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Peak Sugar!

by Jerome a Paris Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 05:44:34 PM EST

Haha. The fun never stops...

Sugar: Prices soar as Brazil’s flexfuel cars set the pace

A mixture of free-trade politics, speculative flows of “hot” money and environmental concerns have also helped make sugar the best performing commodity this year.

(...) for once China does not appear to be the central driver of a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of a commodity market.

Instead it has been Brazil’s thirst for ethanol, derived from sugar cane, to power “flexfuel” cars that also run on petrol that has pushed sugar to a 25-year high.

One more commodity used to fuel our cars' limitless needs is running out...


About half of Brazil’s sugar cane crop is used for domestic ethanol production, with flexfuel cars accounting for almost 50 per cent of domestic new car sales. They also represent a budding export industry, with the US, Sweden and Britain already selling the environment-friendly cars.

In the past 12 months sugar has come to be seen as an energy crop because of the growth in demand for ethanol, says Sergey Gudoshnikov, senior economist at the International Sugar Organisation, which represents most of the world’s producers.

So demand is skyrocketing, because of our need for energy, and oil-substitutes. An indirect sign of peak oil, if that was ever needed. And it's happening really, really quickly...

Czarnikow predicts a raw sugar trade deficit of more than 4m tonnes, the largest shortfall in six years. The ISO estimates that sugar inventories are about 35 per cent of global production, down from 50 per cent in the late 1990s.

However, other analysts reckon stockpiles are a lot lower, making the sugar market even more vulnerable to shocks such as Cyclone Larry, which this month wiped out about 10 per cent of Australia’s raw sugar output.

(...)

“The challenge to find increased sugar output is becoming more difficult,” says Mr Gudoshnikov, who expects annual sugar demand to continue rising at an average of 2 per cent.

“That means finding 3m tonnes or more of new sugar production each year, whereas 30 years ago a 2 per cent increase meant a couple of hundred tonnes.”

So, production is already lagging behind demand, and the market is getting very tight, making it vulnerable to external shocks like hurricanes (heh, in Australia this time). Isn't it strange that this is happening at the very moment these external shocks seem to become more frequent?

It is really starting to look like we are getting to the end of a lot of things at the same time, as we switch from the most depleted to others, making the depletion of these catch up extra quickly. Of course, sugar itself cannot be "depleted", but the land used to grow it can, or can reach very real limits. The article suggests that Brazil's production is stagnating despite increased land use, due to unfavorable weather impact (in that case, droughts, but these seem to happen all too frequently, and what will it be the other years?)

And, very similarly to the distorted energy markets, the sugar market is not really a market:

Sugar lobby still packs a punch despite reform

Global trade in sugar is one of the most distorted of all commodity markets, thanks to sugar lobbies that frequently punch well above their weight when demanding subsidies and tariff protection.

The world sugar market has often been called a “dump market” by many sugar growers. Prices are depressed by cheap sugar from efficient producers like Brazil and Thailand that are kept out of rich countries’ markets, and by those rich countries, particularly the European Union, that dump subsidised sugar that exceeds their own needs.

Prices lower than they should be thanks to subsidies... lobbies that are very effective at keeping access to public funding or public "protection"... distorted incentives for all. Where have we seen this before?

When will we learn?

Display:
So, because of european agricultural regulations, Brazilian drivers get cheaper fuel for their cars?

If ethanol hits it big as a fuel (which I have some doubt about) I expect the agricultural regulations on sugar to change dramatically.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 05:57:38 PM EST
Not really. The European regime was meant to protect European farmers from cheaper Brazilian sugar. So sugar is cheap inside Brazil, and the fact that they have been prevented form selling it at a better price elsewhere has made that sugar available inside the country, thus encouraging domestic demand, inclusing as a fuel.

And now that it appears to work, others do the same, and production suddenly cannot cope. (European sugar is still more expensive to produce than current prices, but we may end up suddenly with a situation where prices have increased enough to make European sugar profitable again withotu subsidies...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:16:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Now I get confused. That "European Union [...] dump subsidised sugar" does it not give Brazilian drivers cheaper (sugar) fuel? Is it not subsidiesed enough for that to happen? Don't they want our dirty eurosugar?

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:48:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, because it was only subsidised in Europe because it was more expensive than the Brazilian one. The subsidy was given to European farmers so that they could sell at Brazilian prices without taking the loss.

The de facto effect is to lower the international price of sugar, and to cut the profits that Brazilian producers could have made. The price that domestic sugar consumers in Brazil would have gotten without European subsidies in place would have depended on whether the government allowed Brazilian producers to sell internally at world prices or at domestic production prices.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:04:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I fear for the rain forest. The pressure for Bio-Diesel seems to be on, too, in other parts of the world, like Indonesia. I hope people are not so short sighted as to compromise the future of life as we know it on this planet, for a decade or two of futile attempts at keeping up with the energy demand.
by Torres on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:11:42 PM EST
In order to make ethanol from plant material the process requires energy to distill the ethanol. In the US this is usually provided by natural gas (although a new plant has opened that uses coal!).

