Energy and Global Warming News for July 15th: Following fraud case, U.S. unlikely to hit 2010 cellulosic target; Melting Alps forces Italy, Switzerland, others to redraw national borders

Biofuels have been overhyped as a climate solution for a long time — see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?”  The holy Grail, cellulosic biofuels, remain as distant as ever:

Following fraud case, U.S. unlikely to hit 2010 cellulosic target

Grassoline it ain’t. After a jury ordered a leading cellulosic biofuel company to pony up millions for defrauding investors, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will likely come in 60 million gallons shy of its 100 million gallon target next year.

Late last month, a federal court in Mobile ordered Cello Energy of Bay Minette, Ala., to pay $10.4 million in punitive damages for fraudulently claiming it could produce cheap diesellike fuel from hay, wood pulp and other waste….

Cellulosic biofuel technology is still in its infancy, and the agency and Congress required gasoline blenders to purchase and sell just 100 million gallons next year, less than 1 percent of the nation’s proposed renewable fuel mandates….

For George Huber, the University of Massachusetts Amherst chemical engineering professor who wrote Scientific American‘s July cover story about cellulosic biofuels, Cello is a lesson to be learned. “There are no magic processes for conversion of biomass into liquid fuels,” he says, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true.”

Climate change could redraw national borders

In the past, national borders were determined by war, revolution, or, as is the case with many former colonies, someone in a pith helmet doodling on a map. But in the 21st century, the job could be done by global warming.

For instance, the 463-mile border between Italy and Switzerland runs mostly through the Alps, and has remained more or less fixed since Italy became a unified state in 1861.

Seeking to define the border more precisely, a 1941 convention between the two countries established the demarcation as running along the ridge crest of the glaciers in the mountain range.

But as the Alps experience the warmest period in 1,300 years, those glaciers are beginning to recede, moving the border northward. As the Discovery Channel reported in May, measurements taken at the Monte Rosa massif found that the border has shifted hundreds of feet in some places, with most of the change in the past five years. Now the two countries are at work redefining their boundaries, this time basing them on rock, not ice. Italy plans to make similar arrangements with France and Austria.

A sustainable New Orleans slowly rises in Katrina’s wake

People here are finally seeing a bright side to the catastrophic damage done four years ago by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The city is being rebuilt slowly as what many hope will be a clean, green model for the nation.

“After the storm events happened, now everybody is interested in the environment,” said Wynecta Fisher, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Affairs. “I hate to say that it came at a good time, but because of the storm, we’ve been able to build on that momentum.”

Renewables are a waste of time, says James Lovelock

London in particular needed to be protected against a potentially devastating storm surge, Lovelock said yesterday (MON).

“It’s not going to take much of a sea-surge to knock out London. We should be spending money strengthening defences there rather than vain efforts to improve renewable energy,” he told an audience at the Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington Hall, near Totnes, Devon.

Kerry Spars With Palin Over Climate

Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, responded on Tuesday to a Washington Post op-ed piece by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which slammed President Obama’s push for a cap-and-trade system.

Writing at the left-leaning Huffington Post Web site, Mr. Kerry argued that Ms. Palin never addressed the “crisis” of climate change “” the underlying issue that prompted legislation now pending in Congress that would create just such a cap-and-trade program.

Dividing the Burden of CO2 Reduction

With the developing world now generating half the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, one of the thorniest challenges facing climate change negotiators in Copenhagen will be apportioning national reduction targets in coming decades.

Leaders from the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations “” United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia “” agreed in L’Aquila last week that developed nations should aim to reduce emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 – a formula that essentially requires the developing world to make a 20 percent cut.

Greens energetic about Sonia Sotomayor

The environmental community is backing Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, despite the federal appeals court judge’s sparse record in dealing with environmental cases.

Environmental issues have not been a hot-button issue during Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings this week. But green advocates expect a glut of environmental cases to hit the highest court in the next few years, as industry and environmental groups challenge various aspects of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and a new climate bill currently being debated in Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business associations have threatened a “landslide of lawsuits” if the climate legislation passed by the House last month becomes law.

Fighting Climate Change With Patents

World leaders are talking a lot about climate change, not least in their flashy statement on controlling global temperatures at the recent Group of Eight summit in Italy. One of the smarter ways they can put this determination into effect will be to protect the intellectual property of green innovators from a growing onslaught by developing-world politicians and mistaken activists.

