22 January 2007

Consequences, always consequences

Even cleanest biofuel includes a dirty underbelly

Biofuels have the potential to lessen the impact of human civilization on the environment, but even the greenest of renewable-fuels production is not without its dirty underbelly, experts say. Although global warming is a growing concern among policy-makers, the current trend to substitute fossil fuels with renewables is in part motivated by countries' efforts to reduce their dependence on oil from politically volatile regions. Brazil's cane ethanol distillers, with three decades of experience in nationwide production and distribution, have compiled data demonstrating the fuel's advantage over fossil counterparts in the reduction of greenhouse gases. Ethanol accounts for 40% of total fuels used by non-diesel powered vehicles in Brazil and represents a 30% reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from the transport sector, the Cane Industry Association (Unica) said. But not even the global stars of renewable fuels are free of critics who fear that increased ethanol use worldwide will hasten deforestation in the Amazon and other tropical rain forests in order to produce sugar cane. "In 20 years, I doubt there will be a gasoline car on the Brazilian market. They will all be powered by ethanol," Unica president Eduardo Pereira Carvalho said during the Reuters Global Biofuel Summit last week.

During its growth to maturity, the cane stalk absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is eventually emitted during combustion of the ethanol distilled from its juices. But this is not so for ethanol made from corn in the US or wheat in Europe. These primary materials must first be turned into sugars before fermentation, which requires the use of extra fossil fuels and adds to carbon gasses emitted in the production process. Brazilian cane mills are also powered by leftover cane stalks that heat caldrons to generate steam and electric energy, an extra advantage that corn and wheat don't have. Unica estimates that Brazilian cane ethanol on average yields more than eight times more energy than is used in the production process, compared with US corn ethanol production that yields between 1.1 and 1.7 times as much energy. The European Union, which just proposed the use of 10% biofuels for transport by 2020, signalled it will demand proof from suppliers that the product was made in a sustainable manner, a requirement that may rule out US ethanol. Environmentalists have already begun to warn that the expansion of biofuel use currently underway will represent increased use of land for planting, which could stimulate deforestation or the use of more reserve lands.
(National Post 070122)

I find it interesting that Brazil might come out in the best shape because they have been working on this phase-out of fossil fuels with sugar cane for several decades now. I'm surprised that sugar cane has such a better EROEI than corn. The big concern from an environmental perspective is if razing the rainforest in order for Brazil to run 100 million cars or so is an acceptable decision and whether the consequences of that decision are manageable.

Nuclear-powered oilsands would take at least a decade

The Conservative government's plan to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production through nuclear power would take at least a decade to deliver, according to the head of an Alberta company with exclusive rights on selling nuclear reactors in the province. Federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has said there is "great promise" for introducing nuclear power for a fivefold expansion in the Alberta oilpatch to reach four or five million barrels a day. The National Energy Board has also estimated an increase of up to three million barrels a day by 2015, but Wayne Henuset, president of Energy Alberta, says his company would not likely be able to deliver a nuclear reactor for the oilsands industry before 2017. "That is the biggest issue," Henuset said in a phone interview. "It's how long it takes to facilitate one of these reactors." Environmentalists said the timeline guarantees the government is giving up on its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas pollution linked to global warming over the next five years as required by international law, in order to feed America's growing appetite for Canadian oil. Emilie Moorhouse, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club of Canada, added there are additional risks of nuclear waste leaking into ground or water. For example, she said, the Chalk River site in Ontario is still leaking about 800 litres of contaminated water per day into the Ottawa River. "If they really want to make the oilsands a complete and utter environmental disaster, then adding nuclear to the mix would do so," said Moorhouse. "At the same, nuclear in Ontario has proven to be a complete economic disaster and it's proven to unreliable." But Henuset said there is no comparison between new technology that could be used in the oilsands, at a cost of about $4.5 billion, and the Chalk River site. "That was their experimental site and that goes back 50 years or 60 years, when people didn't understand the radioactive problems," he said. "Today, we don't have any radioactive waste going anywhere and they haven't for 30 years. So things have definitely evolved, and all for the better."
(Calgary Herald 070120)

Hmmm....this is certainly going to become a contentious provincial and regional issue in the near future. Even if things were committed to today, a nuclear reactor in Alberta is still a decade away, and I'm sure the commitment won't be coming in the near future. There will be too many hurdles to jump through, although I'm sure the oilsands players will be throwing enough money at the situation to by-pass a few of the checks and balances, including public consultation.


Jeff Skybar said...

Well hopefully in a decade we won't be so dependent on fossil fuels. Or at best be conserving more of it. Then the oilsands might not be such a hotspot. I really don't like the idea of nuclear power plants in my backyard. Evolved or not, I don't like the waste it creates for millenium to come.

Reid Dalgleish said...

I hope so too. Like we said before, as the price goes up, economic contraction ensues as does concerted effort in finding acceptable alternatives. Maybe having a nuclear power plant in our backyard won't seem like such a big deal in 10 years if our supply of oil and natural gas is on the decline and the price of it is shooting upward.

Hard to say what will happen....just that whatever decisions are made will always have unintended consequences.