There is also some question as to whether corn-based ethanol yields more energy than it takes to produce it.

My question: What is Brazil using as fuel for its ethanol production? Has ethanol shifted the balance to renewables or is it just a slight of hand like in the US?

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:22:56 PM EST
As far as i could understand from this paper In Brazil most fossile fuel in the production of ethanol was replaced by bagasse (that's a subproduct of sugar cane fermentation if im not mistaken). They claim that under current conditions in Brazil, to produce 1 GJ of energy, 0,124 GJ of fossile fuels are required (transportation and other side activities).
by Torres on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:49:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As my portugese is, well, close to nonexistent, could you check something for me? Do they include the actual farming in the energyconsumption?

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 07:05:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On table 1 of that paper the items counted are the following: 1. Agricultural Machinery and transportation 2. Fertilizers and Pesticides 3. i dont know what that is, some technical jargon 4. Equipments and buildings (they counted the energy necessary to build the factories divided by the expected time of usage. 5. Chemicals and Lubricants used in Factory.
by Torres on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 07:22:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My question: What is Brazil using as fuel for its ethanol production? Has ethanol shifted the balance to renewables or is it just a slight of hand like in the US?

The ones I've read about use the leftover processed cane as fuel - not much use for global warming reduction, but it does mean that it truly reduces the total demand for fossil fuels.

by MarekNYC on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:51:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It also requires energy for the farming.

This is part of the reason why I am bugging Jerome for the specifics of the sugar market. If it runs on European subsidised sugar it might be a question of moving energy from Europe to Brazil in the form of sugar.

Of course if you use humans rather than machines for everything but the ethanol distillation you will probably end up with a energy net on paper. In reality much of it is of course moving energy from people to ethanol, which then can be used to drive cars. More convenient then having people carrying a palankin wouldn't you say?

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 07:02:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And on that subject

Let's Burn Coal To Refine Ethanol!

Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, which supporters call the clean, renewable fuel of the future.

    There's just one twist: The plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol - the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

    An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

    The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction - and 150 others on the drawing boards - it would undermine the environmental reasoning for switching to ethanol in the first place, environmentalists say.

[...]

The reason for the shift is purely economic. Natural gas has long been the ethanol industry's fuel of choice. But with natural gas prices soaring, talk of coal power for new ethanol plants and retrofitting existing refineries for coal is growing, observers say.

    "It just made great economic sense to use coal," says Brad Davis, general manager of the Gold-Eagle Cooperative that manages the Corn LP plant, which is farmer and investor owned. "Clean coal" technology, he adds, helps the Goldfield refinery easily meet pollution limits - and coal power saves millions in fuel costs.

    Yet even the nearly clear vapor from the refinery contains as much as double the carbon emissions of a refinery using natural gas, climate experts say.

Notice that the article authors don't even stray near the question of whether the energy in 300 tonne of coal  exceeds the stored energy in the ethanol produced by the plant per diem.  But we know the game has to be net-negative as a whole, because of the Three Laws (no, not robotics, thermodynamics).  Now this is an unplanned improvised riff, so bear with me (and feel free to yomp in with calculations, etc)...

Let's understand something very basic here:  Entropy is Not Mocked.  It takes a certain number of calories H (heat) to make a certain number of calories' worth E of ethanol, out of a certain number of calories R (raw) cane or corn or any other sugar-rich source material.  We know that E will always be less than H+R.  In severe cases, E may even be less than H!  [I don't know that this is the case for the operations in question since the article slithers past this point, but it is the case for petro-intensive farming in general.] Supposing for a moment that we do get less energy out in the ethanol form than we burned in the coal form, then it would have been more efficient just to burn the coal in the cars.  (This might have more negative implications for particulate emissions control, but I am talking only about energy math here).

We will also get less calories out in ethanol per unit feedstock than we put in (in raw feedstock form), because some of the feedstock will be waste;  but the output product will be denser.  [If you really want your head to hurt, consider that the average calorie of high-sugar factory farmed corn has already cost iirc 7 to 10 fossil calories to grow by the time it is cut down and hauled off -- using fossil fuel -- to the fossil-fuel-powered processing plant.  So even if 300 tonne of coal in a day produces the energy equivalent, stored as ethanol, of more than 300 tonne of coal, the corn that was processed into the feedstock was net-negative EROEI to start with.  I think we went through some of this math on a thread long, long ago.]

Here's a way I've been thinking about the problem.  This isn't a finished POV but a kind of cartoon that I keep [NPI] trying to refine...

