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Saturday, January 23, 2010

American Democracy Corporatocracy


Efforts to save the planet will resume after this commercial break.

Ever wonder why you can step across the Mexican border and instantly move from one of the richest countries on Earth to one of the poorest? It's all about governance. Mexico's government is hobbled by the corrupting influence of wealthy individuals. Politicians trapped in that system have no choice but to participate because everyone else does. In a sense, you can't really blame well-meaning American politicians for participating in our own corrupt system because if they don't, they may not get reelected.

Eisenhower tried to warn us about the military industrial complex. Power begets power and has an almost overwhelming tendency to accumulate into the hands of fewer and fewer people. America's success story is entirely based on the existence of wealth redistribution into a thriving middle class, which has been retreating for decades now. Without government fulfilling its role to prevent the accumulation of wealth into a few hands, forms of slavery will arise again, as has been the case for all of human history.

Environmental concerns have and always will take a distant back seat to the profit motive. Obama clearly sees the problem. Who sees the solution?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Never-Ending Biodiesel Subsidy

Maria Cantwell, U.S. Senator [D-WA]

[UPDATE 12/21/2010] The tax credit of $1.00 per gallon has been officially reinstated. From Biofuels Digest:

John Plaza, CEO, Imperium Renewables:

Today marks a tremendous event for the biodiesel industry. With both the Senate and House including the biodiesel tax credit in the President’s Tax Package, we can get back to the job of supplying our Nation with renewable fuels made in America. We are thrilled that Congress has extended the biodiesel blender’s tax credit and we must thank U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, and U.S. Congressman Dicks along with many others for their tireless support of our industry, and Imperium Renewables in particular. We greatly appreciate the leadership of President Obama and his administration’s efforts to ensure that these job-creating investments in the U.S. biofuels industry were part of the overall bill.

[UPDATE 9/21/2010] From an article on Bright Energy titled:

Democrats blamed as Senate rejects biodiesel tax credits
Senators threw out the amendment to the "small business bill" by 58 votes to 41
But get this:
The "small business bill" passed by a 61-38 vote, with just two Republicans crossing party lines to support the bill.

How do you know when a politician is lying? His or her lips are moving.

[UPDATE 1/24/2010] See Obama's speech lambasting the five goofballs on the Supreme court who may have driven the last nail into our already dysfunctional political process.

Original article written in January 2010 continues below:

Rather than write an email to my senator to air my concerns about her pending biofuel legislation, I'm going air them on this blog because, well, that's what blogs are for.

Does she realize that Seattle and Berkeley dropped food-based biodiesel last year?

Is she unaware of the peer reviewed science demonstrating the links between agricultural expansion, eutrophication of waterways, and biodiversity loss?

Does she know that biodiesel made from Midwest soy does not at this time qualify as a low carbon fuel per the EPA?

Does she know that the food riots in dozens of countries in the summer of 2008 were caused in large part by speculation fueled by government mandates for and subsidization of corn ethanol and soy biodiesel?

Assuming that, as a United States Senator, she must be aware of all of these issues, I'm at a loss as to why she has introduced more legislation to yet again extend the blending credit for biodiesel.

I wrote a short op-ed that was accepted for publication in the latest issue of Subsidy Watch (produced by the Global Subsidies Initiative). Following is an excerpt:

In 2004 the U.S. Congress created a USD$ 1/gallon (US$ 0.264/litre) blenders' tax credit for biodiesel that was slated to expire in 2006. But in 2005 it extended the tax credit through the end of 2008 and, before that year was up, extended it again, through 2009.

Predictably, last autumn, legislation was introduced to extend the tax credit for yet another year, through 2010.

Now this, from Agriculture Online:

Farmer leaders in the soybean industry are asking farmers to tell members of Congress that they support two stand-alone bills that would put the tax credit back into effect for five years.

