When Are We Going To Stop Doing Stupid In The Name Of Going Green?

Dunce cartoon drawn for this article by Anonymous

Ethanol: You need to burn anywhere from 0.9 to 1.5 gallons of fossil fuel to make a gallon of corn ethanol! That means you produce more CO2. By the time you have tilled the soil, planted the seed, spread the fertilizer, tilled the soil again to remove weeds, applied weed killers, harvested the crop, transported the crop, distilled the brew, and transported the ethanol to market, you have most likely burned more fossil fuel than the ethanol you will get. Then you burn the ethanol, so you approximately double the amount of CO2 produced. How does that make sense?

Ethanol production is effectively subsidized to the tune of over $100 billion/year in the US. You could be feeding the starving children of the world instead of making fuel. During WWII, German chemists learned how to make gasoline from coal because they had very little oil. One of the original justifications for subsidizing ethanol was to make up for a lack of oil in the US. Now, with fracking and the future decrease in fuel use due to the switch to electric cars, the US is and will be awash in oil. Subsidizing ethanol only makes sense if you have the first presidential primary in Iowa and all the corn farm states have two senators each. Unfortunately, in the US, once you have started a subsidy, it is almost impossible politically to stop it. It would be better to pay farmers to do nothing or send the corn to feed poor nations. Subsidizing the production of ethanol from corn is not just unwise or undesirable, it is just plain stupid.

Apollo fuel cell — fuel cells are complex, expensive devices (NASA image)

Fuel (fool) cells for light vehicles: Using fuel cells to make electricity from hydrogen made great sense for the Apollo moon mission, and they may make sense for international shipping, midrange aircraft, and possibly long-distance trucking. But they make no sense for light-duty vehicles compared to batteries. Charging and discharging a battery is 90% efficient. By the time you make hydrogen using electricity via electrolysis, compress it, store it, transport it, fuel a car with it, and turn it back into electricity using a fuel cell, you have gone through a process that is much less than 50% efficient. Furthermore, it cost me only $120 to convert my garage to charge my electric car for all my local driving.

A commercial EV fast charging station costs about $10,000. The estimated cost of state-of-the-art hydrogen fueling stations is $2,600,000 — that’s 2.6 million dollars each. The idea of building a nationwide system of hydrogen fueling stations approaching the number of gas stations we have now boggles the imagination. Only Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are working on fuel cell electric cars, and they are only doing it to postpone the conversion of our light vehicle fleet from gasoline to electricity. It is not just undesirable or unwise to subsidize hydrogen propulsion for light vehicles, it is a stupid thing to do.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS): It will never be technically feasible to do CCS. One pound of carbon combines with 2.667 pounds of oxygen to produce 3.667 pounds of CO2. Burning one ton of coal produces 4,172 pounds of CO2, which has a volume of 35,462 ft3. A typical gigawatt-capacity coal power station burns several million tons of coal per year. Can you imagine the cost to store and transport the CO2 produced, to say nothing of the cost of injecting it into an underground cavern?  It is just too expensive and there is no guarantee that CO2 that is forced into underground caverns won’t seep back out. CCS is dumb. Carbon is already sequestered by nature. It is called coal and oil. Don’t burn it, just leave it in the ground. CCS is not just unwise and undesirable, it is a stupid thing to do.

