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By Robert Rapier on Dec 14, 2010 with 43 responses

Sustainability is the Key to Long-Term Energy Security

Why We Love Trees

I don’t often talk about my job, but I am going to today just a bit. I am the Chief Technology Officer for a renewable energy company. Our primary goal is to develop affordable and sustainable energy for a world that we believe will struggle from the impacts of oil depletion. My company favors forestry as a cornerstone of our biomass to energy platform. On a recent business trip, I heard a story that perfectly explained the reason that we believe trees offer a source of sustainable biomass for energy production.

Forest

Unlike many crops that strip-mine the soil of nutrients, a properly managed tree crop can actually improve the quality of the soil, while providing biomass that almost exclusively originated from the CO2 in the atmosphere.

One of my metrics for sustainability is to presume that we are using a plot of land to produce an energy crop, and then ask about the quality of the soil after 500 years in that specific service. With many of the crops that are staples today, that soil would probably be quite poor as nutrients are stripped from the soil. Those nutrients have to be added back, very often with large inputs of fossil fuels. That is unsustainable.

I was on a business trip with stops in the Midwest and on the East Coast. I had been asked if I could give a talk on resource depletion at the University of Guelph, outside of Toronto. The conference was called Our Environmental Future, and hosted several speakers who spoke mainly on the themes of resource depletion and sustainability. Normally I don’t travel specifically to do talks (and normally don’t do talks very often anyway), but I was going to be in the area so it wasn’t a problem for me to stop by and deliver a talk.

Besides me, the other speakers were Professor Peter Victor, author of “Managing Without Growth“, Professor Jennifer Sumner, author of “Sustainability and the Civil Commons“, Professor Evan Fraser, author of “Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“, and Mike Nickerson, author of “Life, Money and Illusion.”

I don’t intend to cover the conference itself in this essay. It was covered in several media stories, including Experts say the future is in our hands – plan or pay the price, Energy expert tells Guelph audience ‘the easy oil is gone’, and Outside the Box Thinking Needed. At some future point I may go into a bit more detail about my talk (some of the news stories got some of the finer points wrong), but not in this essay.

My talk followed that of Evan Fraser, and he was a tough act to follow. He gave a superb presentation on civilizations that collapsed because of various agricultural practices that ultimately resulted in the collapse of food production. His subject matter was really interesting, but beyond that he was a captivating speaker. I thought that he was the kind of person you would love to have as a professor, because he could hold your attention.

The Photosynthesis Experiment

But it was a story that Mike Nickerson told that really resonated with me. In 1652, Dutch chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont conducted the following experiment. He took 200 pounds of oven-dried soil and put it into a vessel. He then watered the soil and put in a willow shoot weighing 5 pounds. After 5 years, the willow shoot had grown to just over 169 pounds. The vessel had never received any nutrients; only water was added during those five years. He then dried and weighed the soil again, and the 200 pounds of soil had only lost two ounces of weight. The vast majority of the 164 pound weight gain was from the CO2 that had been converted into biomass via photosynthesis. (You can hear the story of the van Helmont experiment at Most of Life is a Gas.)

And thus you have the reason that my company utilizes sustainable forestry as a core part of our platform. Our philosophy is to use purpose-grown trees (tree farming) and forestry waste to produce energy. Unlike many crops, certain trees don’t pull a lot of nutrients from the ground and concentrate them in the biomass. They will pull up some subsoil nutrients that end up in the leaves, and then the leaves fall and add the subsoil nutrients to the topsoil. So unlike many crops that can strip-mine the soil of nutrients, a properly managed tree crop can actually improve the quality of the soil, while providing biomass that almost exclusively originated from the CO2 in the atmosphere.

You can read more about what my company is working on in an interview that I did with Katie Fehrenbacher. I have written in a bit more detail about the role forestry plays in our operations in Don’t Weep for the Trees.