In the Senate, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have introduced S.1589 to do that. In the House, a similar bill, H.R. 4070, has been introduced by Representative Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and Representative John Shimkus (R-IL).

I know a guy who owns a diesel powered Jeep Liberty. It uses twice as much fuel per mile as the midsized hatchback I drive. Thanks to the dollar per gallon biodiesel blending subsidy, fellow citizens were paying him $15 every time he filled up with biodiesel (95% of which is made out of virgin soy or canola vegetable oil diverted from food processors).

Note that three out of the four senators are from farming powerhouses where corn and soybeans are the dominant crops. They are legally securing future campaign funding from the powerful and well-funded farm lobby.

The big biodiesel refinery here in Washington State only employs a few dozen people and has always bought its vegetable oil from Canada, because it was cheaper, and until the European Union forced them to stop, that same refinery was shipping most of its biodiesel overseas to undercut other producers with the dollar per gallon blending subsidy it was receiving.

Shortly after hoovering up funding from wealthy venture capitalists, as well as ten million dollars from the City of Seattle Employee's Retirement System, this refinery shut down from a lack of operating capital. During the food price crisis in the summer of 2008, soy based biodiesel was selling for $6 a gallon in Seattle as food producers and fuel producers bid against one another over the same feed stock.

It has recently attempted to restart operations thanks to government mandates for biodiesel use in the neighboring state of Oregon.

Making biodiesel from food has proven to be a dead end business model. Why would a politician from a state that provides very little, if any vegetable oil for biodiesel continue to support it?

I can only think of one reason for Cantwell's dedication to this dead fuel walking. She is being lobbied to bring home the bacon by a very small but very vocal minority of wealthy investors, biodiesel producers, and retailers in her state (see Obama's speech).

According to the the book Comeback America (saw it on the Daily Show last night, downloaded it from the Library today), the typical American family's share of our country's foreign debt is over five hundred thousand dollars.

From the Global Subsidies Initiative's about page:

Subsidies are powerful instruments. They can play a legitimate role in securing public goods that would otherwise remain beyond reach. But they can also be easily subverted. The interests of lobbyists and the electoral ambitions of office-holders can hijack public policy ...

But the case for scrutiny goes further. Even when subsidies are legitimate instruments of public policy, their efficacy - their fitness for purpose - must still be demonstrated. All too often, the unintended and unforeseen consequences of poorly designed subsidies overwhelm the benefits claimed for these programs. Meanwhile, the citizens who foot the bills remain in the dark ...

When subsidies are the principal cause of the perpetuation of a fundamentally unfair trading system, and lie at the root of serious environmental degradation, the questions have to be asked: Is this how taxpayers want their money spent? And should they, through their taxes, support such counterproductive outcomes?

Consider sending the senator from Washington an email, or just post something on your blog like I just did.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

How I Reduced My Natural Gas Use 75 Percent for Less Than $1,400

(Photo credit VA5LF via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

[Update 5/04/2010] We had a record warm winter this year so I could not tell what the impact of the new furnace was. However, I just got a gas bill for a month where the average temperature was just one degree warmer than last year and my gas bill was considerably higher. Not cool. It is possible to use more gas with a 95% efficient furnace than an old 80% one. My guess is that the more powerful blower has been pressurizing my leaky ducts and forcing a lot of hot air out into my unheated basement. Sure enough, when I inspected the new duct installed on top of the new furnace I found a 1/4 inch wide by 2 foot long gap in the back. That leak alone is almost like having an extra furnace register to nowhere! I am now in the process of sealing all joints and will let you know what happens.

[Update 4/11/2010] A 2 inch diameter plastic plug fell out of the furnace today allowing the exhaust to dump strait into my basement. The technicians forgot to apply any PVC glue to it. This is a situation that could very easily be fatal to a sleeping family.