Nuclear: Let the current nuclear fleet continue to generate electricity until normal retirement, but don’t build any new reactors. Every nuclear generation site in the US is a permanent high-level radioactive waste dump. We don’t have the technology and political will to transport and store nuclear waste to a safe storage location. Also, no nuclear reactor will ever be built that doesn’t require the federal government to insure it. No private company will ever take the risk to insure a nuclear reactor. Why use a power source that will always require government subsidies? Also, it takes 10 years minimum to build a nuclear generation facility, and they always go grossly over budget. In that time, huge facilities can be built to generate electricity more cheaply from wind and solar technologies. Furthermore, nuclear power generation requires the technology to make nuclear bombs. There will always be the danger of bad actor nations using their nuclear power generation technology to make nuclear weapons. Building more nuclear power generating stations is a stupid idea.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies: These subsidies are not given as part of the effort of going green, but they must be stopped if we are ever going to eliminate the burning of fossil fuel, which is causing global warming. These subsidies were started to encourage needed production during WWI and WWII but must be stopped now. Democrats have the courage to try to do this as part of their Build Back Better program, but it is not clear if Senator Joe Manchin, who has accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies and founded a coal company his son now runs, will let it happen. Unfortunately, in the US, once you have started a subsidy, it is almost impossible politically to stop it. Continuing to subsidize fossil fuels when we are trying to reduce production of CO2 is not just undesirable or unwise, it is a stupid idea.

Blue Hydrogen: Blue hydrogen requires CCS, which we have already explained is not feasible. Blue hydrogen is a stupid idea.

Biofuels: Electricity generation from wind, water, and solar is far more desirable than electricity production from burning biofuels. Subsidizing biofuels is a stupid idea. 

Burning “Natural” Gas: The term “natural gas” is another case of the use of euphemism to make something sound better than it is. Gas produced from underground wells has high methane content. Methane is an extreme greenhouse gas and a great deal of it leaks into the atmosphere during the production and transport of “natural” gas. Also, any burning of gas still produces CO2 and it is now cheaper to generate electricity using wind and solar and soon will be cheaper to heat buildings with heat pumps powered by electricity than it is to burn gas. This way we entirely avoid the release of CO2 into the atmosphere from burning “natural” gas. Continuing to build gas power generation facilities as a “bridge” from coal to wind is a stupid idea. Also, continuing to heat buildings using gas is a bad idea.

We have described 8 stupid things we do in the name of going green that we should stop doing. 

What are some smart things society should do?

  1. Produce electricity from Wind, Water and Solar 
  2. Overbuild Wind and Solar: For winter sun, times of light wind etc. (Use the excess during optimum conditions to make green hydrogen).
  3. Subsidize research and building out of grid scale electrical storage systems e.g. lithium ion batteries, other battery chemistries, pumped storage and other novel storage technologies.
  4. Subsidize research and building out of the electrical grid to serve renewable energy sources, including the development of long distance high voltage DC “super highways”.
  5. Convert the world’s light duty vehicle fleet to battery electric.
  6. Develop systems (Possibly fuel cell systems) for electrical propulsion of long distance ocean shipping, long distance trucking and short haul aircraft.
  7. Develop systems for hydrogen propulsion of long distance aircraft.
  8. Eliminate the use of fossil fuels for building heating, steel and concrete production. etc. (Use electrical heating etc. whenever possible)
  9. In other words, do everything that Mark Jacobson recommends (See 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything by Mark Z Jacobson https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/WWSBook/WWSBook.html)

What are some smart things we should personally do or not do?

  1. Put solar panels on your house
  2. Don’t buy another gas car
  3. Eat less meat
  4. Make sure your home lighting is all LED
  5. When your gas water heater fails replace it with a heat pump water heater
  6. When your gas furnace needs to be replaced, replace it with a heat pump
  7. Reduce energy transfer losses in your house by buying more efficient windows, increasing attic insulation, and reducing air leakage around doors etc.
  8. Make sure all your appliances are Energy Star rated.
  9. Use a programable thermostat and set it for 68 degrees F in winter and 78 degrees F in the summer.
  10.  Turn off all lights and electrical appliances, computers etc. when you are not using them.
  11.  Don’t use extra refrigerators and freezers unless absolutely necessary.
 
 
 
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Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, PhD, former leader of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization & Analysis Laboratory (creator of this iconic image), and avid CleanTechnica reader. Also: Research Meteorologist (Emeritus) at NASA GSFC, Adjunct Professor at Viterbo University On-Line Studies, PSIA L2 Certified Alpine Ski Instructor at Brighton Utah Ski School.

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