Taking the Long View on Renewables

Today the New York Times, and quite a few other papers, picked up on reports published yesterday in Science that suggest “almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels.” The Times did sneak “today” into that first sentence, but, all in all, the coverage took an incredibly short view on renewable fuels.

Judging renewable fuels on a snapshot of what they’re capable of now is like judging aviation based on the Wright brothers’ flyer. Within 65 years, we’d broken the sound barrier and landed on the moon. In the last five years alone, we’ve been able to increase switchgrass yields by 50 percent. Everyday, less and less land can be used for more and more fuel, promising to reduce the carbon footprint dramatically. In less than a decade, it is highly likely that converting that grass to fuel will become economically viable and therefore widespread. Similar technology could be used to produce fuel from waste like yard clippings, brush, animal fats, scrap paper, algae, and sawdust — all of which requires no additional land use. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Up to this point minimal resources have been devoted to research. Unfortunately, narrowly crafted coverage of scientific articles threatens to keep it that way by not giving the public the complete story on renewable fuels, which endangers the political consensus necessary to maintain and increase funding to innovative technologies.

In addition, the future promises the ability to better use abandoned agricultural land to grow fuel crops, which a second study published in Science yesterday (and not covered in the Times) has said would offer “immediate and sustained [greenhouse gas] advantages.”

The simple matter is that second generation renewable fuels, along with increased efficiency, better urban planning and increased mass transit, hold tremendous promise for sating the world’s ballooning demand for fuel, for which there appears to be no other viable solution. And, clearly you can’t have a second generation without the first.