Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Land Use Argument Can be Deceiving

Brian Westenhaus takes an interesting look at how much land will be required to provide the world's energy using renewable sources. There is no question that nuclear is the best use of land -- in terms of supplying an entire world's use of energy from one technology.

A lot of crucial information was ignored when compiling the data for the chart above (by Clinton Andrews from Rutgers), and its numbers raise more questions than they answer. But the chart gives a rough sketch of land requirements for large scale energy production. Biofuels tend to take a lot of land, due to the low energy density inherent in biomass, typically. Biomass gets its energy from the sun, so it would seem to make more sense just to "skip the middle man" and use solar energy instead. But biomass and biofuels contain their own storage, can be used in existing liquid fuels infrastructure, and provide both baseload and load-following power generating capabilities. Bioenergy is distributed, versatile enough to fit most climates and geographic areas, and can be easily grown in seawater, in deserts, and in dry coastal areas -- as well as on marginal lands not generally suitable for food crops.

Here is a good example of a biomass / bioenergy project in Canada:
In Canada, Ensyn Technologies and Tolko Industries announced a partnership to build the world’s largest commercial fast pyrolysis plant in High Level, Alberta. The partnership, High North BioResources Limited Partnership, has been formed to build and operate a plant capable of processing 400 bone dry tonnes of biomass per day into 85,000,000 litres (22.5 Mgy) of pyrolysis oil annually. This pyrolysis oil will be used to produce renewable energy in the form of electricity and heat that will be used in Tolko’s sawmill at High Level.

The facility will also be capable of producing a renewable resin ingredient that can be used in the manufacture of wood panel products. Ensyn formed Envergent Technologies a joint venture in 2008 with UOP a Honeywell company to deploy Ensyn’s RTP technology globally as well as to develop a complementary technology to convert pyrolysis oil into transportation fuels. _biofuelsdigest
22.5 Mgy of pyrolysis oil is not much when put against the world's energy demands. But when used to meet local and regional needs for energy and heat, it is likely to be a useful amount. When local bioenergy sources are used to fuel a local and regional economy, the size of the resource is more reasonable.

A faster growing biomass -- such as macro-algae and micro-algae -- would increase yields of biomass and biofuels on a yearly basis, and expand the useful impact of any given operation. Many large oil and chemical firms -- including Shell -- are increasing their holdings in biofuels startups and established firms. Shell is clearly less interested in solving local and regional energy and economic problems, and more focused on large scale production.

The fact is, clean and safe nuclear energy is clearly the best large scale approach to electrical power production. And just as clearly, wind and solar still contain fatal flaws to their large scale utilisation in national and international energy grids -- despite purported advantages in land use scale. Geothermal is currently not scalable to the extent that a growing and prosperous world economy would need -- although the potential is there, with more work.

Faux environmentalists of the dioff.org leftist variety are intentionally blocking most forms of large-scale energy that would actually work. This is a red flag to anyone analysing the potential for global economic expansion at this point in time -- at least outside of China, India, and Brasil.

But bioenergy is relatively small scale, low-density, and distributed. Useful local and regional niches for using bioenergy will not show up on a global scale -- until enough local and regional areas begin to wise up to the potential. The local and regional scale is small compared to the global scale, but when you add them all up, their impacts are considerable. There is a wide variety of energy crops, suitable for almost any area of the planet except the polar areas and extreme high mountaintops. (Example: look at the potential of hemp as a biomass and bioenergy crop)

Getting smart about biomass and bioenergy is a matter of local and regional innovation and resourcefulness. These forms of energy are currently not amenable to top-down solutions on a grand scale. But they will be. The problem is getting from here to there.

We will need safe and clean nuclear -- preferably of the scalable, modular variety. And we will need clean coal, and gas. Oil will continue to be important to transportation infrastructures for the next few decades. It is too soon to shut fossil fuels down -- no matter how good one's intentions may be in trying to do so.

Clinton Andrews' chart is deceptive, because it presents only a highly selective tip of the data iceberg. Try to see the big picture, as well as some of the small solutions.



Blogger bruce said...

Anyone remember the article in "Science" or "Scientific American" around 1970 with a rebuffing of a huge Solar Power proposal? Huge mirrors, a huge boiler, tens years supply of aluminum?

I was not interested enough to read it at the time.

10:40 AM  

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