Sustainability, Energy Independence and Agricultural Policy

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] Please join me in welcoming (someone who I have always thought was one of the smarter voices in the blogosphere) Engineer Poet in his first contribution to The Oil Drum.

What, me worry?

One of the biggest threats the USA faces today is a serious shortage of energy. Vulnerabilities in our system have been made glaringly obvious several times; since the 1970's the USA has had social and economic upheaval due to the actions of foreign oil producers, and two hurricanes in 2005 showed just how fragile our remaining domestic supplies of oil and natural gas are. The fact that the nation has a Strategic Petroleum Reserve shows that this is a matter of national security.

For such a serious matter, it's being treated in a very casual fashion. There is no national program to manage oil demand in the event of a supply crisis, or employ market forces to help. Neither is there a long-term initiative to reduce oil dependence and the size of the threat. While the US looks to become dependent upon imported natural gas in addition to oil, there's nothing in the works for a Strategic Natural Gas Reserve. And as for a national building code or even minimum standards for building codes, there's nothing worth mentioning.

Other, less-serious problems have been dealt with far more competently. The USA had a plan for achieving the goal of saving the peregrine falcon and bald eagle from DDT, and another for saving the world's ozone layer from halocarbon emissions. Both of these were carried forward both domestically and internationally, with considerable success on both programs. Given the last ten years of concern about global warming and three decades of concern over energy supplies, you would expect something similar would be in the works for those also. Something broad-based and serious:

  • A self-sustaining system which replaces petroleum-based fuels in the short term, and all fossil fuels eventually.
  • Productivity high enough to eliminate the displaced fuels without major land-use or other changes.
  • A shift toward a neutral carbon and GHG balance, or even a negative net balance.

You can look through our initiatives from last year's energy bill through the previous three administrations, and you wouldn't find anything like this. Nothing in our current energy "policy" even aims squarely at these goals, let alone has a prospect of meeting them (though Carter and Clinton/Gore do deserve credit for thinking about it).

It looks like we could do a lot, with the right engineering backed by supportive policies. What would you say if I told you that we could use biomass to:

  • Replace all the petroleum used by the ground-transport sector (55% or more)?
  • Replace all the natural gas used by the electric-generation sector (about 1/3 of US natural gas consumption)?
  • Replace every pound of coal burned for electricity (about 90% of all US coal consumption)?
  • Eliminate over 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions (4.4 billion tons of CO2) from oil and coal.

All that, and have some left over. I believe we could, and I'll illustrate how (with numbers!) below. But to understand where we need to go, we should first see where we are and how we got here.

From interest-group politics to policy

There are many frustrating things about our current energy non-policy. One of the worst is that we're paying people to do ineffective or even counterproductive things in the name of "sustainability", "energy independence" and even supporting family farming. For instance, our current production of ethanol depends on natural gas or even coal to distill the product. ("Live green, go yellow"? If something depends on burning coal, how green can it be?)

But what if we fixed that?

It won't be easy to change. There are huge interest groups which reap benefits from the status quo. This gives the non-policy a great deal of support, whether it is productive or not. The example of corn ethanol illustrates this nicely. A bunch of people are doing well by it, including:

  • Corn-belt farmers, who have a market too big to saturate.
  • Agribusinesses like ADM, which reap billions in taxpayer subsidies in the name of (illusory) energy independence.
  • Manufacturers and sellers of seed, fertilizer and pesticides.
  • The politicians whose taxpayer-financed largesse created this bonanza, and who are in turn supported by its beneficiaries (the benefits aren't for the taxpayer).

Contrary to mouthpieces of those interests, corn ethanol doesn't do well at anything else; it takes nearly a gallon-equivalent of various fuels (including natural gas and diesel) to make a gallon of ethanol. By the USDA's over-optimistic accounting, the increase is roughly 1.27:1, which is not nearly enough to make a sustainable system. Here's a graph of the typical energy balance:

The displaced gasoline comes mostly from some other fossil fuel, the greenhouse benefit is minuscule, and the public pays more overall for the ethanol than they would for imported oil to fill their tanks. In the long run, this is bound to collapse. But in the short run, the program thrives and grows because of the interlocking political support.

Perverse incentives can do that. But what if we paid people to do the right thing, instead of the wrong thing?

Incremental improvements

There are small things we could do. To name one, we could use these resources in ways which really do save fossil fuel. For example, the Ford/MIT ethanol-injection engine uses ethanol and turbo-boosting to roughly double the power output of an engine. This allows downsizing of the engine, which in turn reduces friction and throttling losses; the result is about a 30% improvement in fuel economy. (It also creates a true flex-fuel vehicle which starts on gasoline in cold weather but can run on any mixture of petroleum and ethanol, even ethanol-water mixtures, afterward. This may be important in the future, as I'll describe below.) This is a far better use of ethanol than just blending it into the gasoline supply. If it was substituted across the US vehicle fleet overnight, it could cut our annual gasoline consumption from 140 billion gallons to about 108 billion gallons (efficiency figures are estimates; some appraisals of vehicle drivetrain efficiency are as low as 14.9%):

There are further benefits. Distillation is a very energy-intensive step in the production of ethanol for gasohol or E85; blending with gasoline requires anhydrous ethanol, which requires considerable processing beyond making moonshine. But if you don't blend the ethanol with petroleum, the ethanol does not have to be anhydrous; this saves energy in distillation and improves the energy balance of ethanol production. On top of this, a little water in the mix improves the octane-boosting effect.

Penny wise, pound foolish

Unfortunately, 30% improvement (plus production savings) is nowhere near enough. To stop the increase of atmospheric CO2, we need to cut emissions on the order of 80% (while we still have oil); eventually we're going to have to replace all oil-derived fuels with renewables. Worse, cellulosic ethanol can't do the job by itself. The processes for producing it are too inefficient. Iogen's process is about 50% efficient, compared to 83% well-to-tank efficiency for producing gasoline1; this means we'd need a lot more biomass input energy compared to crude oil to get the same output. The consequence is that we'd have to turn most of our croplands and forests into fuel plantations. Here's what we'd need just to replace gasoline:

The EERE report Billion-Ton Vision adds various sources of unused biomass and comes up with a possibility of 1.3 billion tons per year. At 15.8 million BTU/ton, this is about 20.5 quads of energy. But just replacing gasoline with cellulosic ethanol requires 26.2 quads of biomass energy; that would take almost 1.7 billion tons! But that's not the end of the story. Gasoline only accounts for about 44% of petroleum products delivered in the USA. Diesel accounts for about 2.8 million barrels/day (at considerably greater energy per gallon), so a full replacement of motor fuel with bio-fuels would take about 2.5 billion tons. That's a lot, but it doesn't look extremely difficult. However, it doesn't include jet fuel, industrial fuel and so forth. I won't calculate biomass-equivalents for these.

But that's not the end of the story. Full renewability requires replacing more than just oil. Replacing the fossil energy we get from coal (22.8 quads) would require another 1.4 billion tons plus conversion losses, and natural gas (22.6 quads) would take about the same; those are going to need replacement sooner (global warming) or later (resource exhaustion) too. This all adds up to roughly 5.3 billion tons per year, year in and year out.

At a reasonable figure of ten tons per acre for dedicated biofuel crops, this would take about four hundred million acres over and above what's producing the 1.3 billion tons of waste. In 2003, only about 380 million acres were planted to crops in the entire USA! It's pretty clear that this isn't going to happen.

Even if we did it, the supply would be stretched to the limit from day one. Energy security demands more than this. We need a supply of energy which averages considerably more than what we consume, so that temporary downturns don't create crises. (Remember how gasoline got very expensive or even ran out post-Katrina, when the Gulf wells and refineries were shut down? Remember how expensive natural gas was that fall? That's what happens when supply is too close to demand. Now imagine an all-biofuel future in a prolonged drought, and add some fires.) Oil supplies are stretched way too tight; replacing one scarce fuel with another is great for producers (like the ethanol lobby) but it just makes the consumer slave to a different master.

The old-school methods aren't going to work this time. Pols say what they want, but Nature can't be spun; when the laws of physics say otherwise no vote or PR campaign can trump them. We're going to have to find that energy somewhere else, which means getting creative.

Knowing where to look

Take another look at those graphs above. One thing should strike everyone: a whale of a lot of energy is lost in conversions. The average refinery makes gasoline with 83% efficiency, but engines are so inefficient that more energy goes to refining losses than pushing the vehicle. An ethanol engine is potentially more efficient than the gasoline equivalent, but the conversion from biomass to ethanol loses so much that it takes more biomass energy than crude oil to do the same job! Biomass gasification may be more efficient than Iogen's hydrolization and fermentation, but even a 70%-efficient process yields barely 18% end-to-end efficiency at best. Still, the available energy from biomass looks to be several times the energy we actually use from crude oil. The conclusions are inescapable:

  1. There is sufficient biomass energy to replace motor fuel and then some... if the energy is not wasted.
  2. Using bio-ethanol in piston engines means taking between 4/5 and 9/10 of the captured energy and throwing it away.
  3. Even burning biomass as a replacement for e.g. coal in conventional powerplants means 60% losses or more.
  4. It looks impossible to grow enough biomass to take that path.
  5. The old paradigm won't work any more. A new systems approach is required.
  6. The essence of a successful system will be fewer conversions and minimizing losses.

The potential is enormous. If we can manage to get our hands on 20-odd quads worth of biomass each year, we could replace huge amounts of other demand. Here's a short list of what actually makes it to useful form:

The useful work we get out of all of these things comes to roughly 15 quads, far less than the 20-odd quads of biofuels we could get; the problem is getting enough of it in useful form. The key to a renewable economy is efficiency, and efficiency is one thing we aren't pushing hard enough. We could certainly do better. But none of this will change as long as people benefit more from the status quo.

What gets rewarded, gets done

Before digging too much into what we should do, let's look at what we're doing now, and why.

The incentive structure around our "biofuels" is designed to profit interest groups, rather than to reduce fossil-fuel use or fix global warming. The farmers of the USA grew more corn than we could use, so the price collapsed. Washington's solution: pay to turn corn into motor fuel, no matter how inefficient it is. We can't afford that inefficiency any more, so it's obviously got to change. But unless a sea change in the body politic overwhelms the current system, this requires breaking the current interests apart: some fraction of the people (or at least the voters) who are benefitting now need to see more advantage for themselves in upsetting the apple cart. The big agribusiness and ethanol interests (e.g. ADM) aren't in this group and will have to be dragged along or forced out. Fortunately, some segments don't need to make great changes. The farmers are doing at least part of what needs doing: pulling carbon out of the air and fixing it in a form which contains energy. Is it possible to get them to buy into "more of the same, only different"? And what would that look like?

A modest proposal

Every Ergosphere reader knows I've got a thing for turning waste into gold. Using corn stover to feed a fertilizer plant (and make all the nitrogen the corn needs, plus more) is the sort of solution I like. Farm income 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?

Keeling curve

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).

Every system has its limits, which must be respected scrupulously; failure to take them into account means the system will fail to meet its expectations, sometimes in spectacular fashion. The limiting factor in most biofuel systems is carbon capture by plants. Once the carbon is captured there are ways to recycle it (some of them with very impressive possibilities), but most of them (like Greenfuel) won't just run on air; they require a concentrated stream of CO2. If the system is to be run on renewable inputs, something else has to do the gruntwork of pulling the carbon out of the atmosphere.

Isn't that a healthy part of what farming does? And it could be quite profitable. If carbon removal is compensated at $85/ton social cost, farmers would do very well by it.

What we've got to work with

The EERE report which came up with the 1.3 billion ton figure measures potential waste biomass in the USA. Current production is much smaller. A great deal of that 1.3 billion tons assumes greater production of non-crop biomass from grain and bean crops, which may not happen. Accordingly, I'm only going to assume about 348 million tons of crop byproducts.

The other major waste biomass stream comes from forestry, which might produce 368 million tons per year. We could add to that with biomass crops such as Miscanthus Giganticus, switchgrass or fast-growing trees such as coppiced willow or poplar. The productivity varies, but if Miscanthus can average 10 short tons/acre, an additional billion tons of biomass would require only 100 million acres. To compare, roughly 80 million acres are planted to corn (maize) for grain alone each year (not including silage), and considerable marginal or erodible land is currently in agricultural set-asides. Waste plus dedicated biomass would make 1.72 billion tons a year. Here's a complete listing of my assumptions:

Crop byproductProduct,
AcresTotal tons
Wheat straw148,800,000 48,800,000
Rice straw43,300,000 13,200,000
Corn stover2.580,700,000 202,000,000
Process residue 84,000,000
Forest products 368,000,000
Biomass crops10100,000,000 1,000,000,000

Okay, what do you do with it?

Suppose for a minute that we've got that 1.7 billion tons every year. We've got MSW authorities pulling out all their "green waste", unrecyclable paper and everything else, foresters capturing chips, bark and sawdust, and farmers baling all their extra crop wastes and growing switchgrass or Miscanthus on their marginal land and buffer strips. Where do you go from there?

Flash-carbonization reactor

First thing, you turn the biomass into charcoal. This doesn't take sophisticated equipment; it can be made simple, rugged and cheap (though it can always be improved). The process takes biomass and compressed air (or heated gas of some kind). Its products are:

  1. Hot medium-BTU fuel gas (the content of heavy molecules such as tars depends on the operating conditions; hotter operation breaks down heavier molecules).
  2. Charcoal, amounting to as much as 30% of the dry weight of the input biomass.

A 30% (ashless) yield of carbon would contain about 50% of the energy of the original biomass. The remaining 50% would come off as heat and chemical energy in the gas. The simplest processes for making charcoal do it by burning some of the input fuel, but this can be improved. If the carbonization process was driven partly by external or recycled heat, less energy would be expended in combustion; the net energy yield in the gas would shift away from heat toward chemical energy (and total energy yield of charcoal+gas could exceed 100% of the heat of combustion of the biomass). Medium-BTU gas isn't easily transported, but it can be used at the site of production to good effect.

There are several uses for fuel gas, but one of the best is making electricity. Hot combustible gas is more or less what an SOFC runs on. GE and Delphi have been developing small SOFC's for automotive applications, and both recently beat the $300/kW price barrier. Efficiency is 49% and headed upward. If we assume that:

  • 1.72 billion tons per year of biomass is carbonized.
  • This biomass has 15.8 million BTU/dry ton of energy (27.1 quads total energy).
  • 53.5% of the energy is yielded as charcoal (30% by weight).
  • 88% of the remainder is yielded as chemical energy in hot gas (11.1 quads gas + 1.51 quads reaction heat + recycled heat).
  • The gas can be converted to electricity at 50% efficiency.

The electric yield from the processing of the gas would be 5.55 quads, or 1620 billion kilowatt-hours. This is more than twice the US electric generation from natural gas (~750 billion kWh), and more than 1/2 of the total US electric generation from all fossil fuels. In short, all non-renewable natural gas generation could be replaced by energy from the carbonization stage, and a large chunk of the coal-fired generation as well.

But that's not the end of it! The process also produces charcoal; at 30% yield, 1.72 billion tons of input would leave about 515 million tons of output. Charcoal can be used for fuel, as a soil amendment or as a feedstock for further processing. Gasified charcoal would produce fewer pollutants than gasified coal and could be used for power generation or production of nitrogen fertilizer. But the most efficient option appears to be use in direct-carbon fuel cells (DCFC's). Up to 80% of the chemical energy of the charcoal can be turned into electricity in DCFC's (and the byproduct heat is still useful).

Charcoal is like coal, only more stable. Charcoal is the product of a high-temperature process, and is missing most of the hydrogen and volatile chemicals of coal. It can be heaped and stored for weeks to thousands of years; charcoal from ancient forest and camp fires allows prehistoric events to be dated. It is a valuable addition to soil, creating the fertile "terra preta"4 of the notoriously nutrient-poor Amazon rainforest. It's perhaps the ultimate answer to irregular supplies of renewable energy. An annual supply of 515 million short tons of charcoal fed to DCFC's would produce roughly 3400 billion kilowatt-hours of energy. This is more than the total US generation from fossil fuels, and about 84% of the total electric energy consumed in the USA in 2005; together with the generation from the gas, it could conceivably replace every kilowatt-hour we now use, from the trivial amounts made by solar to the entire contribution of coal, with about 25% extra to play with.

It wouldn't be wise to replace everything with biomass energy, of course; throwing away diversity of supply means reducing security. But it shows just how much potential we've got, if we only start using it.

So how does this relate to oil again?

I've spent the last several hundred words talking about the production of electricity, not petroleum or other liquid fuels. At the moment, electricity has almost nothing to do with petroleum; only about 3% of electricity is generated from oil (and that's including petroleum coke, a coal-like byproduct of oil refining). Our transportation system is the opposite: it currently runs on liquid petroleum fuels almost exclusively, and most vehicles can't accept anything else. These two parts of the energy economy are almost completely disconnected from each other.

Any scheme which replaces oil is either going to have to produce a liquid fuel, or find a way to make vehicles take another medium of energy; if that medium is electricity, it means that connection must be established. To use electricity as the green, renewable substitute for oil, two things are necessary:

  1. Making enough renewable electricity to replace the energy derived from liquids, and
  2. Getting that electricity aboard the vehicle.

If we use the scheme illustrated above, making enough electricity is a fait accompli. Each year the USA burns about 17 quads of gasoline in vehicles averaging perhaps 20% efficient5, and another 6 quads of diesel in vehicles averaging perhaps 40% efficient6; the total useful energy delivered to wheels is about 5.8 quads, or 1700 billion kilowatt-hours7. (The average power is only about 194 GW, a small fraction of the US grid's nameplate generating capacity of over 1000 GW; the current grid could move that much energy during off-peak hours without straining.) Once we've got this energy, the only problem is getting it to vehicles in useful amounts.

One possibility is to put DCFC's in vehicles and run them directly on charcoal. If it works, it would be mighty convenient; however, it may be too much of a stretch. DCFC's are based on molten-carbonate chemistry and might be too fragile, hot or difficult to cold-start to make them suitable for the job; they are being investigated for powering ships, but cars and even heavy trucks may be too small. (Carbon storage is also an issue, if it's going to be sequestered.) If the fuel cell can't go on the vehicle, electricity has to be generated elsewhere and stored on the vehicle.

That means the possibilities are limited only by the capabilities of batteries. For over a century that capability was limited indeed, but that's changing with amazing speed. The drive to pack more energy into smaller cellphones and laptops has led to an explosion of new technology with performance once found only in science fiction. It used to be sized and priced like gemstones, but it's getting to be available in economy-size packages too.

I won't go too far into the details of these technologies, except to detail their breadth. Lithium-ion batteries are coming in at least two new flavors, one based on titanium oxide and the other on iron phosphate; these have already hit the market in high-performance cordless tools. Lead-acid batteries look to make a comeback, with carbon foam replacing bulk metal for electrical connections and mechanical strength (eliminating most of the corrosion which limited their lifespan and also slashing the weight). There's even a dark horse in the race, an ultracapacitor from EEStor. These batteries charge in minutes (Altair Nano claims 0-80% in 60 seconds flat or 0-100% in 6 minutes for 15,000 cycles; ultracaps are probably limited only by the wiring); it could make filling at a gas pump feel slow.

These technologies are hitting limited-production vehicles today. Tesla Motors has sold out its first run of electric roadsters, powered by off-the-shelf lithium-ion cells. 250 miles of range is enough for lots of driving, and a network of fast charging stations would make them suitable for most trips.

But most of us can't afford cars with $30,000 battery packs just to run on electrons. Fortunately, most driving is within a few tens of miles of home; some estimate that a car which can run its first 60 miles on electricity before switching on a conventional engine can eliminate 80% of liquid fuel demand. (Shorter ranges would probably be effective as well; 30 miles of electric range would probably suffice to replace well over half of that 80%, because shorter trips could still be all-electric.) This isn't science fiction; CalCars has already done this with the Prius+. The combination of hybrid efficiency and grid-power assist turns a sedan which might attain 35 MPG with a standard drivetrain into an economy monster which can average up to 180 MPG of gasoline, plus 200 watt-hours of grid juice per electric mile.

The problem is that 60 miles isn't enough by itself, and a PHEV like the Prius+ will still need liquid fuel for extended range; heavy vehicles will probably need diesel or the like for a large fraction of their operation. Plug-in operation cuts the fuel requirement down a lot, but 20% of 140 billion gallons of gasoline plus maybe 50% of 27 billion gallons of diesel is still about 40 billion gallons a year of hydrocarbons or about 65 billion gallons of ethanol. All together, it comes to about 1150 billion kWh of electricity (assuming no efficiency improvements) plus 5.1 quads worth of liquid fuel.

Bi-cycles and re-cycles

The difficulty with liquid fuels is that all the best prospects contain carbon, and using liquid fuels in vehicles dumps the carbon back into the atmosphere. If we go for carbon-neutrality, it means that we can't emit any more carbon than we capture (about 1 billion tons/year in this scenario).

Most concepts would go back to the biomass at this point and say "Okay, divvy it up; we use THIS part for electricity and make liquid fuel out of the rest!" But if you go back to the third graph, it takes huge amounts of biomass to get just a little energy to wheels. 5.1 quads of ethanol from cellulose needs something over 10 quads of biomass. This seriously cuts into the electric output and the charcoal available for fuel (or just to keep carbon out of the atmosphere).

It takes a lot of work to grab that carbon. Ideally, we'd hold onto it and use it over and over.

It may be asking too much to capture carbon and use it in a closed cycle indefinitely, but twice-through doesn't seem far-fetched. A system which captures a billion tons of carbon a year and turns 30% of it into gas at or near the point of production (biomass is too bulky and expensive to transport very far) is going to have 300 million tons of carbon to play with, as 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This will probably be mixed with nitrogen, water vapor and some oxygen.

This happens to be exactly what some folks want to use as feedstock to make liquid fuels (ethanol and biodiesel). Their current proposal is to use the stack gas from coal-fired powerplants, but cleaner and greener inputs would almost certainly work just as well. Greenfuel claims to be able to capture 30-40% of the carbon passing through its algal bioreactor system. That capture figure seems rather low, because algae grow very quickly on very dilute CO2 from the atmosphere; algae should be able to reduce CO2 concentrations to well below 1%, which would mean 90+% capture. I speculate that Greenfuel's figures are based on the CO2 source running 24 hours a day, whether there is light for the algae to capture carbon for its growth or not; the un-captured carbon would go through to the atmosphere. But that assumes that neither the CO2 source nor the algae-growing system have any way of storing carbon until the algae can use it. If the system is engineered to capture carbon, this is probably a bad assumption. Accordingly, I'm going to make one optimistic assumption here: no less than 60% of the CO2 output of the above fuel-cell system can be captured as algae-derived biofuel.

Once you put it all together, the result is an 8-step process with two energy loops:

  1. Heat the biomass in the absence of oxygen to convert it into charcoal (515 million tons of carbon, 14.5 quads energy) and gas (~257 million tons of carbon as CO and CO2, traces of methane, etc. plus hydrogen and water, ~11.1 quads of chemical energy + process heat).
  2. Burn the gas in solid-oxide fuel cells at 50% efficiency, producing 5.55 quads of electricity (1620 billion kWH) plus 5.5 quads of heat. The heat would first be used to drive the pyrolysis process and then for other uses, closing part of the energy loop. (Recycling of heat might increase step 1's yield of chemical energy considerably8, but I'm trying to be slightly pessimistic.)
  3. Send the fuel-cell exhaust gas, full of CO2, to an algal photosynthesis process. Capturing 30% of the carbon as carbohydrate would process 83 million tons/year; if it came out as ethanol, it would amount to 44.9 billion gallons (about 3.5 quads out of the 5.1 required). If another 30% could be captured as vegetable oil, it would be another 20 billion gallons or so; that would make about 3.1 quads of energy as liquid fuel. That totals 6.6 quads, enough to cope with some losses.
  4. The ethanol is distilled with the waste heat from step 2.
  5. The vegetable oil is converted to glycerine and ethyl esters (biodiesel) with some of the ethanol from step 4.
  6. Excess glycerine from step 5 is gasified and fed to the fuel cells in step 2 (energy recycled).
  7. The charcoal goes to burial (sequestration) or electric generation.
  8. The CO2 from electric generation is either sequestered (deep-well injection, enhanced oil recovery) or used as more feedstock for algal fuel; 1/3 of the carbon from charcoal recycled to step 3 would roughly double the liquid fuel yield.

Here's a simplified graph of mass and energy flows (minus steps 5, 6 and 8):

Mass and energy flows in an integrated biomass polygeneration plant

What does this do for us?

