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[1THING] Blog: Archive for June, 2013

[ Biofuels at a Crossroads Forum Probes Key Climate Change Question ]

When President Obama unveiled his long-awaited climate change strategy this week, he never mentioned biofuels. (See “Obama Unveils Climate Strategy.”) But with nearly a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions due to burning petroleum for transportation, a key and controversial question is what role plant-based alternatives can play in cutting the nation’s carbon emissions.

As part of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, we brought together two dozen experts from industry, academia, and environmental organizations to discuss whether biofuel can be a sustainable part of a cleaner energy future. (See in-depth coverage at Biofuels at a Crossroads, and vote and comment here: The Big Energy Question: Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?“) The forum Wednesday at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C. headquarters was timely, not just because the group convened the day after the President’s long-awaited climate speech.

It also came at a time that U.S. biofuels policy is under fire, as petroleum refiners are leading an effort to roll back the mandate (the Renewable Fuel Standard) that gradually increasing volumes of biofuels be blended into the U.S. transportation fuel mix.

Thanks to that policy begun in 2005, ethanol made from corn now makes up about 10 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption by volume; it’s one of the reasons that U.S. gasoline demand has fallen 6 percent from its peak in 2007. But it’s not clear that today’s biofuels can (or should) grow further.

For one thing, the vast majority of vehicles on U.S. highways today were not designed by automakers to run on a high volume of ethanol, even though the technology for flexible fuel vehicles is well-known and inexpensive. Most of the autos sold in Brazil are flex fuel, which has helped that nation do more than any other to give motorists a choice of fuel beyond gasoline. (See related, “Brazil Ethanol Looks to Sweeten More Gas Tanks.”)

But then there are the far thornier issues of food, water, and land. More than 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is going to make ethanol and ethanol by-products (About one-third of each bushel dry-processed for ethanol is turned into livestock feed product.) Since most of the U.S. corn crop is rain-fed, drought is a risk, and the irrigation required is heavy in some areas. (See related, “Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035,” and “Drought Withers U.S. Corn Crop, Heats Debate on Ethanol.”) Even more difficult is the indirect land impact issue: whether the increasing use of grain for fuel has prompted other nations to destroy valuable rainforest ecosystems for agriculture to make up for lost U.S. exports.

Any effort to undo the U.S. mandate on biofuels, however, would affect more than corn ethanol. It would also unravel the incentives that were meant to spur the development of more environmentally friendly alternative biofuels made from feedstocks like waste, grasses, and wood chips. (See related: “Beyond Ethanol: Drop-In Biofuels Squeeze Gasoline From Plants.”) Although cellulosic biofuel has not come on line as quickly as hoped, the first plants are opening, with thermo-chemical and biotechnology processes showing promise. Yet the industry’s future is precarious due to lack of capital and lenders willing to take a risk on the technology.

That’s why we brought together some of the leading thinkers on this complex issue for our forum, Big Energy Question: Biofuels at a Crossroads. You can read some of their comments and see photo coverage of the forum above.

What do you think about biofuels? Vote and comment here: The Big Energy Question: Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?

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[ Global Renewable Energy On Track to Soon Eclipse Natural Gas, Nuclear ]

Renewable power sources are increasingly cost-competitive, and demand for them is growing globally.

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[ Global Renewable Energy On Track to Soon Eclipse Natural Gas, Nuclear ]

Renewable power sources are increasingly cost-competitive, and demand for them is growing globally.

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[ Obama Unveils Climate Change Strategy: End of Line for U.S. Coal Power ]

President Obama announced his long-awaited climate change policy: more clean energy, wasting less energy, and the first ever limits on carbon pollution from coal plants.

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[ Obama Unveils Climate Change Strategy: End of Line for U.S. Coal Power ]

President Obama announced his long-awaited climate change policy: more clean energy, wasting less energy, and the first ever limits on carbon pollution from coal plants.

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[ Beyond Ethanol: Drop-In Biofuels Squeeze Gasoline From Plants ]

The first commercial cellulosic biofuel plant aims to turn Mississippi wood chips into diesel fuel and gasoline that are chemically identical to petroleum products. Can homegrown “drop-in” biofuels transform transportation?