  1. By arthur on December 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    Hi Robert,

    I like your reasoning but history proves you wrong about trees and sustainable energy. The industrial revolution in Europe led to massive deforestation. though effiviencey of conversion is good, the rate at which trees grow is not in equilibrium with our current use of combustible carbonsources. I agree with BilB that algal co2 conversion into combustible carbon might be better up to the job of keeping up the fuel levels to livable standards…

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  2. By BilB on December 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    That sounds like a great mission, Robert. Trees do indeed provide so much to enhance the variety of life. Intelligently harvested trees can be cropped with out disruption to all of the other life forms that depend upon them. And by that I am thinking that harvesting in wavey strips the integrity of a forrest can be maintained while still being a croppable resource.

    In NZ South Island the small city of Ashburton maintains a tree management programme where they use every avilable piece of council land for tree growth and harvesting. As a result the council rates are 17% lower than they would other wise be. They plant a broad variety of trees which various commercial values. The example that I remember was Black Walnut which is harvested for veneers. So mixed plantings can provide some protection against monoculture pests such as the one devastating Canada’s plantings while still being solidly commercial for other reasons.

    Australia suffers for its naturally derived Eucalyptus tree monoculture. As these trees burn so successfully with massive heat release soil biomass is routinely depleted with the bush fires that are a natural feature of this country. Hence Australia has very poor soil quality and thickness in so many areas.

    My money is still on algal oil as the most probable backbone for future bulk oil supplies, though it is the mix of biofuels that will be the reality. I designed in part a greenhouse system for desert areas which can be be utilised in harmony with trough solar CSP systems (in the space under the mirrors if the mirror support structures are suitably designed) as there are many complementary features (proximity to labour, electricity, processing facilities, shade, heat for water reprocessing, etc), and this is a possible extention for agriculture.

    I don’t think that it will be too long before underground living in hotter areas, or more probably “earth sheltered” (google that term) living becomes a common theme particularly where desert based facilities need to be maintained. And I am confident that people will be amazed at how pleasent that style of living can be in conjunction with islands of trees.

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  3. By rrapier on December 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I like your reasoning but history proves you wrong about trees and sustainable energy.

    Hi Arthur,

    History doesn’t prove me wrong; what I wrote is true. Trees can be used to produce energy sustainably. That doesn’t mean that they always have been used in this way, and it doesn’t mean that we can meet all of our energy needs from trees. But what can be done is not the same as what has been done.

    RR

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  4. By carbonbridge on December 15, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Robert Rapier said:

    History doesn’t prove me wrong; what I wrote is true. Trees can be used to produce energy sustainably. 


     

    RR:  Glad that you brought up the subject of trees and I especially like the century’s old experiment illustrating how trees grow by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.  Trees and other green living plants eat the carbon in CO2 for lunch and toss back the O2 for you, me, pigs, fowl, birds, fish and other living creatures to rebreathe.  This natural cycle on planet earth can be very sustainable – especially when left alone.  Yet man has altered this cycle repeatedly.

    I’m not going to debate those who wish to purposefully plant, irrigate and harvest specific tree crops for carbonaceous feedstock – not while I’m looking at millions of acres of beetle-killed pine trees up and down the Rockies as a consequence of recent and near-term climate changes. 

    Instead, with others – I’m factoring numbers beginning at $50 per ton to pay foresters to begin harvesting this dead pine before it is touched off by a lightening bolt or a careless camper, etc. 

    Now the really big question.  What should be done with these ground pine chips as abundant woody biomass to achieve the most beneficial and value-added near-term proposition affecting the greatest number of people?

    –Mark

     

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  5. By Wendell Mercantile on December 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

    The industrial revolution in Europe led to massive deforestation.

    That’s true. England practically denuded their country in the 16th and 17th centuries and all they were doing was heating, cooking, and making charcoal for the rudimentary iron and glass works of the time. And those Englishmen weren’t using sustainable practices — they just sent the serfs and peasants out to cut down trees, and the poor villagers scrounged for wood in any manner they could (as people in much of Africa have to do today).

    Wood certainly can be used and managed sustainably, and it has a role in our energy future, but I’d say it’s potential to supply all our energy needs is extremely limited.

