Monday, August 11, 2008

"green gold" - a response to Rossinisbird's critique of algal biofuels


Microalgae are widely touted as a solution to all of the world's carbon-related ills, from replacing fossil fuels to capturing carbon to reducing pressure on food prices by replacing existing first generation biofuel feedstocks that effectively take food from the mouths of the poor and hungry and convert it into fuel for gas guzzlers. (short space for breath after long opening sentence) Rossinisbird finds these diverse claims encouraging but remains sceptical about their real contribution to climate emissions due to the necessity to consume resources and electricity in their production whilst not actually contributing to any serious reduction in emissions. I wholly support his criticisms of the technology, in that it is far from being carbon neutral at present, relying extensively on components and energy derived from fossil fuels. It would only be fair, at this point, to observe that most renewable technologies at this stage still rely extensively on power from conventional technologies to manufacture them. I doubt if their currently exists a wind turbine orPV cell manufacturer whose business relies exclusively on renewably generated energy (correct me if I'm wrong). This is because we are in the earliest stages of the inevitable transfer to renewables and have barely begun to climb the mountain.

This is not an excuse- in my opinion it should be compulsory for all new buildings and structures that require electricity, industrial or otherwise, to be enlisted in local collectives for the installation of appropriate renewable generations systems- i.e. meiogeneration. The prefix 'meio-' in ecology denotes an intermediate scale between macro and micro. I am using this term to differentiate the above proposal from the two prevalent forms of generation and distribution. All three of these designs have their advantages and disadvantages and there is no 'right' model for a global network of renewables. Given the challenge of converting a nation from centralised generation to diffuse renewable sites across the nation it seems sensible to start from an intermediate scale such as meiogeneration as micro generation is very inefficient- if twenty houses contribute £1000 each to buy one bad-ass wind turbine and share the output they'll get a lot more generation than if they each bought their own poxy £1000 turbine that won't break into the clean air flow above ground. There are cooperatives springing up across the country to take advantage of this phenomenon and once the resistance of the cunts in Westminster to feed-in-tariffs is finally overcome the revolution will grow exponentially.

I digress from the subject in hand, but I just wanted to point out that "renewable generation" is a dynamic term that is becoming less oxymoronic every day. All "renewable" technologies still have a way to go before they become independent of fossil or nucular power though.

So algal biofuels might, one day, become carbon neutral. However, Rossinisbird emphasises that becoming neutral is not good enough. If we are to avoid significant risk of catastrophic climate change by limiting mean global temperature rises to 2 degrees or less then we need to reduce emissions by as much as 98% in the West. Simply preventing further rises is predicted by the IPCC to result in a global mean temperature rise of 2.8 to 3.2 degrees, with all the megadeaths, resource wars and extreme weather events that are predicted to accompany crossing the 2 degree threshold (see table SPM6, page 20). Algal biofuels, therefore, theoretically do nothing to help meet this cut. In pragmatic terms, however, they have a massive contribution to make towards emission cuts. The rate of car ownership is exploding across the world, although the similar rise in fuel prices has certainly dampened the market, I doubt it will have halted its rise. Currently biofuels are exacerbating this problem. Several studies looking at life-cycle costs have revealed biofuels to result in more GHG emissions that a corresponding quantity of fossil fuel. These extra emissions result either from carbon emissions from the clearance of virgin bush, forest or savannah or from the extensive use of intensive agriculture techniques involving considerable mechanisation and application of fertilisers. Algal biofuels avoid both of these elements as the sole prerequisite for an algal bioreactor is the footprint of ground upon which it stands and the light required to grow the algae. As a result many pilot farms are being established in desert areas. Water can- and is- recycled efficiently and 'grey water' can even be incorporated into more extensive production models. The output of cutting edge algal "bioreactors" is currently claimed to be a staggering 100,000 litres per hectare. The production of one of these hectares is reducing disel consumption by 100,000 litres a year. If a fake, German mini rip-off does 72.4mpg and produces 104 grams CO2/km then putting that hectare's worth of algal biodiesel into one will save . . . . . . (I can't wait for metrification to be completed because these sums are going to be a bitch)

  • 72.4mpg = 3.2 litres per 100 kilometres
  • so 100,000 litres will keep the piece of German toss going for (100,000 / 3.2) * 100
    • = 3,125,000 kilometres
  • thereby saving ((3,125,000km * 104) / 1,000,000) metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents
  • = 325 tonnes CO2 (wasn’t that hard after all)

This amount of carbon would not be released into the atmosphere- it would be taken up and released again. In real terms this produces a cut in emissions.

In terms of halting our exponentially increasing emissions this cannot be a bad thing as it does not require the public to change their habits one little bit. And- lets face it- public opinion remains the biggest barrier to meaningful action to combat climate change thanks to Channel 4. And what's the difference in the end between a car running on renewably generated electricity and one running on algal biofuel? Both propulsion systems have their advantages and disadvantages and are not at all mutually exclusive. In a model system neither produces carbon emissions but one utilises existing technology and the other requires a whole new infrastructure and culture to develop. I love electric cars and am intending to build my own but convincing my neighbour Trevor to trade in his Subaru Imprezza for a more environmentally friendly option will only meet with ire and outrage. His kids may see things differently once they've seen things like this but that's a generation away and action must be taken before then.

Automobiles and car culture are far from being the only potential beneficiaries of algal biofuels. I mentioned this before but petroleum hydrocarbons form the basic feedstock for . . well . . . everything. From paint to fertilisers to plastics. I won't go into detail as I'm sure if you've read this far you know that. But its definitely worth pointing out that, as the easy oil supplies dry up, the price of every oil-derived product in the world is going to rise, making the investment in renewable technologies and infrastructure that much more expensive and making the eco-apocalypse of tar-sands and coal more and more attractive to companies that want to maintain those nice multi-billion dollar profit margins. Algal biofuels are a tool in every sustainably-minded politician's rhetorical toolbox.

Don't get me wrong- I'm not trying to sell algal biofuels as a 'magic bullet' to the world's problems. However, in a world still hostile to sustainable development they cannot be ignored. Joined-up-thinking is clearly essential if we are actually going to take on the triple-headed motherfucker of the credit crunch, climate change and peak oil. We need to invest in a wide range of efficiency measures first and foremost as this is where the easy gains are to be made. By the same logic we need to get every single renewable technology on the bench at the moment and throw them at China and India. Spending ten million pounds to reduce our own- already relatively efficient industry's emissions by a fraction of a percent may give us the moral high ground but its fucking stupid when that money could halve the emissions of a similar industry in India or China, especially when that industry is producing tat that is bound for your local branch of Tesco and will end up in landfill in six months time.

If I seem obsessed by algal biofuels lately I must apologise but I’m reaching the end of my PhD and considering where to best apply my efforts in order to save the world as its certainly not in marine ecotox, where I’m working at the moment. You can save all the fucking whales and cuddle all the dolphins you want but when people have nothing left on land to eat they won’t balk at a dolphin steak. My intention is to prevent that happening at all- as opposed to crying over my dolphin steak in twenty years time. Algal biofuel cultivation requires a working knowledge of biology and water quality management- two things I’ve got up my sleeve- and it is a whole lot more applicable to our current plight, as I’ve tried to make clear here, than polychaete metal resistance.

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