The issues at hand are liquid-fuel demand, electric demand and carbon sequestration. Let's take them in order.

It's claimed that plug-in hybrid vehicles with as little as 60 miles of electric range can reduce motor fuel needs by as much as 80%. If that is the case, the demand for gasoline could be cut from 140 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent (GGE) to about 28 billion. Providing the same amount of energy from ethanol would require about 42 billion gallons/year, which could be provided by step 3 above. Displacing half our diesel fuel could be accomplished with the capture of another 30% of the off-gassed carbon. If the total carbon capture could be improved beyond 60%, it would supply other needs as well.

Transferring energy demand from gasoline to electricity might add as much as 800 billion kilowatt-hours per year to grid consumption. The US also uses about 43 billion gallons/year of diesel, supplying perhaps 1400 billion kWh of work to the wheels of vehicles from medium trucks to freight trains; supplying half of that via the grid would add another 700 billion kWH/year of load. The sum of these two is roughly equal to the estimate of the electric yield from the carbonization process. If half of the energy was supplied from electricity and the other half from biodiesel, it would take about 22 billion gallons of biodiesel. The biodiesel fraction could be largely supplied by step 3 above; a slight improvement in either biodiesel production or truck efficiency would make up the difference.

The USA uses about 4000 billion kWh of electricity per year. Roughly half of this comes from coal, and another 19% each from natural gas and nuclear; the remainder comes from petroleum and renewables, with the bulk of the last being from hydropower. The total electric generation from fossil fuels in 2005 was 2900 billion kilowatt-hours. This entire quantity could be supplied from the 515 million tons of charcoal; the possible 3400+ billion kWh could more than replace the combined fossil-fired electric production by itself. That would make both US ground transport and US electric generation approximately carbon-neutral without further measures.

The final issue is carbon sequestration. Any charcoal not used for fuel could be buried. Charcoal used in DCFC's would produce nearly-pure CO2, which allows fairly easy and cheap capture. If not recycled through algae to make liquid fuel (over and above the quantities calculated above), it could be compressed to liquid and injected into old oil and gas fields or deep aquifers. It appears feasible to remove most or all of the 515 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere permanently, or nearly so.

The final question: Could we produce 1.7 billion tons/year of biomass? We're already making half that or more in waste, in forms ranging from corn stalks to grain straw to sawdust to grass clippings to waste paper. If we could get as little as 10 tons/acre from crops like switchgrass or Miscanthus, another 100 million acres would do the trick. These would be perennial crops, requiring little intervention beyond mowing and replacement of harvested nutrients.

But we've been neglecting one essential party to this effort. It's time to return to him.

What does this do for the farmer?

The farmer is concerned about doing well by the land, but to do this he has to stay in business. How's he going to make money off something like this? It looks like there are at least four possible revenue streams from this scheme: greenhouse-abatement payments plus sales of three products: electricity, ethanol and charcoal. (There may be worthwhile chemicals in the tars and other heavy bio-molecules from the charcoal production step, but those markets might be easily saturated. I won't consider those.)

Suppose that we pay $85/ton for carbon removed from the atmosphere (about $27/ton of CO2). An acre of corn yielding 150 bushels at $3/bu would pay $450 for the grain; the 2.5 tons dry weight of excess stover from that same acre would contain another 1.1 or so tons of carbon, for $93 in abatement fees. But a farmer might be a member of a co-op producing electricity, charcoal and ethanol from crop waste. 2.5 dry tons of stover would provide roughly 39.5 mmBTU of energy, of which roughly 41% (16.2 mmBTU) would come off as gas during carbonization. If half of that was converted to electricity, each acre's worth would yield 2366 kWh; at 5¢/kWh, the electricity alone would be worth a whopping $118.33. The 3/4 ton of charcoal byproduct would be worth another $63.75 for the carbon-abatement payment, raising the total to $182/acre. And 750 pounds of carbon put through the improved algae process would yield 65.4 gallons of ethanol, worth $196.20 at $3/gallon. The yield of vegetable oil (for biodiesel) would be another 38.2 gallons, worth $114.44 at $3/gallon. The gross from the abatement credit and stover byproducts would be $483, worth more than the grain! If the charcoal could be sold as another product (for energy or chemical synthesis), the byproducts could easily be worth far more than the primary crop.

What's the farmer's backstop price? 150 bushels at 56 lbs/bu is 8400 lbs of grain; if it is also 45% carbon by weight, the carbon-abatement payment for turning an acre's worth of grain into charcoal (~2520 lbs at 30% yield) is about $107, absent any production of electricity or liquid fuel. The electricity and fuel byproducts would be worth another $721. Below $4.80/bu the grain is worth more as charcoal and byproducts than as food. And that's just from growing corn, which produces 6.7 tons of total harvest (grain plus stover) per acre. A crop like Miscanthus, which produces 10 tons/acre with far less cultivation, would be much more profitable (if more subject to the market price of fuels and electricity).

Last, there is the permanent improvement of the soil from the addition of charcoal. The example of terra preta shows that charcoal can create massive improvements in nutrient-holding ability, under the most adverse conditions, lasting at least two thousand years. Had the ancient Greeks and Romans used such practices, their soils would have been very different—and their modern descendants would still be enjoying the results today. This is literally an investment which can pay for a hundred generations.

What farmer wouldn't jump at that? The problem is to take theory and reduce it to practice.

What would it cost?

The best system in the world is no good if you can't afford it. What would a system like this cost us, and what would it save?

Let's start with savings. The USA is currently importing about 12.3 million barrels/day of petroleum and products; at even $60/barrel, that's $738 million a day or $269 billion per year. Eliminating 9.12 million barrels/day of gasoline and another 2.8 million barrels/day of diesel comes to 11.9 million barrels; this might come from ~11 million bbl/day of crude (after processing gain) and cost us $241 billion per year.The replacement of US transport oil consumption by domestic energy would eliminate demand greater than Saudi Arabia's production, lowering world oil prices and the cost of the remaining imports (which would be about 1/10 of current levels). Then there's natural gas. Eliminating 5.8 quads (roughly 5.65 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas demand would more than eliminate US net imports of natural gas. If we peg that at $8.00/million BTU, 5.8 quads is worth another $46 billion (another total bound to rise).

That total comes to $287 billion a year. $287 billion a year is roughly $960 a head for everyone in the USA. There's got to be some sort of cost for this, so here's an estimate.

The potential generation from carbonizer off-gas is 1620 billion kWh/year, or 185 GW average; the cost of solid-oxide fuel cells will be below the $250/kW point soon. If we assume that the balance of the biomass-processing system is $500/kW (including the power conditioning gear, carbonizer, fuel-gas processing, algae farm, fermenter and ethanol still) the cost of the system is $139 billion dollars. This is several times total US farm income, but it's less than half the annual savings from the elimination of imported oil and gas. It would be an immensely profitable move for the country. Even at $2000/kW, it would pay off in a little over a year.

The savings would be offset a bit by additional costs of vehicles. Today's hybrids cost about $2000-$3000 more than their conventional equivalents. If we keep buying 17 million new light-duty vehicles per year, that would come to between $34 billion/year and $51 billion/year. This isn't remotely close to the savings.

Then there's the effect of eliminating coal-fired electric generation and replacing about 600 million tons of atmospheric carbon emissions (2.2 billion tons CO2) with perhaps 500 million tons of carbon removals. The issues of earth subsidence, acid rain, mercury emissions, acid mine drainage and so forth would disappear. At $30/ton for a billion tons of coal and perhaps the same price per ton for a half-billion tons of charcoal, the savings would be about $15 billion a year.

Last is the effect of eliminating carbon emissions. The eliminated motor fuel contains about 660 million tons of carbon, and the eliminated coal contains roughly another 600 million. We'd replace that with perhaps a half-billion tons of carbon removals. If we subscribe to the Stern report's social cost of CO2 emissions at $85/ton, the net savings would be another $155 billion/year.

It looks like we could lay out $370 billion plus maybe $50 billion/year, and save ourselves $287 billion a year in imported oil and natural gas, another $15 billion a year in coal costs, and perhaps $155 billion a year in social costs from climate change and its knock-on effects. Unless I've missed something very important, it's not a question of whether we can afford to do this. It's a question of whether we can afford not to.

How would our lives be different?

The ever-present question for any scheme like this is if the public will accept it. This depends on a great many things, but a lot of it is how much change it would demand from people. The answer is "not much". And that's by design.

Most of the various additions to the electrical grid would be completely transparent to the consumer. All the biomass-carbonization co-ops, algae-growth greenhouses and other elements would be off in the countryside, probably looking little different from other farm structures. Wind farms are far more conspicuous than this would be.

The average driver would have to change habits slightly. Plugging in every night, or even at every stop, would be fairly important. But this would be offset by far fewer trips to filling stations. As fewer and fewer drivers needed liquid fuels except to go out of town, you might see fuel pumps disappear from convenience stores and even whole urban cores. They'd wind up clustered around freeway exits and at truck stops.

The character of that fuel would change too. Use of the Ford/MIT direct-injection engine would require two fuel tanks instead of one, so the driver would have both a gasoline tank and an ethanol tank to fill. But the mix would shift over time; as petroleum was displaced by electricity and its ethanol byproduct, the driver would burn more ethanol and less gasoline. Finally, gasoline would only be used for cold-starting the PHEV's engine; normal operation would use ethanol only, with no added petroleum. And people would use about 1/5 as much liquid-fuel energy on average, perhaps 1/4 as many gallons if ethanol substituted for gasoline. At $3/gallon for ethanol but using 1/4 as much, people would pay about as much as they would if gasoline cost 75¢/gallon for current vehicles.

Could we handle such things? Given that most people look at their windshield washer fluid every so often, I think that managing another fuel tank wouldn't be all that complicated.

What of electricity, the non-fuel? The average PHEV car might consume 300 watt-hours per mile; Prius-like PHEV's would be more efficient at 200 to 250, and PHSUV's might come in at 400 or so. At 10¢/kWh, it would cost between 2¢/mile for the Prius+ to 4¢/mile for the PHSUV. Comparing against gasoline at 50 MPG for a Prius and 25 MPG for an economical SUV, the cost would be equivalent to gasoline at about $1.00/gallon. Off-peak electricity might cost considerably less.

A driver covering 13,000 miles/year in a 25 MPG SUV would use 520 gallons of fuel and pay about $1300/year at current prices. Substituting 130 gallons of ethanol at $3/gallon ($390) plus 4160 kWh at 10¢/kWh ($416) would come to $806, a savings of $494/year. Even if we paid $3000 more for our PHEV vehicles, we'd get most or all of that money back before the car loan was paid.

Room for improvement

There are several elements of this scheme which could be improved over the baseline assumptions. They include:

  • The algal carbon-capture step. Greenfuel claims 30%-40% capture efficiency, allowing at least 60% of the input carbon to blow through to the atmosphere. I assumed 60% capture, because algae can certainly grow very well on gas with 4% CO2 or more. But that's not the end. Natural systems extract carbon out of the air at a measly 380 ppm concentration. If the system can retain combustion gases in the algae-growth unit until the CO2 content is less than 1%, capture could exceed 90%; if the exit CO2 concentration is reduced to 0.1% (1000 ppm), the capture efficiency goes up to 99%. Photosynthesis by the algae replaces CO2 with oxygen; if the oxygen content is high enough, the refreshed air could be recycled through the fuel cells rather than exhausting it (and its residual CO2) to the atmosphere. Gas recycling would limit CO2 losses to the leakage from the system. Retention of gas for extended carbon capture appears feasible9.
  • Energy storage. If carbon can be recycled very efficiently in the algae farm system, it could bank liquid fuel (or dried algae prepared for carbonization) and function as a solar-electric plant with long-term energy storage.
  • Supply security. Stockpiles of charcoal would be a hedge against poor productivity later. Adding charcoal to the carbonizer and some oxygen and water to the carbonization gas would allow the carbonizer to run as a gasifier. With the substitution of carbon input, the electric generation and ethanol/biodiesel production systems could run at full capacity with less than the full feed of biomass. This guards against short-term supply crises due to droughts or grass fires.
  • Heat reuse. The outlet heat from the fuel cell would be in the neighborhood of 800°C. This could easily run a gas turbine of 25% efficiency, raising the electric efficiency to ~62%. The exhaust would still be hot enough to make high-pressure steam.
  • Integrated architecture. Algae farms might be light enough to be integrated into large, flat rooftops. If factory and commercial buildings could support the carbon recycling systems on-site, the waste heat and other byproducts of the carbonizer and fuel cell could be used for industrial process heat or space heat. This could make factories and malls "green" in a very literal way.

Other issues

This analysis is limited to the replacement of fuels for ground transportation and electric generation. I include no energy to replace heating fuel, industrial energy consumption or several other types of essentials; some of this demand might be handled with better architecture and cogeneration, but the details are beyond the scope of this analysis. Neither do I consider the wisdom of relying entirely on biomass-derived energy and liquids to replace liquid motor fuel and fossil fuel for electric generation. Reliance on a single source risks all end-uses if the supply is interrupted. This would probably be very unwise indeed, and it appears foolhardy not to add large amounts of e.g. wind generation in the mix. The combination of battery-electric vehicles, wind farms and easily-throttled fuel cells would certainly have a total effect greater than the sum of the parts.

Making it happen

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.

The rest of the program has more to do with economic policy and foreign policy than energy as such. These are contentious elements, and I'll reserve my opinions on them for another day.


Our current fossil-based energy system is problematic; perhaps fortunately for us, it is very inefficient and leaves a great deal of low-hanging fruit. Its inefficiency allows the complete replacement of the fuel used for transportation and electric generation by various direct and indirect biomass products. The cost savings could amount to the better part of a thousand dollars per person per year, and the environmental savings would be immense. Best of all, the public wouldn't have to endure any wrenching changes to make it happen.


[1] Efficiency figures from this table:
Copy of (back)

[2] The 379 ppm in the atmosphere is by volume. Out of ~5.3 quadrillion metric tons of atmosphere, about 3.1 trillion tons is carbon dioxide. (back)
[3] The general formula of cellulose is (C6H10O5)n, where n is 500 or greater. This comes out to about 44% carbon by weight. Lignin has a much greater fraction of carbon. This analysis assumes 45% carbon by weight, with the balance of the non-mineral content having the general formula of H2O. Assumed energy value is 18.4 GJ/metric ton or 15.8 million BTU/short ton. (adapted from (back)
[4] Terra preta is the invention of native South Americans who created it with slash-and-smolder agriculture; at least one company is trying to commercialize a process. Fully-converted biomass char is biologically inert and can last almost indefinitely in soil, while providing a reservoir for nutrients. (back)
[5] 140 billion gallons of gasoline @ 115,000 BTU/gallon = 16.1 quadrillion BTU; 20% of that is about 3.2 quads (20% may be an overestimate of what's actually delivered, but it's best to be slightly pessimistic). (back)
[6] 27 billion gallons of diesel (about 45% of total "distillate") @ 140,000 BTU/gallon = 3.78 quadrillion BTU; 40% of that is about 1.5 quads. (back)
[7] 1 quadrillion BTU = 292.9 billion kWh. (back)
[8] Cellulose is about 4/9 carbon by weight. If it is cracked to 30% solid carbon and the remainder as gas, roughly 40% of the total chemical energy of the cellulose comes off as gas (56% as carbon). Some of the evolved water could react with carbon to make more carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It looks to me that the energy loss in this process could be made very small if it's driven by external heat, such as the waste heat from a high-temperature fuel cell. (back)
[9] A 45%-efficient, 10 megawatt fuel cell system would consume about 22 MWth of carbonizer off-gas, and emit about 43 tons of carbon (160 tons CO2) per day. 160 tons of CO2 is about 76,000 cubic meters. If Greenfuel's process could produce algae sufficient to make 10,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, that's about 15.6 tons of carbon/acre/year or 0.0427 tons/acre/day. Capture of carbon at this rate would require about 1000 acres of algae farm, or ~400 hectares (4 million m2). If the algae farm was constructed as plastic greenhouses, they would only need to be about 19 centimeters tall to limit the CO2 concentration to 10%; a greenhouse system an average of 2 meters tall could hold roughly 10 days of carbon inventory at 10% concentration. (back)


I would like to thank Sandy Cormack for introducing me to the work of John Cooper, Professor Goose for the encouragement to write more for TOD, and the un-named reader who told me that this blogging would soon produce enough material for a book. This voluminous piece feels like it was one.

Bleg: The author has an odd combination of energy tunnel-vision, an analytical nature and the ability to think outside the box. He feels his talents are not fully utilized in his current line of work. If you know of any opportunities which match, please drop him an e-mail at the address listed in the sidebar of his blog.

Folks, consider this a reminder to positively rate these articles (using the icons under the tags in the story title) at reddit, digg, and if you are so inclined.  Also, don't forget to submit them to your favorite link farms, such as metafilter, stumbleupon, slashdot, fark, boingboing, furl, or any of the others.  

This article also illustrates some of the synergies between the environmental movement and the peak oil movement.  Please promote this article through the greensphere too.

These posts are a lot of work, and the authors appreciate your helping them get more readers for their work however you can.

In the reddit system you don't get a lot of blinkenlights and beeps to indicate what your rating was for an article.

Bottom line is, you have to click the little up-arrow, which changes to pink (hot) after you click it. If you click it again it will revert to grey and your positive rating is removed... (after reading the help page, duh, I find that articles I _thought_ I'd up-rated still had 0 points) So leave those little up-arrows in a pink state, please.

Slashdot rejected my submissions (and I thought I had a catchy writeup).
hey I tried too.  I put it through all of those I listed...  :(
FWIW, Slashdot rejects almost everything (including a lot of really good stuff). However, when they do accept something, the increase in traffic is enormous. I have even see a Wikipedia entry on the "Slashdot Effect."

My first post here. Sustainable Ballard is sponsoring the Elizabeth Kolbert event next week, here in Seattle. She is the author of the global warming book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. I will note this diary and The Oil Drum as we table at the event and talk with attendees.

I've lurked now for about a year and have learned an enormous amount. Thank you :-) I followed Jerome a Paris over from his wonderful energy diaries at Daily Kos.

In addition to Kolbert, the panelists include:

    * Timothy Egan, moderator, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism and author of five books, including The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, a finalist for the National Book Award.

    * K.C. Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, director of the Northwest Climate Connections network, and former energy policy director for the State of Washington.

    * Stephen Gardiner, University of Washington professor of philosophy, a specialist in ethics, environmental ethics, and political philosophy.

Dear EP - being an unpaid TOD slave who only gets 10 minutes off each day to read posts I've not had time to read your whole book yet - but it looks great stuff, well done.  I will read the whole thing some day soon. A couple of questions:

I'd always understood ethanol to be less energy dense than gasoline - and yet you show that it is in some way more efficient.  I guess my confusion lies somewhere around not understanding what a quad is.  And assuming ethanol engines are more efficient - why?

Also, the Keeling curve - with hypothesised melting of permafrost resulting in N hemisphere summer time release of CO2 I've been wondering if there is any eveidence for this showing up in Hawai?  You would expect to see the summer troughs getting shallower and a steepening of gradient - I think there are possible signs of this happening late 90s - I was wondering if anyone had a bang up to date chart?

Ethanol and methanol are more efficient than gasoline when used in a high compression ratio ICE.  Gasoline has problems with preignition in a high compression ratio engine, though there are technical fixes, like the MIT ethanol injection engine.  In a lower compression ratio engine, the alcohols can  tolerate much more intake air pressure than gasoline.  This means an alcohol-burning engine can crank up its turbo or super charger and get much more power than a similarly sized gasoline-burning engine.

A quad is just a unit of energy like joules or BTUs.

I believe the author is referring to a QUADrillion btu's.
Currently, there are 100 quads of energy used in the US per year, 94% of which is nonrenewable, according to the DOE. Only 1.7 quads is currently used by our agriculture system, however 10.25 quads are used by our food system. 8.2 quads are used for lighting.
Ev, TFO and Kalpa, - thanks for the explanations.  So if I understand things correctly here, there's a potential efficiency  gain from alcohol ICE that may offset some of the defficiency in primary energy density of alcohol.

WRT to quadrillions of BTU's I'm lost.  I've just been looking at gas production data for the UK expressed in MWh.  So I think the idea is to make data available to the public  but in such a way as the moron public don't undrerstand it.  I think on TOD we need to adopt a metric standard of Joules and multiples of 1000 there of. With a video showing the effect of buring a kJ (or drinking it as the case may be).

So what is a horrendous quadrillion?

I think you are mixing your units here (gee, that is probably the 104 time I have made that statement, being a former teaching assistant.) The issues here have to do with energy, and are not significantly affected by the energy density of the fuel.  Of course, there are exceptions, like with gaseous hydrogen, but having a twice-as-big fuel tank for alcohol means you lose about 15% of your trunk/boot space in a mid-sized car.

I totally agree with you about the mix of units that we use.  I always have to look up the difference between the UK and US billion or trillion, I don't even remember which one it is!  If we physicists and geochemists are scratching our heads about these spelled out units, then JQ Public has long since switched from counting quads to tossing back pints.  I would favor expotential notation, but would settle for consistent use of a few metric units like megajoules (about 0.28 kWh) or exajoules (1018 joules or 0.948 quad).  A quadrillion is 1015, lining up with the peta prefix for metric.

I think that video would be kinda uninspiring; I estimate that kilojoule of beer might fit in a thimble.

I always have to look up the difference between the UK and US billion or trillion, I don't even remember which one it is!

I can help you there! Since 1974, it has been standard practice in the UK to use 'American' billions, aka the 'short scale'. Wikipedia says that some folks may be confused by billion, but in 20 years I've never met any.

Having multiple units like is BTU and kWh is confusing, but they do have different applications, and sometimes the difference is important. Otherwise I agree SI units should be preferred.

1 quadrillion BTU (10^15 BTU) = 1.0544 exajoules = 292.9 billion kWH

1 BTU = 1054.4 joules
1 KWH = 3.6 MJ
1 calorie = 4.184 J

1 calorie = 4.184 J

For completeness it's worth noting that scientific calories are not the same as food calories. Food is assessed in kcal, so a pint of beer typically contains 150 calories, which is 150 kcal, or 627.6 kJ.

But don't go putting beer in your car ;)

EP and other posters, thanks for these invaluable conversion factors. I'm sending this off to the TOD Gods with a view to establishing a conversion factors page.

You don't happen to know how many TCF of gas in a MWh?

One Thousand cubic feet of US standard natural gas = .302 MWh

I will let you move the decimal point :-)


One April 1st I sent my clients in Iceland an answer to a question in acre-ft/day (perfectly good US reservior management #).  They were NOT amused (I was).

April 2 I sent them the same data in m3/sec.

I do dislike Gl.  Hard to visualize.


I'm late to the discussion, and I've scanned down and havent' seen any discussion about the primary reason why this concept is deeply flawed. Namely, that if you remove "residues" from the soils, soil depletion progresses much more rapidly.

For instance, "368,000,000 tons of forest products". That means all the slash left on the ground after clear cutting forests. If machines scrape that off, the land will erode far more quickly, clogging rivers and dams downstream, causing flooding, and preventing new forests from being planted.

Same with 48,800,000 tons of wheat straw, 202,000,000 tons of corn stover, etc.

If we have to go back to organic farming methods, we will have to increase the rate at which we return organic materials to the soils. Removing them depletes the soils, increases soil nutrient depletion, increases soil erosion, and is highly unsustainable.

You have put an enormous amount of effort into this post, but it's premise diametrically conflicts with the requirements of converting agriculture (and silvaculture) away from its unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels.


I live in Washington State. I've seen clear cuts. I've tried to tromp through them. Does ALL that slash have to be left in place to control erosion?

Same for all the others?

E-P's analysis substitutes out almost all of the coal burning. 100 million acres additional of biomass for energy production is the requirement but it doesn't have to be that way if we decide to be more aggressive with efficiency, other renewables like wind/solar or nuclear.

8.2 quads for lighting!

When I think of LED's and other alternatives to what we're doing now, I can just see those coal and natural gas plants shutting down!

Why do we have to wait for the Japanese and Europeans who seem more serious about this sort of thing to start the ball rolling on this?

LEDs aren't the panacea that most seem to think they are. I was turned on to this in a presentation for the Light Up The World Foundation (, an excellent charity. The moral of the story is that even the best LEDs don't compete with compact flourescents in a lumens/watt sense. This may change in the future. If you are restricted to a very low wattage application, LEDs win, but at about 8 watts, other options become more attractive. (LEDs do have the advantage of very long life and that they are virtually indestructible.)