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  6. By Woodman on December 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Hey Robert,

    Your 500 year metric is interesting. And you are correct that common fuel crops (soy/corn) strip nutrients, but can’t you close loop those nutrients (barring fixed Nitrogen) simply by applying extration waste back to the soil. There is little you can do with the corn/Nitrogen problem, but it would seem that with soy (a legume that supports nitrogen fixation) as long as you return the nutrients you extract after you extract the fixed carbon from it you would have a sustainable system. Can you discuss any technical, or theorhetical, barriers with soy sustainability?

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  7. By Kit P on December 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Trees absorb CO2!  Who knew?

     

    “as a consequence of recent and near-term climate changes”

     

    I have a big problem with those who talk about sustainability but only focus on the least important issue.  Forest health issues are the result of more than a 100 years of well meaning mismanagement.  

     

    While I wish Mark good luck, I am skeptical of any chance of success at least in the US.  The national chapter of the Sierra will take you to court no matter how many local members understand that getting some of the dead wood out of the forest will help save it.  Local environmentalist will support producing energy if you show them that your plan is sustainable. 

     

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  8. By rrapier on December 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Wood certainly can be used and managed sustainably, and it has a role in our energy future, but I’d say it’s potential to supply all our energy needs is extremely limited.

    No biomass is going to be able to supply all of our energy needs, unless those needs are drastically reduced.

    RR

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  9. By rrapier on December 15, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    There is little you can do with the corn/Nitrogen problem, but it would
    seem that with soy (a legume that supports nitrogen fixation) as long as
    you return the nutrients you extract after you extract the fixed carbon
    from it you would have a sustainable system.

    I think the problem is that a lot of those trace nutrients don’t get returned. I read an article once that the nutritional content of our food is far lower than it was decades ago because many of the micronutrients have been exhausted from the soil. Trees offer a way to go down and pull some of those up from subsoil. There is also the issue of phosporous depletion, which may become a more pressing issue.

    Soy is important, because of the ability to fix nitrogen. One of the trees we really like is Acacia mangium, which also fixes nitrogen.

    RR

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  10. By rrapier on December 15, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Kit P said:

    Trees absorb CO2!  Who knew?


     

    The issue is not that trees absorb CO2, it is that essentially 100% of the tree is composed of the CO2 that was absorbed.

    RR

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  11. By Benny BND Cole on December 15, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Congrats to RR both in having such a fine intellect and then choosing to spend his professional time in worthy pursuits.
    I liked the Helmont tree story–I have often wondered if every year when I dig up my vegetable garden and plow the remnants back into the ground whether I am accomplishing anything. It seems to work, and I now how a clue why. (I started my garden when I ripped up a portion of a ashalt parking lot. The soil, covered for 50 years and mixed with sand, seemed largely inert.)
    Back to topic, I like the idea of palm oil, diesel trees, pongamia pinneta and other oil trees, in combo with PHEVs and CNG cars. My guess is that intercropping will be possible when certain oil trees mature (mushrooms, vegetables, cassava, etc). Maybe beekeeping.
    BTW, casava is interesting as it is used in Thailand to produce ethanol. So you have your tree farm, and plant casava between rows. Casava will grow almost anywhere.
    Good luck to RR and all in similar pursuits.

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  12. By Wendell Mercantile on December 15, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    the nutritional content of our food is far lower than it was decades ago because many of the micronutrients have been exhausted from the soil.

    RR~

    Tell that to the industrial, mono-crop farmers. They think all they have to do is irrigate and keep dumping on more synthetic nitrogen, and that soil is nothing more than a stable matrix to hold seeds in contact with fertilizer and water.

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  13. By BilB on December 15, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    CarbonBridge makes a crucial point that we tend to forget with the focus on CO2, and that is that we depend upon the biosphere, particularly trees for O2, oxygen regeneration. It is a small point, but we tend to need oxygen for breathing…and burning stuff.

    Thankyou CarbonBridge for that DTO comment.

