Coal-fired cars are here!

Posted in Energy, Society at 9:10 by RjZ

They’re finally here! Coal-fired cars. Well, actually, very early cars were coal-fired steam powered cars but today’s newest additions, including the Chevy Volt are powered by almost 50% coal.

Chevy is actually pretty honest about this. Instead of describing this as a CO2 free car, the website says:

…as technology improves in the generation of electricity, we will continue to see reduced carbon outputs. Advancements in electricity production along with reduction in emissions from electric-powered driving could help make our world a cleaner place.

In the United States, almost 50% of our non-transportation power comes from coal. Less than 5% comes from solar and wind and virtually none of that at night or when the wind isn’t blowing, but even if it’s black instead of green electrons that power your plug-in hybrid or all electric car, Chevy’s got a good point. Centralized electricity production has some problems (like distribution losses mounting to over 30%) but it does mean that pollution controls are concentrated in one place and investment in them is more easily manageable.

In fact, all these new cars may provide just the solution that proponents of wind and solar have been looking for: storage. The electricity grid offers no effective way to store electricity for when the sun isn’t shining, but charging your car while it’s parked all afternoon may eventually, once it’s linked to a smart grid that can borrow some of this energy back, be just the storage that’s needed. No one is sure how to connect all this together so that your car stays charged, and yet still provides some power over night, but all those batteries have got to be worth something!

Speaking of batteries, while Chevy Volt goes for over $40,000, what is far from emphasized on their site is how the battery performs over time. In the beginning you’ll enjoy 35 miles of “tail pipe emissions free” driving. (There it is again, tail pipe emissions free doesn’t mean emissions free. Go Chevy for their honesty, even if it is wrapped in obfuscation.) During the eight year warranty period, best in the market by the way, your battery could lose its capacity up to 50% and you’ll be driving only 18 miles on a full charge without gas. A Prius battery costs about $3400, but it’s not clear how much a Volt battery is going to cost. Chevy seems to be taking the Apple route, claiming it will be covered under warranty and implying that in 8 years, you’ll get a new car anyway.

If you get a tax credit on your Chevy Volt you might be able to afford a new battery later on, or even the $2000 home charger that decreases the time it takes to fully charge, but before you do, have a look at your electric bill. Coal-fired power is pretty cheap with wholesale rates as low as $0.02/kW, compared to $0.08 to 0.15 for wind or solar, but that’s not what you pay. Depending on where you live your kW rate could be from about 22 to 35 cents. The Volt uses around 39kW/100 miles, or from $8.58 to 13.65 per 100 miles. My 2000 Subaru still gets about 25 – 27 mpg and, as of this writing the national average for gas was $3.52, which works out to $12.04 for a hundred miles, or, well, round about the same. You’re hardly saving money on gas, and before you say that gas is going up, so is the price of energy. We all want more wind and solar, but alternative energy investments aren’t free and utilities aren’t charities. They will be passing those costs onto you.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s best for the environment to drive your car into the ground. If your old car is coming around the bend for the last time, if its been ridden to the end of its useful life, getting a Chevy Volt would contribute to the United States economy and support energy independence for everyone (even those outside of the U.S.A.). You might even be able to brag about how you’re supporting clean-coal efforts and cleaning up the environment with your plug-in hybrid. My car’s got another 50K miles to go (I hope), I hope the price of these plug-in hybrids drops by then!

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Would you live in Los Angeles?

Posted in Energy at 16:11 by RjZ

Nuclear power plants are like politics. Nobody wants the government to spend any money, but they sure won’t say no to handouts and nobody wants nuclear power plants, but they sure don’t mind the energy.

The nuclear crisis in Japan comes as a result, not of the 9.0 Mw earthquake; the Daiichi plants survived those just fine, but the ensuing tsunami. The disaster is raising issues and generating renewed protest around the world. This is a already a catastrophe. Heroic people have lost their lives in their efforts to mitigate the disaster at the power plant and radiation has already leaked at occasionally dangerous levels. At least two, and possible three of the units will be decommissioned, with little of value recovered from them, but significant damage to the Japanese economy. If the worse-case scenario were to take place, the fuel rods would melt down and the reactor core would be breached releasing dangerous amounts of radiation that will not simply dissipate in the atmosphere like the material released so far.

The fallout from the Chernobyl disaster destroyed a city, and spread across Europe. The amount of radiation released in the disaster was 400 times the amount released in Hiroshima but 100 to 1000 less than the amount from atomic weapons testing from the 1950s through 1960s. In the region, 237 people suffered from radiation sickness, 31 of whom passed in the first three months. People from the region continue to suffer from effects such as weaker bones and an increase in cancer related deaths. Surprisingly, rivers and ground water suffered relatively little permanent effects of the increased radiation and people can even take tours of the deserted town of Pripyat, but the area is still generally off limits.