This game is all about energy density, and the only way to achieve high energy density is time plus pressure (and usually heat).  What coal and petroleum really are, is biotic feedstock plus aeons of time plus aeons of pressure, producing a high energy density which we then make even higher by refining processes which require more heat/pressure cleverly applied.  

So what we are trying to to is to compress time (i.e. energy) in the same way we do with a spring trap or crossbow;  we spend N minutes winding the thing up and then all that invested energy is released in N/X minutes where X is a very big number.  [A a lever or winch works the other way around, extending the time needed to move the weight and thus reducing the calories expended per second -- time expansion, lower energy density aka lower burn rate.]

The private auto, the jet aircraft, and the planing heavy vessel are the ultimate worst case for fuelling, because they require high energy density (high burn rate), which is the costliest thing to achieve in a fuel.  They work only by releasing very large amounts of energy very quickly and keeping up this high burn rate for extended periods.  Thus they require the most grotesque conversion factors from raw (feedstock) calories in to calories out.    [and the reason they do this is not only because of the physical inefficiencies of internal combustion and excessive carcass weight, but because we insist on using them for extreme time compression, i.e. extremely high speeds.]

We have traditionally got this staggering conversion factor by looting geological/evolutionary time, i.e. spending, in a scant century or two, the fossil wealth "wound up" out of biotic processes plus sunlight (heat) plus pressure plus geothermal heat plus aeons of time.

If we now try to produce this same energy density or burn rate using immediate biotic sources, we run into a little problem -- a time travel problem as it were:  a normal growing season doesn't deposit that much energy in a vegetable crop.  Our desired burn rate is grotesquely disproportionate to the growth rate of biotic sources, whether vegetable or animal -- you couldn't drive around carrying the amount of raw feedstock needed to produce the calories to keep the vehicle moving.  So we have to invest a lot of heat/pressure (i.e. energy) to provide even a feeble approximation of the time compression we want.  In other words, burn a lot of coal (or something else fairly dense) to make ethanol;  and burn a lot of fossil fuel in artificial soil enrichments and fossil-powered factory farm equipment to force a higher-than-natural yield rate, to wrench as many calories per acre as we can from depleted soil.  (Again trying to optimise density, not overall EROEI).

Heinberg once wrote in a whimsical "letter from the future" (in which he affected to look back from a life after the oil peak, and write to his real contemporaries today, me and you):

At first, most people thought the shortages could be solved with "technology." However, in retrospect that's quite ludicrous. After all, their modern gadgetry had been invented to use a temporary abundance of energy. It didn't produce energy.  [...]  With the exhaustion of fossil fuels, no technology could have maintained the way of life that people had gotten used to. But it took quite a while for many to realize that. Their pathetic faith in technology turned out to be almost religious in character, as though their gadgets were votive objects connecting them with an invisible but omnipotent god capable of overturning the laws of thermodynamics.  [boldface mine]

And here's the rub.  We don't produce energy. (Nor can we "produce" time.)   There are only three processes that produce energy:  sunlight striking the surface of the planet, the thermal activity of the molten core, and the instability of certain isotopes found in the crust [and many an astrophysicist would scoff at this and say that these things no more produce energy than a Duracell battery -- they merely release, over time, the tremendous initial energy of the Big Bang, the original Wound Up Spring].  What we do is harvest or concentrate energy -- what all life processes do, in fact.

We (humans) have a persistent and aggravated history of overharvesting stored energy, that is, consuming biotic energy resources at a rate that exceeds their regeneration or replacement rate -- whether this be for immediate alimentary needs or for more sophisticated applications like cooking, heating, clothing, etc.  We have a history of looting the stored biotic wealth of topsoil, for example (formed by millennia of forestation) in an extractive mode so as to reap exaggerated harvests from it for a limited time -- depleting it so severely that after the boom period is over, our return on labour invested diminishes rapidly and we have to fall back through a (usually pretty quick) series of devolving crops and practises.   This fallback and devolution is touched on by Jerome in the article;  a frantic spiral downwards from one to another apparently cheaper (slower, less dense) substitute until either equilibrium is restored, or desertification and die-off or migration result.

One end product of this kind of liquidation in an agrarian culture is an arid scrubby biome, xericultivated, with frugal animals like sheep and goats and chickens/rabbits being farmed, and mules or donkeys used for transport, rather than extravagant animals like beef cattle and heavy horses.  With concomitant changes in diet and social organisation a stable human population can live rewarding lives even in such a degraded biome.

The fossil fuel boom is (my view concurring with a school of historical/political thought here) just another one of these stories of looting, in a compressed time period, the accumulated energy discovered "free for the taking".  Whether it be topsoil or petroleum, the initial high burn rate cannot be sustained, and attempts to sustain it hit the walls of thermodynamics very quickly.  This is the final refutation of the infamous doctrine of substitutability:  we can't eat rocks and sand.

