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Dawning of the age of Frankenfuels
Andrew Leonard, Salon
...Is there a difference between food and fuel? Will consumers who refuse to buy genetically modified corn meal also decline to fill up their cars with genetically modified biodiesel or ethanol? In both cases, the big issue is identical: We can't say with certainty what the ultimate long-term impact of introducing genetically modified organisms into the wild (or our bodies) will be. But it's one thing to go with organic produce over "Frankenfood" at the local grocery story. It's quite another to try to replace fossil fuels. If some kind of genetically modified Frankenfuel helps mitigate climate change and the impact of peak oil, consumer sentiment on the evils of GMOs may shift.
Critics of GMOs will likely call the prospect of super-crops coming to the rescue just another techno-fix that fails to address the fundamental unsustainability of how humans currently go about their business on this planet. And if, for example, Frankenfuels require fertilizer inputs that are themselves hugely energy-intensive, they may well be right. But there's too much money to be made in supplying the world's demand for energy to imagine that such critics will be successful in slowing down or halting the discoveries that are incubating in laboratories all over the world.
(27 Nov 2006)
Biofuels: Turning petroleum addicts into alcoholics?
The Environmental Law Institute in Washington warns against the US championing ethanol as an alternative fuel.
This paper by Arnold W. Reitze makes a contribution to the hotly contested debate over the benefits of biofuels (EurActiv 29/01/06).
It says that subsidies under the US Clean Air Act have made ethanol production immensely profitable in the US even though it is more costly and performs worse than gasoline. Moreover, it says subsidisation in the US has “distorted the market for renewable fuels”.
From a political perspective, the author argues that the US ethanol programme has provided the illusion that the government is responding to increased petroleum prices.
But he says that, since ethanol production requires about as much fossil-fuel energy as is found in ethanol, its use does not reduce the nation’s demand for fossil fuels. “Until the technology is available to produce a significant net energy gain from using renewable fuels, their use will not be a viable way to deal with climate change.”
(23 Nov 2006)
Sustainability, energy independence and agricultural policy
Engineer-Poet, The Ergosphere
Corn ethanol ... takes nearly a gallon-equivalent of various fuels (including natural gas and diesel) to make a gallon of ethanol. By the USDA's over-optimistic accounting, the increase is roughly 1.27:1, which is not nearly enough to make a sustainable system.
...Perverse incentives can do that. But what if we paid people to do the right thing, instead of the wrong thing?
There are small things we could do. To name one, we could use these resources in ways which really do save fossil fuel. For example, the Ford/MIT ethanol-injection engine uses ethanol and turbo-boosting to roughly double the power output of an engine. This allows downsizing of the engine, which in turn reduces friction and throttling losses; the result is about a 30% improvement in fuel economy.
(25 Nov 2006)
Long article, I haven't had a chance to read it all yet. Engineer-Poet makes some proposals on some complicated agricultural fuel cycles which look worth checking out. -AF