Intellectual property rights are the underappreciated link in the environmentalist chain. By rewarding inventors and entrepreneurs, well-enforced patents provide the right incentives for the innovation that will produce technologies necessary to manage climate change. Yet this fact is getting lost. Access to low carbon technologies has become a central issue in international climate change negotiations as rich countries put more pressure on the poor to cut their emissions. Understandably the poor aren’t prepared to do so unless they are given cheap access to technologies. Patents are increasingly viewed as the main obstacle to cheap technology transfer.

Chu Warns China on Emissions

China’s greenhouse-gas emissions growth is on course to wipe out gains from Western conservation efforts unless it intensifies clean-up efforts, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told audiences in China Wednesday.

In meetings with senior Chinese energy officials and in a speech at prestigious Tsinghua University, Mr. Chu continued the Obama administration’s efforts to push for greater action on climate change. China recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Iraq Suffers as the Euphrates River Dwindles

Throughout the marshes, the reed gatherers, standing on land they once floated over, cry out to visitors in a passing boat.

“Maaku mai!” they shout, holding up their rusty sickles. “There is no water!”

The Euphrates is drying up. Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Syria; a two-year drought; and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now.

Swedish PM sounds climate alarm

Sweden has urged the EU to “pool efforts and show leadership” to secure a global deal to curb climate change.

Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt was briefing the European Parliament on his country’s priorities as the new holder of the six-month EU presidency.

“I want to write the story of how the climate threat was averted, together with you,” he told newly-elected MEPs.

Sweden wants an EU deal on green measures ahead of a key UN conference on climate change in December.

Suntech announces 1.8GW of new Chinese solar projects

Suntech Power Holdings, one of the world’s largest photovoltaic module makers, yesterday announced plans for four new on-grid photovoltaic solar projects in China with a combined capacity of 1.8GW.

The New York Stock Exchange-listed company said it had signed solar plant construction deals with the governments of Shaanxi province and Shizuishan city in Ningxia Autonomous Region.

The Shaanxi facility will have an installed capacity of 300MW, while the other three developments will have a capacity 500MW each, delivering a total of 1.8GW of solar capacity from the new projects.

Pollution outruns Adirondacks

Every day, Adirondack forests soak up and store about 1,600 tons of carbon to help slow global warming. But even tens of millions of trees can’t keep up with greenhouse gas emissions from a much smaller number of cars, homes and businesses.

That was the finding of a first-ever energy and greenhouse gas audit for the park, which at 6 million acres is the largest intact forest in the northeast. As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas released by the burning of fossil fuels that an international scientific consensus blames for global warming.

11 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for July 15th: Following fraud case, U.S. unlikely to hit 2010 cellulosic target; Melting Alps forces Italy, Switzerland, others to redraw national borders

  1. paulm says:

    The European Union is teaming up with music channel MTV to raise awareness among teens about the dangers of climate change.

    EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas says today’s youth “will bear the brunt” of climate change, including rising temperatures and sea-levels.

    The music channel will also hold special climate change concerts in Stockholm, Budapest and Copenhagen in the run-up to the U.N. conference, which starts Dec. 7.

  2. paulm says:

    Swapping technologies fails to address the root causes of climate change

    The environmental and social crisis that threatens us requires deeper solutions than new technology alone can provide

    Technology is part of the solution to climate change. But only part. Techno-fixes like some of those in the Guardian’s Manchester Report simply cannot deliver the carbon cuts science demands of us without being accompanied by drastic reductions in our consumption. That means radical economic and social transformation. Merely swapping technologies fails to address the root causes of climate change.

  3. paulm says:

    US, China Announce Clean Energy Research Center

    BEIJING — The United States and China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, announced plans for a joint clean energy research center Wednesday as the American commerce secretary appealed to Beijing to avoid imposing trade barriers on green technology.

    The research center is an effort at compromise between the two governments, which disagree on whether China should join richer nations in adopting binding emissions-reduction targets to stave off environmental devastation from climate change.

    With initial financing of $15 million and headquarters in both countries, the center will focus on coal and clean buildings and vehicles, said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

  4. “Techno-fixes like some of those in the Guardian’s Manchester Report simply cannot deliver the carbon cuts science demands of us without being accompanied by drastic reductions in our consumption.”

    And reductions in consumption require reductions in work time to avoid unemployment. We should not just emphasize the sacrifice (you should consume less) without also emphasizing the benefit (you will be able to work less).

    I think that, if we had Dutch-style choice of work hours, many Americans would choose to work less and consume less. This would not be a sacrifice, since people would choose it only if they thought their lives would be better if they worked and consumed less. Yet it could make a huge contribution to fighting global warming: if the average American as much as the average Dutch, it would reduce our emissions by 25%.