I'm watching developments in the LED field closely because (and this is selfish compared to LUTW's aim) my current bike light system needs a 7 pound lead-acid battery to power the two halogen lights (20W and 35W). Once an LED system with similar output can be cobbled together for about $30, I'll trade in that battery for something less hefty.

The smallest CFLs (I have seen 3 watt in catalogs, but only bought 5 watt CFLs) are more efficient than the comparable LEDs commercially available ( ) unless 1) a narrow beam is needed or 2) colored light is needed or ) low light levels are needed (night lights are great LED application).  I use 1.3 watt outdoor light LED over door.

Best Hopes for efficiency,


The 3 watt Luxeon Red, Amber and White LEDs carried by SuperBrightLEDs, used in combination, should be good.

I use them on by car, and they are brighter than the 21 watt bulbs they replaceed for backup, etc. lights.

Check lumens in technical data.

Best hopes for easier pedaling.

One flashing red & one steady red should let those behind know that you are there.  Bike shop may have even better solution.

LEDs in my old diesel reduce parasitic drag by the alternator (down about 70 watts so far), lengthen alternator & battery life and do not burn out.

best Hopes,


Alan, thanks for the suggestions. I'm definitely looking at a signal and brake light system because I really don't like taking my hands off the bars when I'm traveling on ice or loosely packed snow.
Re: Up to date Keeling curve (atmospheric CO2 concentration):
Try this link
Thanks.  It looks like the gradient steepened from the late 90s?
I'll defer to Robert on the technical questions, but four points:

(1)  To paraphrase Rumsfeld, we go into a Post-Peak Oil world not with the auto fleet that we would like to have, but with the auto fleet that we actually have, i.e., the cold, hard reality is that it will take a very long time to change the US auto fleet over to more efficient designs, while countries like China are building millions of new cars based on current designs.

(2)  Having said that, I agree that we should remove incentives for alternative energy sources and tax fossil fuel energy consumption, offset by reducing or eliminating the Payroll Tax.

(3)  I would advocate Alan Drake's Electrification of Transportation proposals.  

(4) What about wind and nuclear?

I'd add (5)  These mini coking ovens aren't going to be very popular anywhere.
In order:
  1. The usage pattern of that fleet can change very rapidly, though.  Lots of beater economy cars got driven instead of SUV's right after Katrina.  Also, new vehicles get used more than old ones.

  2. Agreed.

  3. This is an "electrification of transportation" proposal, but it also addresses energy supply in ways Alan never contemplated.

  4. Regarding wind and nuclear, please see the "Other issues" section.  Reliance on just one energy source would be foolhardy — a point I've made numerous times in discussions about ethanol (as a candidate for sole replacement for gasoline).

  5. These "mini coking ovens" will be far more popular than ethanol plants, and I'll tell you why:
    • They will be processing a feedstock with no heavy metals and next to zero sulfur.
    • The temperature is high enough to break down most complex molecules.
    • Their output is not released to the atmosphere, it is fed straight to an SOFC where it is oxidized to carbon dioxide and water.
    • After that, the effluent would be fed through algae farms instead of into the air.
    I would bet money that the public prefers them to hog farms.

The China Factor
(The Energy Bulletin has an article about the Chinese proceeding with CTL plans.)

TOM WATKINS: Get ready for China

November 28, 2006

China is on a roll, and its homegrown brands will soon be rolling our way. Michigan needs to be prepared.

The recent Beijing auto show opened with an unprecedented number of Chinese makes and models. This is an amazing accomplishment when you consider private ownership of cars was not even permitted until the 1990s. When I first traveled to China in 1989, the dominant means of transportation for the 1.3 billion people was the "Flying Pigeon" bicycle.

Today, China is the world's third largest auto market. The production and sales of automobiles in China are expected to surpass 7 million units this year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufactures. That would more than triple the number produced as recently as 2003.

  • By 2020, there are expected to be seven times more cars on China's roads than in 2004.

  • General Motors Corp. expects the Chinese automobile market to be bigger than the U.S. market in 10 years, and some expect that to happen even sooner.

  • The Chinese middle class, virtually nonexistent a quarter of a century ago, now tops 100 million people and is growing.
Does GM really expect to be around ten years from now? I call that some big ego...
This is an "electrification of transportation" proposal, but it also addresses energy supply in ways Alan never contemplated

And what do you know of my contemplations ?  :-)

Wide ranging indeed they are.

But I apply fairly strict limits to the "Technology Fairy", knowing the many slips and turns that new technologies undergo as they grow and mature.  Once on a steady curve is established (see Moore's Law for computers) I am willing to project out a FEW years into the future for more detailed improvements.

My model for a North American non-GHG grid

---------------by Energy---TWh----Load factor--Nameplate   
Wind Turbine.......52.0%...2,028      30.0%     775 GW
Hydroelectric.......20.0%.....780      44.5%    200 GW
Pumped Store In..-10.0%....(390)     25.0%      NA   
Pumped Store Out...8.0%.....312      20.0%     1,560 GW
Nuclear Power......23.0%.....897      90.0%       115 GW
Solar PhotoVoltaic..5.0%.....195      13.5%     165 GW
Solar Thermal......3.0%.....117      27.0%        50 GW
Geothermal..........0.5%......20      30.0%       7.5 GW
Biomass...............0.5%......20      40.0%       5.6 GW
Fossil Fuel Backup ...................0.0%.......100 GW
Interruptiable Power (Demand reduced).................25 GW
MultiYear storage..-2.0%....(78)           NA   

             100.0%      3,900 TWh

To the extent possible, charcoal would be stockpiled at the 100 GW of standby fossil fuel plants (the coal & coke ones) for use in "unusual years".  When the charcoal ran out, coal would be used in drought, extreme heat wave/cold , etc. years.           

Looks like I found about 2 orders of magnitude more biomass energy than you did. ;-)
No, I found better economics and EROEI sources of electricity than you did :-)

I did not claim than any one source was maxed out except hydro and perhaps geothermal.  More wind, solar, biomass are available.  Just which source has the best economics.

Best Hopes,


As always, the big numbers are ones that disproportinately count.

Much of the impressive nature of this analysis hinges on the huge contribution from "biomass" crops. Miscanthus at 10 tons to the acre.

From a practical perspective

  1. "You get what you pay for". This yeild level will be predicated on lots of fertiliser, non-limiting soils (in drainage and 'base' fertility terms). I doubt the proposed crop yeild could be 'typical'.

  2. The miscanthus once harvested will need to be at the 'hay' stage (i.e. pretty much cellulose) and dry, otherwise huge stacks will self-combust if immature and/or wet.

  3. Coking of vast tonnages of miscanthus is unlikely to yeild charcoal, due to the fine nature of the grass (relatively)

  4. On a sheer volume basis, huge shed storage (to prevent wetting of the hay) is needed

The forestry 'slash' is a 'for free'. Anything left on the ground is 'slow burnt' by microbes anyway. And underground parts (roots) remain, a small portion of which will ultimately form stable (sequestered carbon) 'humus '.The coked wood (as charcoal) is likely to remain sequestered as you suggest. The C component is
  1. usefully taken from the air - helping save our arse
  2. H from water is 'free'

But there will need to be some inputs. Some re-fertilisation will be needed, but there are large amounts of human excrement looking for a home (another source of biomass?!)

Trees intended for timber tend to be side pruned on maybe 5 year cycles (if pruned at all, and only in the most suitable climates), and the amount of slash may not justify collection.
Felling might in best circumstances be 30 years, otherwise maybe 60 to 100 years.

This means, unlike corn, shifting harvest areas over considerable distances and times. Unlike corn, extraction of slash is awkward (unless chipped on site) and wet wood is heavy. The EROI is alterred by 'patchy' distance, unlike your corn stover example. There is no a priori reason why the wood can't be left to dry, but in softwoods, you have not much more than a year before fungi start consuming the sugars in the wood for you. There is also the risk of fire in the dry slash.

So slash retrieval is probably 'doable' as a mobile plant with exceptional spark arrest in chimneys.

Corn is interesting.

The stalks are easily retrievable as part of the harvest process. Left to dry in the field, they lose a lot of weight (like hay) but generally the ears (for industrial maize, anyway) are not damaged by being left standing.

Charred corn stalks might leave coke, rather than ash. The ash + coke (?'cash') might be easily applied to the field at the time of sowing (in no till with subsoil seed placement). Two jobs done for the same machine run.

Again, corn is an annual harvest. Much storage is required. Again, it must be under cover, and with a volume of cover that goes from season to season (why? - actually, there is not a prerequiste - idle plant is idle plant -  who cares as long as there is an annual return)

Hope this adds to the considerations of a very interesting prospect, if not at the level initially proposed.



Alan Drake's Proposal:

Note that this was built with the technology that we had over 100 years ago.

Alan has pointed out that the Swiss, using turn of the century technology, reduced their oil consumption in the Second World War to about 0.25% of what each American now uses.  In other words, an average American now uses about 400 times as much oil as an average Swiss citizen used in the Second World War.

How about if we just burned the biofuel to power generators running electric trolley car systems, along with wind and nuclear power?  And if we lived like many Europeans, we wouldn't need nearly as many cars, no matter how efficient the cars are.

You are not going to get the public to vote for a pol who promises nothing but electric trolleys for everyone.  In traffic-choked cities, they'll be popular; in suburbia, they're a non-starter.  If you think of the kind of upheaval which would be required to get people to abandon suburbia, you know you really don't want to go there.
If you think of the kind of upheaval which would be required to get people to abandon suburbia, you know you really don't want to go there.

Whether we want to go there or not, IMO our fate is largely sealed.  I think that large portions of suburbia will probably be abandoned, or depending on local job markets, converted to multi-family housing.

In addition to the out of control growth in China (see above), we are seeing a positive feedback loop in many oil exporting countries, e.g., Russian car sales are up more than 11% year over year.  A GM exec said the only limitation on car sales to the Middle East was shipping capacity.

makes me wonder how hard it is to get autos into an oil tankers hold ; )
The bottom line is that there is probably no realistic chance of changes in policy until it is clear that we are in the mother of all energy crises--especially given the crap being spread around by Yergin, et al.  I think that we are in the early stages of that energy crisis--especially the net oil export crisis.  

This is a simple graphical example of the Export Land model that Khebab did for me:

Note that a 5% decline rate in production and a 2.5% increase in consumption resulted in a 50% drop in oil exports in 4.5 years.

The problem is that any low density system is inherently less efficient that high density system.  I think that we are basically looking at a triage operation, with large parts of the 'burbs basically being abandoned.

Hi WT/Jeffrey,

 Last comment first: I like the idea of using basic principles, such as "any low density system" to get a handle on the situation.  FWIW:  I don't know how to say this, but I wonder what the "system" outputs are that we can apply methods of analysis (like "efficiency") the sense that...take recent news, for example. (just to illustrate)(though we could also take an opposite example.)
NYPD Shoot Dead Unarmed Man Hours Before His Wedding.  Does my point make sense?  Like...efficient for what ends? There are so many variables.

 re: Change in policy.  
 Do you have a picture or list of what your ideal energy policy would be?  (I don't mean to be asking twice - just want to get a feel for what you and others think can work or...)what you would want to do immediately - given, say, access to funds or "political will" -?

Whether we want to go there or not, IMO our fate is largely sealed.  I think that large portions of suburbia will probably be abandoned, or depending on local job markets, converted to multi-family housing.

You and Jim Kunstler have said that before. What I still don't grasp is the scenario that gets us from where we are to presumably many, many tens of millions abandoning suburbs. (Multigenerational housing, yes, possibly, over time.) People don't just disappear.

Now, Dmitri Orlov, who seems as doomy as anybody, fantasizes about abandoned suburbs here, but he immediately goes on to observe that

Post-collapse Russia's housing stock stayed largely intact, but an orgy of asset stripping of a different kind took place: not just left-over inventory, but entire factories were stripped down and exported...

The trouble with the housing story is that even if things become so bad that people who are not upside-down on their houses - which is still most of them and will be nearly all of them if hyperinflation sets in - do feel inclined to walk away from their only worldly investment and all the infrastructure that goes with, how in the world will they be able to afford to do so? Where could they go? The cities are already overcrowded, creaking, and groaning, and if things become that bad, there simply will be no money to improve them. Would the newcomers' life-expectancy be even five years in the totally violent, crime-ridden, and unlivable urban environment in any such scenario? And who would be willing - or even able - to "provide jobs" in said city cores?

Wouldn't whatever "jobs" there were move outward, since the supporting infrastructure would be instantly stolen or destroyed if it remained the city core? So wouldn't people do their utmost to muddle through more-or-less where they are or someplace like it, rather than jump from the frying pan into the deadly maelstrom?

Pauls said;

Now, Dmitri Orlov, who seems as doomy as anybody, fantasizes about abandoned suburbs here, but he immediately goes on to observe that

Post-collapse Russia's housing stock stayed largely intact, but an orgy of asset stripping of a different kind took place: not just left-over inventory, but entire factories were stripped down and exported...

As crazy as any scenario is that you can come up with, It'll likely be different.   BUT IT WILL Come.   I had a long talk with my father in law over Tday holiday about what the day to day life in the depression was like.  Very interesting what people will and won't do if there is no other choice.  See the movie Cinderella Man for it's depiction of the depression.

TWO things of note in the Orlov piece on Russia.

  1. The housing was left in tack because the people didn't OWN their property.  The state owned the apartments in most of his examples.  After the collapse, nobody came to collect rent anymore so to speak.  The reason they were gutted and stripped for the same reason,  the people didn't OWN the property.

  2.  BEFORE the collapse,  the state's store(Food) didn't work.  Prices were high and quality lousy.  SO people ALL had gardens to support their produce and veg. needs.  The non-functioning state stores conditioned them to fend for them selves for the last 50 years.

After the collapse,  food stayed the same.


  1. We/Banks own our homes,  they WILL collect.
  2. Our food distribution system is a marvel.  SO MUCH so that EVERYONE is CONDITIONED NOT to grow their own vegs.  (!)

Our previous strengths,  will hurt us in some examples like the food example.

As Firesign Theater used to say,
"In the next world, you're on your own"

Good Luck, Fare thee well


Hmmm...OK, let's go back to the original scenario, which is probably too far beyond even the Great Depression to extrapolate properly, so we can have fun speculating. We run a bank. Now, what, exactly do we do with all that repossessed but presumably worse-than-useless suburban property? We would repossess property in order to sell it, not to dump still more money down a gravity well, yes? So if the property is worse than worthless, we decline to touch it, don't we?

So if we're repossessing, we must think there is (or will be) a buyer. Who? Not a farmer - wouldn't the cost of demolition and restoration far exceed the value as farmland under those conditions? Somebody buying it for use as a house or a business place, then? But in that case it's not really abandoned after all. Or else we're not repossessing, and the original occupants do their utmost to muddle along since there's noplace else to go.

You are talking like the decisions will be made by people.  Corp. Policy will do the thinking.  That who will own the securitized asset, not a bank in many cases.

Look at the bankruptcy law just passed.  

The first to go under WILL be thrown out.  Down the line when millions are in that boat, the Fed will take over the underwater loans and have a 50yr/lifetime mortgages.  

Our version of Properties owned by the state so to speak.

Woody Guthrie had a song in the first depression going..

... Thru this life you'll ramble you'll meet some funny men,  

Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.

Thru this life you'll ramble, thru this life you'll roam, but you will never see an outlaw take a family from their home....

Places will be abandoned.  After a whole housing project(or a certain percentage) go vacant, They will be stripped in one night(or three) by very specialized crews.  (crews employing previous owners in some cases)

It will get crazy.

Pure spontanious human creativity to over come an IMMEDIATE problem.  (Not eating tonight).

The first to go under WILL be thrown out. Down the line when millions are in that boat, the Fed will take over the underwater loans and have a 50yr/lifetime mortgages.

Exactly. Or something along those lines anyway. And that, as I originally speculated, leaves us without wholesale abandonment of the suburbs. If, as, and when foreclosure comes to be widely seen as more than a threat to "somebody else", good old Uncle will come in with a way to finesse/repudiate the vast bulk of the debt at the general expense of everyone. Think "savings and loan bailout". (And think "severe moral hazard" too, but that's for another day.) So if it goes that way, the game to play is to do one's best to get the free ride (relative to others) from the bailout by doing everything possible to avoid being "the first to go under".

Why would suburbia be abandoned if there is heat, lighting and transport?  Go back to the story and see if there isn't enough energy to do that.  Not that the poorly-constructed McMansions won't be redone in passive-solar architecture when their time comes to be rebuilt....

Of course, biofuels from vascular plants are just the first stage.  There are much more efficient energy converters out there, such as PV cells.  Once those get a bit cheaper, suburbia's advantage in open space will translate to more useful energy per capita.

Remember, we are swimming in energy.  We just have to cast finer nets to catch what we want.

Excellent post (or book) EP.

I agree that suburbia isn't doomed per se - it just needs to be altered to use all that valuable space better - which means redesigning / remodelling the buildings to be more energy efficient and covering them in solar panels and micro wind turbines. Freestanding houses have plenty of energy capturing potential if people can be bothered harvesting what comes to them for free.

Maybe some small scale agriculture of one sort or another in the space which isn't covered in buildings would be handy too.

after I first opened EP's post, my computer table actually buckled under the weight of the words contained in my monitor.  

Nothing a few nails won't put back together...

I wasn't trying to hurt your table, honest.  Would a six-pack make things right again?

Now, as for trying to make minds groan and buckle under the implications, I plead guilty.

amen brother.
The topsoil was generally scrapped off and hauled away in Suburbia.  Lots of construction debris can often be found in the top foot.  Very poor farmland on average.


People also tend to forget about sunshine when they speak of home suburban gardens.  Large houses cast a great deal of shade, as well as the trees planted around them.  Most every garden crop would like full sun, and produce will be much greater if available.  I garden as best I can in a canyon of very tall trees and a 2 story house in one of the only sunny spots in my yard.  I compost religiously, use raised beds, and pamper the plants.  My produce is good, but would be much greater if I had full sun.
Why would suburbia be abandoned if there is heat, lighting and transport?  Go back to the story and see if there isn't enough energy to do that.  Not that the poorly-constructed McMansions won't be redone in passive-solar architecture when their time comes to be rebuilt....

My point is that, IMO, the energy crisis--especially the oil export crisis--is here today, but real policy changes won't be made until the crisis is much worse.  I think that even I have been underestimating how fast oil exports are going to drop and how fast the desire to consume exports is increasing.

Basically, your argument comes down to this--we can maintain suburbia, but we will power it with different forms of energy.  I disagree.

I think that the crisis is going to hit so fast and so hard that the only real option left to left to us is a triage operation of sorts, with more and more people crowding into smaller areas.  Obviously, as I noted, there will be some exceptions, but I think that suburban abandonment will be the rule, rather than the exception.

Suburbia should be either abandoned (most ?) or rebuilt around walkable communities close to Urban Rail.

The energy required to service Suburbia is likely to be unavailable.

Your "fine net" to capture more energy requires too much work (read $$) to create the large amounts needed to support Suburbia,  most people will not be able to afford that much effort from their fellow man.  And once a critical mass of boarded homes is reached, no one that has a choice wants to live there.  Public services decline.

Again, I need time for a proper critique.


Hi WT/Jeffrey,

 I always appreciate your comments. I wonder if you could - (now or sometime...)(if you have not already?)- explain a little more about (2)....along the lines of:

  1. Do you believe all AE incentives should be removed - or just some?  
  2. How about conservation incentives?  
  3. Do you see a real difference between tax on production and tax on consumption?
  4. If so, what - could you explain where the difference lies?  
  5. Thus, what is the advantage of consumption tax?
  6. Do you support the "Oil Depletion Protocol" and do you see a consumption tax as a means of implementing it?  (Or, do you see... how do you see the ODP being practically implemented?)
  7.  How do you envision the consumption tax resulting in more investments being made toward AE that is "sustainable" (or "more sustainable")?
  8. And, if I'm not getting too far off topic here, do you think a tax such as you describe is fair and/or could work without also removing incentives in the form of subsidies - in general, say for energy producers, oil-based ag, etc. (which probably gets into a whole other subject)?
Re:  Aniya

I briefly looked the Depletion Protocol, but I think the first step is to tax energy consumption.

The problem with taxing production is that a lot of our energy,especialy oil, is imported.  

IMO, taxing fossil fuel consumption (I would probably add nuclear to the list), offset by cuts to the Payroll Tax makes enormous sense.  

From there, I think that we should let market forces and engineers come up with the best alternative forms of energy.

>The problem with taxing production is that a lot of our energy,especialy oil, is imported.  

And it causes inflation, which can lead offset consumption reductions.

>IMO, taxing fossil fuel consumption (I would probably add nuclear to the list), offset by cuts to the Payroll Tax makes enormous sense.  

Payroll taxes are required to fund the huge entitlement programs. You would need to cut them, but it would be political suicide. Eventually entitlements will be cut, but not until well after the crisis begins.

The only real solution is to raise interest rates which will kill economic growth and cut consumption. Plus it's the only method that will cut consumption outside of the US. Of course this is also very unpopular since just about every American has debt.

Hi Tech,

 Thanks. A couple of qs

-- Could you please explain (sorry!) how inflation leads offset of consumption reductions - (?)  (I'm just not reading this well, - thanks.)  

---I'm wondering: What is your ideal energy policy?  Say you have the votes, the money or whatever you feel it would take. (What would it take?)

 In other words, does a raise in interest rates do it?  That's it?  Are there any downsides and are they "dealable with", so to speak?  What do all the debt-laden folks do?  Do you think any other policies or actions are necessary?

This is the kind of thinking that points the way to a future with hope. This is good work which needs to be shared not just with those who read TOD, but those in congress which will making the key decisions for the future.  Maybe there are decision makers who read TOD; I don't know.

In any event, E-P, you and people like you need to take your message to the political arena. Perhaps you already have or plan to do just that.  

As most readers probably know by now, Barbara Boxer will be conducting hearings on global warming when the next congress convenes. People like E-P, Robert Rapier and others should see if there is a way they could testify.  If there are people reading this on TOD, and they could pull some strings or suggest how this might be done, so much the better.

I read TOD not just for the entertainment value (although it is entertaining) but so I can take away some useful information that can be used elsewhere to influence the public at large and politicians in particular.   It is all very frustrating, of course, because there are so many voices competing for attention and influence.  In any event, I would encourage others to keep on pushing.

One concern I have, however, with respect to PHEVs or any other approach that is counting on more efficient of fuel shifting vehicles.  New vehicles represent about 3% of all registered vehicles in the U.S.  Accordingly, it will take decades to have much of an impact on vehicle related fuel consumption. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be pursued, but it does mean that something else needs to be done to have even a medium term significant impact.  Frankly, I don't know what these medium terms approaches would be but think that people like E-P should think about that.

I do have one idea, though, that might speed up the decrease in average automotive related fuel consumption. While we should push to rapidly replace the existing fleet with PHEVs and much more efficient vehicles, we should encourage the use of flex cars.   If we made a massive transition to the use of flex cars, most of the existing population could be driving cars with low fuel consumption as they would be sharing those new vehicles which are brought into the fleet. This cold be true nothwithstanding the existence of a very inefficient legacy fleet.  A person could own an SUV, for example, but drive a PHEV Prius or better for most of his/her daily needs.  The effective replacement of the existing fleet would be determined by the average number of users per flex fuel vehicle.  Since each vehicle would be used more intensively than the typical user owned vehicle, the turnover of vehicles would also be increased, thus speeding up the innovation process.

E-P.  With regard to your recommendation on future coal fired plants, when do you think this should/could go into effect and under what conditions?

For daily commute, a shared car won't help much, unless the multiple users actually ride it simultaneously (car-pooling).  Anyway the ultimate flex-car for everyday commuting is a good local public transit system.  Perhaps shared ownership (not really different from rental) is the solution for the less-frequent longer trips.
E-P, you and people like you need to take your message to the political arena.

I am not a pol, but I am two arms' lengths away from quite a few.  This essay was put in front of a bunch of activists two days ago.  They are the slogan specialists; we'll see if they can get traction for the proposals.  It sure does make "20% by 2020" look timid, doesn't it?
New vehicles represent about 3% of all registered vehicles in the U.S.  Accordingly, it will take decades to have much of an impact on vehicle related fuel consumption.
Average age of passenger cars in the USA is only 8.5 years; we replace more like 6%/year, and new vehicles probably account for much more than that fraction of total mileage.  If you assume 80% PHEV's and 80% fuel-consumption savings, motor fuel consumption could fall at a rate of more than 6% per year for a while.  Ramping up to that... there's the rub.

I like the idea of flex cars, but I'm not sure how fast they could penetrate.  How about the flex SUV for the one time a month you need to move lots of people or stuff?