Nor, imho, can we sustain an insanely profligate burn rate as required by our present models of transport, housing, commerce, and agriculture by any sustainable substitutions for fossil fuels.  The burn rate itself is inherently unsustainable. This is at present a minority viewpoint, but it is mine until I see some compelling evidence to the contrary.  We should have been called, not homo habilis (clever though we are), nor homo sapiens, nor even homo economicus ("oikonomikos" is in its original usage the management of the finances of a household, and liquidation is piss-poor blind-drunk management);  perhaps we should have been called homo spendthriftus, the species with the high burn rate.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:57:33 PM EST
The Executive Summary:

We're screwed.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 07:34:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
are you hoping that I'll disagree?  :-)

actually I'm not so sold on the high-energy lifestyle that I think losing some large percentage of it is the same thing as losing civilisation or "a decent life."  so how "screwed" we are [and I'll remark in passing that a wealth of gender politics is expressed by that colloquialism] depends on whether life without SUVs or strawberries in December seems like life in Hell, or not.  my feeling is, not so much.

people are pretty much happy or unhappy based first on the core needs -- water, food, clothing, shelter, meaning, human company -- and then on invidious comparison (misery is knowing that the other monkey's heap of nuts and berries is larger than your own, even if your own is enough to live on).  I think we could meet the core needs with only a fraction of our current energy expenditure -- that most of oour present energy profligacy is just a form of Pyramid-building, i.e. just showing off for imperial or national or caste aggrandisement.  chest-beating with terajoules.  and much of our energy wealth is invested in grotesque accumulation which only feeds individious  comparison and the ensuing misery and stress.

I'm not sure life would be all that horrible under a lower-energy regime.  my big worry -- and I don't think anyone has really got the math together on this because the problem is too big and most of the necessary numbers too obfuscated and falsified -- can we actually feed everyone a decent health-sustaining diet if we have to revert to sustainable agricultural practises?  note that I don't suggest a "western" diet which is not feasible even with all the fossil fuel we're throwing at the problem currently, but a livable diet.

attached to this big feasibility worry is the inevitable fear that there will not be sufficient political will for resource justice (or that elites with a lot of firepower at their disposal and zero conscience have too iron a grip), and that even if we could feed our current numbers with sustainable practises the attempt will never be made because the global elite will cling like limpets to their profligacy ("The American way of life is not negotiable") and not give a tinker's damn if millions starve per day, even as we don't give much of a damn when tens of thousands starve per day... as they presentiy do.  cornucopianism has substituted for responsibility and conscience for so long now that the latter qualities may have become mostly vestigial.

I'm not so much afraid of some of the shapes human life might take in a lower-energy paradigm, as I am of the global tantrum I expect from the spoilt-brat social stratum (which is larger than ever in human history thanks to the fossil fuel orgy, and I'm a part of it too) we can anticipate on our (looking pretty much inevitable) way there.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 08:16:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
afterthought:

a friend of mine once expressed the unpleasant political reality like this:  you ask an affluent First World inhabitant to get real and decide which is more important, driving their car or feeding their kids.  they blink a couple of times and (most of them) say staunchly:  Feed the kids, forget the goddamn car.

but if you ask them which is more important, driving their car or feeding someone else's kids -- especially someone else who is poor and/or darker-skinned and/or speaks a different language and/or lives more than 30 miles away -- then you are likely to get a different and depressing answer.  and when I think about oil prices and the end of the cheap energy regime, this is what depresses me.

it's not so much that I think "we are all doomed and the human story is over" as that I think very large numbers of us may be doomed unless we learn to think and act in a very different way --r and we have a long record of learning disabilities and truancy in this area...


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 08:25:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not so much afraid of some of the shapes human life might take in a lower-energy paradigm, as I am of the global tantrum I expect from the spoilt-brat social stratum (which is larger than ever in human history thanks to the fossil fuel orgy, and I'm a part of it too) we can anticipate on our (looking pretty much inevitable) way there.

That's why I think we're screwed. In terms of absolute resources, we're not inevitably screwed. Re-adjustment would be painful, but not impossible. With proper planning a soft landing could even be engineered.

But the social problem is a much more pressing issue. Right now, too many people don't believe there's a problem, and don't want to believe there's a problem. They believe that in spite of occasional alarmist reports things will carry on more or less as they have done - because that's what things do. They have no experience of rationing or serious scarcity, so they can't imagine that rationing or serious scarcity could ever happen or ever affect them personally.

As other people have said, it won't be till gas is $5 and upwards a gallon in the US and the waves are lapping around their beach front homes and the shops are increasingly empty of even the basics that they will start to realise that the world has changed.

