Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

Cellulosic, Plug-in Hybrids are Biofuels Substitutes? Think Again?

Originally posted in It’s Getting Hot In Here.

After a long break from blogging, I’m glad to have the time to get back! First of all, from my title you will have probably noticed that I’m partially against cellulosic and plug-in hybrids as the solution to the world food crisis that biofuels and oil are helping to fuel. Sure, cellulosic can ensure we don’t use corn for ethanol and we don’t change wheat, barley, and other crops to corn fields for ethanol production. Sure, we can use plug-in hybrids and, if we’re lucky to scale renewables enough, power them with clean electricity and wean ourselves off of coal and oil. But have you stopped to think about what that means? I bet Mr. Henry Ford would have told you that you don’t have to think about it, that you should just go ahead and support the “real” solutions… Right!

In the last two weeks, biofuels have been attacked more than ever before from many angles. The world food crisis has become so severe that anybody who supports any biofuel that either uses food crops or takes land that would have otherwise gone to food production is criticized sharply. The arguments against biofuels, especially corn ethanol, are clear.

· First, ethanol produced from corn takes a chunk away from the corn that would otherwise go to direct human purposes, excluding livestock (of course, nobody ever questioned before the fact that directing corn and soybeans to cows makes the supply available for exports lower, and therefore keeps prices relatively higher; in other words, food prices before the current crisis could have been much lower if it wasn’t because of the luxury of eating high quantities of meat; maybe a big tax on meat can lower other food prices, which politician will be smart enough to propose this?).

· Second, as the demand for corn and soybeans surges, land that was used for other purposes is converted to corn and soy fields, therefore increasing the cost of the other crops (wheat, barley, etc.) because they’re less available.

· Lastly, using ethanol has no impact on how much oil we use because the energy balance is 0 or negative. On top of all this, we are losing benefits from cheaper ethanol that could be imported from Brazil if our goal was really to get rid of oil at the lowest possible cost.

So, we know all these things. We also know that the increasing price of oil, now nearly $125 per barrel, is also pushing food prices up, and that decreasing water supplies and crazier weather is also pitching in into the food price hikes we’re seeing. What we also know is that every policymaker and the public at large is thinking that the way out of this is making ethanol from something that doesn’t take up food or converting our cars to plug-in hybrids to have them run on electricity. So lots of money is going into cellulosic research and lots of venture capitalists are fully funding new ventures that hope to bring to market “environmentally-friendly” plug-in electric vehicles. At the same time, GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, and other car companies are stepping up their development of these same technologies to bring such cars to market soon. What’s the problem with this?

From all the press going on about these things, you might be led to think it’s the right thing to do. Sure, if we can replace our carbon-producing cars with carbon-free cars we’d be on our way to a climate neutral world! But folks who talk about these issues in this way don’t understand key principles of sustainability or sustainable development. They don’t understand that the old way of thinking will not work for the 21st century, and that a whole-system approach is really what will get us out of this big mess. Thinking about carbon from cars alone leaves a lot out. What are we trying to achieve? What needs are we trying to meet? Cars are not simply responsible for the carbon they emit. They’re responsible for the carbon of sprawl, the carbon of congestion, the carbon of treating people’s health problems related to sprawl and dirty air, and the list goes on!

In thinking about transportation, we need to think about how we can first reduce the need for the car. This is what the big automakers in Detroit will not want to hear, but it’s the truth. Why should we give up over 50% of our city’s space to cars when we can have the same needs met without them and with a lot more space for different needs and a whole lot less carbon? Urban sprawl and the negative effects it brings are being largely left out of the picture when we talk about ethanol and other ways of powering cars.

Nobody talks about the fact that every year we give up $300 billion in congestion alone in the United States, enough money to make you sick of public transportation being so damn easy (and this, of course, leaves out the multiplier effect $300 billion can have on total economic output). What about deaths by accidents? Over 250,000 per year globally. How much do we value human lives? What about health costs because of obesity, depression, dirty air, and global warming? What about the huge subsidies the government hands out to maintain roads and build new ones. The huge amounts of money banks lend out to allow people to buy cars. Could that money be loaned instead for better purposes, such as solar and wind? The irony here is that you never see someone who buys a car calculating the payback time of the car as you see them calculating it for solar and wind. And then, of course, is all the space we give up in our cities, space that could go instead to green urban parks, greenways, community gardens (things that reduce crime, improve education, and lower health and energy costs), sports complexes, businesses, and everything else you wish you had in your city!

The car culture has been here for too long and it seems like nobody is blaming it for high oil prices and the world food crisis we’re currently suffering from. Nobody wants to blame the car for the cyclone that hit Myanmar, or for the fact that 100 million people around the world are now at risk of going into poverty. At some point, we have to come to grips and ADMIT that the car is a huge part of this entire mess. Cellulosic ethanol, plug-in hybrids, and whatever else you may say is the solution don’t matter. What matters is that we have given up 30+ years in which we could’ve developed efficient, widespread mass transportation systems that could have probably kept our need for the car at a very low level. Instead of investing in mass transportation in all our cities, we have invested in sprawl, global warming, high food prices, and much more! And the sad part is that we still don’t seem to get it.

If the Presidential candidates want to make a good case about getting out of the huge mess we’re in, they’re gonna have to face reality and admit that the car has to go. The car will only be necessary for long distance trips or trips to places outside our urban/suburban areas that we cannot reach through mass public transit. In these cases, it’ll be useful to have plug-in electric vehicles; obviously, they will still have an important use. But we cannot go on in the 21st century thinking that the independent car is the only answer to transportation.

The public has to demand that we invest the $300 billion we needlessly lose each year due to congestion or the $100+ billion we needlessly send to Iraq annually in mass transit. It doesn’t matter whether it is government-managed or privately managed. The point is that we need mass transit to free ourselves out of this mess. So, we need to make it a point that in dealing with global warming, the new President in 2009 will work with Congress to scale up investments in mass public transit, which will lead to smart urban development and much more. If it doesn’t get done soon, we may run out of time. It’s up to us to begin recognizing that the car must come to an end and to begin getting this notion into the press if it will ever get to the halls of Congress for consideration. Just like the car drove us into this mess, if we do nothing the car will drive us into the ground.


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One thought on “Cellulosic, Plug-in Hybrids are Biofuels Substitutes? Think Again?

  1. It’s 105% correct… I agree with you.. But what about if we are extracting oil from plants that donot occupy land of food crops and can grow in arid climates where no other crop can survive except them.? like some halophytes?

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