This is an update to a post I did last winter titled:

Weatherization Nation--How I reduced my natural gas use 60 percent for less than $400

In that post I speculated that getting the next 20 percent reduction (for my goal of 80 percent total) was going to cost more than the first 60 percent, which was the result of picking all of the low hanging fruit (weatherizing). It has cost me an additional $1,000 to date to get that last 15 percent by replacing my worn out 80 percent efficient furnace with a 95 percent efficient one. The price difference between an 80 and a 95 percent furnace is about $1,000, which I added to $400 to come up with $1,400, which I admit is creative book keeping because my new furnace cost a lot more than a $1,000.

My hot water solar panels are on hold until better weather. I've concluded that a heat pump hot water tank would not be cost effective for my application. I found a study where this concept was tested in different cities. The test done in Seattle showed very little gain for two main reasons. The tank was in an unheated basement (as mine would be) and the winter air temperature was too low to provide much energy. In addition, the winter temperature of tap water in Seattle tends to be quite cold because it is coming from snow melt.

If one of these is located in, say, a hall closet, it will act just like an air conditioner, cooling your house to heat your water causing your furnace to use more energy to heat your house back up for a net energy loss.

Putting one in an attic would work because a lot of hot air ends up there that you can't use. On the other hand, a hot water heater in an attic is asking for real trouble when it eventually springs a leak.

In short, if you can't find a warm place outside of your home's insulated and heated envelope for one of these, they probably won't do much for you during the heating season.

One day it dawned on me that my 80 percent efficient gas furnace is 20 years old. This is old for any appliance, especially a gas furnace. This led me to discover that my gas utility is offering a $350 rebate to anyone upgrading to a 90 percent efficient furnace. And to ice the cake, the stimulus package offers a 30 percent tax credit, up to $1,500, for the entire cost of upgrading to a 95 percent efficient gas furnace. The rebate and credit knocked $1,400 off the $3,600 cost.

This credit is analogous to the cash for clunkers program for cars in that it will use a lot of tax money to accomplish next to nothing environmentally. It's mostly an excuse to pump money into the sagging economy, and only a fool turns down a government handout.

One drawback to government meddling like this is that businesses tend to jack prices to capitalize on the credits, nullifying some of the benefits to the consumer to grab some for themselves. This happened to the Prius when the hybrid credit went into effect. Every contractor was trying to use the rebate and credit to make their bids appear lower. I asked them not to mention either in their bids so I could get a clear apples to apples price comparison.

With sales tax, I will end up paying $2,500 for a 77,000 BTU Lennox furnace with a variable speed motor and two stage burner.

This furnace should in theory account for another 15 percent decrease in gas use, thus my estimate of a 75 percent reduction from our normal gas bills. That makes me only 5 percent away from my 80 percent goal.

I chose this furnace design for two main reasons. The variable speed motor uses half the power of my old furnace (when on low), saving about 300 watt-hours for every hour it runs (on low). This will help with my efforts to reduce electricity use 80 percent, which I have not yet written about.

I wanted a two stage burner because my home's heating needs are modest by today's McMansion standards and the furnace should run most of the time with the blower at lower speeds and with only half of the burners ignited. The higher blower speeds and extra burners will come in handy on especially cold days but will for the most part remain on standby.

Let me share some things I learned so you don't have to climb up the same learning curve.

To achieve this kind of efficiency, today's higher end, 95 percent furnaces have reached ridiculous levels of complexity. All things being equal, complexity equates to higher cost and lower reliability in general. For this reason I registered with Lennox for their extended warranty, which is free at this time as a promotion, which is another reason I chose Lennox ...although more than one salesman told me that most of the major parts inside most furnaces are made by the same companies.

Thermostats have also reached ridiculous levels of complexity, especially if you have central air and heat combined, which I don't, thank God. There is little need for cooling in Seattle. Today's higher end thermostats communicate with the programmable circuit board in the furnace to do all kinds of worthless things, much like the never ending new and improved versions of Microsoft Word.