It may already be too late by then. And they may simply decide to turn feral and turn on each other.

So without some kind of unprecedented seismic change in awareness, I think the screwed part is looking more and more unavoidable at this point.

Just thinking personally, I would go out and install a large windmill in my back garden tomorrow if I could. It probably wouldn't cover more than about a third of my current energy budget, but it would be better than nothing.

But can I? If I do I will be ordered to take it down because of heritage planning considerations, and if I don't comply it will be dismantled by force with a hefty fine.

When that changes there may be some evidence of intelligent strategy from government. In the meantime - unfortunately not.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 09:04:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
De - why on earth is this not on the front page?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:17:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
  1. because it was an improvised riff not a finished essay

  2. because it needed the numbers (see below, further down thread)

  3. because even now that it has numbers, the numbers need double checking.

remember, I come from the world of refereed papers :-)

let's all have a whack at the numbers and make sure there isn't an order of magnitude error anywhere in my back-of-envelope calcs, and if it all hangs together then maybe I can stick part 1 and part 2 together into a front page article for further discussion.

gotta sleep sometime :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:34:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
remember, I come from the world of refereed papers :-)
That's the difference between astrophysics and high-energy physics. In the golden age of particle accelerators, preprints were widely circulated among research groups. When the arXiv was set up, the astro-ph section took a while to really take off because <gasp> papers on the archive are not refereed, so how is your average astrophysicist going to know which papers to read?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 06:00:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your punishment is to be exposed with massive visibility on the basis of an unrefereed draft!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 07:53:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jerome, if your human brew is regularly misunderstood over at the Big Orange, how can you expect a different fate to befall the Nectar of the Goddess?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 08:01:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We have to try anyway, again and again.
But today's reaction seems pretty positive.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 11:22:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Argh, that cost me an hour to read over 300 comments.  Kos is way too crowded a form, it seems to me, hard to keep up with the volume (and besides, a thread that long takes forever and a day to load even over my ADSL).

I note that good ol' Plan9 is in there swinging as usual, promoting nuclear power;  my notes on that debate are still languishing unreviewed so I won't tackle that one right now, just note for the record that I remain skeptical.

The usual suspects are trotted out -- fusion (maybe even cold), TDP, algae ponds, solar, strange Larry Niven fantasies about whizbang orbital constructs that we couldn't have built even at the peak of our industrial resources (round about 1970-1980 I reckon, give or take  some years).  Suggestions that we only need to buy ourselves some time, a few years at most, so that our high priests (sorry, scientists) can "come up with something."  I think others have addressed most of these (though the cellulase stuff is interesting and I would like to read more about that).  There was some good critique of my admittedly nontechnical mumblings about energy vs time (I told Jerome it wasn't a finished essay, dammit).

I would say briefly about TDP and the notion of using algae to process the massive petrochemical runoff from industrial ag (Salton Sea for example) into propulsion diesel:  both these "miracle solutions" rely on the continuation of an enormous waste stream, one which would only continue as it is now if we did not run short of affordable oil.   In other words, conceptually they are about scavenging the waste stream of an energy (and petro) profligate society, which makes them not a solution for a society about to be forced into lower profligacy, because the waste stream is likely to become narrower, or less dense, or however you want to think of "smaller" in this instance.

The assertion that electric supply is the sine qua non of all social well-being is I think either disingenuous or not deeply considered.  When we say "places where there's no electricity are places where women are enslaved, public health is lousy, and hunger is commonplace, therefore electricity equals feminism, health, and food," I think this is conflation.  I know plenty of people who live on cruising boats without refrigeration;  the lack of electric refrigeration does not make their lifestyle as grim as that of a poor woman in Somalia :-)  

What makes the life of a poor woman in Somalia rotten is that she's poor and female and Black -- in a country exploited by the First World, additionally exploited by local elites, in a culture patriarchal and oppressive to her as a woman by local tradition, lambasted by drought and AIDS, plagued by war and infrastructure vandalism, environmentally degraded for varying reasons... not simply that she doesn't have 120VAC power available at the flip of a switch. I think this argument conflates "centralised electricity utilities" with "wealth" and then concludes that "because wealthy countries have centralised electricity, and wealthy countries have better food supplies, water supplies, and medical/transport resources, centralised electricity is the magic ingredient and sole factor predicting access to these goods."  And therefore if we were to lose, say, unlimited (cheap) 24x7 electric service, we would immediately revert to some kind of Hobbesian sub-peasant lifestyle.  

We might as well say that everyone on Earth should have an SUV, because in countries where there are no SUVs, there is more poverty and disease and patriarchal obstructionism.  And if we were to stop having SUVs, we would immediately revert to, etc.  Surely there is some middle ground.  Or so one hopes, anyway.