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  14. By BilB, Australia on December 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Oops DTE (down to earth)

     

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  15. By carbonbridge on December 15, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    BilB said:

    …..we tend to forget with the focus on CO2, and that is that we depend upon the biosphere, particularly trees for O2, oxygen regeneration. It is a small point, but we tend to need oxygen for breathing….  Thankyou CarbonBridge for that DTE comment.


    Mr. BilB (Aussie) from Down Under…
     

    Sir, I appreciate your comments.  And yes, all living creatures need replacement Oxygen which living green trees and plants so gracefully provide via photosynthesis as they munch atmospheric CO2 as a food source and return precious O2 to the atmosphere.

    Can’t remember source quotes herein — yet I recall passages written about clearcutting of the Amazon Rainforest in South America — a region which has been appropriately termed as the ‘lungs of the earth’ — and the resulting mechanical disruptions that this same clearcutting of rainforest then causes to oxygen regeneration.  Then I think of this same type of disruption now happening up and down the Rocky Mountains as pine beetles wreak havoc on the North American forest ecosystem stretching from New Mexico all the way up into British Columbia. 

    I’ve been personally wondering what effect that all these dying pine trees will specifically have regarding biospheric oxygen regeneration?  Pine beetle larva can’t survive into the new spring season IF below zero temps stay constant for several weeks on end.  Yet because of global warming conditions, these former extended periods of extreme high elevation cold spells are now shorter lived, — and the beetle larva survives to continue spreading their own invasive species which devastate more and more green forests each year.  There now are millions of acres of beetle-killed pine trees up and down the Rockies which is a very recent phenomenon.  I can presently view 80% and greater beetle-kill in some northern forests.

    Next, I click into Bing’s aerial mapping system to view this same beetle infected landscape from above and eerily note the extent of clearcutting which has been going on in certain forested regions of the northwest U.S. for the past 50 to 60 years.  I do remember flying over some of this same countryside (as pictured below) thirty years ago and shaking my head.  Now, pine beetles are infecting remaining stands of healthy pines.  Not a pretty picture and what effect this will have on O2 regeneration is to be determined. 

    Beetle-kill obviously isn’t going to help the natural ecosystem, yet how much will O2 regeneration volumes be reduced?  I don’t have answers here as this isn’t my own area of expertise although my college degree is in Biology – however instead of botany or agriculture, I’d focused on human and animal medicine.

    In closing, I invite you to sign on as a ‘member’ to this blog where you can access additional info, edit your own posts and also individually make contact with other members by direct email.  Editor Sam Avro has recently created a Private Roundtable space where some of us will soon pick back up and continue interrupted discussions concerning specific topics like higher mixed alcohol GTL synthesis.  In the next few days I’ll be ‘dropping the other shoe’ and creating the first private column which I’m sure you might enjoy participating in.  Same venue once moving forward can host a variety of topics without sniping.  There are far more lurkers reviewing these discussions than posters – many are well aware of this.  So g’day mate!

    –Mark

    Western Montana clearcutting #1

    Western Montana clearcutting #2

    Western Montana clearcutting #3

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  16. By RickEng... on December 15, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I followed your listing on TEC to here; very interesting. Living in a wooded part of Minnesota, I barely understand my little woodlot. As several have mentioned, climate and trees are inseparable. My water is clean, wildlife abundant, and more fuel value than I know how to process. So I must be doing something right.

    With oil now at $90 per barrel and dead fall a real problem, I’m glad you are involved helping find a solution.

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  17. By moiety on December 16, 2010 at 3:09 am

    arthur said:

    Hi Robert,

    I like your reasoning but history proves you wrong about trees and sustainable energy. The industrial revolution in Europe led to massive deforestation. though effiviencey of conversion is good, the rate at which trees grow is not in equilibrium with our current use of combustible carbonsources. I agree with BilB that algal co2 conversion into combustible carbon might be better up to the job of keeping up the fuel levels to livable standards…


     

    History just proves that resource management was not a concieved yet. Even now, resource management is often poorly thought through.