  5. paulm says:

    The fossil fuel industry is in big trouble…

    Two Energy Oxymorons: 1. Energy Independence 2. Energy Security (PDF)

  6. From Peru says:

    Fighting Climate Change With Patents?!

    A typical Wall Street Journal article trying to convince people that the free market is the only path to development and progress. What has it instead give us?

    Answer: The worst economic recession since the 1930s(that also began after a decade of utra free market by republican president Hoover), a world on the edge of food shortages and an atmosphere filled with the rubbish(CO2) that those capitalists emit after extracting his energy resources needed to power their money-producing machine.

    Now they want to win a lot more money restricting the green tecnologies to their “free” market( free only for who have the money to pay), tecnologies that should be a COOMON GOOD OF HUMANITY? Will be no surprise if one of the next “great agreements” in the G-N (N= 8,7,20, or what you want) were the basis for such green tecnology market.

    No, no, no. Those insulting (to the poor people and countries) patents are not required for investments. The treasury give (waste would be a better word) 800 000 000 000 000 000 $ to the banks trying to filling their bottomless pits of debts. Whith only a small fraction of so much public money, plus fiscal incentives there is enought money to reward any who develops new tecnologies.


  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Well, Joe, you’re never short of certainty when you form a technological opinion on something, are you.

    [JR: Well, I did oversee technology and market analysis for DOE’s entire energy efficiency and renewable energy portfolio for 3 years. I would also make the clear point that one shouldn’t separate the technological analysis from the market analysis. Many things that can be done technologically, like, say, the SST, don’t actually make a lot of sense in the market.]

    Are biofuels a core climate solution?

    Yes, they are, because biofuels are inherently carbon neutral. If they are burned in a way that captures and stores their CO2, they become carbon negative.

    ORNL calculates world biomass primary productivity to be six times world total energy use.

    So, there is enough biomass.

    The main problem is transport, because biomass contains a lot of water.

    The best way to make biomass transportable is to carbonize it into biochar close to the source, generating some electricity at this point from the hydrogen content of the biomass, IMO. The resulting biochar could then be pelletized, and transported as easily as coal, because it is as energy dense as coal, but much cleaner.

    [JR: This sounds to me like biomass, not biofuels.]

    Regarding grassoline or cellulosic ethanol well, that is a bit harder, but still economically doable, in my opinion. The authors of the Scientific American paper your source article link to themselves have apparently made progress, substituting basic hydrolysis using ammonia, which is evaporated and recovered to be recycled for acid hydrolysis. Acid hydrolysis, used up to this point, led to the generation of furfural as a byproduct, and the acid used was hard to recover.

    Use of ammonia to provide basic conditions but still be recoverable and recyclable is a fundamental advance, IMO, and might also have applications to other processes, including mineral carbonation, I think.

    Couple the Scientific American author’s ammonia process with enzymatic hydrolysis, and the outlines of a practical process for cellulosic ethanol start to emerge, IMO, as the authors of the Scientific American paper also state.

    Cellulosic ethanol is not the same as liquid fuels produced by gasification and then subsequent use of a catalyst to make liquid fuels. The Scientific American article linked to by your source is a good source of information on this.

    I think that you got hold of a couple of bad studies about ethanol net energy costs from Pimentel and Patzek, a couple of years ago, and have had your mind warped by them ever since.

    Pimentel is some sort of radical negative population growth advocate, who has received support from Cordelia Scaife May’s Laurel Foundation. Patzek of Berkeley runs an institute funded by oil companies, and does research into things like deep injection of CO2 to enhance secondary oil recovery.

    They use the “strawman” approach to discredit ethanol production, by making assumptions deliberately chosen to lead to a bad net energy outcome. Pimentel goes out of his way to make bad assumptions, IMO. For example, he will assume that 100 percent of corn used to make ethanol is irrigated, when practically none of it is. In one study, he assumed that line electricity would be used to distill off the ethanol, when most ethanol plants are awash in combustible waste lignin which could be burned to distill off the ethanol. His assumptions, and those of Patzek, are deliberately chosen to lead to a bad net energy result, and so make their studies outliers from other published studies.

    [JR: I think biomass for electricity makes sense as I’ve said many times. Indeed, if CCS works, then you can actually co-fire coal and biomass and have negative-carbon electricity. I help oversee a huge increase in funding for cellulosic biofuels in the 1990s. It remains worth pursuing, but you need to find high-yield, low-water-use, low-arable-land, inexpensive options. Not easy!]