I refused to be talked into a fancy thermostat. I liked my bullet proof, but not very accurate, round mercury switch version that is about half a century old. I didn't want the technicians to even touch it. They touched it anyway and I'll get to that part in a minute.

The last thing you want is to wait for your furnace to fail in the middle of winter when you can't take the time to get multiple bids and are at the mercy of the sharks.

January is a good time of year to get bids from contractors because business tends to be a little slack, in part because nobody is in the mood to spend money after seeing their Christmas Visa bills, especially in this economy. I got seven bids and coincidentally chose the one right smack in the middle of the price ranges.

I threw out two of lowest bids because (after checking on the Internet) the model numbers listed were not for a variable speed two-stage furnace, as I requested.

The next lowest bid was only $170 less than what I accepted but was for a furnace that I was not sure would really qualify for the tax credit. The website claimed it was "up to" 95 percent efficient. The tax form says "at least" 95 percent efficient. Some companies have compromised on the efficiency percentage points to keep the price a little lower than competitors. They got caught by the hard and fast cutoff of 95 percent by the federal tax credit and have been scrambling to modify their furnaces so they can pass independent tests certifying that their furnaces are 95 percent efficient. The furnace contractor certainly would not be liable if the furnace ends up not qualifying a year after installation, so just because he says it will qualify does not mean it will.

The three bids that were higher were significantly higher, up to $1,500 higher for the same furnace I had installed.

The lowest bids were done by the business owners themselves. The higher bids were, not surprisingly, done by salesmen working on commission.

Green being the latest shtick, two of the highest bidders, although from different companies, arrived in Priuses with the words "hybrid heating and cooling" painted on their sides. One was a 2010 model with a solar panel built into the roof. Thanks to the Prius, the word "hybrid" has a lot of marketing appeal. I drive one myself, when my wife isn't using it ...

One salesman confided that they had tried to market solar panels but gave them up after several bad outcomes.

Another whipped out a laptop with a printer and started to do an energy audit of my house in order to pick the appropriate sized furnace. I told him not to bother because it would be meaningless in a home that incorporates night insulation window plugs, and passive solar heat gain. We also close the heating vents to the upstairs. In addition, I suggested that a two stage furnace may stay on the lower settings most of the time making the whole analysis of dubious value. Not to mention, the furnace sizes come in a few large increments so you are likely to be slightly over-sized or under-sized no matter what you do. I buried them with common sense and now I just have to hope I didn't screw myself somehow.

This salesman said I would have to sign a paper that I would not sue if the heating system is sized wrong. I called his bluff, didn't sign a paper, and they didn't get the job (this was the highest bid with the guy driving the 2010 Prius).

My new furnace arrived on a Monday morning, 1.5 hours after it was supposed to. The first thing I did was check the part number to make sure they were not going to try to install a similar but cheaper model. The only difference in the model part numbers was the letter "V" which stood for variable speed motor and the furnace laying in my garage floor did not have a "V" in the part number. I pointed this out to the technician (who was late because he had gotten lost) so he called his boss who insisted that this was the right furnace, even though the part number on the bid clearly had a "V" in it. He finally capitulated and said he would send another one out.

This was supposed to be a simple swap out. All they had to do was replace a short piece of ducting to transition from the new furnace, rearrange the gas pipe, and install the PVC exhaust ducts, all in a wide-open unfinished basement.

They kept trying to talk me into a new thermostat, I suspect because they had managed to break the thermostat wire off in the wall. They could not get a new wire up to my thermostat because of blocking in the wall. The technician had to remove my old thermostat and I had a feeling it would never be the same again. I finally got a hammer and chisel and cut a notch in my sheet rock around the blocking and dropped a chain to the poor technician who was at his wits end by now.

After all this they could not get the furnace to work because it had a bad inductor motor and we had to spend the night without heat.

