Uncharted Territory

January 31, 2008

All about algae

Filed under: Biofuels, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 8:46 am

Interesting article in the Indy yesterday.  Trouble is, when it comes to biofuels, logic and journalism seem to be totally incompatible.   Take this section (my emphasis):

“…it is hoped that algae farms could use the CO2 waste from power stations, creating the possibility of power plants that produce fuel simply as a by-product of electricity, rather than pumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (1). Shell says a 1,000-hectare algae facility would absorb 300,000 tons of CO2, which, even factoring in the fossil fuels that would be consumed in processing algal oils (2), would be the equivalent of taking 70,000 medium-sized cars off the road (3).”

(1) If you feed CO2 waste from power-stations to algae to produce fuel, all you’re doing is delaying its release to the atmosphere.  Sure, it may be efficient to make use of a concentrated source of CO2 in this way, but it doesn’t ultimately keep that CO2 out of the atmosphere.  To do that you’d have to destroy it or bury it or otherwise dispose of it.

( 2) It’s wrong to say “fossil fuels” are used to provide the energy to produce biofuels, even though this is often seen.  The energy could come from the biofuels themselves, so it has to just be considered as an efficiency reduction.

(3) Or the algal biofuel could simply allow people to drive more – see The Displacement Fallacy.

Algal biofuels are clearly preferableto agrofuels (biofuels from agricultural products), but I suspect that if we end up producing energy in such a capital-intensive fashion, solar will win out (see Biofuels Are Not the Answer).  The issue is whether complementary products (electric cars or even the electrification of the UK railway network and batteries or other storage) arrive in time.  It’ll be interesting to watch.  The battle will make VHS vs Betamax, HD-DVD vs Blueray look like a minor scuffle.

Another reason for backing electricity, though, is the problem of local emissions – urban air pollution – which biofuels do nothing to solve.  I suspect air quality will become a huge issue as ever more people can afford to be concerned about pale green issues.  By “pale green” I mean environmental issues of direct personal concern.  As people get wealthier, they are prepared – or able – to sacrifice some further economic gain for enhanced quality of life.

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