Thursday, February 02, 2006

George Bush on biomass

I don't often agree with our faux-Texan prez, but when he said that sawgrass, (and other low grade, high cellulose biomass products) could reduce our dependence on liquid fuel imports by 75% by 2025, well I thought that was pretty absurd. So did this analysis from the Christian Science Monitor. But then I thought maybe Bush is right after all, but probably not in the way he was thinking.

First off, I think peak oil is immanently upon us. The moment when this becomes accepted as unassailable fact will come when Saudi Arabia announces that the Gwahar oil field, the world's largest, is in irreversible decline. This will be similar to Kuwait's December '05 admission that their giant field, Burgan, is in decline. Saudi Arabia's announcement, which is close at hand, I believe, will be the world-changing event. But no matter when peak oil crosses the line from conspiracy theorist, malthusian doom to simple, obvious global reality, by 2025, we should assume and plan for a critical energy shortage. This is George Bush's date, not mine. I believe that our crisis will come much sooner: probably by 2010 the USA will be in a state of semi permanent energy crisis.

But looking 19 years ahead to 2025, we will be importing no oil from the middle east, simply because the middle east will be running thin on oil. Nations can go from energy exporters to energy importers very quickly. Indonesia made the switch in 2005. If the Middle East exports oil, it will go to China. Byron King makes this point in his essay The 75% Solution. The point being that today biomass looks pretty scrawny in comparison to gasoline. By 2025, gasoline, and owning one's own car, will exist mainly in our memories. Gasoline will be available only to military and government elites. But some vehicles will need to keep running, especially trucks and tractors and trains. Diesel will be available for commercial use, but it will be very expensive, with limited production coming from Canadian tar sands. But contrary to the Christian Science Monitor's writer's article, you can run your car on biomass, and at times when fuel has been scarce, many people have done exactly that. The equipment is simple and cheap.

Look at historical examples of severe fuel crisis. In parts of the world, there was virtually no civilian fuel available during world war II. In Scandinavia, Russia, and Australia fuel was unavailable at any price. The way that people in these countries found most expedient to keep cars running, and, significantly, agricultural production moving, was to install simple wood gasifiers on their vehicles. These cars can run directly on wood chips, compressed sawdust pellets, charcoal, etc. Here's another example. And a Seattle Times article about a backyard welder who built a gasifier to make a wood burning truck.

So, I'm thinking even the paltry amounts of money Bush proposed would go a long way in refining and publicizing this simple, proven method for operating vehicles on biomass. I imagine high cellulose products like sawgrass, compressed into pellets, or wood chips made from brush wood, would be more efficient to burn in a gasifier than try to distill into alcohol. Or, high-cellulose materials can be made into charcoal to make a more powerful fuel. These high cellulose biomass sources do not require nearly as much cultivation or fertilizer as corn. Most importantly, a local energy economy can be made from such biomass sources without huge sums of capital. Small producers can manufacture wood chips and pellets. Small shops can make gasifiers and install them. If we find that it is hard to raise the capital to build fleets of gigantic LNG tankers and the terminals to recieve them, then we may find that small biomass producers are not only a good way to keep people and goods moving, but also a good way to employ people.

Unfortunately, Bush cares in no way for energy efficiency. The research cash he spoke of will go either as hand outs to politically connected agribusiness corporations, or publicists posing as scientists to spin crises in favor of the republican agenda.

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