Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Corn Ethanol: a complicated bogeyman

In terms of biofuels, the ugly kid on the street has been and continues to be corn ethanol. Critics lambast its poor lifecycle GHG balance, its low EROEI, and that it competes directly with our food supply, all compared unfavorably with sugarcane ethanol, and even moreso with cellulosic ethanol. As always, however, the picture is definitely not as simple as media make it out to be.

The more I learn about corn ethanol, the more it seems like it will be around to stay for a few generations yet. It has a lot of things going for it that make it more attractive as a source for biofuels and as a valuable product than you might expect. I'm going to try and go over to show how corn ethanol has value, what it's got going for it over sugarcane ethanol, and why it's probably going to stay around to compete with cellulosics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NGDP targeting and control theory

The economists Scott Sumner, Karl Smith and David Beckworth, among many others, have been pushing for the past two years a branch of macroeconomics sometimes called quasi-monetarism or market-monetarism. The group of people are all bloggers and, unusually, are not so prominent in their fields. Instead, they've grown in prominence since the financial crisis in advocating a policy that the Federal Reserve can undertake to provide stimulus beyond the zero interest rate bound: NGDP targeting.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Climate Skepticism and Epistemic Closure

For some time now I've been regularly reading the postings of a blog called Bit Tooth Energy, run by a former professor at the University of Missouri. While I initially read for excellent descriptions of energy technology, I was also impressed by the way the guy has systematically gone through temperature data for different states in the US and investigated trends - running a weekly, independent analysis of temperature trends, which in the continental US are quite varied. What impressed me more was that it was (and still is) done in a very data-oriented, neutral and technocratic manner.

It's both a confirmation of my own biases and of my ignorance that I was surprised to recently find that he places himself in the camp of climate change "skeptics." I had simply assumed someone running the data on his own would at least feel that the jury is out, if not be leaning towards the climate change-is-real-wake-up crowd. I stand corrected.

But that's not really what this entry is about. Bit Tooth Energy's writer may be a climate change skeptic, but he has thankfully kept any hint of confirmation bias out of his analysis and (most of) his writing. Hell, in order to try and find a broader perspective, I've been trying to find an honest skeptic out there whose interests lie with data analysis, and who values civility and not ad homoniem attacks. Stephen McIntyre may have started out that way, but now he's a jerkwad. Anyway, upon reading this entry, it appears that I've found what I've been looking for, someone who deserves the title of skeptic - even though that post is one that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it's at the very least reasonable. That's why my visit to the website of a book he recommended, a supposed expose of the IPCC in its relationship with the WWF, was all the more jarring.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A new salvo in the fracking debate

Some time ago the town of Dryden, which is a few short miles from Ithaca, banned fracking on the town's land. Their concern about environmental contamination was less significant than in other towns - Dryden is significantly more conservative than Ithaca - and was more or less focused on their rural zoning laws. I can sympathize; besides a section connected to Rt 17 that has some strip malls, Dryden is a quiet rural town, complete with a historic town center and church, and its own speed trap. Ultimately, they decided to class fracking as heavy industry and banned it from their land due to zoning regulations.

That comes into conflict with NYS DEC rulings and with a state law, from the 1970s, that explicitly assigned mineral and energy rights management to the state. The result is an interesting mix, since article IX of the New York State constitution enshrines the local municipality's right to regulate and control its land. There's now a lawsuit in progress over the rights to drill, since a company has apparently invested $5 million in the belief that the town had no jurisdiction. The conflict is probably going to head straight to the state supreme court.

Honestly, while Federal or State land is one issue, my opinion tends towards the town of Dryden here. The people who live there own the land, if not individually then through the town. Regardless of their motivation for the decision, it's up to them whether they want to partake of an opportunity or not. Doubtlessly, though, it will almost certainly come down to the most arcane of points in the judicial ruling. Yet another reason I won't become a lawyer any time soon.

Indian Points

One of the biggest issues coming around in New York these days is the relicensure of the Indian Point Nuclear Reactor by the NRC. Indian Point is coming under attack by the environmental movement in NYC, and they haven't been afraid to raise the Specter of Fukushima over and over again. The very fact that this license renewal is coming at a low-water mark for nuclear energy makes it one of the more hotly contested fights in recent years.

As part of the opening salvos, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection commissioned a study by Charles River Associates, an economics and management consulting firm, and the NRDC and Riverkeeper Inc. fired back with another by Synapse Energy Economics, an energy economics consulting firm, both of Cambridge, MA. Not trusting the news reports, whose science and economics journalism pretty much sucks, I went ahead and read both of them.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sugarcane ethanol: o que aconteceu, brasileiro?

Although there's a significant amount of debate as to whether or not the use of food products in biofuels causes a rise in the price of food in general (the so-called "Food vs. Fuel Debate"), when we look at specific markets and feedstocks there are quite a few trends that show the trade-offs between using food sources as fuels. Nowhere is this more apparent these days than in Brazil. The country was once touted as a potential fuel ethanol exporter for the entire world. Its sugarcane fields are vast and it had the mechanization and infrastructure - built in the 1980s, no less - to make ethanol from cane juice. Unlike in corn ethanol, no enzymes are required to liquefy and saccharify (that is, break into digestible sugar monomers) the feedstock; you can almost literally dump raw cane juice into a massive industrial scale fermenter. The only way American corn ethanol got off the ground were stupidly high tariffs on imported ethanol, ostensibly to offset the blending credit but in reality stupidly propping up fuel prices. Let me tell you, trade policy maneuvers like that take some balls; the Bush administration apparently had some to spare.

Ethanol-rich Brazil rode through the era of high gas prices with nary a scratch and blistering economic growth. But this year, Brazil imported ethanol from the United States, and on net terms became a fuel importer. What the hell?