Moving to Nonfossil Fuels Can Be a Long Haul

By Published On: October 13, 2006

In trying to wean the state and nation from fossil-fuel use in stationary power plants and vehicles, policy makers will reap quicker benefits from efficiency than renewables, according to Jim Sweeney, Stanford professor and energy policy maven. National statistics show that 85 percent of current energy production is in fossil fuels, and less than 1 percent is in wind and solar. Sweeney maintained, therefore, that even a tenfold increase in wind and solar would do little to reduce fossil-fuel dependence. “You can’t just focus on new supplies no matter how sexy they are,” he said during a National Energy Symposium held October 12 in the state Capitol. Economic models show that in order for energy demand to drop 10 percent, prices have to rise between 50 percent and 100 percent, Sweeney said. If that happens, though, it could cause international economic depression. If energy efficiency is increased by 10 percent, the world can back off of fossil fuels far more cheaply and faster. According to Sweeney, a 10 percent increase in efficiency creates more independence from fossil fuels than would a tenfold increase in wind and solar power. With Proposition 87 coming up for a vote this November, panelists discussed the efficacy of bringing in replacement fuels for vehicles. Using ethanol as a substitute fuel was disparaged by most of the symposium’s panelists. In terms of energy, ethanol from corn takes nearly as much – if not more – energy to create than is usable in its final form. Some claim that it is as polluting as gasoline. Several academics and environmentalists promoted cellulose-based biofuels instead. Cellulose-based fuels – such as those from biomass – are not nearly as close to commercialization as is ethanol from corn. “There’s biobutanol,” which is more compatible with the current gasoline delivery infrastructure, noted Doug Arent, National Renewable Energy Laboratory director of strategic analysis. Biobutanol, for instance, could be delivered through the existing network of gasoline stations instead of building a new filling station network for ethanol. Ethanol would require a “parallel” system, with its own distribution network, added Daniel Sperling, University of California, Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies director. – J.A. Savage

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