Woolsey On Alternative Fuels - Part 2
By Bill Moore
James Woolsey is a firm believer in alternatives fuels, especially those derived from biomass or plant matter, as a means of reducing America's dependence on imported oil. He calculates that the nation could eventually replace two-thirds of its current oil consumption, most of which is used in transportation, with a combination of biomass fuels and hybrid-electric vehicle systems.
The sugars found in all plants can be fermented into alcohol-based fuels, either methanol or ethanol. It's an ancient science that dates back to the first whiskey distilleries. While it's possible to use methanol directly as a fuel -- it's what Indy League Racing cars have run on for more than a decade -- ethanol is typically blended with gasoline to make a compatible fuel. Corn-based ethanol is one of the most widely used such fuels.
For his part, however, Woolsey is less than enthusiastic about ethanol fermented from corn (maize). Despite it being the current industry leader among a growing selection of alternative fuels made from plant matter, it isn't the ideal source for ethanol. Woolsey agrees with critics who assert that it takes nearly as much energy to make corn-based ethanol fuel as found in the fuel itself.
"It is nearly an equal trade," he explains comparing the energy input versus ethanol's potential output. "The reason is you have to plow, you have to harvest, you have to fertilize, and fertilizer takes fossil fuels to produce. By the time you get it done, you've used about six gallons of petroleum to produce 7 gallons of ethanol. That's why you don't want to stay with corn."
He says corn ethanol has served a useful role in getting the industry started, but what we need to do is move to using waste plant matter instead of corn, which has other valuable uses. He cites the example of rice straw. It has to be removed from the fields at the end of every growing season or the silica in the straw will eventually ruin the field. Traditionally rice farmers have simply burned it, creating a pollution problem. Woolsey sees converting the straw to ethanol as a way to turn a problem into a solution.
Another good candidate is prairie switch grass. Here again, he envisions this natural grass, which requires no fertilizers or irrigation, being cut, harvested and converted to ethanol. "You just mow it. You're not using anywhere near the amount of energy you do producing corn."
He and US Senator Richard Lugar co-authored an article several years ago that calculated switch grass-derived ethanol could be produced at a ratio of 1 to 7. It would take one gallon of fossil fuels to cut and transport the grass to the distillery to produce seven gallons of ethanol. The ethanol industry calculates the ratio for "best-practices" corn-based ethanol production from field-to-fuel is 1 to 2.4. So, if Woolsey's estimates prove accurate, the vast prairies of America could someday be producing fuel to drive the nation, though that raises the question of the nation someday having to choose between food and fuel. It's an issue Woolsey has also thought about.
He points out that some 60 million acres of land lies idle very year on various state and federal programs. Half of this is set aside in "soil bank" or CRP programs, which forbid farmers from even cutting hay on these fields. Woolsey favors letting farmers harvest the grasses on these set aside lands so it can be turned into biomass fuels.
Citing a study by Dartmouth professor Lee Lynn, Woolsey tells EV World that just using the current inventory of CRP lands for bio-fuel production, without taking any land out of food production or adding marginal lands, it is theoretically possible to replace 20% of the oil America currently uses for transportation, at today's current fuel efficiency rates. Adding agricultural waste to this in the form of rice straw, corn stalks, etc. would raise the percentage to about one-third.
Next, if the nation's auto fleet fuel efficiency could be raised to hybrid-electric standards, Woolsey estimates the United States could produce two-thirds of its transportation fuels from renewable biomass. He does, however, admit there is some disagreement around how much land would be required to shift to a biomass energy system. Much of the debate centers around crop yields and fuel efficiency standards. He explains that if you take very low crop yields and combine that with no improvements in fuel efficiency then a "scary" set of numbers appear that requires hundreds of millions of acres of land dedicated to fuel production. This scenario would mean choosing between food and fuel.
"But I think that is really a scare tactic by people who really don't want to go this direction ," Woolsey observes. 'If you focus on making a series of improvements; improving gasoline mileage, using waste products, etc., I think you could make a very substantial dent in our gasoline and diesel use without doing anything negative to our farm land, without putting marginal land into cultivation, without replacing feed crops with specialized crops."
Using locally-grown biomass fuels has another increasingly critical advantage: reducing America's burgeoning trade deficit, which Woolsey estimates at about $100 billion a year for imported oil alone.
"As the world holds more and more dollars because of our huge trade deficits, some people understandably get worried about the dollar's stability. As long as everything goes fine, it's probably not a problem. A dollar for a Japanese or Chinese holding a US government bond is one of the better long term investments.
"But if as a result of terrorist attacks -- or anything -- people should lose confidence in the dollar and start moving into things like the Euro and the like, there could be some serious problems associated with it, " Woolsey cautions.
"So, if we have an alternative that is affordable and makes sense from the point of view of efficiency, it seems to me it would make a great deal of sense to try to use some of that hundred billion or so a year to employ Americans, particularly in rural parts of the United States that didn't feel the boom of the 1990s, and a lot of them are hurting bad economically."
He notes that because biomass fuels are produced most efficiently close to the source of the plant feed stock where transportation costs are kept to a minimum, this means ethanol processing plants must be located in rural areas, offering much needed jobs and economic revival to these hard-hit communities.
Woolsey points to the fact that America has an abundance of two important resources, farm land and coal. He envisions a future energy system that makes use of both agricultural waste and coal slag. He believes this approach can address the twin problems of energy and preserving the environment.
"You're helping the dollar and you're helping us be more independent of the Middle East," he comments, adding that reports circulated around Washington, D.C. several months ago about how the pilot for the Saudi crown prince refused to talk to female air traffic controllers while flying the prince to George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Woolsey says that whether its wanting to reduce Saudi influence over US policy or to send a message about Western attitudes on female rights, a shift towards alternative fuels like biomass ethanol can also have a positive role in the developing world.
"If you look at a country like Nigeria," he observes, " the Niger delta has one of the world's great oil supplies and it's sitting there pumping. People who live on top of it aren't getting any benefit from that. There are rebellions from time to time. They are poor tribesmen. Nobody is using [the oil] to help them. If they are subsistence farmers and they have an acre or two of land to grow crops for their family, if they can take the agricultural waste to a nearby biomass ethanol facility and produce transportation fuel, that's an extra bit of income for them, maybe if its only fifty or a hundred dollars a year, and they are making only three or four hundred dollars a year, that's substantial change."
Woolsey adds that micro-loan payments in the third world have a very positive impact on the lives of loan recipients. "It makes a huge change in people's lives." He says that people will use the money to buy a sewing machine or some pigs or set up some sort of business. "It helps develop the beginnings of greater prosperity."
"And one of the things this country ought to be about is helping that sort of thing occur around the world. You just don't want to give people money, you don't want to give them fish. You want to teach them how to fish."
He sees the introduction of small scale biomass technology in developing countries without oil reserves and often saddled by huge international debt, as a way to help those countries ease themselves out from these financial burdens. "A large part of that is for imported petroleum," he tells EV World. "I call this a potential alliance between the cheap hawks, the do-gooders, the farmers and the tree-huggers. We've got the beginnings of a fairly substantial coalition," he concludes, as he offers his apologies. He has a television interview to run to.
After talking to him personally, I have the impression that James Woolsey is a hard-noised pragmatist with a soft heart. Whether or not you agree with his position on war with Iraq, he can still be an important ally in the struggle to move America... and the world... towards a sustainable energy and transportation system.
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