What I am trying to figure out (just for myself if for no other purpose) is what I really mean by "a decent life."  I think I can live without conveniences like cars, exotic imported fruits, 24x7 120VAC, blazing neon signs and animated billboards, and a long, long list of other things;  especially if by living without those things I can preserve other things that seem to me far more essential and important, like (for example) wireless network communications and cell phone service, or pressurised water delivery, or a modest amount of task lighting for reading and working after dark, or basic civil order.

What counts is security -- by which I mean access to land, housing and food security, adequate water supplies, personal security -- and while these things might be obtained by throwing electricity at the problem, they might also be obtained by throwing less electricity at the problem, or in other ways;  I know many happy and healthy Amish families who have never had electric service at their farms and never plan to;  and there are plenty of poor, ill, frightened, hungry and battered women in the electrified slums of the industrial nations.

Anyway...

I'm puzzled by suggestions that I somehow "want" industrial civilisation to fall on its ass.  Industrial civ -- the culture of the fossil fuel bonanza -- has been good to me, and to all privileged people like myself.  I'm very attached to it;  I grew up with it and it's familiar and comfortable.  I'm actually very frightened by many of the logical conclusions I reach when I consider the stream of present news on both energy and environmental fronts.  I have, if I'm lucky (or maybe not) a few more decades to live in this world and would really rather it didn't turn into a nightmare during my later years, when I have less energy, physical and emotional strength, flexibility, etc. to deal with challenges and hardships.  It would be very nice indeed if everything would just go on comfortably as it is.  

But I don't think it will, or can.  I would have preferred a Star Trek future, if I'd had the choice;  but now I'm thinking about how to mitigate, as best we can, the contraction into an expensive-energy future.

And I think that desperate attempts to make things go on just as they have during our lifetimes, rather than adapting to new circumstances, are likely to make matters even worse than they otherwise woulda been.  Coming to grips -- intellectually, emotionally -- with an unwelcome new reality is the first step in trying to deal with it or survive it.

I'm trying to come to grips with the possibilities and limits myself, all the time.  Wanting these things to happen has nowt to do with it.  They're already happening.  (OK, I admit a world with far fewer automobiles in city and town centres would, imho, be far more pleasant -- I reckon it's human nature to scrabble for any possible upside to cling to when massive scary changes seem to be barrelling down on us.)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Apr 2nd, 2006 at 01:43:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DeAnander, don't you believe in competition? That single reply is worth in itself a diary... I'm starting to suspect you just like having the status of undercover frontpager.

The fossil fuel boom is (my view concurring with a school of historical/political thought here) just another one of these stories of looting, in a compressed time period, the accumulated energy discovered "free for the taking".  Whether it be topsoil or petroleum, the initial high burn rate cannot be sustained, and attempts to sustain it hit the walls of thermodynamics very quickly.  This is the final refutation of the infamous doctrine of substitutability:  we can't eat rocks and sand.

I loved that. Particularly your view that time becomes an inextricable element of energy concentration strikes me as astute. You've done geological training? All energy examples you quote are time dependent (and running out), following the great Arrow of Time. Even the sun itself is a by time concentrated energy. If we get down to it: it's nuclear fusion, nuclear fission and heat of cooling/precipitation of the earth's core.

Yet on a philosophical tack, something is nagging me. Amino acids formed with little ease in the earth's earliest atmosphere, and we still don't know where life took off first. The oceanic black smokers are still a favourite for many as the progenitors of life: the smokers bring in hot water (from radio nuclear decay) and nutrients. I could understand that temperature is a boundary condition to form life since an absence of T would hinder chemical processes to make them happen. But what about those nutrients? What happens without them? You could then wonder that in the phase spaces of energy, those nutrients form their own part. So perhaps we could say that (and you touch upon this yourself) that in the nutrients of the earth we also find a source of energy that was parcelled out to "us" when the earth took shape: it is part of the biotic energy. Which can indeed run out as well, since it is just as time dependent as the sun or nuclear decay.

The big challenge then becomes tapping responsibly into that biotic energy and I think you're on the ball when you argue that energy shock waits for us around the corner. As for the sustainability of our current burn rate, I take the optimistic view as developments in nuclear fusion are still progressing forward. I do feel that that Race against Time won't be won before the lacking of oil catches up with our feverish spending rate of energy. I'd predict the use of energy as a boomerang curve: it's high now, it will plummet in the future and depending on how fast and how deep it will drop it will take time to creep back up again. On the condition that the Holy Grail of energy is indeed harnessed. But if all goes well, that's probably the stuff of my grandchildren's children...

by Nomad on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:57:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
OK I got curious about the energy math of those ethanol plants burning coal in the US.  As usual the hardest part of this kind of thing is pulling together the numbers from umpteen different sources.  Watch me closely here as it is late and I'm sleepy and may drop a decimal point if I'm careless... so look over my shoulder, all you lovers of big numbers :-)

Energy Density Reference Table

tce -- ton of coal equivalent (1000 kg):  MJ
                29,308  International Energy Agency
                29,310  Center for Energy Efficiency
                29,290  Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center

If we look up densities of some common substances, we can find that ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, has a density of 790 kg/m3.