As for what else we could do, how about better managment of traffic?  Just having signs which tell you how fast to go to arrive when the next light turns green (and cops who'll ticket people who race) would have a huge influence.

With regard to your recommendation on future coal fired plants, when do you think this should/could go into effect and under what conditions?
I think we should start talking up a serious carbon tax, and let the shareholders of e.g. TXU do the rest.  No sane company will make a major investment that will be a money-loser in just a few years.  Then the US, Japan and EU have to lean on China and India to do the same.
More cops [to address racing] means more government, means higher taxes, etc..  The proper method of preventing speeding
is to force lower power engines on the public.  This will also
reduce fuel usage [and electricity], and reduce emissions.  Why does no one ever look at this simple option?
The proper method of preventing speeding is to force lower power engines on the public.
Only three problems with that.
  1. People can speed just fine with economy cars.
  2. Lower-power engines have to wait for replacement of the current fleet, same as PHEV's.
  3. If you think this proposal will have heavy opposition, just TRY forcing the public to drive vehicles which perform like dogs!

In contrast, getting traffic to flow more smoothly is not only more efficient, it is more pleasant and probably faster.  If you want to do social engineering, giving people something they want is a lot more likely to get you there.
In contrast, getting traffic to flow more smoothly is not only more efficient, it is more pleasant and probably faster

More pleasant for who ?  Not predestrians, not bicyclists IMHO.  The two BEST modes for post-Peak Oil.

Easier motoring = More motoring.  Faster motoring = more motoring.  Neither a good thinf.  A truth evolved from decades of Urban Studies.

"Traffic calming" is now widely seen as a good thing for Urban areas.  Make cars go slower (stick speed bumps in the middle of roads is common strategy), make driving more difficult and the Urban area blossoms.

Magazine Street in New Orleans is 5 miles of small shops going through walkable neighborhoods, a very pleasant place to walk, shop and live.  And a hell to drive (10-15 mph max on narrow 2 lane street and difficult to park.

Your ideal seems to be to support Suburbia.  Mine is not.  I want time to properly read and digest your article before much more comment though.

Best Hopes,


Oh, puh-leeze. What are we, The Marching Morons? The most common U.S. speed limit on residential side streets is 25mph (40kph), and 20mph zones can be found. But the U.S. is not Holland, Luxembourg, or Monaco. Do you seriously expect voters to drive the intercity distances in this enormous country at 20 or 25mph, i.e. somewhat fast bicycle speed, or would you plan to install yourself as dictator? And if the car is so underpowered that it will only go 25mph - presumably on level terrain - what use will it be in hilly or mountainous areas?
I just don't see an immediate dire need for new auto technology, at least for the next 5 years or so. There would be immense savings on gasoline consumption with these steps that can be done now with currently available, in the showroom auto technology:
  1. cutting out non essential driving. Already happening to some degree.
  2. carpooling
  3. trading early for the next more efficient model. Yes, there will be lots of SUVs for sale at give-away prices and those with heavy payments on them will suffer. I remember the 70s after the embargo when living in a rural southern US area. There were rednecky farmer types who I remembered swearing up and down that they wouldn't be caught dead driving a VW. They were driving VWs.
One of my vehicles is a Nissan 4x4 that gets 22mpg. Not so hot, but it would look awfully good to a contractor who was eager to get rid of his Super-Magnum V10 at 12mpg. He would have to tighten up a lot, but could still run his business. I'll bet over a period of 3 years the average fleet mileage could rise by 20%-30% by trades to smaller more efficient cars.

Once the peak is clearly passed, this trend will pick up. People are still relatively clueless, but I believe are capable of making radical changes when the handwriting on the wall goes from 10 pt Arial to 18 pt Braggadocio Bold Underlined.

ET, I'll say this:  if we start getting PHEV's out there we can always upgrade their batteries and such, but a pure ICEV is going to be stuck as one until the day it's junked.  We need to start this conversion as soon as we can, because there's no point in having electricity to take our vehicles off petroleum if there are no vehicles which can use the electricity.
I agree. My main point is that, for short-term mitigation, the existing production model autos will suffice. We don't need PHEV's to reduce gasoline consumption 20%-30%. My own bias is toward minimizing the use of personal autos altogether. I hear people whining that 'people will never put up with <fill in the blank> in terms of losing their precious autos. When people have little or no choice, they will ride the tram or pack 4 in a car rather than starve. IMO the auto is in and of itself a huge socio-economic problem.

I suspect that higher-tech cars will be much more expensive and this will help 'solve' the problem by default of most not being able to afford the new technology.

I'll say this:  if we start getting PHEV's out there

And in today's news...

Not only that, but GM is touting PHEV's now.
I discount touts from GM.  PR BS most of the time.  "Think Green, Go Yellow"

They DID build the EV-1.  See "Who killed the Electric Car"


"Average age of passenger cars in the USA is only 8.5 years"

Wouldn't the more relevant statistic be the average age that an auto is retired.  As for your statement that we replace 6 percent per year, how did you determine that.  References, please.

100%/17 = 5.88%
A magnum opus and the first detailed proposal I've ever seen for switching to an electrically powered economy. A few observations, but first a song.
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You have focused on the positive, de-emphasized the negative. Mister In-Between says that

  • if we're going to invest in complexity to provide sufficient energy to keep this mess we call civilization going, we should surely take the path you describe rather than the surefire loser we're on now which invests in 1) more fossil fuels and derives 2) greater CO2 emissions. However, greater simplicity in living is always a better option than the socially complex status quo, which inevitably yields diminishing returns over time.

  • you have minimized the complexity of switching over to the future you envision. I'm talking about distribution networks & other assorted infrastructure that maintains the power grid. By talking about how it affects the end-users of the energy system, you have not addressed the big issues of timely dispatch & delivery of that energy from the source. Well, not much, anyway.

  • the political resistance that would meet your proposals literally can not be underestimated. You have just eliminated almost every energy vested interest we have and switched the power over to the farmers -- which is mostly Big Agriculture.

  • these batteries sound like some kind of technological free lunch but I will leave others who have more knowledge to debate those points.
With these caveats out of the way, I'm all for it, let's start working on it today!  

I have a small (even trivial) point relative to the huge amount of effort put into this essay. You cite a price of $85 per ton as a valuation of CO2, equivalent to $93 per metric tonne, or approx €71 per metric tonne.

CO2 emissions trade in Europe at a value of €18 per metric tonne (equivalent to $21.50/ton) and form a valuable proxy as a CO2 price for carbon sequestration (or similar) schemes globally, as European companies are allowed to invest in non-EU schemes to meet their emissions reduction targets.

Your CO2 price therefore appears to be "out" by a factor of four. How would this impact the economics?

First, a fantastic essay!  Probably the best effort I've seen.  

But, I too, have an issue on sesquestration payments. If farmers are going to be paid for this, then I as a land owner with thousands of trees want to be paid too. This isn't a trival issue to me and will not be for other similar land owners.  Besides my 57 acres, I can look out my window and see at least another 250,000 acres of forest - all of which is privately owned.  We are capturing carbon the same as farmers and deserve similar payments.  In fact, I would say more since we aren't using additional carbon to harvest our trees.  Such payments would significantly reduce the funds available to farmers and change their economics.

Another issue is that much of the grain land is irrigated from depleting aquafirs.  Any crop yields should be based on dryland farming not current practices.

Lastly, you have not included the energy cost to collect the biomass and transport it to where it is used.  My guess is that this would not be an insignificant number.


Recent research says that forests don't sequester any CO2. If you chose to pyrolyze a certain percentage of your 57 acres of trees each year then I would support you in geeting the carbon credit payments.  Trees converted to lumber should get a reduced payoff since so small a percentage of lumber survives more than a century in homes and furniture.
The only thing I've read about forest sequestration of carbon is that they don't sequester additional carbon due to high CO2 levels.  How about a link.

They fact that the trees grow in size indicates they are sequestering carbon.  If I and other tree owners are sequestering carbon, we should be paid for it whether we log the trees or not.  I fact, I believe we should be paid more since no additional energy is needed for sesquestration compared to a farmer who must plow down and/or harvest a crop.


When the tree dies and rots the carbon goes back into the atmosphere.  That's not sequesteration, only temporarily.  Even lumber in buildings eventually rots, although that's delayed by some extra decades.
Carbon captured in a tree is captured for the life of the tree.  (Siberian Larch in Iceland 90 years, Douglas Fir in Canada for about as long (unsure of commerical cycle).  Pulpwood pine in Southern US states 20 to 25 year cycle.

Half of the carbon originally captured can go into lumber for centuries, not decades, common for good quality construction (absent house fires).  I live in an 1890 building, accross the street 1840s & 1850s.  So substantial long time carbon capture can occur via trees.

Best Hopes for Carbon Capture via trees.


Isn't this kind of silly?  Using housing as equivalent ot carbon sequestration seems counter productive - 'build more houses' means more sprawl and less land for growing trees.
its also an issue of wide boundaries. How much carbon are you releasing with all the other things that go into the house construction and maintenance?
If the "houses" are 3 & 4 story structures within walking distance of a rail stop (i.e. TOD, Transit Orientated development) with German standards of insulation (wall min R-39, etc.) and built to last (with fewer sq ft/person), they are sustainable.  Quite a good investment for society IMO.

Also, building in TOD tends to use less energy (less distance for labor % supplies)

We are NOT going to completely stop building.  Even during the Great Depression, new homes were built.

Best Hopes,


How much of the original wood built into those 19th century house has been chewed by termites which burp up a lot of methane and CO2. Even up in Michigan I faced a perennial battle of the bugs every spring causing me to put new wood into my 1880 home. I here the termite problem down south is much worse.
>They fact that the trees grow in size indicates they are sequestering carbon.  If I and other tree owners are sequestering carbon, we should be paid for it whether we log the trees or not.  I fact, I believe we should be paid more since no additional energy is needed for sesquestration compared to a farmer who must plow down and/or harvest a crop.

How much of the carbon is pulled from the air and how much from the soil? Wood also contains significant amounts of hydrogen too which makes up some of the tress mass.

My thinking is that the reason why high carbon soils work so well is because the plants are either directly or indirectly pulling the carbon from the soil. A lot of trees lose their leaves during the winter months which decay and release CO2 back into the atmosphere.

Ultimately, I believe biofuels are doomed, because of soil-carbon processes that probably are not understood very well.

In the end all of this discussion is very likely just a mental excercise since its highly unlikely that sound policies will ever be put in place. The population is simply saturated in dis-information that we'll go on trying useless ideas and methods for decades that only hasten our demise. Humans rarely make sound, long term decisions during crisis. I don't see how this crisis will be any different.

Off the top of my head the roots are responsible for water and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and other trace elements. The leaves are responsible for everything else. The beauty of photosynthesis is that it cracks water for the hydrogen and CO2 for the carbon.

I understand scientists are trying to understand, mimic and surpass the photosynthetic process. One day we may see a super solar cell from this.

Chew on the following equation while you wait for a real biochemist to come along:

n CO2 + 2n H2O + ATP + NADPH → (CH2O)n + n H2O + n O2,

Where n is defined according to the structure of the resulting carbohydrate.

>Off the top of my head the roots are responsible for water and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and other trace elements. The leaves are responsible for everything else. The beauty of photosynthesis is that it cracks water for the hydrogen and CO2 for the carbon.

This was the general theory, but recent research points that this may not be correct. For instance where does the CO2 originate from, the atmosphere or from the soil?
Natural soil emits large amounts of CO2 as microbes process the carbon in the soil. Trees and other plants deposit carbon into the soil from their decaying matter while microbes convert it back into CO2, creating a balance that is slightly better in capturing carbon.

If we start harvesting wood and other plants how quickly will they grow and will the amount of atmosphere CO2 rise or fall with a biofuel cycle? Everyone ASSUMES that using biofuels will reduce or at least balance carbon emissions, but to my knowledge very little work has been done to include how the soil would interact in such a cycle. It seems likely the microbes would continue to break down carbon in the soil at the same time humans harvest and convert biomass into CO2 for energy. The end result would likely be higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Eventually carbon levels in the soil would drop affecting the soils ability to maintain water and nutrients required to grow well.

Iceland has found that the establishment of forests on sheep pastures adds almost as much carbon to the soil as in the trees.

It helps to be able to read Icelandic.  Soil carbon levels are a major research area there.

Best Hopes,


>Iceland has found that the establishment of forests on sheep pastures adds almost as much carbon to the soil as in the trees.

Sorry, I don't read Icelandic.
What happens when the trees are harvested? What happens to the carbon locked in the soil after harvest and before the trees grow back? For the carbon to remain out of the atmosphere, I believe the forest must remain indefinately to keep that carbon out of the atmosphere.

Break down carbon? You can't break down carbon, it's an element. The char is mostly carbon. Pyrolysis liberates the hydrogen. There may be a microbial action on char that forms CO2 but I'd venture to guess it's weaker than human efforts to sequester the carbon. But then who knows unless this kind of thing is studied which I'm sure will be done by some current or future soil science grad student if it hasn't been done already.
>Break down carbon? You can't break down carbon, it's an element

Sorry, I will clarify:

 By Carbon I am referring to carbon locked up in biomass. Microbes breakdown the biomass deposited into the soil, and releasing the carbon in the form of CO2.

A forest sequesters the amount of carbon locked up in plant tissue, living and dead (also animals, but by mass this is much smaller). A stable, mature forest will not sequester additional carbon, as growing new trees are balanced by decaying dead trees. If you want to maintain levels of CO2 but don't want to cut back on emissions, you'll have to sequester an additional 3 Gtons C per year (actually the rate is increasing, so take that into account). Currently reforestation is taking up about 0.5 Gtons C/yr. That will gradually go to zero over a few decades as the forest reaches maturity -- unless reforestation is increased.

The amount of carbon sequestered depends on timescale and limits to reservoir size. Forests have turnover times of decades, ocean uptake on the order of centuries, and the rock cycle has a timescale of ~100 MY. Forests are by far the smallest of these reservoirs, but it's also clear that their reservoir size is anthropogenically limited.

And what of trees planted on land that has been sheep pastures for 800 to 1100 years in Iceland ?  Research shows that carbon capture also occurs in the soil of the new forest as well.

Best Hopes,


Paying arborists as their forests grow, then taxing them when they are cut or burned, would only benefit the accountants and lawyers.

If you look at the biomass summary in the post, you'll see 368 million tons/year from forestry (that means you); that figure comes directly from The Billion-Ton Vision.  You no doubt generate considerable sawdust, slash and other waste during your operations; leaving it to decay or burning it does not sequester carbon.  You would have several options for making this pay:

  1. Ferment to some kind of liquid or gaseous fuel.  You receive the value of the fuel plus the value of the avoided fossil-carbon tax (which the buyer would pay to you).
  2. Use fast pyrolysis to convert the biomass to bio-oil (plus gas and char, which would probably be consumed to run the process).  Bio-oil gets you fuel value plus avoided fossil-carbon tax.
  3. Use slow pyrolysis to convert the biomass to charcoal and low-BTU gas.  You could ferment the gas to fuel (using e.g. Clostridium), burn in an engine or fuel cell to make electricity, etc.  You could either sell the charcoal as fuel or find a way to bury it (deep enough that brush fires would not ignite it) for the sequestration credit.

368 million dry tons of wood, at roughly 50% carbon, would be worth up to $14 billion/year in carbon credits at $85/metric ton.

EP is saying $85/ton of carbon, not CO2.  A ton of carbon, when combusted, will produce 3.667 tons of CO2.
The $85/ton figure is the social cost taken directly from the Stern review (page 16).  If we can eliminate carbon emissions for 1/4 that figure, GREAT, but notice the amount of ledgerdemain involved in just the example you quote:  EU invests outside the EU to make some non-EU emitter emit less than they "otherwise would have".  This looks like a way to off-shore production and get paid for it.
Hear, hear!

If we are to choose technologies to invest all that dwindling FF-economy capital, it should go into building Czochralski production plants and Nickel-Iron batteries and not corn ethanol or assorted cockamamie garbage-depolymerization schemes.

Not that we shouldn't be recycling, but that we should recognize that it is not a primary source of energy.

I agree electrication of transport is a must. We are not going to be able to continue with liquid fuel based transport regardless of source.
greater simplicity in living is always a better option

It comes down to what people want.  Eliminating e.g. heating-fuel demand through better architecture is better than fancy systems to deliver grass pellets to residential furnaces, but we've got a considerable amount of energy income and people are going to use it in ways they like and not the ways you like.
you have minimized the complexity of switching over to the future you envision. I'm talking about distribution networks & other assorted infrastructure that maintains the power grid.
It's mostly the same stuff, though the rural parts of the network might have to be beefed up to carry so much power out (instead of in).

Some management issues get a lot smaller.  Fuel cells can run their power up and down very quickly, so they are the perfect complement to wind farms.

these batteries sound like some kind of technological free lunch
Why, yes.  They do.  And right now we've only got two out of high-capacity/long-lived/cheap, but "cheap" will come with time.
the political resistance that would meet your proposals literally can not be underestimated.
Aye, there's the rub.

To the extent that I think this is possible to do on an urgent basis (as opposed to progress by increments), it would depend on popular outrage against oil companies and/or OPEC to demand that we stop using their smelly, carcinogenic, polluting goo.  If we didn't have an administration of oil people, it might be happening today.

Engineer Poet,

Great way to start a TOD blogging career!  And hell, even a technical writing career if you are not already in that profession!  :-)

To the combination of your bio-fuel plan, and the combination of it with the plug hybrid idea, that's exactly on point.  When you add in again the solar advances and battery advances, the efficiency starts to take off.  

Let's be honest though, it still leaves us with a problem.  It means that the private auto could be sustainable into the future, thus, road construction and gridlock wil still be a thorn in the automotive communities side...but at least your plan frees up enough crude for asphalt to keep the roads maintained for awhile...:-)  All in all, a heck of a good plan forward, and the fact that the Americans will somehow stumble blindly into this truth I think must keep the oil supplying nation concerned.  They could get caught out very badly on this.

Roger Conner known to you as ThatsItImout

Once again we sneak into the techno-worshipper's temple and we see the busy little acolytes kowtowing to the technoGOD. Oh, mighty techno, oh mighty techno, blessed is your footprint that squashes all.

Yes, we could beaver our way into a new more efficient techno-paradigm and then what? Then we have ten billion more people on the planet. Back to square one.

Why? Because someone forgot to look at ALL THE DAMNED VARIABLES!!!!!!

You cannot cite a forest of techno improvments to energy and ignore the two forty-foot gorillas in the room: population and "other resources."

A quick read of "The Limits to Growth" will put the kabosh on this insanity. Their findings indicate that even if you were to develop perfect fusion and implement it instantly everywhere it was needed, the planet's population would still crash by 2100. Why? Because of all the other resources which will necessarily dwindle.

If you enable the broken, non-intelligent, cancerous, techno-paradigm to continue, guess what? It continues. That would be a BAD thing. To me building new and "better" technology to continue the techno paradigm is exactly the equivalent of building better ovens at Bergen-Belsen. You people are destroying the planet. You are guilty of no less than GENOCIDE, of MASS PREMEDITATED SPECIES EXTINCTION.

Why are engineers so damned blind? Because they cannot see past their personal love of the technical. They claim rationality, but fail to use that self-claimed skill to examine ALL THE VARIABLES. If these people had any thinking skills beyond the simplistic needs of engineering the latest technofix, they could see the amazingly simple truism that we live in a closed system and that their impulse to help by extending the destruction of the complexity of that system is insane.

Your technology is a dull and broken scalpel trying to perform surgery on a living, breathing planet. Your knowledge of the earthbeing is scant, primitive at best, certainly wrong in most of its thinking. You are like a surgeon who is half-blind, palsied, brain-damaged, who is under the mistaken belief that the earth's heart needs to be replaced with cold-fusion or a set of PVC pipes that pump hydrochloric acid. Even worse, you have mistaken the spleen for the heart.

Yes, yes, I know.

I can hear the cries now, "Oh, you poor benighted man. Can't you see that we are helping to prevent a crash of the system that would hurt people? Don't you want capitalism to keep rolling? Don't tell us that you don't like sustainable growth. You just don't understand REAL science. Don't be a Luddite. Quit making us think about whole systems, we prefer to deal with sub-systems. yadayadayada."

Think of me as the good angel on your shoulder who whispers the inconvenient truth into your ear. You know I am right. All you have to do is ignore the devil on the other shoulder.

That's right. Come to the light.....Come to the light....Come to the light.


I remember when I was young we had a hard winter and many deer died.  Well,  after that many people started putting out hay for them.  The deer got used to it, and started depending on it.  In a few years, the square miles of their range had more deer than what that square miles could support.  

They cut back on the hay one year and had a big die off.  

Another experiement in trying to out run carrying capacity.

All done with the best of intentions.

The job of an engineer is to solve a given problem.  

The idea that the CONTEXT of the problem is THE problem to start with eludes many.

Somehow I don't think we will see the big "7 billion served"  sign going up in the future.  I think we will run out of hay.

I see only one house getting nearly finished and two barely started here on the island of the Lord of the Flies.


Fare thee well.

this would buy, what? 10 years at most past the point of 75% adoption? assuming this of course doesn't result in a exponential growth of these more efficient cars etc... opps just ran into that nice paradox :P

   I agree with 100%.Thankyou for shedding
the light.


Once again we sneak into the techno-worshipper's temple and we see the busy little acolytes kowtowing to the technoGOD. Oh, mighty techno, oh mighty techno, blessed is your footprint that squashes all.

Do you live in a cave off the grid? If not, then forgive me for pointing out the massive hypocrisy of someone who enjoys the benefits brought about by technology, but then complains about the system it enables. You probably would have never been born had it not been for scientists and engineers inventing new technology.

What's your solution? None? Accept a massive die-off? Sorry, I am not up for that. I think most engineers became engineers because we like solving problems. It is what we do. What we have in front of us is a very serious problem. People are going to strive to solve this problem, because the consequences of not solving are unacceptable to most of us.

I say "Great essay, EP." But if you didn't already know it, any idea you put out there is going to have critics. I have found that with every essay I have ever written. You can't please all of the people all the time, and those who aren't pleased with your proposals are certainly free to move to that cave off the grid and stop enjoying the fruits of technology.

Maybe there needs to be some kind of 'Statement of Assumptions' or the like where an engineer proposing solutions to a subset of problems explains his/her overall vision of how these solutions would fit into the whole picture and how he/she hopes the whole picture proceeds as a result. Otherwise, how do we know a poster of 'solutions' isn't maybe a big fan of arm-waving Julian-Simonesque cornucopianism like that of John McCarthy . I'd like to know the context and, well, world-view of the poster.

Poster Samsara puts it succinctly with the notion that the context is the problem.

Too often have technical fixes led to worse problems because of lack of vision at the outset. Perhaps it will be good to have less energy available. I firmly believe, in fact, that having more energy available on a per-capita basis will be bad overall. Each techno-fix for each problem allows the human race to grow more and come up against an even bigger, more intractable problem.

My greatest hope at this point is that the human race will be squeezed enough by the energy and environmental problems to be painful but not catastrophic in such a way that we will shrink the population back to something remotely sustainable (there! I used that nasty marketing word.)

And, no, I don't live off-grid in a cave. I'm learning slowly to make my rather posh 'cave' existence as non-consumerist and small-eco-footprintish as I can. This is the direction we should be heading in.

What's your solution? None? Accept a massive die-off? Sorry, I am not up for that. I think most engineers became engineers because we like solving problems. It is what we do. What we have in front of us is a very serious problem. People are going to strive to solve this problem, because the consequences of not solving are unacceptable to most of us.

Hi Robert,

I think what Cherenkov is saying is that the carrying capacity for humans has been exceeded anyway and that there will have to be a correction regardless which will take the form of a population crash and die-off.  Only the exact timing, scale and duration of this event are unknown to us.  

Extending the capacity for more humans to be supported on a dwindling resource base through the application of technofixes simply delays the inevitable day of ecological reckoning making matters worse.

What we should be doing instead is disavowing ourselves of the cultural attributes (high incomes, high standards of living, GDP growth, increasing population size, and the commitment to keep on increasing these as much as possible) that have resulted in our overshoot rather than continuing with growth which after all is what landed us in this mess in the first place.  However as GW said "The American Way of Life is not-negotiable", so I guess we just get to watch the world collectively bang its heads up against the brick wall of resource limits for the time being whether we like it or not.



I think what Cherenkov is saying is that the carrying capacity for humans has been exceeded anyway and that there will have to be a correction regardless which will take the form of a population crash and die-off.  Only the exact timing, scale and duration of this event are unknown to us.