    Upon joining the EU Ireland and UK had to start growing more trees to meet quotas on how much land area was covered by woods and forests. A good idea except that the agressive targets that were set were not sustainable. Foreign pine trees were imported (because of the 7 year turn around as opposed to native trees with much longer turn around) and vast stretches of countryside were covered. Unfortunately pine are not native so this does not help eco system regeneration (which is the basis for the quotas). This means that these woods/forests are silent. This is not nortmal for forests in this area.  Surronding soils also become more acidic due to the fast growing trees. Currently these forests are being depopulated so that native trees can take their place. However a large area has to be removed as the native trees cannot compete.

    There are other examples littered thoughout the site.

     

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  18. By Rick Eng... on December 16, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Arthur, you are very right. Healthy eco-systems are extremely complex and require diversity and understanding by the maintainer. We don’t need corn farmers turning into tree farmers, but it is a concern.

    The economic tactic of “turning a fast buck” as opposed to sustainable practices is how we got boxed into a corner. I don’t know how we fix the economic battlefield.

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  19. By BilB on December 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    To do or not to do. There is no question.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12…..mp;emc=a25

    Failure to perform is to be sidelined. The positive thing here is that these are Chinese imports that will not wind up at the city dump in 6 months time like so much of the billions of dollars of plastic and paper WalMart trash that seems to flood our homes (in Australia that would be WoolWorths trash).

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  20. By arthur on December 16, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Hi RR,

     

    History doesn’t prove me wrong; what I wrote is true. Trees can be used
    to produce energy sustainably. That doesn’t mean that they always have
    been used in this way, and it doesn’t mean that we can meet all of our
    energy needs from trees. But what can be done is not the same as what
    has been done.

     

    so we agree that trees are not sufficient for enery demands ?   and micronutrient depletion by trees just takes 500 years ?

     

    With our current growing population the oceans are the only sufficient source of renewable biomass, I would advocate seaweed before trees… 2/3 of the solar energy recieving surface is only modestly being used… what we should do is ocean farming, not depleting soils with a deep rooting tree system…

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  21. By Kit P on December 16, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    “flood our homes”

     

    So stop buy stuff you do not need.

     

    “these are Chinese imports that will not wind up at the city dump in 6 months”

     

    I do not suppose BilBhas any reliability data on wind turbines. However, this NYT article is a clear indication of what is wrong with the big city view of renewable energy. Using waste biomass to produce energy can have beneficial environmental impact when done correctly. To each his own but my standard of living is improved by having lots of trees around. However, if the dead wood is not cleaned up; a wild fire will wipe your house before the because fire department can save it.

     

    However, Wind turbines do not enhance the rural experience. There is plenty of room in corn fields and wheat fields. The equipment to produce renewable energy has to be sustainable and we are not there yet.

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  22. By Kit P on December 16, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    “seaweed”

     

    Arthur you would be surprise to learn that Idaho and Montana are known for their seaweed.

     

    “not depleting soils”

     

    And Arthur what do your think happens to the soil after and intense forest fire? The next time it rains that soil heads for the ocean.

     

    You play the hand you are given but Arhur if you would like to become a seafaring man and harvest the ocean good luck.

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  23. By rrapier on December 16, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    so we agree that trees are not sufficient for enery demands ?

    I have said numerous times that biomass can’t possibly supply a large fraction of our energy. But it can play a part.

    and micronutrient depletion by trees just takes 500 years ?

    There is no need for trees to deplete micronutrients at all. That is the point. In fact, trees can replenish them by pulling them up from the subsoil and recycling into topsoil.

    With our current growing population the oceans are the only sufficient source of renewable biomass, I would advocate seaweed before trees… 2/3 of the solar energy recieving surface is only modestly being used… what we should do is ocean farming, not depleting soils with a deep rooting tree system…

    I could go on for a very long time about the problems with ocean farming, but the major issue is that it is quite energy intensive. Water also absorbs light very quickly, so only the surface layer gets good solar energy. In algae farms, that’s why you see those big paddle wheels.

    RR

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  24. By sameer-kulkarni on December 17, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Robert Rapier said:

    I could go on for a very long time about the problems with ocean farming, but the major issue is that it is quite energy intensive. Water also absorbs light very quickly, so only the surface layer gets good solar energy. In algae farms, that’s why you see those big paddle wheels.