So the energy in a m3 of ethanol is 790 times density 29.7 MJ/kg or 23,463 MJ

and the energy in a ton of coal equivalent is about 29,300 MJ per the table above.  not so different are they :-)

So if we burn 300 tons of coal per day to make ethanol it would be nice if we ended up with as much energy stored in energy as coal energy expended, at the end of the day.  It would be much, much nicer if we ended up with at least 2 times as much.  In fact... well, what do we really end up with?

MJ potential of coal burned in a day:   300 * 29300 =  8,790,000 MJ (300 ton of coal equivalents)

which would be 8,790,000/23,463.0 or 374.63 cubic meters of ethanol or (for those of us who still think in nonmetric metrics:

        1 m3 is 1000 litre
        1 gal is 3.785 litre

374.63/3.785 * 1000 = 98,977.54 gallons per diem)

The article I quoted says airily, in passing, "With 97 ethanol refineries pumping out some 4 billion gallons of ethanol [per annum]..."

So we can guesstimate that one refinery on average pumps out 1/100th of 4 billion or

        4e9 / 1e2 = 4e7 gallons per annum,

so therefore each day same plant pumps out 1/365th of this or

        109,589.04  gal per diem

in other words, very close to the break even point for the coal burned, and this is before we even considered the lossiness of the corn production, transport costs, etc.

We are "making" energy here by spending a BTU to create a BTU, even without considering the energy spent to create the feedstock (the corn) or the opportunity cost of using that acreage for corn rather than for some other cultivar, such as a staple food or fibre crop.

One more thing I want to point out before I shut up for a while, and that is that to my ear, this talk of "burning the vegetable waste to fuel the process" is still robbing Peter to pay Paul.  

Why?  Well, in a sustainable agrarian system, waste plant matter is composted and returned to the soil (or vice versa depending on your methods) -- thus recycling nutrients, increasing water absorption rates and retentivity, etc.  If we pull that matter out of the cycle and burn it, we have no seasonal nutrient flow to return to the soil... and we then have to import [the word "import" should by now appear in Blinking Red Boldface whenever you read it, because "import" means "transport" and "transporting" tons of material means Fossil Fuel Expenditure Galore] soil amendments to compensate for having "thrown away" our local soil-amending nutrients and fibre by burning them.

Or, looked at another way:  You can use plant matter to feed humans;  you may be able to feed animals or soil or both with the leftovers, and if you compost your animal (including human) waste and use it for soil amendment (replenishment is more like it), you have closed the loop.  Or you can use plant matter exclusively to feed animals which indirectly feed, clothe, or carry humans, and return the leftovers and the animal waste as before.  You can use plant matter just to feed soil (cover cropping, nitrogen fixing) which then grows more plant matter to feed humans or animals.  And you can burn plant matter to produce heat.  It is true that "what you don't eat you can burn," but it is also true that what you burn is not available to eat -- not for animals or humans or soil organisms, not for birds or beneficial insects or fungi...  so if you burn all the stalks and shucks and "byproducts" that would otherwise be mulch or compost, then you have to make up that deficit from somewhere else;  and where are we making it up from?  Why, by refined fossil products (artificial fertilisers) or by transporting natural fertilisers vast distances (guano, feedlot manure, etc).

Repeat after me:  There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

The nutrient cycle of living systems, be they prairie or forest or rainforest or any other variant, is complex, intricate, and exquisitely balanced.  Stuff goes round and round and entropy is very slow (leaching of nutrient value out of the system -- absolute loss -- is very slight, so such systems can run for millennia absent an epochal event like meteorite strike or volcanic eruption);  they can even build up local surpluses, resulting in increasing complexity, diversity, and depth of the system.  Once we start subtracting (stealing) nutrients from this cycle beyond a certain sustainable level it is like taxing the peasantry into immiseration and mass suicide;  the virtuous cycle of nutrients breaks down and more and more outlandish improvisations have to be made to replace what has been stolen/lost;  and the fabric of the nutrient cycle gets simpler, thinner, poorer, and more precarious.  Or to return to an earlier theme, lower- and lower-grade substitutions must be made as the high-value nutrients are stripmined and not replaced.