He may be saying that but where is the proof ?

If (as EP suggests) we can build an energy infrastructure that sustainably meets what we currently see as our energy needs, and population trends continue the way they are currently expected to (max out around 9 billion), why is it a given that we are in overshoot ?

There are numerous environmental problems that need to be solved, but I don't see any of them as insoluble - so why do you think dieoff is inevitable ?

He may be saying that but where is the proof ?

Where is the proof?  Global warming is the most glaring evidence of our overshoot.  Pollution caused overwhelmingly by too much production and consumption are increasing the negative effects of centuries of economic growth spurred on by population bloom.  Another is the ozone hole - remember that one?  It hasn't gone away you know - in fact it's still expanding.  Then you have topsoil erosion, potable water decline, accelerating species extinction and other general manifestations of biosphere destruction.  Shall I go on? According to the British Antarctic Survey before the industrial revolution the ice sheets which cover the poles had stabilised, even though we had already been in a warming phase for 3 or 4 thousand years, with no perceptible increase in seal level during that time.  Since then the sea level has been rising by 3mm's per year which is at a rate 10 times faster than was evident before we started using fossil fuels in a big way.  Need any more proof?  All the information is in the public domain - a cursory search of the internet will provide you with all the evidence necessary.

Coincidently our population started to rise at the same time, asymptotically at first but in recent decades exponentially, as we refined methods of extending human carrying capacity through the application of fossil fuels to the service of agriculture, and sanitation. Although human birth rates have been in decline for some decades, nevertheless every year we add the equivalent of another Germany to our numbers due to the weight of momentum alone.  Some may see this as evidence that the developing world, where most of the momentum is, will follow the essentially Western pattern of demographic transition by the raising of living standards to ones resembling those in affluent countries.  What they fail to notice is that this would require far more resources than are currently available even now.  Otherwise we wouldn't all be posting to a forum debating the imminent decline of our foremost energy source.  Or the fact that most of the decline in the developing world is as the result of humans exceeding local carrying capacity in some way and succumbing to disease, war or starvation.  It appears we have already reached, or will soon reach a critical watershed in human affairs.  We may brook this through the application of more technofixes, until nature presents us with an event even greater than the specified design criteria. Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levy wall breach is a good example of this in action.

Overshoot will continue until either the limited bounty of fossil fuels required to maintain global civilisation are exhausted, or some other finite resource which is vital to our existence runs into short supply and is unable to be substituted for, or worked around.  Then the even more enormous population that will be reliant on an ever-dwindling resource base for their daily survival will collapse and die-off, for there will not be enough resources available for future generations to sustain its former numbers.  In fact the application of more and more technofixes like the ones envisaged in this article, and elsewhere, to support increasing production and consumption will not only hasten the inevitable end of the energy sources and other resources that make them possible, but also ensure that the effects of collapse will be even greater than if it occurred today, because more people, infrastructure, and GDP will by then need to be supported when the bottom gives way.

Global warming is the most glaring evidence of our overshoot.
And had we switched to an energy system like this 20 years ago, we would have about 30 ppm less CO2 in the atmosphere.  This would have eliminated much (if not most) of our current warming trend, and we would not be in overshoot.

Even though the population would be the same.

"Overshoot" is defined as needs greater than production to meet them.  Needs will eventually be reduced.  I set forth a way to reduce needs by making much better use of renewable energy; this is not unlike an aerobe getting 38 molecules of ATP from a molecule of glucose vs. an anaerobe's 2 ATP's.  Once needs are reduced to less than production, however this is accomplished, overshoot has ended.

Where's the proof?

Let's look at one thing: batter technology.

In the last year or two, not just copper, but just about every heavy metals futures price has gotten near or to record highs.

Well, if we're entering some sort of Peak Heavy Metals, which seems very possibly, all the new battery technology that EP promotes is going to be INCREDIBLY expensive.

Plus, unless 5/10-ton dump trucks, etc, are all electrified, it's going to take fossil-fuel vehicles to do all this mining in increasingly EROEI-downsliding mining operations.

In other words, beyond expensive, what if we simply run out of materials with which to make highest-tech batteries?

As for biomass, now that our own country, due to its profligate eating, has even become a net food importer, the battel for aerable land/use will only heat up further. (Not that getting everybody to move in the direction of vegetarianism won't help.)

Snark from others aside, I don't claim to live in a cave off the grid. I'm just saying.

Extending the capacity for more humans to be supported on a dwindling resource base through the application of technofixes simply delays the inevitable day of ecological reckoning making matters worse.

The point is, though, that you might not be extending the carrying capacity, but you may limit a massive die-off from Peak Oil. Personally, I am not prepared to jump off a cliff in order to reduce population. I don't think anyone is, so we need to do what we can to avoid that die-off.

I might also mention the irony of Cherenkov using a computer to complain about technology.

I am not prepared to jump off a cliff in order to reduce population.

Come on RR. Only cowards cut and run. :-)


Since I have become Peak Aware in 2001ish (from FTW site, to,  I have spread the word, and tried to wake people up the entire time.  No, I have not given up.  I am in favor of the Light Rail projects( Keep going Al),  I am in favor of Localization,  Local food, etc.

However, for all my prep's and spreading the word

(even to the point of wearing my tshirt with Hubberts peak on it saying "Wake UP!" from and bumper sticker "Ghawar is Dying" for the last 3 years),

Figuratively, I know the tsunumi/hurricane will hit tonight, and many of my friends and companions will not make it thru till morning.  

So I applaud this post by EP(GREAT JOB !) and I forward many of these articles to everyone I know.  

But the Human population WILL be reduced one way or another.  It will HAVE to be via Mother Nature.  

Mother Nature Bats Last.

BUT I don't think making Chev Yukons running on ethanol is the right long term goal I think.

Question,  What do we do with a couple of hundred million existing cars?   Tires?

No one is making any suggestions of what we will do collectively with all the stuff we have.

There is so much good in the worst of us,
and so much bad in the best of us,
It's hard to tell which of us,
should reform the rest of us.  

Fare Thee Well

Those cars will be like the buffalo. Seats will become furniture, alternators will become wind turbines, tires will become defensive community walls, and the batteries will highly fought over.

"I can hear the cries now, "Oh, you poor benighted man. Can't you see that we are helping to prevent a crash of the system that would hurt people? Don't you want capitalism to keep rolling? Don't tell us that you don't like sustainable growth. You just don't understand REAL science. Don't be a Luddite."

yeah, that's pretty close to what I was going to say...:-)

RC  known to you as ThatsItImout

Ignoring the silly blather about acolytes and the technoGOD, there's a valid point in Cherenko's rant.  It's one that pretty much everyone here is well aware of, thanks, but still worth acknowledging: if we can't halt population growth--and hopefully reverse it--all our cleverness in using resources more efficiently will (eventually) be for naught.

Most of us reject, however, the notion that the only way to come to terms with the population problem is to abandon technology and let 90% of the population die from exposure and starvation.  That's the only prescription that the rabid anti-technology crowd really has to offer.  Any proposal that aims to avoid collapse and catastrophic die-off will necessarily involve quite a bit of enlightened technology.

Very interesting essay, and now the yes-but. Here is what I don't understand at a fundamental level, down underneath a thicket of details that will take longer than the sell-by date of this thread to penetrate.

The USA apparently has about 1.3 million square kilometers of arable land, or 1.3 trillion square meters. At somewhere around an average of 100 watts/square meter (1050 watts theoretical, but it's nighttime a lot, the sun is never at the zenith, it's cloudy or hazy most of the time in agricultural regions, etc.), this land receives on average around 130 terawatts (TW) of sunlight.

That's plenty of energy, but the practical areal efficiency of photosynthesis in the real world seems to be quoted at around 0.5% or less, and not much photosynthesis occurs outside the warmth of the growing season. So we get maybe only 0.3% or less of that 130TW, or less than 0.4TW, as primary biomass, as compared to 3TW of current consumption. And world population is still growing, so we and others will soon need every last hectare of this land, and then some, simply in order to eat.

Thus, the notion that, in principle, we could do it all with biomass, seems suspect, unless we tremendously increase crop acreage and plant highly genetically engineered supercrops. And good luck getting that past the NIMBYs and Luddites. So how is the basic overall Big Picture reconciled in this model?

Yes, the efficiency of higher plants is downright pathetic.  On the other hand, they already cover a lot of the land and they certainly work cheap.  Since it looks like we can get around 5000 billion kWH out of them compared to the 2900 billion kWh we now get from fossil fuels, I think they'll do for starters.
Well, except that's what I was wondering about, cos now I'm even more confused. Take my 0.4TW and multiply it by 8766 hours in a year. That gets us about 3500 billion kWH (heat energy, not free energy / useful work, and only as long as no one eats), which for a ballpark estimate is within reasonable shouting distance of 2900 billion. Now take the 3TW we currently use on average (the so-called terawatt challenge; we get the 3TW mostly from fossil, only a little from renewables and nuclear) and multiply it by 8766 hours in a year. That gets us 26000 billion kWH rather than 5000 billion. From there to 3500 or 2500 is quite an immense gap to close if we intend to do it anytime soon. Especially the parts that are not direct-gasoline-powered transportation, most of which are probably already above 13% (0.4TW/3TW) of theoretical efficiency, which would typically put them well above 25-35% of  reasonably attainable real-world efficiency. And the population still grows rapidly, while photosynthetic capacity evaluated in these ways does not (absent those engineered superplants.)

I don't know, but in the real world this still looks like more of a silver BB than a silver bullet. Now if we convert the entire U.S. landmass into a biomass plantation...including the mountains and deserts...but is that politically or even technically feasible? Oh, and the population still grows rapidly...I guess if we refuse to use nuclear, we'll be needing enough wind to mess up the weather...

I think what's confusing you is that you're working with quantities of raw input energy, which then works its way through our inefficient legacy systems.  (That's the same mistake the Oswalds made.)  If you consider the amount of energy which actually gets to the point of use, and then look at our best technology for getting the energy there, you can start with many times less.

Put 100 watts into an incandescent bulb, get 1740 lumens.

Put 25 watts into a CF bulb, get 1750 lumens.

If all you consider is pounds of coal at the powerplant, you'll be confused.  The devil is in the details. it isn't as simple as this makes it seem (I did note that the thread would be stale long before I could finish plowing through everything, it's a good but long writeup):
* Replace all the petroleum used by the ground-transport sector (55% or more)?
 * Replace all the natural gas used by the electric-generation sector (about 1/3 of US natural gas consumption)?
 * Replace every pound of coal burned for electricity (about 90% of all US coal consumption)?
...and so on...

'cos the real model is we're replacing 'everything' in the whole world with far more expensive versions ("best available technology"?), in order that we really get the whole ball of wax and far more solely from 'efficiency', not from energy sources. That's going to be unbelievably expensive and disruptive. And the high-efficiency stuff is often complex and brittle, as are CFLs compared to regular bulbs, so between that and weather, we can anticipate an overall system that is continuously in a state of severe disruption.

I suspect a lot of processes aren't as easily changed out as a light bulb; for one thing, it can take decades just to deal with the regulatory Luddites. It took a long time and a lot of expense to develop "simple" CFLs that fit properly into light bulb sockets and had the myriad regulatory stamps mandated by governments. The best available versions of plenty of other processes are likely to be hugely, even unaffordably, expensive, in the manner of the 35% efficient solar cells that have been announced every week for years. And there will be many years of delay as 'incidents' happen - for example following the tremendous uproar the first time a lithium-battery car takes half the block with it because the fire simply cannot be controlled. I must wonder whether most of us will be able to afford the cost of living in this new world.

Another efficiency gain comparable with replacing regular light bulbs with CFLs.

Replace Suburbia with walkable TOD clustered around Urban Rail.  FAR fewer TWh to support.  Most trips by walking and bicycling, with Urban Rail for longer trips.  Once a week or so use of a GEM ( ) like EV for bulky items, quick trip, etc.

FAR more efficient for plumber vans, postal delivery (walk the route), policing (bicycle the beat), construction, and all else.  

Best case is more km of walking & bike paths than streets.  Easy to walk & bike (the ideal post_peak Oil modes), a b!tch to drive through.

Far fewer sq m of roads to maintain & support. (Well built walk & bike paths will last centuries with just keeping the weeds back)

The amount of biomass required to support abandoned Suburbia (orchards ?) and walkable TOD may be 1/4th as much as your vision.

CFLs (my vision) vs. Tungsten Light Bulbs (your vision)

Best Hopes for CFLs :-)


Alan, I am sure you're right... regarding new development and redevelopment.

But suburbia is a sunk cost, and most of it is too new to abandon.  It's going to take some time for it to go from newly-minted to down-at-the-heels, at which point it can be redeveloped around rail and bikeways.  This will probably take 50 years.  In the mean time, it's going to be served mostly by 4-wheeled transport.  The lifespan of vehicles is much less than that of housing, so vehicles will evolve to suit the current energy situation.

Last, I think you're wrong about the driving force behind rail.  You think it's energy; well, we can get the energy to run autos as long as we like.  What we can't get is the space to put them, or the time to sit in traffic.  In short, congestion will be the push for rail no matter what happens to energy.

Two short related illustrations, more tomorrow.  (Getting ready for half day meeting tomorrow with foreman/superintendent in charge of building the Canal Streetcar Line.  I have been asked to get budgetary #s for building Desire Streetcar Line & Elysian Fields Streetcar Line as part of the rebuilding process :-)

At the Boston Peak Oil conference I talked to Dr. Bezdek (Hirsch co-author).  He pointed out that electrifying freight rail quickly will result in the premature scrapping of many 18-wheel tractors and possibly trailers.  I agreed, but said that we could not afford the oil to wear them out.

In many downtowns, merchants had a building boom immediately after WW II, not realising the effects of gov't policies on VA loans (only for new construction de facto) and later highways would have on their investments.  By 1970, almost every downtown in America was dead (by 1960 most were sick).  Well built commeriocal buildings sat idle.  That merchants had built century+ life buildings a dozen or 20 years before mattered little.

Per University of Kentucky architect professor, modern construction does not spend a penny more to extend compenent life past 20 years unless required by code.  A dozen years ago it was a 25 to 30 year standard.

We do not have to wait fifty years to abandon (not rebuild) vast swaths of Suburbia.

Best Hopes,


  EP, great piece! But I'm with Dave Cohen on this, you haven't just gored the vested interest's ox, you've gored the whole herd! But, I'll help anyway I can to get this to the attention of other people. Let me quote the Poet William Blake on the idea"What is now proved was once only imagined", from The Marriage of Heaven and Earth, Proverbs of Hell Section
I don't just know that those herds of oxen would be gored, I'm expecting popular rage over global warming, recession due to oil-related economic drains and Islamic terrorism to get the public to demand that they be gored, skinned, roasted in a heat wave and served to the suburbanites who can't afford their mortgages.
I had been looking forward to this post.  Thanks for your work.  (Also enjoyed your "Due Diligence:  A reader's response to Khosla" sometime ago.)  I hope that you might become a regular contributor here.  There is a lot of information above, and some of it is mentioned, but barely touched upon, so excuse me if I have made an oversight in my comments to follow.

The 25x'25 program already started by the Ag Energy Work Group which is sponsored by the Energy Future Coalition, an independent non-partisan initiative funded by private foundations, attempts to do some of what you are describing.  I think that your input to their organization would be welcomed with open arms, and you should submit "your book" to them.  Its goal is to have agriculture supply 25% of this nation's energy by 2025 including a large portion coming from forestry.  A real plus towards these ideas is that they could be ramped up regionally, at first.  They could "lead by example" once the success is evident at a number of regional locations.  I feel that corn ethanol is a huge obstruction for the time being as there is so much momentum there owing to the fact that  $100 million dollar plants are paid for in twelve months. Each day, lately, it seems two new plants are announced in this country.

You mentioned efficiency on many levels, and this is first and foremost and the sooner we can work towards efficiency standards politically and through mandates, the sooner we will be more secure now and in the future.  Especially in building codes, lighting, batteries, appliances, and vehicles.

I still am concerned about food production, and assume you have allowed for what you consider "adequate", especially in the face of drought conditions.  

I assume you have accounted for the energy required for the hauling of biomass, harvesting of trees, etc.  Also, for the application of terra preta.  Questions related to soil erosion and quality need addressed in depth were a program like this to be adopted, as well as wildlife habitats, micro organisms, pH adjustments, etc.

Small EV's with improved battery technology are part of the solution as well as Alan's electrified rail.  The time factor which we have to accomplish these things seems an obstacle.  

Regarding 25 x 25 program. Unless the 25 is net energy, calling it 25 x 25 could be misleading and could lead to false expectations regarding the agricultural contribution to our energy supplies.

Also, I have a problem with all these schemes that purport to provide a certain percentage of overall energy use by such and such a date. They ignore the fact that the growth in fossil fuel energy use, such as coal, will more than makeup for any savings we get by reaching a certain percentage of renewable energy.  These schemes give us the illusion that we are actually fixing the fossil fuel problem while we are just making a dent in growth based on business as usual.

Virtually all politicians everywhere like to sell how they are against global warming because they support 10,20, or 25 percent renewable energy by such and such a date. Luckily for them, they won't be around by that date.  Unluckily for whoever or whatever still exists on the planet by that date, they will find themselves living in a world of grossly more greenhouse gases and much higher temperatures.

All such schemes need  to start from the premise that we need a cap of co2 which declines each year until it reaches a bare minimum of 60% less than we emit now. If George Monbiot is to be believed, we need to cut emissions by 90%.

Both 25x'25 and EA2020 are welcome to borrow any element of this they wish.  (All the principles of EA2020 already know about it.)

I'll bet that they'll deem it unrealistic because it looks too good.

I still am concerned about food production, and assume you have allowed for what you consider "adequate"
I'm not assuming any conversion of food to fuel, unless prices fall so far that it becomes the farmer's backstop.  Some cropland (e.g. Nebraska) might go from corn to some variety of fuel grass, but this is largely on irrigated land which is not being cropped sustainably anyway.  Tallgrass crops are also usable as forage for ruminants, and the feasibility of keeping large charcoal reserves allows forage to take priority over fuel demands.
There seems to be something implicit in your argument that needs to be made explicit.  And that is this: "NO MORE NEW PEOPLE."  That's OK with me, but ending immigration to the US needs to be made a part of your plan in order for it to work.
One of the most remarkable things I've noticed since moving to southern Iowa is that every farm has a pond.  Michigan isn't like this. These ponds absorb nutrient runoff and have algae blooms in warm weather.  These ponds alone could produce more biomass per year than the rest of the farm does.  What is needed is a cost effective harvesting technique.  Any ideas???
These ponds alone could produce more biomass per year than the rest of the farm does.

Uh?  Not enough surface area for the needed sunshine.  Remember, plants only collect solar energy.  Yes, algae can be somewhat more efficient in that than land plants, but that only holds the for algae in the top few mm of the pond.  The rest are shaded by the top ones.  

No amount of genetical engineering can overcome this basic fact.

Remember this when you hear talk of those magical carbon-sequestering biodiesel-producing algae.

If farm ponds could soak up nitrogen, potash, phosphorus AND atmospheric CO2, maybe we could do this with a whole lot less land than my first-cut projection.  Capturing those and recycling the potash and phosphorus onto the fields would be a two-fer for the farmer, cutting fertilizer requirements.

Who at an ag school wants to start running experiments?

Where is the potash, nitrogen, and phosphorus to come from, the atmosphere, the water?
Runoff from the fields.
Well no doubt in the Gulf we've proved there's plenty in the current fossil fuel fertilizer run-off.

Some of these ideas are good and useful, but I'm skeptical on many big fix solutions outside of being less wasteful, your numbers are different than many I've seen on biomass, it will take awhile to plow through, but appreciate proposing solutions opposed to resignation.

One question is in the current system you're adding these elements from outside the system via fossil fuels, under your system, with all it's burning, how much is lost and overtime is it able to keep self-replenishing despite this loss?
For one thing, you can't destroy chemical elements by fire.  Any potassium or phosphorus in the input has to be somewhere in the output.  (Nitrogen is a special case.)

As for losses, the concept is to reduce them by making the soil far more attractive to the nutrients so they do not migrate with water.  This holds them until plant roots take them up again.  Planting buffer strips next to streams with e.g. switchgrass or Miscanthus would add a second barrier to nutrient loss, by catching eroded soil particles in the thatch and preventing loss of attached nutrients.

I'm sure we'd still need fertilizers, but the idea is to need a whole lot less.

Thanks, I understand you're not destroying with burning, but the question is how much you can get back? Nitrogen, which you say is special case, comes from fossil fuels now. So, I'm just wondering what those numbers are, I don't know.

This answer about farming different I agree with. What I'm very skeptical about is you seem to offer a pretty all in one box solution, which doesn't require America to change -- "to endure any wrenching changes to make it happen." If you unpack this box, I think it comes to doing a lot of things very differently and if we do, then I'd agree that bio-fuels have a place, how big is the question.


Look up the Haber process on Wikipedia. The nitrogen comes from the atmosphere.
thanks again
This is interesting piece, however I think the only solution we have is to first rethink how we use energy as opposed to what the source is. The US could cut in half its energy use and live comfortably, but certainly not using the current technologies and infrastructures.

Specifically referring to this:

Suppose for a minute that we've got that 1.7 billion tons every year. We've got MSW authorities pulling out all their "green waste", unrecyclable paper and everything else, foresters capturing chips, bark and sawdust, and farmers baling all their extra crop wastes and growing switchgrass or Miscanthus on their marginal land and buffer strips.

With an understanding that this "waste" is currently produced using a lot of fossil fuels, the question I have on such a massive use of biofuels is, how sustainable is it? Every time you move a plant from where its grown and burn it somewhere else, you'r depleting that soil. How could you with such large scale burning keep soil enriched?

I think biofuels have a great future, but that includes a pretty big transformation on how we use energy.

Paying the farmer to sequester char in the soil is essential to this strategy. We pay the farmer not only for food and energy but also to save the atmosphere. The farmer gets the benefit of a new revenue stream and a better growing medium for his crops.

Also keep in mind that this is a transitional, leveraging strategy. We leverage the efficiency of EV's and fuel cells to turn away from coal, oil and natural gas. As solar, wind, wave and more efficiency in buildings, lighting and transportation is mixed in then we can see a future where less and less acres are needed for biomass dedicated to energy.

The farmer can plan on leveraging this opportunity for at least a generation or two but then he'll have more acres well suited to feeding a larger population. So maybe it all comes out better in the end.

This "char" is going to have all the nutrients which have left the soil with the plant?
I suppose the nutrient value of the char varies with the biomass being pyrolyzed. All? I don't know. You can follow the bio-char links in E-P's article. Farmers are well aware of the nutrient value of any amendment they add to their soil. If the amendment is lacking in any way, they know what to add. Again nutrient value of the char is not so important as the nature of the char itself - it is an excellent medium for both retaining nutrients and growing beneficial fungi. The Terra Preta of the Amazon is highly valued for this.
If the amendment is lacking in any way, they know what to add.

This is my point, most of this comes from natural gas today, that's not a closed recycling system. If you'r talking about just catching carbon, that leaves out some important other things. With this essay, it seems to just convert the fossil fuel intensive and very soil destructive way we're doing agriculture and just switches it to fuel.

Again I'm not quibbling and think there's many valid points, but one of the things moving from fossil fuels is going to require is a pretty significant rethinking of how we do agriculture.

Part of the process being described here throws off gas which can be diverted into fertilizer production. He mentions here only in passing but see E-P's other essay on this:

Ahh thanks, ok. Well I usually complain about the lack of numbers used in discussion. This one goes the other way, take a lot of time to plow through. But they're quite different from many numbers, I've seen on biomass.
Part of my problem (if you want to call it that) is that I refuse to believe something is possible until I have numbers which make it look pretty likely that it is.  And once I have some numbers, I share (and ask people to find any mistakes I might have made).

I do this because we can fool ourselves but Nature works by the numbers, and can't be fooled.

Yes well, as you know, there can be plenty of problems with numbers, but nature doesn't work by numbers, we humans better understand how things work with numbers, they are a human vocabulary, which nature works fine without.
Nature doesn't work by numbers?  Then why does Nature always make glucose with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a ratio of 1:2:1?  Why's the weather predictable from physics, including the thermodynamic properties of humid air?

Nature doesn't use symbols in its laws, but that's not quite the same.