    Hi! Do you have a definite assessment of CO2 sequestration by microalgae (biodiesel feedstock) compared with trees (feedstock for gasohol) based on carbon lifecycle ?

    There is no need for trees to deplete micronutrients at all. That is the point. In fact, trees can replenish them by pulling them up from the subsoil and recycling into topsoil.

    And speaking of tackling poor quality soil, how about employing terra-preta which could be produced from pyrolysis of wastes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..zmpWR6JUZQ. The Amazonians have been practising for hundreds of years

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  25. By Kit P on December 17, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    “Water also absorbs light very quickly, so only the surface layer gets good solar energy. In algae farms, that’s why you see those big paddle wheels.”

    I do not think we see ‘big paddle wheels’ because of solar energy. The use of ‘big paddle wheels’ in sewage lagoons is to add oxygen to the water to keep lagoon from going anaerobic and stinking up the place. The link below has a picture of attempt to harvest algae. In this case, I think the use of ‘big paddle wheels’ is to harvest algae.

    http://thefraserdomain.typepad…..algae.html

     

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  26. By rbm on December 17, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Robert,

     

    Are you and/or your collegues, in your efforts, taking under consideration information being uncovered related to natural systems, such as trees, that is discussed in:

    A General Model for the Origin of Allometric Scaling Laws in Biology

    1. Geoffrey B. West,
    2. James H. Brown* and
    3. Brian J. Enquist

    PS, someday I’ll get around to learning how to use your editor – I use bbcodeXtra a menu-driven canned code package.

    PPS. In the case of exceptionally long URL’s an ‘insert/edit link’ function would serve readers/commenters well. At the time of this edit the site control for that function is inactive.

    Related question: What is the code base of this site, as I have 3 code languages to choose from in my browser add-on package, bbcodeXtra ?

     

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  27. By BilB on December 17, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Arthur,

    I’ve been wondering for some time whether genetically modified tall sea grasses and plants could produce bulk lipids for “algal” oil. This would be a kind of a cross between RR’s forest approach (which I favour) and the aquatic approach to utilise free real estate. The problem would be that a monster might be unleashed if we genetically tamper with under sea plants which we cannot monitor as easily as surface plants.

    The reality is that the tree approach is a given. It is essential with urgency. The only question is what else can we do. And remember labour is not a problem, energy farming as an employer will be a permanent feature of the future for many reasons.

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  28. By William Edwards on December 19, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I love trees. I own forest land. My occupation is the study and understanding of the world petroleum supply/demand/pricing system. Therefore I must be objective. Regardless of the strength of my emotional support for growing trees, I must not allow the fallacy that we are running out of oil (despite the almost universal acceptance of the idea) to cloud my thinking. Most recently-published reliable forecasts foresee a surplus of petroleum for the next decade, at least. Even these forecasts overstate the demand for petroleum, as they do not reflect the demand-lowering impact of the current high prices of oil. These forecasts also understate the impact of the “easy oil” still undeveloped in Iraq. Realistically, the outlook is for an abundance of oil — forever —  at prices well below current levels. So any enterprise that seeks to be economically viable based on providing a replacement for oil-based energy should look very carefully at the competing fuel source — modestly-priced oil.

    A realistic assessment of “peak oil” will recognize that this is a demand-limited phenomenon, not a supply-limited phenomenon.

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  29. By rrapier on December 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I do not think we see ‘big paddle wheels’ because of solar energy.

    You would be wrong about that. I have been in the plants before; talked with the engineers. That is exactly what they are for, because the water doesn’t penetrate deeply. So they have to circulate the algae to the surface layers.

    RR

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  30. By rrapier on December 18, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    SAM said:

    Robert Rapier said:

    I could go on for a very long time about the problems with ocean farming, but the major issue is that it is quite energy intensive. Water also absorbs light very quickly, so only the surface layer gets good solar energy. In algae farms, that’s why you see those big paddle wheels.

    Hi! Do you have a definite assessment of CO2 sequestration by microalgae (biodiesel feedstock) compared with trees (feedstock for gasohol) based on carbon lifecycle ?