Much of what we (industrial civilisation) do seems perversely dedicated to stealing from the nutrient cycle and refusing to replace:  for example, our cultural obsession with diverting our own bodily wastes away from the soil we have depleted, which would benefit from this percentage return of what was removed, and dumping them into another system (waterways and oceans) which has no need for them and in fact suffers damage from this "overnutrition" (not to mention the toxic chemicals we "enlightened" folks use to make this waste "safe").  We even embalm our dead in a stew of toxic chemicals to ensure that the substance of our bodies is withheld from the nutrient cycle after death.  It's a strange development for any species to try to separate itself fastidiously from the natural economy.  [Strange, and in my gloomier moments I suspect ultimately suicidal.]

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 01:37:50 AM EST
if we ended up with as much energy stored in energy

criminy!  and I proofread it carefully and all.

S/B   if we ended up with as much energy stored in ethanol

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 01:41:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I played the numbers game along with you, and it doesn't look like you misplaced any decimals. Very impressive work :) Thanks for doing the number cruncing for us mathless heathens ;)

日本もドイツもすきですよ -not all Americans are ignorant
by IAblue on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 09:30:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I should perhaps note that I did this math using the energy density of anthracite coal, that is, the energy that can be released from a tce.  I didn't count the energy expended in mining and transporting the coal, or the energy that would have been expended had the coal been mined in safer and more responsible ways.  At present the coal industry in the US has one of the worst safety records and some of the most catastrophic environmental costs of any extractive or energy industry.  So if we knew the additional overhead (in BTU or any other unit) for mining and transporting the stuff, and the cost of deferred or shirked cleanup, worker illness, etc., and included all of that, the numbers would look worse.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sat Apr 1st, 2006 at 11:50:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What about using air as a fuel to run your car? Twelve years ago Guy Negre, a French engineer, built two of these Air Cars and he and his son drove them around Paris as taxicabs to test their research.

The car's oil (a quart of vegetable) only needs to be changed every 30,000 miles or so. It can reach a speed of 68 mph and has a road coverage of roughly 124 miles (more than double the road coverage of an electric car). To refill, you connect the car to a mains supply for 3 to 4 hours (it costs very little to run the compressor, nothing like recharging an electric car) or pull into a regular fuel station with an air pump that will do the job for you in 2 minutes.

Apparently, they're offering manufacturing licences and going into full production shortly.

"When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon." Thomas Paine

by Noel Guinane (noel at bloodandtreasure.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 01:57:27 AM EST
Initial reaction: Air is no fuel! So I had to go read the article. :)

Two things that stuck out:

  1. It is built in fibreglass to be very light. Good thing, but is really a seperate issue from the engine.

  2. It runs on compressed air, which might be a better form of storing energy then a battery (I really do not know) but just as batteries or fuelcells it moves the energy 'production' from the car to another place. In itself probably a good thing, but that other place needs to be included in the energy calculation.


A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!
by A swedish kind of death on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 07:04:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Air Car's engine runs on expansion not combustion. Unlike fuel cells, compressed air is not stored in a toxic environment so already it is more environmentally friendly than batteries. Also, the Air Car uses very little energy to refill itself. From the site:

The car's air tanks will be refilled thanks to the engine working in compressor mode. This will take about six hours. Otherwise the tanks can be refilled with high pressure in three minutes at an air station. The cost of refueling with the generator will be approximately 1.5 Euros.

Okay, it's going to cost more running the engine in compressor mode plugged into an adaptor at home, but no more than running your computer or TV (and a lot less than running an electric car or a hybrid).

Perhaps we have gone in the wrong direction with combustion engines. Why pay for fuel when air itself creates no pollution and is as free as ... the air?

A stylish French solution to a large part of our global pollution problem.


"When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon." Thomas Paine

by Noel Guinane (noel at bloodandtreasure.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 10:29:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In terms of hysteresis, compressed air is definitely a better way to store energy than a battery.

But I'd have to do some calculations on the energy density, plus high-pressure gas is harder to control than a liquid or solid fuel tank or battery... except that in the case of a leak it's less dangerous.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 10:33:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a fair point and one they gave much consideration to with the result that they use the same tanks used by buses in Germany that run on natural gas which is highly explosive and needs to be carefully controlled coming out of the tank. Air of course is not.

"When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon." Thomas Paine
by Noel Guinane (noel at bloodandtreasure.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 04:10:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I finally scanned the graph that went along with the article in the paper version:



In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 05:50:31 AM EST
In nominal dollars, not corrected by inflation?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 05:56:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Correct

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 11:21:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While the world is sometimes far too bleak for me, I will try to search for a bright side ...

Will rising global sugar prices lessen the pressure (requirement) for sugar subsidies, which are a reasonably serious drain on the US treasury and which also have an impact in the EU?  

by BesiegedByBush (BesiegedByBushATyahooDOTcom) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 11:07:19 AM EST
Yes. Note that Europe has just decided to seriously slash the subsidies it gives to its sugar producers.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 11:22:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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