After they left I inspected their work. The technicians had twisted and cocked the existing gas pipes rather than install proper lengths of pipe, giving the installation a Dr. Seuss look, with one pipe sitting on a switch that could not now be turned. The new duct didn't fit and had two one-inch wide gaps that they covered in tape. I could see that the furnace was not level from ten feet away and they ran the condensate line down my siding rather than into my mop sink as requested. Oh,and the filter was leaning up against the furnace at about a 30 degree angle with no way to secure it to the duct opening.

I called the boss and complained. The next morning I was not pleased to see a very pissed off technician at my door who informed me that he was there to rearrange the gas pipes "on his own time," that the furnace was supposed to lean in that direction, and one inch gaps were perfectly acceptable. I'm just hoping he did not run a screwdriver though the circuit board before he left, but at least the furnace now works.

I decided to replace my thermostat after all this because, oddly enough, it was no longer working properly. I wanted a simple, non-programmable unit and as usual turned to the internet for advice. I found one commenter who, after taking the advice of another commenter on how to hook up his thermostat, found that it had melted over night. Later I found the comment that had misled him on another thread. I wonder how many houses that jackass has burned down.

I also learned that you have to take what the contractors tell you with a big grain of salt. Trust but verify. They just want to sell you a furnace. It's a jungle out there. Good luck!

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Electric Bicycle Lessons Learned

This is the battery pack that I built for my electric bike. It fits into a standard trunk bag behind the seat.

I get a lot of emails from people who want to do the same thing (hook Dewalt 36 volt batteries up in a parallel-series configuration for 72 volts). I put together (but never finished) a website to let people know what they're getting into and to talk them out of it if they're not particularly handy. IMHO, if you have to ask, you probably should not attempt to build your own.

Hopefully, the new Panasonic batteries will be affordable when they arrive next year and people won't have to build their own.

The rules for electric bicycles vary a great deal around the world. In Washington State and California an electric bike is limited to 1000 watts and must be not be capable of going more than 20 mph on level ground without pedaling. In engineering terms, the bike has to have some kind of electronic speed limiting device (most likely based on a speedometer input to the electronic controller) that limits power to the motor once the bike starts to exceed 20 mph.

Some of the most restrictive rules of all, as you might guess, can be found in the European Union, where they are limited to 250 watts, 15 mph, 88 pounds, and to ice the cake, the power has to cut out whenever the rider stops pedaling. Good God. That might explain their high costs and limited popularity. Like the old saying goes, "You can't fight climate change with anal retentiveness." And yes, I just made that up.

In my experience, 1000 watts is a very reasonable number because you need more power on hills and a thousand watts is not enough to break a 20 mph speed limit on level ground without a lot of added effort by the rider. The added restriction that the bike must have an electronic speed limiter is not only unnecessary, but easily bypassed with a few modifications to the system.

A less expensive, and easier to enforce rule would restrict the size of the bike's front gearing (relative to wheel diameter) which would limit the rider's ability to exceed 20 mph by the simple fact that he can only pedal so fast.

Electric bikes are ubiquitous in China, which recently ruled that they must have a license and insurance. Some suspect the move was initiated by scooter manufacturers in a attempt to throttle their main competition.

This law would have doubled the cost of owning an electric bike and was not very popular, to say the least, among the literally tens of millions of electric bike owners.

Much to its credit, the government just reversed itself. Here in America, corporate lobbyists unofficially rule the country alongside our elected officials. China is just starting to get a taste of the power of corporate interests and I suspect this reversal was not so much to appease the cyclists, but to appease the lead industry lobbyists who supply the primitive but cheap batteries for these tens of millions of electric bikes.

In China, many electric bike manufacturers have already abused the definition of an electric bike. Human nature being what it is, you can bet that it will eventually happen here as well. Note the words "electric bicycle" printed on these electric scooters in China.

The bottom line: safety is all that matters. And safety is all about force of impact. Force is mass times deceleration. When you hit a wall (or pedestrian) with a bike, your speed upon impact determines your deceleration. This along with how fat you are, determines the force of impact.

