Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Energy through charcoal

Via John, a umpteen-thousand-word article on how to meet most if not all of our energy needs (and cut CO2 emissions) by burning biomass for charcoal. There's a lot of detail, but to me the most impressive element is the political awareness: we're wasting a lot of time subsidizing corn-based ethanol because farmers need it (and because ADM wants it). ADM has money; corn farmers have Iowa. Fuck ADM (seriously, fuck ADM with a golf club), but we're never going to get around farmers as a political force, not with our primary system.

Farm income depends a lot on subsidies, but we're paying for things that don't do us much (if any) good. It's time to stop wasting that money and get something useful for it. So what can farmers make that they ought to get paid for?

Rather, what problems can they solve, above and beyond keeping folks fed? The obvious issues are:

1. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and
2. A dearth of storable, renewable energy.

#1 is the big global-warming issue. Farmers can help solve it, but they didn't make it; the problem was created by others. Since CO2 reduction is a public good, it looks like the ideal farm price-support program for the next half-century: we can tax greenhouse-gas creators to pay farmers to offset the damage, and pay farmers some extra to return the atmosphere to a stable state. Just pulling the atmospheric CO2 level from today's 379 ppm down to 350 ppm (a level which would probably stabilize Greenland and Antarctica) requires the net capture of about 230 billion tons2 of carbon dioxide. If we can get 1.72 billion dry tons of biomass per year (720 million tons of waste and another billion dry tons of biomass crops), about 770 million tons would be carbon3; even if we took it all, released nothing back to the atmosphere, and added twice again as much effort from the rest of the world, we'd still be at the job for around a century. Paying farmers to take carbon out of the air and put it in the ground, out of reach (e.g. as charcoal mixed with earth) could be the ultimate price backstop for anything they grew. The risk of price collapses due to bumper harvests would be a thing of the past; sequestration would be the ultimate backup "market" able to absorb anything beyond marketable quantities.

#2 favors products which can be stockpiled. Light gases such as methane can be stored in underground formations, but liquids can be stored in tanks most anywhere and many solids can just be heaped. And to solve the greenhouse problem, the fuels must be able to deliver sufficient energy to the user to replace what we'd otherwise require from fossil fuels. Ideally, much of the carbon leaving the system should be produced in a form which can be stored indefinitely. Charcoal certainly meets that requirement (it is used to carbon-date campfires up to 10,000 years old, and perhaps older).

When all is said and done, here's the bullet-point program:

If Congress decided that this was a desirable future, what policy initiatives should we have? I'd suggest this program for the nation:

* Finance the fastest practical development and pilot test programs for solid-oxide fuel cells, molten-carbonate fuel cells and especially direct-carbon fuel cells. Processing systems for biomass carbonizer off-gas to feed SOFC's should be a priority.
* Block the issuance of permits for any coal-burning powerplants without plans for full carbon sequestration.
* Require most new vehicles to be PHEV's.
* Promote or require plug-in facilities for new or renovated construction.
* Some sort of net metering or other feed-in law is required for the grid.
* Get rid of all preferences and mandates for alternative fuels; incentives should be created by taxes on oil, coal and natural gas.

Points 2, 3, and 6 would take a hell of a political fight, but that fight has to come anyway.

One takeaway lesson: don't take any politician seriously if he or she mentions ethanol in remarks about global warming or energy independence (unless he/she is talking specifically about developing better cellulosic [non-corn] ethanol technology, which could be legit, maybe). Such a politician is full of shit.


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