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[ Beyond Ethanol: Drop-In Biofuels Squeeze Gasoline From Plants ]

The first commercial cellulosic biofuel plant aims to turn Mississippi wood chips into diesel fuel and gasoline that are chemically identical to petroleum products. Can homegrown “drop-in” biofuels transform transportation?

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[ Green Quiz: Presidents on Pollution ]

Green Quiz: Presidents on Pollution

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President Obama gave a landmark speech on climate change on June 25, 2013. Several decades ago, another president gave a speech ushering in the new Clean Air Act. Who was it?

 
A. Lyndon B. Johnson
B. Richard Nixon
C. Gerald Ford
D. Jimmy Carter 

Be one of the first three responders to email the correct answer to info@earthshare.org and you’ll win a green prize from EarthShare.

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[ Student Innovators Turn Garbage Into Cooking Fuel ]

One man’s trash may be another man’s … cooking fuel? So says a team of student innovators who’ve invented a mini-press that turns garbage into a firewood alternative.

High school students at Pinelands Eco Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, designed an inexpensive wooden press that can squeeze biowaste, such as banana peels and peanut shells, into charcoal-size briquettes for cooking.

The 2.5-foot-wide (0.7-meter-wide) press, targeted toward people in developing countries, addresses two major environmental problems: The carbon dioxide and other pollution caused by burning wood, and deforestation, which is occurring at a rate of about 46 to 58 million square miles (119 to 150 square kilometers) of forest each year—equivalent to 36 football fields a minute, according to WWF. (Related: “Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)

Not only has the invention earned the student team an award from Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, but it also caught the attention of the President of the United States.

On April 22, Jon Kubricki and Bridget Zarych presented their project to the President at the White House Science Fair, which included a hundred students from more than 40 states. The annual fair—which recognizes the talents of the United States’ future scientists, engineers, and inventors—featured 30 student teams who displayed their projects on the White House’s East Lawn.

The President visited the exhibits, which ranged from a faster test to detect pancreatic cancer to a wind turbine small enough to be installed on a roof.

Afterward, during remarks to the press, Obama said, “And let me just start by saying, in my official capacity as President: This stuff is really cool.”

He then praised Kubricki and Zarych for their invention—joking that he wasn’t creating new technologies at their age—as well as for working to solve environmental problems such as deforestation. (Read the President’s full remarks.)

Making the Mini-Press

The Pinelands team—which also includes Mikaela Crowley and Christopher Naples—came up with the mini-press in eighth grade after studying deforestation and thinking about what it’d be like to lose their school’s namesake, the New Jersey Pinelands—a forested expanse of more than a million acres in the eastern U.S. (Watch videos about forests in danger.)

First, the team identified the main agricultural exports of the ten countries where forests are disappearing the fastest, such as Ghana and the Philippines. People in these countries, they reasoned, could use leftover products from these exports in their mini-presses. For instance, Ghana sells a lot of peanut shells, and the Philippines sells a lot of banana and sugar cane.

“Around here we have a lot of pine needles, so we used pine needles to test our briquettes,” Zarych said in a phone interview.

After successfully producing the briquettes—which generally burn around 20 minutes—”we did an [emissions] test compared to wood, and we found that the cooking briquettes produced less CO2 and carbon monoxide than wood burning,” she said. (Also see “High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating.”)

The team used sawdust or newspaper to as a binding agent to keep the briquettes to stay intact. In developing countries, people could use a starchy substance like guava root extract.

Mini-Press in the Real World

Meeting the President may be a high mark, but the student innovators aren’t resting on their laurels. They hope to pilot test the easy-to-ship mini-press abroad—they’ve already given one to a family in Guatemala, Kubricki’s native country.

“Our main goal is to try to produce more presses and send them to orphanages,” said Kubricki, who’s adopted.

The kids also took a moment to reflect on their visit to Washington.

“The White House was a very good experience … it was a high honor,” Kubricki said. Added Zarych: “That was a really fun day. I got to meet a whole bunch of other kids from all over the country.

“And we got to meet the President—that was the best experience ever.”

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[ Five Reasons for Obama to Sell Climate Change as a Health Issue ]

In a speech to outline a new strategy for action on climate change, Obama will underscore the health impacts and other “social costs” of global warming.

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