We are not going to ban large people from riding bikes. So, safety all comes down to speed. Picking a safe speed is what it all boils down to. Again, my experience has shown 20 mph to be just right. A bike moving at 20 mph can get from point A to point B in most cities just as fast as a car because bikes can usually bypass long lines of stop and go traffic. It is hard to exceed 20 mph with 1000 watts and low gearing thanks to the exponential nature of wind resistance, and if you are stupid enough to be moving that fast when you hit a pedestrian, it is not likely to cause serious injury.

In theory, using Washington State's rules, you are legal if your machine has "functioning" pedals on it, the motor draws no more than 1000 watts, and will supply less and less power as you exceed 20 mph. There is no requirement to pedal at all and I have to admit, I see nothing unsafe about that.
At some point we will start to see machines that look very much like mopeds with riders not bothering to use the pedals.

Forcing electric bikes that can't keep up with car traffic on to the streets is an unsafe thing to do.

As is happening in China, and thanks to our human nature, conflict is inevitable as the number of people seeking refuge form SUVs and pickup trucks increases congestion on our limited trails. Attempts will be made by one group to shove another group out into the streets.

Car drivers don't like bicyclists on their streets, pedestrians don't like them on their sidewalk. It would be wise for bicyclists of all stripes to cooperate to expand bike lanes and trails, which are going to come at the expense of car parking and lanes. So far, that seems to be the case. Most bicycle organizations (although not all bicyclists) have welcomed electric bikes as allies instead of competitors. It also helps that here in Seattle, our new mayor rides an electric bike.

In a nutshell, it really does not matter much what you call the two wheeled vehicle. As long as the design limits its speed to about 20 mph, one vehicle is about as safe as the other, whether you pedal it or not. If you don't limit its speed by design, and give it a name to differentiate if from scooters and motorcycles, you will get electric versions of scooters sharing the trails with bikes and pedestrians.

You don't want that because those machines are also capable of rapid accelerations. A quick twist of the throttle, intentional or not, can easily injure a pedestrian or cyclist in close proximity.

Scooters are differentiated from motorcycles primarily by the fact that their wheels can't be larger than ten inches in diameter. This provides a physical limit to top speed. Imagine trying to spin the wheels on a skateboard fast enough to do 60 mph.

However, smaller wheels also allow faster accelerations from slow speeds or a dead stop. As I mentioned earlier, acceleration is the only variable we have real control over to limit the force of collisions unless we are willing to limit the weight of bicyclists. This is why scooters capable of rapid acceleration should not share trails even if they stay under the speed limit.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

All Aboard the Biodiesel Biomass Bandwagon!

(Photo credit cindy47452 via the Flickr Creative Commons license).

Books extolling the wonders of the coming hydrogen economy turned out to be works of fiction, as have several books about food-based biofuels. In fact, entire books have been written specifically to critique what is found in such books.

Are we about to jump on a new bandwagon now that the wheels have come off the first one?

I was motivated to do this post by an article by Thomas R. Blakeslee, over on Renewable Energy World, titled "Importing Solar Power with Biomass." You can find a free PDF of his book here, as well as a printed version.

Admittedly, if you are going to commandeer the planet's biosphere to make energy, you should seek the most efficient way to do it and burning biomass directly to make heat or even electricity will put far more of its available energy to use than trying to turn it into a liquid fuel. Biomass burning will also have less impact on food prices. However, it also has downsides that could easily make it worse than conventional fossil fuels when it scales up as many liquid biofuels have turned out to be.

I critique the article below:

"...Big trees should not be replaced by a succession of little trees.."

The above understatement was thrown out near the end of the essay. There have been no safeguards in place to guarantee that the biomass being shipped to Europe is not exacerbating GHG emissions.