     

    Since nobody is really doing either on a large-scale basis, it is hard to say for sure, but my guess is that trees are going to come in much lower. I am skeptical that there exists a method yet to harvest algae and process it into fuel on a net positive energy basis. And until the energy balance can be shown to be positive, there is no net CO2 sequestration. In fact, if you are using the biomass for fuel, there isn’t any sequestration anyway (unless you are using something like terra preta as a byproduct). It could just be said to be carbon neutral.

    RR

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  31. By Wendell Mercantile on December 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I am skeptical that there exists a method yet to harvest algae and process it into fuel on a net positive energy basis.

     

    I agree Robert.  Harvesting algae and converting it to fuel must be a time-consuming and energy-intensive process — it only took Mother Nature about 100+ million years to collect and transform algae and phyto-plankton into the oil we are pumping out of the ground today.   And she had the advantage of free heat and pressure.Wink

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  32. By Kit P on December 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm

     “to cloud my thinking”

     

    What fun would that be? Anyway nice post. William how much forest land and were?

    “almost universal acceptance of the idea”

    Is that acceptance by your peers?

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  33. By Terry on December 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Robert Rapier said:

    Since nobody is really doing either on a large-scale basis, it is hard to say for sure, but my guess is that trees are going to come in much lower. I am skeptical that there exists a method yet to harvest algae and process it into fuel on a net positive energy basis. And until the energy balance can be shown to be positive, there is no net CO2 sequestration. In fact, if you are using the biomass for fuel, there isn’t any sequestration anyway (unless you are using something like terra preta as a byproduct). It could just be said to be carbon neutral.

    RR


     

    Isn’t tree farming also going to be essentially just carbon neutral?  Unless we leave the trees alone, at some point they will be harvested and used for our energy needs.  I suppose not 100% of the harvested trees will be burned so there is some residual that could be considered ‘sequestered’.  Do we have any idea what fraction of biomass that would be?

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  34. By BilB on December 19, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Trees can only be considered sequestered, Terry, if their carbon is in the form of long lived biochar, or buried very deeply. Other wise they rot and convert soil carbon which can produce both methane and CO2 over time. That is as I understand it. Biochar can be a byproduct of conversion to gas if the system is designed that way, so harvesting trees for gas production can offer a “dime each way”, part sequestered mostly recycled.

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  35. By rrapier on December 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Isn’t tree farming also going to be essentially just carbon neutral?

    Yes. Of course if virgin forest is cleared to make way for a tree plantations, a lot of CO2 is released.

    I did ask someone once who specialized in trees whether the roots continued to exist for any length of time after the tree is cut down. They said that it depends, but some large roots can persist below the ground for decades after the tree is removed.

    RR

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  36. By William Edwards on December 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    A couple of hundred acres, Kit, in Western North Carolina.

    My peers and almost everyone else have bought into the idea that we are running out of oil. The real numbers say otherwise.

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  37. By Kit P on December 20, 2010 at 5:49 am

    “A couple of hundred acres, Kit, in Western North Carolina.”

    You are a lucky guy. Forest health issues are different than in the semi-arid mountains of the western North America where removing dead wood either by controlled burns or harvesting for energy will mitigate a crisis of mind boggling proportion. What is the condition of the forest in Western North Carolina?

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  38. By William Edwards on December 20, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Forests here seem to be thriving. Possibly they are enjoying the benefits of this cycle of increased CO₂.

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  39. By Renewable Power Spac on December 21, 2010 at 12:20 am

    This is a great post and I like the title. Especially the story about photosynthesis. Although it took 5 years to acquired 162 pounds of energy, it was sustainable. If we truely want to achieve sustainable, secure energy future, we have to look in long term, even it means we need large up-to-front investment.

     

    Renewablw Power Space

    http://futurepowersystem.blogspot.com/

    [link]      
  40. By Renewable Power Spac on December 21, 2010 at 12:20 am

    This is a great post and I like the title. Especially the story about photosynthesis. Although it took 5 years to acquired 162 pounds of energy, it was sustainable. If we truely want to achieve sustainable, secure energy future, we have to look in long term, even it means we need large up-to-front investment.

