The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on January 9, 2008

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Flux tower
Tour-Bluets – Flux tower on a recently harvest boreal black spruce site with lowbush blueberry ground cover, Chibougamau, Quebec. Photo credit: Onil Bergeron

Last week also saw some unfortunate news for the “carbon dioxide (CO2) will boost plant growth” denier crowd. According to the Global Carbon Project, an international scientific organization working “to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle, including both its biophysical and human dimensions together with the interactions and feedbacks between them,” the forests of North America are not sequestering as much CO2 as expected. Forests sequester CO2 in the spring, but release it via decay in the autumn. Warmer springs means more CO2 absorption by the forests, but warmer autumns means more decay as well. And according to the study’s authors, autumns have warmed more than springs over the last 20 years or so, leading to approximately 90% of all sequestered CO2 from the spring being re-released back into the atmosphere in the autumn. And they expect that, if autumns continue to warm faster than springs, the emission of CO2 from the forests may balance or even ultimately exceed their sequestering ability.

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According to Gene Sperling, economic adviser to former President Clinton and senior fellow at The Center for American Progress, policy makers should not have to know that global heating is real beyond a reasonable doubt before they act to mitigate it. In his commentary on Bloomberg.com (Global Warming Insurance Policy Is Worth Premium), Mr. Sperling says that, if you view global heating as an insurance issue vs. an investment issue, the choice is clear – developing policies that mitigate global heating is the lowest risk option. Unfortunately, President Bush and most of the Republican Party leadership are part of the “investment”, pro-business wing of the Republican Party.

From a conservative investment perspective, the prudent person chooses to invest new funds only where he believes it is more likely to get a higher return than leaving the money in low- risk bonds or money markets. From this framework, the skeptic needs a relatively high probability of certainty that climate change can be affected by changes in human activity before he could justify investing resources to address it.

Mr. Sperling takes a firmly pro-insurance policy perspective on global heating, and he uses the very critiques of the Stern Review on the economics of climate change to do so. After all, when the critics say that spending money to address global heating should be viewed “as an issue about how much insurance to buy to offset the small chance of a ruinous catastrophe that is difficult to compensate by ordinary saving”, it’s hard to ignore them.

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In case you missed it, oil prices hit $100 per barrel on the New York market for the first time on January 2, 2008. But while the markets weren’t exactly thrilled with this fact, most market “experts” felt that the price was driven up by speculation rather than real market forces like supply, demand, or panic due to the geopolitical situation around the world. In the aftermath of all the hand-wringing, though, I found a commentary by Oklahoma’s energy secretary, David Fleischaker (In Praise of $100 Oil). Mr. Fleischaker admits that high oil prices helps his state’s economy, but he also points out something that too many people don’t understand or choose to ignore – the high prices for oil make otherwise expensive alternatives viable and drive significant investment in alternative fuels, high fuel efficiency vehicles, and non-oil based heating. The only problem, and it’s a problem that Mr. Fleischaker doesn’t address, is that high oil prices also affect poor people the most. And at present, there are only minimal protections in place to keep them afloat when they lose their job because they can’t afford gasoline to get to work, or they find themselves in need of emergency room services because they couldn’t afford heating oil and the cold weakened their immune systems. Mr. Fleischaker is right, but only to an extent, and if $100 oil is good for the state of Oklahoma, perhaps it’s good enough that his state government can create the safety nets I’m talking about. After all, Oklahoma ranked 47th in Medicaid services to the poor.

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SwitchgrassSeveral years ago, President Bush suggested that we create home-grown ethanol from “wood chips and stalks, or switchgrass.” As of yesterday, the first large-scale study of the energy efficiency of switchgrass was published, and it found that switchgrass yields 5.4x as much energy than is put into it. According to Ken Vogel, one of the study’s authors, this new energy calculation includes “the energy used for fuel, the energy used to make the tractors, the energy used to make the seed to plant the field, the energy used to produce the herbicide, the energy used to produce the fertilizer, the energy used in the harvesting process. (from NPR)” This is an example of cellulosic ethanol conversion, a process that is well understood but faces several uphill battles. One of the biggest is that corn ethanol uses yeast to ferment glucose, fructose, and similar sugars into ethanol, and yeast is easy to care for. Cellulosic ethanol production requires special enzymes to first break down the tough cellulose molecules down into something that can be fermented, and creating those enzymes in large quantities has proven difficult thus far. Another concern is how the conversion process, which also requires heat from an external source, will be powered – using natural gas or coal-powered electric heaters will degrade the energy equation, although burning the switchgrass biosolids remaining after the start of the process might yield enough heat. The morally ambiguity of converting food into fuel gives many people, including me, significant pause over biofuels in general, but if we can instead convert a native prairie plant like switchgrass to ethanol, most of the ethical and economic questions swirling around ethanol will begin to fade. And when you consider that switchgrass is also a native perennial, the subsequent reduction in topsoil erosion and fertilizer consumption only serve to further enhance the benefits of switching from corn to switchgrass.

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According to a new study reported by Science Daily, scientists are observing a reduction in water levels in the Great Lakes that is consistent with predictions from global heating models. Unfortunately, while the drop that’s occurred since 1973 is consistent with predictions, that doesn’t mean that the drops are necessarily caused by global heating – the scientists just don’t know for sure yet. Regardless, however, with 40 million people in the United States and Canada relying on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, declining water levels are something to keep an eye on.

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Fisher Twirling TowerAnd finally, we have a conceptual skyscraper by architect David Fisher. According to Mr. Fisher, this rotating, wind powered skyscraper could not only power itself as it rotates, but if it works, it could power an additional 10 similarly sized buildings. And Mr. Fisher plans to build it Chicago – if he can get funding for such a radical idea. As I’m an electrical engineer, I won’t comment on the issues of building stresses, possible safety issues, vertigo and motion sickness, or the reasonableness of rotating the living and business areas instead of just rotating the intermediate generator floors, but some things are just plain cool. Practical or not, this one is just plain cool. And check out the YouTube video of the computerized tower rotating. (Thanks to Mike “Ubertramp” Pecaut.)

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