Missing from the estimates are the amounts of energy needed for:
  • growing the biomass (tilling, harvesting, transport, making the fertilizers and pesticides, embedded energy in the machinery, etc etc)
  • making up for the loss of soil productivity, and likely soil erosion, due to the removal of organic matter that is currently left in the soil
  • increased irrigation (and groundwater tables are falling as it is)
  • embedded energy in the building and maintainence of the HUGE ponds needed for the algae
  • energy cost of handling the algae
  • embedded energy in the building and maintainence of the fuel cells
  • embedded energy in the limited-life batteries for EVs
  • the energy cost of CO2 sequesteration - it needs to be transported and compressed, at the least

Any idea what the overall EROI would be?  This is basically a rather complex system for the capture of solar energy, which is a good thing, but likely to be of modest EROI, meaning that a large portion of the economy, and thus society, would be involved in the energy "production".

The growing of a crop, such as corn, would not (or should not) count as "carbon capture" (for the purpose of related payments) since the crop is then used in ways that eventually release the carbon back to the atmosphere.  Perhaps a farmer who plows charcoal into the soil could receive payments for that act.  But the whole scheme above would fall apart if a lot of the charcoal would be buried -- there wouldn't be enough net energy outflow.  Furthermore, the nutrient-holding advantage of terra preta soils is of no use if the nutrients are taken up by crop plants and then carted away - how would they be replenished?  By analogy, even a bigger battery still needs as much recharging as the load uses.  And, where will the money for all those carbon payments come from?  Grows on trees?  :-)  It could only come from "consumers" paying extra for the energy.  And it means a transfer of purchasing power from them to the recipients - see EROI comment above.  Add to that the growing need for food, due to growing population, as mentioned in a comment above.

As for that ethanol-injection engine, if drivers were not so enamored of excessive acceleration, they could drive cars with smaller but conventional engines, for similar or greater savings.  (And of course they could simply drive smaller cars!)

Finally, this whole scheme does not allow for "growth", so until we reform the monetary system it's a non-starter.  

One large missing estimate is the solar energy and availability needed to grow the algae.  There would be some problems if you have alot of the CO2 from the fuel cells coming into the algae tanks when the sun is not shining.  How much algae can be grown in the middle of winter at 40 deg latitude?
There's a farmer in Maine who produces spinach, carrots and other veggies in the dead of winter using nothing but passive-solar greenhouses.  If you can't manage algal capture in Maine in winter, I guess you'll have to either capture and inject CO2 underground or accept carbon loss for that part of the year.

$85/ton of carbon would add about 1.2¢/kWh to the price of electricity made from charcoal with DCFC's.  I think the folks there could manage.

A rule of thumb for biomass is that it should be processed within a fifty mile radius of where it is harvested.

More acres of planted biomass does mean more energy needed for cultivation and harvesting but this enterprise fuels itself.

Irrigation is a concern, but there's probably a lot of low hanging fruit in the water conservation area as well.

The algae is cultivated in bio-reactor tubes. Almost all water involved can be reused.

Algae bio-reactors are co-located with the fuel-cells. The fuel cells power the processing. The power requirements are modest I think.

Embedded costs for fuel cells and ev's are about as relevant as those for wind turbines.

EROEI is almost certainly favorable but almost beside the point. This system is a great start at correcting perverse and dysfunctional incentives.

If I was the government I'd "pay" the farmer not in cash but in acres of sequestered bio-char. Farmer receives a credit, an outfit arrives at his door to follow through. As for nutrients, some are perhaps lost but some are returned and are only half the story. Bio-char is great as a medium for beneficial fungi. If nutrients are needed, they can be applied as they are now.

Lastly, 2 cars for every 3 Americans are too much. EV's stuck in traffic are just as absurd as what we have now. I'd like to see one car per household and people living closer to work and shopping as well as commuting more by mass/rapid transit. I'd like to see more and more funds directed away from road building and maintenance more towards mass/rapid transit.

As a sidebar, I think Earlydaily and I are the only TOD posters who are actually playing with high carbon soils via charcoal.  I'm going into my third season of tests.  I don't know about Earl.  I'm impressed so far.
Have you blogged about this? I'd like to read more.

Gary Jones of "Muck and Mystery" fame is also experimenting. I think he's one season into it.

The biomass transport cost is a good issue.

First, consider the service area.  A plant in the middle of Iowa might be amidst an area at least 80% cornfields, producing 2.5 dry tons/acre of available stover.  That's 1280 dry tons/mi^2 or 2.048*106 dry tons for a square 40 miles on a side.  If the plant is at the center of the square and roads run on a grid, the average length of trip will be 20*21/2 miles, or about 28.3 miles.  If the stover has 10% moisture, this comes to about 64 million ton-miles.

A semi can carry perhaps 30 tons and gets about 6 MPG today.  Let's say the flatbeds improve to 7.5 MPG with better tires.  That's 225 ton-miles/gallon, or 283,000 gallons of fuel required to move the stover to the plant.

The plant would take 2.048 million dry tons of stover (at 45% carbon), yield 30% as carbon in charcoal (614,000 tons) and 15% as carbon in the off-gas.  Capturing 30% of this carbon as biodiesel (4.5% of the original biomass) yields 92,200 tons of carbon in about 31.3 million gallons of biodiesel.  The transport requirements are less than 1% of that, and might be further reduced using electric propulsion.

If you want to play with my spreadsheet, I uploaded it (OpenOffice format) here.

A rule of thumb for biomass is that it should be processed within a fifty mile radius of where it is harvested.

Why should it even leave the property line?

Lets compare solutions:

Or how about the simple stuff at:

I lack the land to put up a heliostat, so what control systems and reflective systems I am playing with heats up water for a bird bath.   Otherwise, I'd be setting up a control system to focus light on a spot to heat up a 55 gal drum 'under cover' (avoid the snow/water) that could collect the outgassing to burn for cooking/generation of electrical power.
using many mirrors to focus on more than one sunlight target  as a way to control the temps
I like also, but lack the $$$ to buy some time on a injection molding machine.
Such a system would work with stirling engines being the target, or one can 'beam' in the sunlight into a living space.  

Complex, sure.   But your energy source (a heliostat) is low cost.   And is buildable in a low-end machine shop VS needing the skills to build a 400 PSI vessel.

Add in a hammermill as a dirversion load for the wind turbine, and your are 'storing vlaue' in the un-storable excess wind.   (the same way you store value via running a fan )
(Assembly costs are a bitch.   So are the mechanical control systems....stuff that continues to work outside and a system that the failue mode doesn't burn down your stuff limit ones scale)

Some people want to find the more complex solution (lets pressurize a reaction vessel to 400 PSI or lets take all the carbon from woodlands and make zinc batteries) with a belief that such will save the complex society they enjoy as an American.

Alas, without a handle on population and figuring out a money strusture that isn't based on continus growth...all the techno-fixings isn't gonna keep the party going - which cheap oil has allowed as a bandaide over some large problems.

Or, use the Nature's Furnace which I posted here on TOD recently.  It comes to you on a flat bed trailor.  You have a pile of biomass or waste and the furnace is portable, so you use up your material to produce heat or small scale electrical generation, and then when you're finished, someone else "rents" it.
Any solution that has low material costs to set up and run makes more sense than one that needs pressures yopu don't get from a simple 1 or 2 stage air compressor and needs special machining to be able to handle 400 psi.

As far as handling alot of fecal matter, here are 2 non-traditional solutions:   (this yields animal food in the form of larva.  You need a 20 foot high screened in area if you plan on fly breeding BTW)  (Jerry can tell you how to compost a sheep with one of these babies!)

There are some reasons to send things past the property line, and that's economy of scale.  It's easy to produce charcoal on the scale of a farm, but there's a lot more in this proposal.  Generating electricity on a dispatchable schedule, processing algae into liquid fuel by the tanker-load, and the other things might best be done at plants which are staffed by specialists and manned 24/7.
There are some reasons to send things past the property line, and that's economy of scale.

Yet that 'economy' has a cost.   Many of them.
economic oppertunity  (All them 'experts' at the scaled place need to be paid VS that money going to the photon collecting land-holder)

And the important returning of the processed organic material to the land that way the macro and micro elements can become bio-aviable once again to plants.

The land holder has self-interest for taking care of the land.   'economy of scale corporations' has a demonstrated history of not not having such an interest.

Liquid fuel can be delivered in the form of oil extracted from the seed oil press.   Out-gassed material can be collected in tanks and burned on-site to supply power to the grid, shipped off site, or just to fuel the charcol-making.

Besides, what farming operation would have algae?   Most lack a source of concentrated CO2 to add to the algae, which is what most models use.

You just did a good job of proving that you have not merely ignored the comments (which covered the transportation issue), you even failed to read the story.  Every quibble you raised has already been dealt with.
You just did a good job of proving that you have not merely ignored the comments (which covered the transportation issue)

In your head perhaps.   In your head in the past you dismissed carbon in the soil as a non-argument.  Your head, which you have a high opinion of, does exhibit errors.

The good thing is, you are able to correct over time.  Which  is why its worth ANYONES time to point out flaws with you.   You'll eventually figure out how to address the flaw.

Eventually you'll come around on the cost of a flash carboniztion reactor (both in raw hardware and the energy  to run the process) VS
(costs here)  (671 USD)
or the various hardware ideas here

Every quibble you raised has already been dealt with.

     n : an evasion of the point of an argument by raising irrelevant distinctions or objections

If the points were 'quibbles', why are they even being addressed by others?  (Nice try at dismissive framing with the word quibble BTW.)

You have matured as a writer on the topic, going from 'lets make everything into carbon thern use it with zinc' to

It takes a lot of work to grab that carbon. Ideally, we'd hold onto it and use it over and over.


It can be heaped and stored for weeks to thousands of years; charcoal from ancient forest and camp fires allows prehistoric events to be dated. It is a valuable addition to soil, creating the fertile "terra preta"4 of the notoriously nutrient-poor Amazon rainforest.

So I have faith that one day you'll stop trying to hand wave away shipping soil fertility off the land where plants grow.    

(for the other readers who care:  The CSA I'm a member of serves 500+ households.   The ownership claims they ship 3 tons of phosphorus off the land every year in the form of veggies leaving the land.   And that isn't coming back to the land.  So they are always buying greensand and adding it to the land.  )

For thoes who want to play engineer:
Bonus points if you figure out a reasonable way of seperating the other salts from phosphorus in urine that doesn't need expensive EQ/lots of high cost energy to dewater the mixture.   Just getting rid of the Sodium from the water mixture would be grand.

To date the lowest cost solution I've come up with is urine under glass in a shallow pan to evaporate the water, gather the salts for processing, and binding the Sodium with sand under high heat.   Amazingly urine pans and fuming urine isn't going to be too acceptible to most people as a solution.

Perhaps a low salt diet ?
Alas, you will still have Sodium in the output.   And over a long time, that will result in the land having excess Sodium.   :-(   Besides, salt tastes good on squash.

Not to mention, if you can't get people to cut their salt for health ya gonna get them to urinate into a container for re-processing?

Figure 5.

I'm not sure what other limits are out there....but phosphate is a big one.  

I wonder what it was that turned all those farm ponds green last summer.
Go look at most of the algae for energy schems....they use CO2  from a high CO2 source as a part of the sales pitch/design pitch.

And here at TOD one of the posts was showing how the only way the algae models worked were closed systems due to wild species displacing your cultured versions.

To obtain the 'pure' cluture, you need specal EQ.   To keep the temps within a growing window (Not to hot in the summer, not freezing in the winter) you need more equipment, which raises the cost.   Oil Algaes store energy as fat under certain conditions.  Simpler to get that in a closed system.

The math doesn't work out for 'lets have a pond', once you add in the taxes/envirnmental constraints.

Oil algaes are different than what one sees in a pond, typically.

Only one car in each garage and only one chicken in every pot. Not much of a campaign slogan.
I'm not running for office but if I was I'd be talking up rapid transit like monorails or sky trains or even maglev over sitting in traffic.

I'd also be talking about economic growth and jobs which would mean as many chickens in your pot as you'd like.

Nicely put!

When I finished reading this diatribe [sic], I thought of slash and burn agriculture - use the land until barren.  And the complexity boogles the mind.  Efficiency is always a goal of modern engineering capitalism, but it often suffers from many downsides including fragility, complexity, and difficulty of maintenance.  The best idea is downsizing of cars, engines, speed limits, houses nad/or personal living space, townsites, etc., not the upsizing of efficiency.  If the system breaks down, an 'efficient' system will crash not struggle along.

Also a lot of ideas proposed, such as leds for lighting ignores  constraints.  For leds, eg., they require exotic rare earth elements.  Rail only works when it works; a track breakage means days or weeks of non-service.  Agains simplicity is the most robust option.    

Rail only works when it works; a track breakage means days or weeks of non-service

After the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1903 (date?), streetcar service was restored the next day.  A heroic effort that cleared debris from the tracks by hand, used scrap lumber from destroyed buildings for trolley poles and poorly aligned fixes where the ground shifted (per period photos) but rolling on all lines within about 30 hours of the first earthquake and while fires were still an issue.

In less dire circumstances, a common solution is to use one track bi-directionally around a "problem" that affects only one of two tracks.

In years past, there was often a parallel route that can be used, but this "ineffecient duplication" has been pretty much eliminated.

Best Hopes for Rail Service,


growing the biomass... increased irrigation...
Almost half of this biomass is a byproduct of agriculture already going on.  No further inputs are required before harvest.  For e.g. corn stover, all you need is something behind the combine which bales part of the stover instead of laying it all out in windrows.
making up for the loss of soil productivity, and likely soil erosion, due to the removal of organic matter that is currently left in the soil
This organic matter is left on the surface, and never penetrates far.  However, enough has to be left to break the force of raindrops.
embedded energy in the building and maintainence of the HUGE ponds needed for the algae... energy cost of handling the algae
These would not be ponds, they would be sealed tubes of plastic.  You could make them out of heat-sealed poly sheeting.  The liquid in the bottom would hold them down, the gas inside would hold their shape.  Algae handling consists of pumping stuff in at one end and pumping algae slurry out the other.
the energy cost of CO2 sequesteration
That's somewhere downstream of processes which use charcoal for fuel.  You don't need that when you are tilling charcoal into the soil.
Almost half of this biomass is a byproduct of agriculture already going on.

And the other half?

removal of organic matter that is currently left in the soil -- This organic matter is left on the surface, and never penetrates far.

And eventually either plowed into the soil or decomposed in place.  That's far enough for the purpose.

However, enough has to be left to break the force of raindrops.

So how much is "enough"?  It's this number that is missing from the scheme and may be important.

embedded energy in the building and maintainence of the HUGE ponds needed for the algae... energy cost of handling the algae -- These would not be ponds, they would be sealed tubes of plastic.

PLASTIC!  Good luck with the EROI...  Seriously, however you do it, mass handling of algae in a nutritious soup spread over a zillion sunbleached acres, in the face of contamination by other kinds of algae and bacteria and clogging by dead algae and other gunk, and bubbling captured CO2 through the whole contraption, well, I'll believe that when I see it happening commercially with a useful net energy gain.

Algae handling consists of pumping stuff in at one end and pumping algae slurry out the other.

I meant separating the 1% fuel part from the 99% soup part, after that initial pumping.

the energy cost of CO2 sequesteration -- That's somewhere downstream of processes which use charcoal for fuel.  You don't need that when you are tilling charcoal into the soil.

You can't till your charcoal and burn it too.  That was one of my questions: how much of each, and therefore how can you claim to both produce enough energy and permanently capture significant carbon.  Temporary capture does not count in my view.  And any sequesteration scheme that is an optional "downstream" step, and that has a major energy cost, will be promptly abandoned when energy becomes much more expensive.

One half is a good start. If wind/solar come on strong like some people think, you may not need the other half but I think we'll need a good chunk anyway.

The benefits of hummus are over-rated. Bio-char is better in at least a couple of ways.

One company (Greenfuel) is making a decent business out of this and has attracted venture capital.

You can till and process charcoal at the same time. E-P's figures bear this out. Remember the carbon comes from the atmosphere. And remember bio-char is hummus on steroids. You don't need as much as you think. Add it continuously over time and you create a virtuous circle.

The sequestration that is "optional" is not the soil amendment - that step is essential to combating climate change and enhancing soil fertility. The optional step is sequestering leftover CO2 not captured by the algae process.

And the other half?
If nothing else comes along, fuel grass grown for the purpose.
And eventually either plowed into the soil or decomposed in place.  That's far enough for the purpose.
No, it isn't.  Matter left to decompose on the surface contributes little to soil carbon content; plowing reduces it rather severely.  One of the advantages of zero-till is that it leaves roots in undisturbed soil where they add to organic matter.

I hope that tilling in a bunch of charcoal every 10 years or so doesn't disturb the soil structure too much.

So how much is "enough"?
The numbers I've calculated based on the figures from collection efforts come to about a ton per acre.
PLASTIC!  Good luck with the EROI...
An acre of double-layer 6-mil polyethylene is only about 326 gallons (volume) of plastic.  If that acre can produce between 15,000 and 30,000 gallons of oil (triglycerides) in the 3 years it lasts, that's pretty good EROI.
I meant separating the 1% fuel part from the 99% soup part.
I'm not sure how hard it is to separate algae from the surrounding water, but simple filtration seems to do it.
You can't till your charcoal and burn it too.
You don't.  The buried charcoal requires no pumping, the charcoal shipped off-site for electric generation isn't part of the equation (it's the buyer's problem), and the liquid fuel products (ethanol and/or some kind of oil) are aimed at consumption anyway.
And any sequesteration scheme that is an optional "downstream" step, and that has a major energy cost, will be promptly abandoned when energy becomes much more expensive.
But that's just it:  this energy won't become much more expensive.  Take the cost to the hypothetical electric utility, which buys charcoal to run its DCFC's.  It pays the producer $50/ton market cost plus $85/ton "social cost" of carbon (which it forfeits if it releases it back to the atmosphere); this totals $135/ton.  Now, a ton of carbon has about 29.7 gigajoules (about 8250 kWh) of chemical energy.  Used in a DCFC at 80% efficiency, the fuel costs a hair over 2¢/kWh; if the utility sites the fuel-cell plant where it can inject the CO2 underground, it would recover the $85/ton (minus expenses) and have a net fuel cost of only 0.76¢/kWh.

Coal has on the order of 20 million BTU/ton.  If you pay $30/ton at the mine mouth and burn it in a plant with a heat rate of 10,000 BTU/kWh (somewhat more efficient than average), that's 2000 kWh/ton or 1.5¢/kWh fuel cost.  The charcoal+DCFC is within about half a cent of the cost of coal, even before figuring transport costs.

Here's the news:  these technologies can make ultra-clean, carbon-negative energy roughly as cheap as electricity from burning coal.  And that's after paying rather steep carbon taxes!

I value the skeptical point of view, but I wish you'd dig into areas which aren't as solid as the ones you've attacked.  The total framework won't be strengthened unless people look hard at the weaker parts.

I am all for sequestering the CO2 underground. What if it won't stay and leaks back into the atmosphere? Are oil fields as "airtight" as a natural gas structure?


Most oil fields are charged with natural gas, so they are (have been) gas-tight over geologic time.  I suppose the problem is making certain that the drilling and subsidence from extraction of the oil have not opened cracks.

Some leakage is tolerable.  If it takes 10,000 years for the CO2 to leak out, that's probably long enough.

For such a serious matter, it's being treated in a very casual fashion. There is no national program to manage oil demand in the event of a supply crisis, or employ market forces to help. Neither is there a long-term initiative to reduce oil dependence and the size of the threat.
First - excellent post - thank you for the effort. Second - Here is a thought about a "national program to manage oil demand". You may not agree with it, but it is the best answer I have for what is going on, having invested in and studied the energy markets for the last two years

I happen to believe that oil supply is being managed covertly. I think it is done in this fashion:

1. The BIS (Bank of International Settlements, or the central banker's central bank) shows over 3 Trillion dollars in energy-related derivatives on their books. I contend that this represents the forward oil contracts that the FED/BIS have entered into.

2. A lot of oil is sold though fixed contracts between parties. The remainder (fungible) is sold on the spot or future market. The supply represented by these FED/BIS contracts (totalling say 50% or more of available fungible supply) combined with oil in storage (SPR + storage from Saudia Arabia, etc) is large enough to allow the FED to control the spot market and front month pricing by choosing the rate at which they release their oil and oil contracts onto the market.

I think that during the summer, they forced demand destruction (and consequently a high price) through artficial restriction, and that they have recently backed off (presumably since there is more supply available at the moment).

I think the reason the FED/BIS is doing this is to keep the markets orderly as we descend into peak oil. If they did nothing, then we would probably see much wider price swings and even some panic buying. By front-running the supply signal, they can smooth out the swings and maintain an orderly market.

To me, the covert presence of the FED/BIS in the market is a clear signal that peak oil has already arrived - else why would they want to do this? And if they are not, then to what purpose is the central banks accummulating 3 Trillion dollars worth of energy futures?

That's all well and swell but again it overlooks a pretty trivial fact of life: photosynthesis is an awfully inefficient way to generate and store electrons in a higher state of energy. Because that is what photochemistry in plants really does... move electrons around and keep them available in chemical compounds. It does that at roughly 1% efficiency. A modern single junction solar cell can do the same thing 18 times more efficiently. A cell with three junctions can do it 40 times more efficiently and the best possible solar cell could do it with over 90% efficiency. That is a gain of two orders of magnitude, right there, compared to which everything else is completely irrelevant.

The only limit for solar cells is thermodynamics between a heat reservoir at 5600K (the temperature of solar radiation) and 350K, the temperature of a solar cell in thermal equilibrium with the atmosphere.

Forget about all this bio crap and just buy those solar cells. Put them on your roof and start replacing coal burning power plants with renewables. If you want to save substantial amounts of energy, get a smaller car, hybrid or eco-diesel. Get a new, smaller refrigerator. Don't run that TV all day long without watching. Replace all your light bulbs with fluorescent lights. Remove electric heating from the building code.

What else can I say? The solution is out there. It beats me why we are not using it to its full potential.

The cool solar cells and the attendant installation, storage, connection to the grid, etc are still too expensive. We're starting to see a nice business out of renting out roofs but its at the moment subsidized but don't worry this is still worth doing and we will do it.

This "bio-crap" helps farmers, helps fuel our cars and provides us with loads of electricity. It retires coal! It puts carbon back into the ground! We have to do this.

I think INFINITE is too dismissive of the Thread's proposal, but I have to respond to your Solar Being 'Too Expensive'..  I think that's 'comfort economics'.. people spend that kind of money on Cable, Eating Out, Toys, Xbox, and so on.  I know people are really stretched by the economy, and a bunch of our entertainment practically amounts to 'self-medication', but PV can be bought in increments, and should be looked at as an important investment.  People think it costs a lot now, but as our situation gets closer to the edge, I can't see them getting cheaper any more, save some Major advance in the technology.   Today's prices are going to look cheap in a few years.
I have to agree on pricing. Solar cells are not very expensive to those who can afford them. And I am not saying that the 30% of the US population without health insurance can or even should. But those people are going to take a very serious hit in the energy market anyway. In case of solar we are talking, right now, about customers who are not scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Once technological advances are exhausted (they are, at this point, not, we are not even close), solar energy cost and "other" energy cost will scale with some pretty stable multiplier. In an ideal economy the multiplier will be 1.0 but we know that this is not the case for a variety of reasons. People easily tolerate price ratios of 1:2 to 1:10 for the same goods and services if they find psychological drivers. In case of luxury goods that is more than obvious... one can pay $5 for a dinner or $5000 (with caviar and some old wine that's an easy price to reach).

In case of energy I don't mind paying twice for clean renewables because I can afford it and it makes me feel good. This "feelgood factor" alone amounted in total to $11 billion in sales growing at 30% last year. Once the energy crunch is on, we will see this explode to a market hitting several $100 billion a year in no time. I would expect that to happen well before 2020.

"The cool solar cells and the attendant installation, storage, connection to the grid, etc are still too expensive."

Can I see a proof for that? This claim is made frequently but it is not obvious to me that the cost of solar energy is much higher than that for other energy sources. And, if we look at the explosive growth of the solar market and its lasting economic effects on LOCAL employment, it indeed takes a lot of manpower to install solar cells on roofs, I would be willing to bet that solar electricity is not only competitive but actually economically highly desirerable. Think of it as the best economic driver money can buy.

Storage is absolutely no issue as long as we burn coal and natural gas to make electricity. Every kWh generated by solar cells means less coal and NG burnt. Since we are VERY far away from replacing coal burning plants with solar energy, we can leave the storage issue out of the picture for now and a long time to come. By the time we will have more solar electricity than we consume, hydrogen will be easily established for energy storage. The only effect that solar-electricity to solar hydrogen conversion has is a loss of efficiency. Big deal, one takes the same hit with basically every form of hydrogen production.