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Rudolf Diesel designed his engine to run on vegatable oil. “At the Exposition Rudolf Diesel exhibited his diesel engine, running on peanut oil.” from

    Any vegatable oil will do and such are sometimes lightly processed to make actual biodiesel fuel. Typical feedstacks in temperate zones are rapeseed or soybean, but neither is particulary energy efficient due due high fertiziler consumption. In the tropics palm oil and Jatropha oil are used to either directly poser modified diesel engines or are processed to make biodiesel. Both feedstacks are energy efficient as labor costs in the tropics are much lower.

    India and Mayanmar have rather large Jatropha platations underway. A major advanatage they state is a degree of energy security, a hedge against the next runup in diesel fuel prices.

    IMO enthanol is a not vary good transportation fuel for several reasons; tropical vegatable oils or the biodiesel therefrom is a most sensible way to proceed.

  9. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Joe-

    [JR: I think biomass for electricity makes sense as I’ve said many times. Indeed, if CCS works, then you can actually co-fire coal and biomass and have negative-carbon electricity. I help oversee a huge increase in funding for cellulosic biofuels in the 1990s. It remains worth pursuing, but you need to find high-yield, low-water-use, low-arable-land, inexpensive options. Not easy!]

    In situ carbonation of CO2 is looking better and better, IMO:

    One interesting fact in the above paper – if you inject CO2 below 2.7 km, the density of the CO2, which is compressible, becomes greater than that of sea water, which is virtually incompressible. So the CO2 has negative buoyancy at depths of greater than 2.7 km, and tends to sink instead of rise.

    About the low arable land, inexpensive options… there lies a story. :)

    Years ago, I was in Las Vegas, and went to a solar energy fair there, to hear the Meniels (authors of Applied Solar Energy – An Introduction, published in 1976) give a talk there. While they were talking, they mentioned their adventures with biomass energy using tumbleweeds as the biomass. They had funny stories to tell about ordering a pound of tumbleweed seeds from a seed company, only to find out that the seeds are tiny, and a pound of seeds would be hundreds of thousands of seeds.

    Interestingly enough, the electrical power went off, and left us sitting in the dark. Most of the solar gadgets, requiring line electricity to operate, also went off. :)

    While we were sitting there in the dark, I asked them why not just build big fences, and collect the tumbleweeds for biomass that blow up against the fences. Aden Meniel laughed, and said that the tumbleweeds worked better for biomass before they got too dry and powdery, and that they tended to break off and become mobile after they got dry.

    It has occurred to me that perhaps tumbleweeds could be genetically engineered or selectively bred to break off and become mobile before they got too dry to be used as biomass. Another possibility that occurs to me is that such plant processes are generally controlled by plant hormones like auxins. So, it might be possible to spray the tumbleweeds with plant hormones or some synthetic plant hormone analogue from the air, so that they would break free and would blow up against the fences for collection as biomass.

    Just collecting the tumbleweeds that blow up against the fences changes a two dimensional harvesting problem into a one dimensional harvesting problem, and would likely lower energy costs for harvesting by quite a bit. This would also likely decrease the energy costs of harvesting, and so make the practical area of the tumbleweed plantation much greater, and so make the requirements for high productivity crops less critical.

    Just a stray thought.

    About high productivity, once again the assumption is being made that we have to transport the entire plant including a lot of water, and not just the carbon in the plants in the form of biochar or even carbon monoxide.

    River transport by barge is also a great way to increase the area of a biomass plantation without greatly increasing transport costs. All of the area upstream, and within easy transport distance of a navigable tributary, which could be hundreds of square miles, becomes potential biomass or better yet biochar collection area.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, one clarification:

    The paper talks about injecting CO2 into basalt deposits several hundred meters below the ocean floor, not directly into the oceans. Because the pores of the rock are saturated with sea water, though, the hydrostatic pressures generally apply, I think.

    Injection of CO2 directly into sea water is a terrible idea, IMO. Injection into the basalt deposits several hundred meters below the ocean floor might be a great idea, because of the multiple trapping mechanisms the authors mention, including the tendency to form stable gas hydrates and the negative buoyancy thing.

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, about the tumbleweeds-

    The plant hormone that makes the root break off is ethylene gas, according to a Google search. Ethylene gas triggers production of cellulases in an abscission zone, which makes the stem of the tumbleweed break off.

    Supply ethylene gas in low concentrations, or tweak the cellulase production genes in the tumbleweeds, and you have tumbleweeds that break off prematurely, and become mobile while still green enough to make good biomass, and hopefully before the seeds mature.

    Build big fences in a grid, with roads along side, and just collect the tumbleweeds that blow up against the fence, using something like a combine harvester with attached wood chippers.