From ($ub reqd):

"..Several recent studies estimate that this error, applied globally, would create strong incentives to clear land as carbon caps tighten. One study (2) estimated that a global CO2 target of 450 ppm under this accounting would cause bioenergy crops to expand to displace virtually all the world's natural forests and savannahs by 2065, releasing up to 37 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year (comparable to total human CO2 emissions today)..."

If it takes a decade for the carbon emitted by burned biomass to be removed from the atmosphere by biomass planted to replace it, the earth will see a decade of warming as a result of that burned biomass. Many trees take many decades to mature, meaning the earth would see many decades of warming from the emitted carbon before replacement seedlings reabsorb the carbon.

Any energy scheme, if done in a sustainable manner, that does not actually exacerbate GHG emissions, nitrogen eutrophication of bodies of water, biodiversity loss, or human suffering, is a good thing. But that's the problem isn't it? It is a probability game. What are the odds that any given scheme will not exacerbate most, if not all of those things?

It is not so much what scheme you pick, but how it is implemented, and the odds of implementing it per the above criteria. Some schemes have better odds of being done right but none of them are guaranteed to be done right.

Solar power has the highest probability of meeting those criteria.

I would hope that the author is familiar with this study in Nature:

Increases in industrial agriculture tend to exacerbate environmental degradation.

Burning biomass for heat or power can be up to 80 percent more efficient than gasification of that biomass followed by conversion into a liquid by a process like Fischer–Tropsch, or converting it in other ways to liquid with enzymes and acids. So, as far as efficiency of feedstock goes, it trounces converting biomass into a liquid fuel but can only address transportion issues via electrification of transport.

Luckily, transportation isn't our biggest issue when it comes to GHG. Power generation with coal is our biggest issue. Transport can best be met with huge gains in efficiency, as the Prius attests.

One should not conflate the terms biomass and biofuel. Readers quickly lose track of which one the author is talking about, leaving the author free to attach the positive attributes of one to all. Biomass is usually assumed to mean plants that are burned to produce heat and/or power. Biofuel is usually assumed to mean plants converted into a liquid fuel.

"..In tropical zones biomass grows year round.."

Tropical zones are also where the world's biodiversity is concentrated.

This is where the author segues from biomass into liquid biofuels.

It's true that jatropha isn't edible, so when farmers decide to plant it instead of food they really put themselves at risk. How do you force small farmers to plant what you want, where you want, when you want?

Read "How a Biofuel 'Miracle' Ruined Kenyan Farmers"

And although it is drought tolerant, it also produces next to nothing in a drought. It is much more productive on fertile land with plenty of water, which of course creates an incentive to maximize profit by using arable farmland.

"..Mission is careful to maintain a balance between food, fuel and forest so the development is a plus for the community.."

That's quite a claim. Is it a good thing that Mission purports to have that much control over the lives of subsistence farmers?

".. availability of inexpensive labor provides a clean replacement for diesel fuel ...Unlike factory development, biomass makes it possible for people to remain on their ancestral lands and make money doing clean, outdoor farm work.."

Ah, to live the care-free life of a subsistence farmer working in the warm sunshine and fresh air! Makes you wonder why humanity continues to flee to urban settings.*

*Sarcasm alert.

Subsistence farming is an incredibly strenuous, risky, way to make a living.

"..They can press their own oil and sell it to the refinery.."

In theory, small cane farmers can press their own sugar and sell it to a refinery. Cutting cane is one of the most brutal jobs on the planet, with many cutters working in near slave conditions. The life span of modern cane workers is no higher than it was for slave cane workers:

"African ethanol producers accepting employment applications"

Note that most small cane farmers are eventually eclipsed by large farms and their economy of scale. The small farmers inevitably end up as poorly paid farm hands on the big farms. Jatropha will almost certainly follow the same pattern.

UPDATE 1/20/2009

Where will Britain's largest biomass power plant get its biomass?

When completed, the plant in South Wales will burn wood chips from North America, generating enough electricity for half a million homes.


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