Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Green Energy Links

More and more companies and individuals are using "carbon offsets" to balance their contribution to global warming. A "carbon offset" basically puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions - pay x amount of money per y amount of carbon dioxide to an offset company, which then puts the money into "green" projects. Common examples include investment in wind or solar energy and tree-planting. Now the FTC is investigating the claims made by offset companies.

Carbon offsets are essentially promises to use money in a way that will reduce carbon emissions. Panelists at the F.T.C.’s session on Tuesday raised a number of questions about certifications behind the claims, wondering if the offset companies might be double-counting carbon reductions that would have happened even without their efforts.

There is even disagreement over how much carbon dioxide can be neutralized by tree-planting, which is the type of offset that is easiest to grasp., for example, which provides offsets to companies like Amtrak, U-Haul and Allstate, uses the offset money in three ways: to plant trees; to subsidize wind and solar power so that it can be sold at more competitive prices; and to purchase credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange, which barters among hundreds of companies trying to reduce their emissions.

Even the companies that market carbon offsets say they have wondered if the providers were living up to their promises. When Gaiam, a yoga-equipment company, began selling offsets for shipping to consumers through the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization, Chris Fischer, the company’s general manager, says he insisted on visiting one of the tree sites in Louisiana.
Right now the offset market is largely unregulated. Some guidance from the FTC could be very useful.

Also, new research shows that switchgrass is a far better feedstock for ethanol than corn.
Switchgrass yields more than 540 percent more energy than the energy needed to produce and convert it to ethanol, making the grassy weed a far superior source for biofuels than corn ethanol, reports a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Collecting data from 10 farm sites in Nebraska, North and South Dakota in which farmers grew switchgrass in fields ranging from 7 to 23 acres over a five year period, Marty Schmer, a researcher with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and colleagues found that, on average, switchgrass produced biomass equivalent to 320 gallons of ethanol per acre — more than 60 percent more the average yield for an equivalent area of corn after factoring in fossil fuel use for fertilizers and pesticides. The study also found that average greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass were 94% lower than those from gasoline.
I am not sure if this finding is sufficient to make biofuels fully viable, but it enhances their credibility. Corn-based ethanol is a loser for many reasons - including fertilizer runoff and higher food prices. If ethanol is to be a viable long-term energy source, it needs to lose its dependency on corn as quickly as possible.