     

    Renewablw Power Space

    http://futurepowersystem.blogspot.com/

    [link]      
  41. By Kit P on December 21, 2010 at 9:18 am

    I thought I would go over to Renewable Power Space and see if there was anything new.

    Nope! Just style over substance.

    “Conventional power plants including coal plants, gas-burning plants and nuclear plants can cause many environmental issues such as air pollution, water pollution, toxic wastes, etc. Those plants are widely blamed as threaten to some plants and animal life and as well as contributing to global warming. On the other hand, renewables such as solar and wind don’t have those issues, or to a lesser extent.”

     

    This actually should goes under the myth heading. About 20 years ago numerous LCA were performed to help decision makers decide on the best ways to make electricity while minimizing the environmental impact. Environmental impact is measured per unit of electricity produced.

     

    In theory and practice the best way to reduce the environmental impact of making electricity is methane capture such as landfill gas, biogas from anaerobic digesters, and coal bed methane. These are also the most economical sources of renewable energy and will offset baseload coal generation while providing local grid regulation. Grade A+.

    A close second is waste biomas like the dead wood in forest that we have discussing. Grade A-.

    Geothermal comes in third. Grade B+

    In practice, the main problem with wind and solar is that they do not produce electricity with the promised capacity factor (CF). The second problem is that they are not reliable sources of energy. Properly sited and maintained wind and solar gets a Grade of B. Once you start putting PV on roofs or placing projects for political reasons where there are not good wind and solar resouces; wind and solar gets a Grade of C to F. If no electricity is produced, it is not renewable energy just ugly metal art.

     

    The interesting part is that LCA identifies how to reduce the environment impact of making electricity. Over the last 20 years coal and nuclear have taken that information and significantly reduced the environmental impact of making electricity. Ten years from now those old coal plants will be shut down (most likely) or have modern pollution controls installed. Coal Grade B moving towards a B+. In the last 20 years since nukes started performing at design CF, improvements at nuke plants have been the equivalent of building 26 new nuke plants. Grade A+ for nukes that have created habitat and Grade A in general.

    At least the source of the information was identified: Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Here is a myth from the USC.

    “Clean air is essential to life and good health.”

    News flash, humans evolved cooking over wood fires. Food, shelter, clean water, and energy to keep us warm are essential to life. Clean air is nice and we have it. Putting up wind turbines someplace else is not going to cities cleanup air quality.

    The bottom line is we have fixed most of the problems with making electricity in the US with out the help of wind or solar.

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  42. By sameer-kulkarni on December 22, 2010 at 11:56 am

    IMHO the best way for a sustainable process to succeed is

    to develop a consolidated & an integrated Renewable energy processing

    platform for eg a Biorefinery complex consisting of

    1. Corn Ethanol plant:

    Major Product Ethanol

    Byproduct: DDGS & concentrated CO2 for Algae ponds

     

    2. Cellulosic Ethanol Plant:

    Major Product Ethanol

    Byproduct: Steam from combustion of solid lignin residues

    (for Upstream & Downstream process in the complex) & concentrated CO2

    for Algae ponds

     

    3. Algae harvesting ponds

    Major Product Algal-Oil

    Byproduct: Biopigment

    Additionally a part of waste water from the Ethanol

    plants could be used for the cultivation of algae.

     

    This could result in high EROEI (> 1.5). 

     

    Its POET’s idea http://www.poet.com/innovation…..ecycle.asp

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  43. By Methmina on March 7, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Wow. I thought I would go over to Renewable Power Space and see if there was anything new.

    Nope! Just style over substance.

    “Conventional power plants including coal plants, gas-burning plants and nuclear plants can cause many environmental issues such as air pollution, water pollution, toxic wastes, etc. Those plants are widely blamed as threaten to some plants and animal life and as well as contributing to global warming. On the other hand, renewables such as solar and wind don’t have those issues, or to a lesser extent.”

    [link]      
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