"This "bio-crap" helps farmers, helps fuel our cars and provides us with loads of electricity."

This bio-crap means you are burning food in your car. And I always like to point out that for every gallon of biofuels one can feed a dozen people! Now think about that... a dozen pople go hungry in this world because you drive an ethanol car. How does that feel if you have a consciouns?

"We have to do this."

No. We do not have to do this. Our politicians choose to do this to push farming subsidies. It is a porking scheme that has practically no positive result in terms of energy independence and carbon emissions.

"Can I see a proof for that?"

Oh... The millions of homeowners carting out pv panels out of the Costcos, Walmarts and Home Depots? Oh, wait a minute, that's not happening! Hmmmm. Zero utility bills? Oh not even the richies with their PV and solar DHW systems have that.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for solar and wind and their current subsidies but show me some proof like E-P here has that solar can make the same kind of dent in the same time frame like biomass. But I'm all for it. Let the competition begin. The better solar and wind do, the less acres of biomass are needed.

Wheat straw is food? Corn cobs are food? Municipal green waste is food? Americans are FAT! Americans produce more than enough food for themselves. People starve overseas because of politics not because of American farmers. Climate change is making this worse.

Your reading comprehension is poor. Porking schemes are what we have now. Are solar and wind subsidies "porking schemes"? This is a program to combat global warming and fuel our economy. This is a program to keep dollars working here in our economy instead of going to oil-producing countries where they then finance U.S. Treasury debt which then finances disasters like the Iraq war.

This is a program is to kill coal! Think of it this way. If every coal burning plant was swapped out today with something zero-carbon, we could burn all the oil and natural gas reserves left and we wouldn't have to worry about global warming. An overheated planet will exacerbate the malnutrition problems way beyond anyone's worst nightmare.

Wheat straw is food? Corn cobs are food ?

Yes, next year, when they are returned to the soil as humus.

The massive scale of harvesting proposed is, I fear, unsustainable.  But I am still digesting.

Best Hopes,


Yes, adding bio-char to the soil enhances soils sustainability. No we don't want to be too dependent on biomass but we need to leverage it away from fossil fuels (especially coal) to a future energy economy anchored by efficiency, solar, wind, wave, hydro and maybe a dollop of both biomass and nuclear (although I'm not that keen on nuke).
"that solar can make the same kind of dent in the same time frame like biomass"

The question was about total cost of ownership. And I said that solar is most likely cheaper than most other forms of energy after one stops the denial and starts throwing the real tax dollars into the calculation.

"here has that solar can make the same kind of dent in the same time frame like biomass"

Show me it couldn't if it had the same kind of financial support as biomasspork or nuclear. The comparison you are asking for is an unfair one. And I like to point that out.

I wasn't talking about feeding Americans. I was talking about not feeding millions of people in other places with agricultural products that could be grown where we are now growing ethanol precursors.

Solar cells on your roof do not take up any land of agricultural value, yet, a roof full of solar panels can produce as much net energy as an acre of the best farmland in the world. It is a simple matter of thermodynamic efficiency. Photons to electrons is much more efficient than photons to sugars and alcohols or oils. Fact. Ask any chemist.

"If every coal burning plant was swapped out today with something zero-carbon"

Ethanol production in the real world is not zero-carbon. It uses oil and natural gas. EROI is horrible and does not seem to get any better the more people look at it. Just because it looks good does not mean it is.

And as far as reducing CO2 emissions is concerned, the best way to do that quickly is by taxation. A $1/gallon federal gas tax and a $100/ton of coal federal carbon tax would very quickly reduce US consumption and the fleet would look very different a few years from now.

Put a $2 tax on incandescent lights and give compact fluorescent lights away for free. Where I live I can buy compact fluorescents for 33 cents a piece. The electricity company loves them because they don't have to build more power plants.

Did you notice how badly insulated US refrigerators are? Eurpean models use way less electricity.

AC units could be made way smaller if building codes were made more stringent.

There are tons of ways to reduce consumption and they all work a lot more effectively than any biomass scheme ever will. The only thing that stops is from doing the right thing is the mindset that "more is better".

"Badly insulated US refrigerators".

Mine uses 392 kWh/year.  What are best EU models ? (I know different testing procedures, but generally comparable).

Best Hopes for efficiency,


The average US walk in refrigerator has twice the consumption of yours. I applaud you for your choice but that does not change the facts that Americans waste a lot of energy using oversized refrigerators. It is a trade of energy for convenience.

Higher electricity prices (as a result of a carbon tax) could cure that problem easily.

Mine is an 18.8 cu ft (.53 m3) Kenmore, the most energy efficient refrigerator made for the US market when I replaced mine after Katrina (think 5 weeks, 35 C#). Not a giant, but but hardly small.

I am curious what the best EU #s are.

BTW, this years model is down to 387 kWh, an extra -5 kWh.

Best Hopes for efficiency,


# Refrigerator art was the fad immediately after Katrina.  My frig on the curb was marked "COD GW Bush, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC"

Walk in refrigerators? Why would people have restaurant equipment at home? Do you drive to the store once per month? Do you live in very large extended families? Is your beer afraid of small places?
Ok, obviously you think your notions are superior. So superior that you've judged E-P's plan as "pork". Let's see your plan laid out like E-P has done given support from a carbon tax.

Show us the numbers.

Plants convert roughly 1% of sunlight into useful chemical forms of energy which then are converted in thermodynamic machines with 40% max. efficiency (due to current engineering limits), giving no more than 0.4% total efficiency while a good solar cell does it at 18%, i.e. 45 times more efficiently. That is as simple fact.

Which in turn means that the solar panels on your roof could make as much energy as a whole acre of some of the best farmland of the world. Also a fact.

You can't grow food on your roof. You need farmland to grow food. Fact.

Solar cells can have a theoretical efficiency of over 90%. Cells with 39% efficiency are commercially available. Fact.

If you applied the same amount of subsidies to solar that are given to corn farmers, we would see a lot more solar. Fact.

Solar panels have an EROI of 1000% or more. Corn ethanol is somewhere around 120%. Fact.

If you want to argue, argue with the facts.

Plants convert roughly 1%. So what? Plants also have a lot more surface area and are biologically programmed to tune themselves to capture the most sunlight possible. Fact.

Plants are very good at converting CO2 in the atmosphere into hydrocarbons for food and energy and carbon sequestration. Fact.

Plants work for nothing. They don't require a salary. Fact.

Solar cells are great at creating electricity but they leave the mistakes of the past right where they are while the polar caps and Greenland melts. Fact.

The grass crops being discussed don't need "the best farmland". Fact.

You can't eat corn stover, wheat and rice straw and forest slash unless maybe you're a ruminant. Fact.

Solar with 39% efficiency are very expensive and manufactured in expensive vacuum. Fact.

E-P's backstop subsidy to farmers are a positive incentive for engaging farmers in producing energy and correcting the state of the atmosphere compared to the current dysfunctional incentives for producing corn ethanol. Fact.  

On E-P's blog someone calculated 5 million acres would be required to substitute U.S. electrical needs with solar cells at a cost of 3 to 4 million per acre. This is too expensive. Fact.

I may go solar when and if it is economically advantageous. As yet, it is far more expensive than grid power, and, yes, I know how much tightening up one must do to go solar. I have this sneaking suspicion that it will always be more expensive than whatever power comes off the grid.

And anyone who tells me that I need a PV system in case the grid disappears just hasn't thought through thing at all.

IMO home-based PV electric is still not ready for prime-time.

Great a fossil fuel and nuclear power grid that has been and is subsidized up the wazoo is economic, while solar is not. It used to much more accurately be called political economy, but now its just economics and "markets" decide all, let me show you my equation...
In terms of the $$ that come out of my pocket, it is at this point probably 10x more expensive to have solar PV than grid electricity where I live. I don't know how the economics of nukes will work out in the future.

While I can appreciate the technical accuracy of the phrase 'subsidized up the wazoo..' it remains to be seen if PV will ever be price competitive with other energy sources. IMO when fossil fuels are no longer a significant player in the game, likely long after I'm gone, energy from any source will be much more expensive than it is today.

My system is nominal 3 kW, has produced about 4400 kwh per year the last 2 yrs. It cost me almost 10,000 after rebates (a good deal, I did some of the work myself). I am in PG&E (CA) country, where grid elec costs range from 11 to 35 cents per kilowatt, meaning I could recover from 484 to 1,540 per year. If I was offsetting only the higher range, it would obviously pay off rather quickly. I expect it to be providing me with electricity for at least 25-30 years, probably more (till I die). In my case, our use has been low, so at these rates it could take about 20 years to pay off. Commercial users pay the higher rates, so it pays off quickly for them. However, there is no question in my mind that rates will climb, probably dramatically.

No question most people get these systems as a personal statement, and a far cheaper one than the big unnecessary houses, trucks, SUVs etc that people don't bat an eye at, especially as you look at ongoing costs over the years that at least get offset by PV systems. No question in my mind that far more people could afford them than do, but it's not on their minds.

it remains to be seen if PV will ever be price competitive with other energy sources

Right.  Today, the PV panels are made using electricity from that subsidized grid.  Whether the PV panels offer a significant real-world net energy gain is still an open question.  The whole set-up, from mining and transporting the minerals to installing the panels, is totally subsidized by cheap oil.  And those who go "off grid" add massive, short-lived batteries to the scheme, with a large amount of embedded energy (and toxic chemicals).  Needing replacement batteries after a few years does not seem to me to count as being "energy independent".

"Whether the PV panels offer a significant real-world net energy gain is still an open question."

That is FUD. Panels are known to return the energy used for their production in 3-10 years, depending on technology. The EROI is not as high as for wind but significant.

"And those who go "off grid" add massive, short-lived batteries to the scheme"

Going completely off-grid is a personal statement, not a point of discussion. If you need it for an argument against PV, I can only assume you are trying to spread FUD.

Since energy conservation holds everywhere, even in the US, every J supplied to the grid from PV is a J less produced at a coal or gas burning power plant. Actually, it is better than that because I2R losses are smaller if the energy is used closer to the source, which is the case for rooftop solar.

"I have this sneaking suspicion that it will always be more expensive than whatever power comes off the grid."

Did you take into account all those tax dollars of yours that were used to build "the grid" in the first place? I have a sneaking suspicion that if one did, solar would actually look cheap.

"IMO home-based PV electric is still not ready for prime-time."

The market and professional investors think otherwise. They might be wrong, of course. But then, so might we all. Maybe there are infinite amounts of oil in the ground and magically plants will photosynthesize ten times more efficiently for us in the future and global warming is not man-made after all. Personally, I don't count on any of these maybes.

Solar radiation beats every other form of energy available on this planet by at least three orders of magnitude. And it happens that the easiest way to get at it is to cover your roof with about a dozen layers of glass, semiconductors and other materials.

Wind is dramatically cheaper than solar PV today (x6 is close).  I think that both will decline in price/kWh in the years to come, with solar declining faster but never catching up (without subsidies per wind).  So I see, long term, a niche for solar PV with a much larger market share for wind.

Both are good, wind is better :-)


Wind is a "Yes!...but..." kind of solution. Wind is ultimately created from solar radiation by a very poor thermodynamic engine with a rather small temperature difference between land and sea areas. The total available wind power on this planet is thus limited to probably a few percent of the direct solar radiation. I think the NREL estimate is that 150% of the electricity demand of the US could be generated with wind energy. That is a far cry from a solution to our energy problem. And long before it ever gets there people will start crying "Enough wind turbines already!".

Solar radiation, on the other hand, is abundant. We can tap into it very easily, it is architecturally unobstrusive and it scales to way more than what we need. Wind, I agree, is a short term fix. A long term solution, it ain't.

I disagree.  Per my worksheet posted elsewhere in this discussion, wind would supply 52% of North American demand (set at 80% of 2004 demand).

The 150% estimate was made (AFAIK) with technology that is already dated.

As far as one can project forward, wind could supply 2,000+ TWh annually with relative ease.

OTOH, solar PV restricted to some % of rooftops, has even more limitations.  I do not know the area of ALL rooftops, but 1,000 TWh in real world applications seems a stretch.  100% market penetration is unrealistic and 50% seems wildly optimistic.  Subtract bird droppings, dust, leaves, etc.

Wind turbines have almost no impact on agricultural uses for land (some impact on fisheries, but the bases are likely to become fish nurseries a la offshore oil rigs) while solar uses preclude other ag uses (except, perhaps mushroom farming or shade for livestock).

IF there was a need for 100,000 TWh in renewable energy annually for the US, I would agree that solar has to be the dominant source.  But ~4,000 TWh should be enough.

Best Hopes,


Why do you consider only 52% available?  Estimates are that there's over 6000 billion kWh/year available (in just the top 20 states), compared to US consumption of ~4000 billion kWh/year.

If you've got reason for downgrading the availability that far, I'd love to know what it is.

52% of the 3900 TWH  comes from wind.  If more is desired, erect more wind turbines.

Only hydro and perhaps geothermal are "maxed" out.

I estimated a 30% load factor (a bit lower than today) for complex reasons.



Ah, okay.  You're assuming much less than the recoverable energy.

Why you assume people would so limit themselves, I don't know.  If some people are willing to pay for more electricity, and other people can put up wind turbines so they can sell it to them, what would stop them?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate all the subsidies that are enabling various technologies. PV is 'subsidized' in effect by cheap fossil fuel energy. IMO the recent rise in PV was caused at least as much by higher oil prices as by lack of supply vs demand. My bet is that PV price will rise along with oil and natural gas prices. We will only know the true story of PV (and possibly wind also) when fossil fuels play an insignificant role in the energy picture. I expect, if this occurs and we still have an industrial capacity, PV will be quite expensive and the majority of people will be simply doing without the convenience of electricity.
EROI of good PV cells is 1000%. That is a heck of a lot better than EROI on most other forms of energy, especially fossil fuels in the comming decade. And if we wanted to look at the EROI of industrial solar using concentrators, we could do much better, still.

PV prices will always trail the average price of energy. But once it starts to supply serious amounts of energy, PV cost will also modify the average cost of energy itself. That's just market mechanisms at work.

There are no technical reasons why PV has to be more expensive than other forms of energy. Quite the opposite. PV is based on physical processes that happen within a few um thick semiconductor film. Which means that the active amount of material to make 1kW of electricity (requiring 50m^2 of PV) is approx. 0.4kg.

PV grade silicon is not very hard to make and most of the cost is actually packaging (glass, electrical connections) and installation. Once panels are integrated into roof structures instead of being installed on existing roofs, these costs are partially offset or are even completely gone.

Industrially mass produced solar cells have at least a factor of three to go before they even start hitting the physical efficiency limits. Which means that on a good day an average size home will be able to provide up to 15kW of peak power and 60kWh of total energy. That is not small change. The commercial building I am working in alone could supply itself and produce 50kW on top of that, easy. My shopping mall has the roof area to produce close to a MW with current technology. Instead they are roasting tar paper all summer long.  

Electricity is not a convenience in industrialized countries. It is a necessity. It does not matter how much it costs to make (and with solar cells it really does not cost that much, maybe 20-30cents/kWh), so we will just continue making it.

Engineer Poet,

Thanks for great and detailed post, I can only appreciate amount of work you have done.
I feel that you are little bit idealistic and underestimate difficulty of the transition to reduce fossil fuel use.
For example using of plug-in hybrids can decrease use of gasoline probably by 50%. Most of trips I have are less than 30 miles and charging can be made on destination point. For example if commute is less than 30 miles - charge can be done at home and at office parking.
Another solution - create incentive and possibility to live near work, for example I live 5 minutes by foot from Microsoft where I work.
There 2 proposals do not require new technology, but still require changes:

  1. Change in psychology - best vehicle is not with most powerful engine, but most efficient.
  2. Changing of assembly lines to produce hybrid vehicles.
  3. Willingness of consumers to spend money on hybrid vehicles. There might be additional problems like hearing of car in winter and wear of batteries after few year.
  4. Building of infrastructure to charge plug-in hybrids. Today hybrid vehicles are not officially chargeable; there is no standard equipment for it.
  5. Relocation of people closer to work requires different zoning and tax incentive to reduce commute.

So even these 2 simple steps are not easy to implement. I am little bit pessimistic about changes.


The solution to fleet turnover is simple. Make the more inefficient, more polluting vehicles more expensive and the better vehicle less expensive.

I.E, the feebate. Look it up.

Couple that with a carbon tax - the more gas you use, the poorer you are and then you have a lot of motivation to change your more carbon intensive ways.

That does not solve the macro question, as to where will the money, and energy, come from to rapidly replace most of the vehicles.  Incentives only move money from one person to another.
The same place it does now. We're not running out of oil just yet.
But perhaps we're running out of willing lenders?
Not by a longshot. All cash needs is something useful to do that enhances the productivity and wealth building edge of an economy. There's a load of cash just sitting on the sidelines waiting for the next big thing and stationary fuel cells are probably part of it.

The U.S. has a huge laundry list of long overdue infrastructure improvements just waiting for that cash to be funneled into 30 year bonds. See and their economic report for the details.

Cornucopian arguement.  Many infrastructure improvments have been shelved and the money used for big oil's and Israel's war in Iraq.
No. Optimist's argument. There's nothing that has been done that can't be fixed by first tying off the ugly mistakes and then paying for them by closing tax loopholes and enforcing the tax laws. Beyond that maybe modest increases to the top marginal income bracket and the tax rates on unearned income would be required.

A carbon tax would then help pay for the energy regime transition.

You forgot two things:
  • Conversion from imported petroleum to biofuels means the borrower has an income stream instead of an on-going liability.
  • We don't have to rapidly replace the vehicles; once we have some, what matters is which vehicles are doing most of the mileage.

A third thing is that the technologies to do this will be major export items.  The only people who wouldn't have any use for biomass conversion and energy systems are the oil states, so when they lent money to anyone besides us they'd be financing their own economic destruction.  Boo hoo.
nice post. it fits well with my vision of the future. ( yes, I hear most of you laughing )
anyway on to implementation, are these cokers scaleable to say local municipalities? the city of sacramento ca. comes to mind. they collect great quantities of biomass each year right off the's a nice pdf. explaining smud's biomass programs. could they use this idea? also, is on farm conversion doable? I like the idea of creating charcoal right were it's needed.
You didn't follow this link or you'd know that it can be mighty small indeed.  Yes, municipalities amd farms could use it.  It might be small enough for shopping malls.
yep, missed it. thanks again for a great post. I'll be chewing on this one for awhile.
I think most of the ideas here would be tried out under a regime of tough carbon constraints. Like others I think some incomings have been overstated and outgoings understated.  The latter include lifecycle equipment costs and multiple handling of materials.  The pie seems to have too many slices.  Some technical difficulties have been assumed away such as using impure gases in fuel cells.  

For comparison purposes the numbers could be reworked for a solar silicon economy with energy storage in which the only use for biomass is food. Of course none of this can happen while coal power remains improperly cheap.

Hello EP,

Obviously, you put a hell of a lot of work into this keypost--I thank you very much for this effort!  I will go to Reddit shortly to help promote further dispersal.

What I like best about the idea of US & Europe, and other importing countries, pushing hard for alternatives to fossil fuels, increased conservation, and better efficiencies; i.e, reducing our FF addiction, is that it will force the OPEC countries and Russia to maximize production and lower prices to try and forestall this universal paradigm shift.  Then, if they cannot rampup FFs: Deffeyes, Simmons, and Westexas & Khebab, et al, are on the correct prediction path-- we will see that the export kings are naked.

Currently, because the importing countries are continuing the business as usual model of infinite growth: the exporters can take the opposite tack of charging the drug addict as much as possible.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Bob, I think that there is a major difference between KSA and Russia.  KSA is ruled by a band of robber barons, known as the House of Saud, while Russia still has several power centers to act as a check on each other, so the management of their resources is more long term oriented.  I could be wrong, but, to me, a lot of Russian manoeuvring seems aimed at controlling the resources for the long term.  
Hello ImSceptical,

Agreed, and we will continue to see frozen corpses in the bloody snow, and more episodes like Livenko's radioisotope death by polonium, and the near poisoning of the Ukrainian President until these power centers coalesce into an operative whole.  When trillions$$$ are in play -- it becomes very lethal work.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I didn't say they were nice guys, just thinking longer term.  And at least they've kept the carnage intramural for the most part [Chechnya being arguably part of Russia].  Unlike a certain other once [and still] superpower.
EP. Thanks once again for all your good hard work and solid facts. Everybody here ought to look at your ergosphere regularly to see all the other good work you do.

I have only my oft-repeated comments.  First, biomass can be burnt directly in (what else!) stirlings, root and branch, forget the ethanol step- a waste of time and money and energy.  Sure, no stirlings around, but fact is, no money invested either, just like most of the other great widgets we know how to do.  They are nothing much more than what we all know and love- IC engines- and can be made just as readily as they are.

Second.  Ought to be a first priority, bar none, of every right thinking TOD addict, to somehow or another put the FULL price on energy, that is, the price that reflects ALL the effects, global warming most of all.  When that is done, every clever idea will get its rightful play, and the best ones will win.  No need to prespecify best ideas- let  science and engineering sort it out in competition.

And, always essential, cut down the number of us, me included.

Wimbi, I've got this to say about Stirlings:  they're fine heat engines, but they're heat engines.  If you can use an SOFC, MCFC or DCFC, you use the FC as the topping cycle and then maybe use a Stirling as the bottoming cycle.

I don't sell this short.  Skimming 50% with an SOFC and then grabbing 35% of the remainder with a Stirling engine gives net efficiency of 67.5%!  You can probably do the same on a megawatt scale with gas turbines.  But the fuel cell is always first in line.

Sure, EP, what you say makes good sense, if the fuel cell really works.  As an old time hands-on R&D guy, I have seen ever so many great ideas take a dive when they are tried in the real world.  Even my beloved stirlings still have one or two little problems ( Heh, heh, don't ask.)  So, since I know stirlings actually will do well on corn stover, I put in a little plug for them now and then.

As for that carbon fuel cell, I personally got no feel for it yet, and so remain among the reluctant doubters.   But all of it is fun to try, so let's not be timid.  Surely, I'd rather see $ go into fuel cells rather than into fancy useless curlycues on cars. Thanks again for the tremendous amont of good work you do.

Why bother with the fuel cell at all? Via Wikipedia, I found a gas turbine plant by Siemens that's been getting 55% efficiency since 2002!

Throw in that Stirling engine, and you get up to 71%!

Hi Engineer Poet.

I'm a first time poster, I've been secretly reading TOD for over a year now, mainly through the UK portal
I think TOD is the most, comprehensive, informative site in the world, and no other comes close in its ability to present a challenge to the status-quo, e.g RR and others publicly debating with Vinod Khosla.
This post it the one to get me commenting for the first time. It's the first really complete plan I have seen for replacing fossil fuels. In particular I like the idea of sequestering charcoal in the soil , think it might work to replace all of the peat and wetlands carbon sink which has gone missing.
The only thing which bothers me here about your plan is that it can allow the perpetuation of too much energy usage, too many polluting private cars and it might encourage depletion of the soil by working it too hard to grow biofuels. We'll need some of it to recover if we aren't going to starve later.
But still, it seems a possible route to a lower energy future, allowing us to adjust while the oil runs out and taking the sting out of climate change.

James in UK

Monies collected from a carbon tax must be rigorously prioritized.

At the top of the list is conforming to a carbon de-loading protocol and therefore sequestering char in the soil. Start rewarding economic actors like farmers for returning carbon to the earth.

Next are the best buys first. That is efficiency and so that means R&D and subsidies for fuel cells, building weatherization, retrofit and codes, efficient lighting and better mass/rapid transportation.

Building more roads which encourages more cars and sprawl should never be paid for with carbon tax monies. Ideally gas tax collections would be reduced both by more efficient vehicles and carbon tax collections.

Nice post EP - I could've used your brain back in August.

JN2: The by-product of the Syntec process (BTL) is char... Char as in charcoal? If so, have you seen E-P's posts on DCFCs? (direct carbon fuel cells)? Seems like we could get both liquid and solid fuels at the same time!

Syntec: Sounds very interesting... Lets say we have a cogen fermentation/gasification plant operating in Nebraska.  The corn goes to the fermentation side while the stover goes to the gasifier.  The char/ash from gasification goes back to the fields for charring (Terra Preta).

In other words, perhaps the only net carbon negative alt fuel production path that can meet any modicum of the LTF quantities needed to offset Peak decline.

Although similar to your concept, you and I differ in that I contend that the biomass gases should be used for direct ethanol conversion.  On theoretical yields of 100 gallons per ton of gasified feedstock, this means that there is more than enough biomass on the continent especially if DEC crop rotation (I prefer canabis sativa over miscanthus) is utilized in conjunction with conservation, cogen best practices and of course Terra Preta.

Truth be told, I don't know too much on the DCFC side of things hence, I've always used the Saab bio-power 9-5 and upcoming Saab bio-power 9-5 hybird autos as models of future alt fuel usage although ethanol and methanol fuel cells are garnering more of my attention.  

Perhaps you could elaborate on the DCFC potential as you see it?  

I contend that the biomass gases should be used for direct ethanol conversion.  On theoretical yields of 100 gallons per ton of gasified feedstock, this means that there is more than enough biomass on the continent
At 100 gallons/ton, replacement of gasoline alone requires 2.1 billion tons of biomass.

I found a way to replace gasoline, diesel, a big chunk of natural gas and nearly all coal with 1.7 billion tons.  And it'll provide several ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere permanently.

Which is better for economics? energy security? environment?

The DCFC works in concert with the SOFC to provide extremely high efficiency conversion of biomass to energy; also, the DCFC runs on a fuel which can be made very cheaply and stored indefinitely in heaps.  This gives even more energy security.  The efficiency is high because you get a two-fer:

  • Biomass is converted to charcoal without combustion using SOFC waste heat.  Roughly 53% of the energy winds up as charcoal, 41% as gas, 6% as heat of reaction.
  • The 41% of the energy in the gas can be converted to electricity in the SOFC; this yields perhaps 20.5% of the biomass energy as electricity in the first stage.
  • The 53% of the energy in charcoal can be converted to electricity in the DCFC; at 80% efficiency, this yields 42.4% of the biomass energy as electricity in the second stage (which might be thousands of miles away and years later).
The net efficiency is 62.9%, and that's before considering bottoming cycles.

A short ton of biomass is ~15.8 million BTU.  100 gallons of ethanol has an LHV of 7.8 million BTU; you can't even break 50% efficiency converting to another fuel!  The one virtue:  it works in current vehicles.  Well, we will be scrapping most of them in less than 20 years, but any new energy system will be with us for a century.  I know which way I'd go.

EP.  I am still trying to understand how real the DCFC is.  It's great in the lab(?), but we have these few little problems yet to solve---.  What I am trying to find is- what actually are those little problems, and is it possible to really solve them and still come out with something we want?

I did look at your reference on DCFC and tried to find more about its present state of development.

It would also be good to see some  comparisons with thermodynamic limits, ie, x percent efficiency compared to y percent possible within second law limits.   Don't you just love having people ask you for a PhD thesis for nothing?

PS- I have got my own domesticated stirling putting out a very quiet 600 watts, when I rightfully expected a very quiet 1000 watts  "We have a few little problems that need just a little more work".

So far as I can tell, the DCFC is a very straightforward twist on the molten-carbonate fuel cell.  Only the mix of fuel and its method of supply are changed.  MCFC's are in pilot-scale plants already, so I consider them to be better established than some of these other technologies (e.g. Greenfuel).

Cooper says why the DCFC is so efficient:  there is almost no entropy increase between O2 and CO2, so very little heat has to be lost to remove the entropy.  This is where stuff gets into thermo (and way outside of things you can relate to with common-sense analogies).

EP -
Just an excellent post.  I will get a copy of your article to the Nevada Legislature which meets in February 2007.
Reno:  Run this past some staffers and other interested parties.  Collect their questions and comments.  Get them back to me, if you would.  I'd like to have them addressed, with any available supporting facts, before you go to bat.

One thing:  Reno is in the middle of a desert, no?  I'm not sure if there's much biofuel industry potential there, unless it's growing thermophilic algae on fuel-cell effluent gas to make secondary fuels.

"The Limits to Growth" published in 1972 has a chapter on technology.  They state there that the essential problem is exponential growth in a finite and complex system.  "Faith in technology as the ultimate solution can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem--the problem of growth in a finite system--and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it."

"Technology developments---must be combined with deliberate checks on growth."

Hi Johnny,

 I appreciate Engineer Poet's work, and also your reply here. What you say is on the theoretical side.  Some questions for both of you:

  1. Would you say, then, that there is a principle - (in "overshoot prevention" we might call it) - that mandates "checks on growth" go hand-in-hand with something like what EP proposes?  
  2. If so, could you suggest some specifics?  
  3. And would EP (and others) be prepared to accept both your thesis and any suggestions for implementation?  
  4. And perhaps add his own?
  5. And to this add a mechanism for insuring that both "checks" and "developments" remained tied to each other?  
I would start with a near-total moratorium on immigration, elimination of the anchor-baby loophole and deportation of all illegals in the USA.  I'd also revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens who aid illegal immigration and deport them too.

We'd get rid of at least 11 million people that way.  It would establish some breathing room pretty quickly, though Mexico might need to actually move on reforms to keep their elites in power...

Hi EP,

 I appreciate your work. I'm trying to get at how to incorporate the concerns posted by Johnny and others (example below), into the changes you are talking about - if at all possible.  Is there a way to insure conservation or (to put it slightly differently) or avoid "Jeavons" or other "context" problems? Is there a way to avoid the same predicament we see with "peak"?  I'm not saying there is not...I'm trying to look at how these concerns and different ways of viewing the situation can be reconciled, if they can be.  

What else needs to happen?  Specifically. I don't mean to "counter" your contribution - I'd like to encourage you and/or others to expand upon it.  

 Then, in terms of Mexico, specifically. Do you see any problems with this immigration proposal?  Would you also let Mexico stop oil imports to US? for example. Can the US deal with the implosion of the Mexican economy that many have seen as an obstacle to your suggestion?  

From "SaturnV":
"In fact the application of more and more technofixes like the ones envisaged in this article, and elsewhere, to support increasing production and consumption will not only hasten the inevitable end of the energy sources and other resources that make them possible, but also ensure that the effects of collapse will be even greater than if it occurred today, because more people, infrastructure, and GDP will by then need to be supported when the bottom gives way."

Would you also let Mexico stop oil imports to US?
Mexico would have to sell its oil to someone.  The US can pay them the most, because of lowest shipping costs.
Can the US deal with the implosion of the Mexican economy that many have seen as an obstacle to your suggestion?
The Mexican economy is already imploding, creating maybe 1/4 as many jobs as its population requires; it's necessary to force the Mexican elite class (which has more billionaires than Switzerland) to deal with it.  On top of this, Mexicans in Mexico have fewer children than Mexican immigrants in the USA.  If we want to save the world from overpopulation, keeping Mexico's human problems out of the USA is essential.
You seem to have all of your liquid fuel coming from the CO2 exhaust from the carbon fuel cells, by growing algae.

Wouldn't that require a large solar input for the photosynthesis? And wouldn't that in turn require large areas for the ponds that will grow the algae? It would also require locations with abundant and consistent insolation.

Have you done any numbers on the practicality of the solar requirement for this?

Those figures are from Greenfuel; I am taking their word for it.
The info on their web page is rather general. They "suggest" that yields can be up to 10,000 gallons per acre, but provide no data to support those kinds of numbers over any kind of time period. On the basis of how many acres?

I think that there probably are locations where this technology can make a positive contribution. But the problems in using this to generate all of our liquid fuel requirements should not be glossed over.

For one thing, these sites would likely be in the arid Southwest to make use of the sunshine. Where would the water for the ponds come from? How much would be needed to offset the high evaporation there. And if this is a closed system with a cover, it would require many acres worth of transparent cover.

Another issue would be the requirement for N, K, and P that all plants have. Would this use nutrients at a rate comparable to current U.S. agriculture? If so, then it is not sustainable.

Another option to make use of waste CO2 streams is George Olah's idea to produce hydrocarbons by a reaction with H2. The H2 could be generated by photovoltaics with a much higher efficiency than photosynthesis. Perhaps this technology might complement the algae idea, and be useful under conditions which do not favor algae harvesting.

these sites would likely be in the arid Southwest to make use of the sunshine.
No, they (or at least the primary set) would be close to wherever the biomass is being generated.  There is the possibility of running a second set of algae grow-ops where charcoal is being used for fuel (creating more CO2), and that could be anywhere.
Where would the water for the ponds come from? How much would be needed to offset the high evaporation there.
Greenfuel's system is closed, because it feeds the algae with CO2-enriched stack gas from a powerplant.  Aside from the type of powerplant, my proposal is almost the same.
And if this is a closed system with a cover, it would require many acres worth of transparent cover.
One percent or so of the area providing the biomass, for corn country.

Poly sheeting would do for this.  One figure I saw quoted for a double layer of 6-mil film is 19¢/ft2; figure half that for single-layer, and it might be cheaper in very large quantities.  Even 20¢/ft2 is only about $8700/acre.  If that acre produces even 5000 gallons of fuel a year and the film lasts 3 years, that's about 58¢/gallon; at 10,000 gallons/acre, it's 29¢/gallon.  Even if the fuel has only half the energy of crude oil, it's equivalent to crude at $24 to $48 per barrel.

One little fillip is the possibility of recycling the greenhouse material within the system.  CWT's thermal conversion process can turn both fats and waste plastic into a light oil.  The process works fine on turkey fat (triglycerides).  At first glance, it looks possible to feed both algal oil (triglycerides) and the waste plastic in, and get hydrocarbon oil (fuel or chemical feedstock) out.  In short, it's possible to have zero plastic waste in this system.

Pretty impressive post EP. I kept waiting to hear that we would also get some Ginsu knives with this plan.

Your stressing of Charcoal is definitely a good long term idea.

To me there are many nuggets of wisdom in this post as well as some points i am skeptical of.

One thing that EP brings up that I think is a core part of how we need to change our thinking.

The net energy of some of our alternative fuel options is poor. But that is because the things we DEMAND it be turned into (liquid fuels) are too difficult to do without a large heat loss.  Cellulosic ethanol combines a great energy harvesting practice (combining sun, dirt, water, and labor into biomass) and a poor conversion technology (coal or NG to steam off excess water to make ethanol)

If what we demanded changed (to say electricity), then our energy return would go up because we would be using the biomass closer to its origin without too many thermodynamic steps.

Nate - so if I read you right, you suggest burning the biomass to generate electricity to run a car.  I just have this huge conceptual problem that 21st century civilisation can revert to the 15th century energy source which was wood.

In the UK our forests disappeared with only a few million folks to keep warm.

I certainly commend EP for this comprehensive and well thought out proposal. I wonder about one thing.
Trying to capture and use all of the "waste biomass" for fuel and charcoal would, it seems to me, rapidly deplete the soil of nutrients other  than the carbon buried into it.  Would this not in the longer term leave us with neither food, timber nor biomass?  (I'm assuming that massive amounts of petroleum based fertilizer will no longer be available.)
The British Isles would have a tougher time of it, but neither are you firing Newcomen engines and heating drafty stone houses with open fireplaces any more.
Yes, the UK population is now much larger so obviously we could not rely on wood alone. But, in the 15th century they didn't have hydro-electric power stations, wind turbines, solar cells and solar thermal systems, nuclear power, or the knowledge of the biomass-gas-char-fuelcell system that EP proposes. Have to disagree with EP's comment above about heating drafty stone houses though, being that I'm sitting in one right now.
If you're burning wood in open fireplaces, you are a true Luddite. ;-)

not exactly, because i worry about multicriteria analysis, the fact that energy seems to be our limiting factor now, but mayn not be in the future (might be some trace metal, or water, etc)

But IF energy return was all important, then we could increase the average EROI of society by transforming our demand to byproducts of efficient processes as EP suggests. Dont know what these would be but certainly a higher % of electricity would be one of them

I am a bear of very little brain, so I live by the second law of thermodynamics.

"the entropy of the universe increases during any spontaneous process"

This gives me a very simple Weltanschauung (World View) and saves me from having to understand and debunk perpetual motion machines, and some schemes to save the world from energy crisis.

Life is a process that reverses the spontaneous entropy. And on a geological scale this can be exploited (Dukes 2003).

But I am skeptical that it can system based on biofuels can work, no matter how efficient the post processing.

It also makes me skeptical of other energy concentrating machines, like wind, and concentrated solar power.,,1957692,00.html
(Two  non-nuclear solutions to the energy crisis, crisis what crisis ?)

But it does make me favour Nuclear (fission and fussion), as e=mc^2 puts them at the top of the energy hill.

I look forward to the above solution or the CSP solution proving my skeptisism unfounded. But I have seen Nuclear (fission and fussion), and understand the energy source.

Germany has invested in wind and solar before, why would CSP be different ?

I have also seen energy concentration machines like wind fail. Other than natural geological processes like Oil and Gas formation, and global natural systems like the Water cycle, or Tides, man appears to have failed to collect solar energy directly or indirectly, sufficient to sustain society.

The only exception been release of particles or gases into the atmosphere (Global Dimming/Global Warming).

Some elements of both approaches may be useful, especially the MIT/Ford Engine, but while pursuing some aspect of the rest, I don't see them scaling like thier advocates envisage, or even making the ERoEI cut.

So for now I will file them with the Dyson Sphere (1959).
I think Asimov was optomistic in 1956 when he wrote the Last Question, although it neatly deals with the god issue.
Until the fissioning Uranium and burning coal are the answer.

"But slowly Multivac learned enough to answer deeper questions more fundamentally, and on May 14, 2061, what had been theory, became fact.

The energy of the sun was stored, converted, and utilized directly on a planet-wide scale. All Earth turned off its burning coal, its fissioning uranium, and flipped the switch that connected all of it to a small station, one mile in diameter, circling the Earth at half the distance of the Moon. All Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower."

The Last Question.
"Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?"

Read the whole short story for the Answer:

There is always someone to spoil a good story,2,11-18-1998/Kovach.htm

So now we know, 2061!

"The answer -- by demonstration -- would take care of that, too."

Which is what I am waiting for, show me the potential energy.

Dukes 2003 (I used to have a better link)
MIT/Ford Engine
Dyson 1959

Please show me any step in the above proposal which goes thermodynamically "uphill".  With numbers.

No, the CO2-to-algae step is not uphill.  Sunlight and CO2 in, waste heat and biomass out.

and total energy yield of charcoal+gas could exceed 100% of the heat of combustion of the biomass

At every stage you assume external inputs (waste heat), and do not account for inputs (like transport) or sources of waste heat and recycle heat with 100% efficency.

A sub-critical coal plants is 36-38% efficent with ultra critical plants reaching 48%, and combined cycle gas turbines can reach 60% efficency.

You are taking a less energy dense fuel and processing it at 49% efficiency (your figures) or overall 70%. At best you are doubling the efficency of the plant, but you loose that (and more) in your initial fuel.

If there were a gain in efficency we can just run the SOFC and DCFC from coal.

Next slieght of hand is to run the CO2 through bioreactors, the problem is not the efficency of the carbon capture but the efficency of the capture of solar radiation.

You have two bites at capturing solar radiation, with no costs or timescales, you arguably double the efficency of the electricity generation, but do so with a less energy dense fuel which negates your gains, which could equally be applied to coal.

It is not about the efficent use of carbon, but the efficent production of energy, which can not be represented as carbon. (i.e. It's the efficency energy output not the carbon cycle that matters).

From Dukes 2003, in 1997 we burnt 422 times the net productivity of the Earth's biomatter in fossel fuels.

Duke also calcualtes we would need ~50% more of the Earths biomass to replace fossel fuels raising our take to 22%, and having a huge impact on other forms of life.

I could put more effort into a critique (it's not my field).

It is a non-starter.

I could put more effort into a critique (it's not my field).
I think you need to.  You're misusing the concept of energy density, for one thing.
At every stage you assume external inputs (waste heat)
No, just the one stage:  carbonization.  Heat can drive chemical reactions away from equilibrium and add energy to the products.  And I didn't assume it, I assumed energy loss:  53.5% energy yield as carbon, 40.9% as gas, balance as heat (available for e.g. distillation but not convertible to electricity in the fuel cell).

I also ignored the possibility of greater energy recovery via bottoming cycles.  SOFC's run hot enough to support two more bites at the apple:  a gas-turbine intermediate cycle and a steam-turbine bottoming cycle.  The expansion of gas volume via evolution of water from solid biomass would boost a gas turbine considerably.

You are taking a less energy dense fuel
What does that have to do with anything?  Natural gas has a lot less energy per cubic foot than biomass, but that's not what matters.
processing it at 49% efficiency (your figures) or overall 70%.
No, I took 41% of the total biomass energy, assumed conversion to electricity at 50% efficiency (up from today's 49%) and got 20.5% out.
If there were a gain in efficency we can just run the SOFC and DCFC from coal.
That happens to be what John Cooper's presentation suggests, but it's not sustainable.  Cooper also lists results of test runs on charcoal (char); his DCFC runs better on char than anything else.  I took that and ran with it.
Next slieght of hand is to run the CO2 through bioreactors, the problem is not the efficency of the carbon capture but the efficency of the capture of solar radiation.
Talk to Greenfuel about that, I'm using their numbers.
You have two bites at capturing solar radiation
No, just one each; the operations would be on separate plots of land (unless someone spread temporary greenhouses over fallow cornfields for the winter).  I suggest taking several whacks at the carbon, because that's the hard thing to capture and the critical item for GHG reduction.
It is not about the efficent use of carbon, but the efficent production of energy, which can not be represented as carbon.
At this point, you've stopped making sense:  energy can indeed be represented as carbon, which has a heat of combustion of 93960 cal/mol.

I think you need to go back and study the fine points.  They are not something you can ignore.

E-P can probably explain this better than I can but what it comes down to is you're missing the point.

You start out with biomass, smolder (pyrolyze) it and what you're left with is of sufficient density and quality to run a fuel cell at 50 percent plus efficiency. You don't want to do this with coal because coal is what we want to leave in the ground if we're going to save the atmosphere.

Some of the char product is tilled back into the soil to sequester the carbon - this is what corrects the mistakes of the past, i.e. coal burning. And a farmer can probably do the smoldering and sequestration part completely on site or close to it - there's no need to transport the biomass all that far. The U of Hawaii's pyrolyzer looked pretty compact.

E-P has analyzed the transportation requirements for biomass energy production in this thread and they are modest.

We burn 422x in fossil fuels because we burn them inefficiently like there's no tomorrow. That's where fuel cells and hybrid vehicles come into the picture. Agressive efficiency measures are a given.

The plan is definitely a better "starter" than the boondoggle of corn ethanol.

I don't quite understand the model he is proposing.

So in effect 50% of the energy is consumed on site (Farm) as biogas, then some of the remaining 50% some is returned to the soil as a soil improver/carbon sequestration, and the remainder is transported and turned into electricity by a DCFC at 50% efficency, producing CO2.

This CO2 is then used as an input for bioreactors (There is  a big question over bioreactors).

Other than the fact that the process is carbon neutral (assuming no external farm inputs), I don't see any efficency gains that could not be replicated by using coal. But I also don't see biomass producing the quantities of energy proposed.

Agressive efficency gains are independent of the energy generation, unless you are going to use DCFC for vehicles which E-P acknowledges is unlikely, in which case you could again use coal.

I just don't believe biomass can provide the kind of ERoEI
we need or the quanities of energy required in addition to providing food.

I don't support corn ethanol either.


Again, we don't want to dig up any more coal. That's how we got into this mess into the first place.

Basically we want to partner with plants. They take carbon out of the atmosphere. We till it into the ground which helps them. We take a portion of the carbon for our food, electrical and fuel needs.

We then have to use that energy wisely. We have to use it to build more wind and solar cells and efficient buildings, lighting and vehicles.

As for quantities, E-P has worked it out. 1.7 billion tons of biomass per year puts a huge dent in the problem. And if we're more aggressive with efficiency and other renewables maybe we won't need that much.

Another thing to understand: pyrolysis creates two important products in the biogas - Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen. Once you have those two, the world's your oyster. You can make ethanol, fertilizer and perhaps even bio-butanol - another excellent fuel. You can take both the carbon monoxide and the hydrogen, run them through an SOFC to produce electricity.
Thumbnail sketch:

  • Biomass (100% of energy) broken down by heat to charcoal (53.5%), hot gas (40.9%) and heat of reaction (5.4%).
  • Hot gas (40.9%) burned in SOFC at 50% efficiency, yielding electricity (20.5%) and more heat (total heat 25.8%).
  • More electricity may be available from bottoming cycles running on the SOFC heat output, but is not counted here.
  • Charcoal is optionally used in DCFC's (80%, not 50%), yielding 42.8% of biomass energy as additional electricity (some extra may be available from bottoming cycles on 750°C waste heat).

Once you get to feeding the SOFC and/or DCFC effluent to algae, processing algae to other fuels... it gets complicated.  But a potential 63.3% of biomass energy coming out as electricity in the first few steps is a number I had to check twice before I believed it.
Yeah, that DCFC is speced at 80% efficiency!

Ever drive through the Central Valley of California on I-5 or 99? Imagine seeing a cluster of fuel cells with an algae farm from the highway every 100 miles or so producing electricity, fertilizer, ethanol and bio-diesel.

Sure beats the coal burning monsters we have now. Or casinos!

Life is a process that reverses the spontaneous entropy

It's important to distinguish between thermodynamic entropy and logical entropy. The laws of thermodynamics specifically apply to thermal entropy, and under specific condiions, but not logical entropy. Some people say logical entropy follows the same laws, but we have no proof.

Life does not reverse T-entropy, generally speking, life always increases T-entropy. Life is a dynamic process, energy is used to drive that process. In terms of L-entropy, life creates a form of order, but as stated, it is not clear what laws apply here. Indeed, how do you even define "logical order"?

The second law of thermodynamics is a useful tool for engineers, it is best left at that. Using it as a basis for wider philosophical principles is tenuous, at best.

Life has been living off the power of the Sun for over 4 billion years, without resorting to eating oil or nuclear fusion, clearly the 'technology' works.

I wonder if Olah's methanol economy technology might step in and substitute for the algae in steps 3 and 4 in your diagram.  Solar PV and wind could provide day and night, summer and winter conversion of CO2 to methanol, with no distillation step necessary.  Olah is an expert with fuel cell techology, so he ought to know about running them backwards to get fuel from electricity.
Got to first say, that this is an excellent post.

Now with regards to getting methanol instead of oil from Algae. Why would you really want to? Methanol as a fuel is a nasty compound, and very toxic. Going thru Algae allows you to capture more CO2, and to have a useful soil ammendment or animal feedstock in addition to extracting oil from the algae.

The main problem with implementation of E-P's idea on a wide scale would be agricultural acceptance. You'd have to have buy-in from the farmers, and you'd have to work out some sort of crop rotation scheduling. With a proper rotation I could envision a winter crop of rye (great erosion prevention and water retention crop, in addition to fixing nutrients in the soil), a spring crop of switchgrass, followed by corn or soy or conventional food crop, then a fall crop of switchgrass, and back to a winter cover crop.
Work in some alternating seasons of legumes, sugarcane, and cron, and you will effectively make the soil itself much more productive. By breaking out of a fertilizer dependent mono-culture farming system, your soil health SHOULD be greatly increased (if you get your rotation schedules right).

In order for this system to work well the biggest changes would be on the farms themselves. It could reinvigorate the family farm, and bring back the heartland. Imagine a family farm in North Dakota, being an energy exporter. Between biomass and a few wind turbines, the farmer would have much more economic stability. (of course the grid infrastructure would have to be beefed up as well).


Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Miscanthus are perennial grasses; they require several years to come up to full productivity and cannot be inter-cropped with annuals.

The great plains used to be full of tallgrass areas; the grasses aren't edible by humans but they make good forage for bison (and presumably cattle).  A farmer with some fields of fuel grass would have a choice between cutting for fuel or grazing for meat, depending on market conditions.

The tallgrass crops, being perennials with extensive root systems, would also be ideal for planting along streams and drainage paths to catch and retain any soil eroded from the zones planted to annuals.  Making those erosion-control zones pay for themselves would be a great advance; subsidies already encourage planting the likes of switchgrass on marginal and erodible land, but profits would encourage farmers to put even less-marginal land into crops which build soil.

People keep repeating that methanol is some sort of demon brew, when it isn't.  Drug stores and hardware stores sell methylated spirits, guess what it contains?  I just bought a can of windshield deicer at 7-11, it is methanol. Remember those "spirit" duplicators that were used before Xerox style copy machines got cheap?  Spirit = methanol. Over a lifetime, a gasoline economy is going to poison you alot better than one based on methanol.  As a fuel, there are more similarities than differences compared to ethanol.  The major difference is that methanol is much easier to synthesize, so the EROEI is better; and when you are in the low EROEI digits like for ethanol, then you need to take any improvement that you can get!