The 2011 Sendai Earthquake is being recorded as perhaps the seventh largest quake in history and certainly the fifth largest since the inception of seismological recording began. This isn’t just a hundred year event, it’s more like a thousand year event.

So, would you live in Los Angeles? Ever since I was a child, growing up in Orange County, California, we were told that someday, maybe tomorrow, or maybe a hundred years from now, the San Andreas fault could rupture so badly that half of California would go floating off into the sea. I suspect that just might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but a hundred-year event will return to California and San Onofre nuclear power plant is still sitting there, between San Diego and Los Angeles, just waiting.

Owners of the plant, Southern California Edison, say the plant can withstand a 7.0 quake right underneath the plant and has a 25 foot tsunami wall, but did they design the plant for a thousand-year event? Should they have, or should we just give up on nuclear power because the danger is too great?

If a coal plant is destroyed by a thousand-year, or even a hundred-year, earthquake it doesn’t necessarily just melt down. Tennessee Valley Authority is still mitigating the ash pond spill disaster from 2008. Of course, coal plants emit pollutants and millions of tons of CO2 everyday, earthquake or no.

Before we simply give up on nuclear power, let’s consider Japan’s tragedy in comparison with two other recent disasters. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 230,000 people in fourteen countries. In 2010, 316,000 people lost their lives in Haiti’s earthquake (even though it was a hundred times weaker than the Sendai quake). Meanwhile, perhaps as a testament to the people and their preparedness, Japan’s quake has claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 people. The difference is, perhaps, how developed Japan is compared to the to other regions. Like nearly every other industrial nation, Japan has built nuclear power stations to fuel that advancement.

So, would you give up on nuclear power? Are you willing to live in Los Angeles?

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Prairie dog shade

Posted in Energy at 12:46 by RjZ

Smoke stacks and chimneys sprout frequently across the Chinese landscape and tourists passing in trains tsk tsk at the multi-hued gases streaming from them. While air pollution may have decreased in the United States and Europe over the last few decades, it’s primarily because we have exported it to China. The United States was a leading producer of steel, but doing so was blackening the skies around Pittsburg and the rest of the steel belt. Today, those cities are cleaner, but steel production, along with a wide range of heavy industries has departed for foreign shores, primarily China.

That’s likely part of the reason that instead of shaking their heads, or wagging their fingers, the Chinese people see all those stacks as one thing: progress.
Within 50 miles of my home in Colorado, there are recently three small fields slowly being covered by arrays of tilted aluminum infrastructure and black glass plates. Solar photovoltaic (PV) power. For now, all we notice are weedy fields they cover looking formerly fallow and unused, except by prairie dogs growing confused by the new shade above them. Drivers whizzing passed the new solar plants see one thing progress.

Today, fields of solar cells are shiny new beacons of a clean energy future, but their meager output will require them to cover field after field before they generate enough power to make a dent in our demand. The dirty little secret of photovoltaics, however, are the raw materials and processes it takes to make them. Thin film photovoltaics would cover every square inch of prairie dog towns across Colorado and still have trouble suppling enough energy for our state’s meager needs, and higher efficiency solar cells require rare earth metals and minerals. They’re not called ‘rare’ for nothing. Some scientists wonder if there will be enough of these elements on the entire earth to meet our needs. Better fund NASA’s trips to near earth asteroids soon

Let’s not forget that solar cells alone are no solution at all, unless, of course, you enjoy candle light dinners and never watch tv after dark. Solar energy, obviously, doesn’t make it to your home at night, and must be stored somewhere for use when it’s dark out. Several schemes exist (molten salt, pump storage, etc.) even if none of them are very promising from an economic viewpoint, but a new field alone, without storage, isn’t the progress it’s pretending to be. It’s barely a glass half full for a thirsty world.

Solar energy holds huge promise, of course. My roof would only look better with a few of these black panels on top, and I doubt anyone would care of the whole neighborhood, city, or state, followed suit. Home and other distributed sources of electricity reap a double benefit, sparing us the power distribution losses that steal as much as a quarter of the power we generate before it ever gets to our high definition televisions. Roofs everywhere aren’t being used for anything other than keeping the rain and snow off of furniture. Prairie dogs and farmers, and I predict, anyone who enjoys to the view may feel differently about all those fallow fields.

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Taming the Yampa

Posted in Energy, Society at 10:54 by RjZ

It was hard to find a place to ride a road bike in north eastern Colorado because it’s hard to find much of anything. This part of the western United States is not densely populated. Along the highway passing through it, there aren’t many places to stop. Many people do come here, however, and most of the hotels in Vernal, just over the border in Utah, are booked up. Is it because spring is the perfect season to visit Dinosaur National Monument? Actually, it’s the booming oil and gas industry.

Back in the day, this part of the world was densely populated…with dinosaurs. Today, their compressed bodies pressed over millennia into layers of mud is something we can use to motor our cars right past them on our drive from Denver to Salt Lake City; it’s oil shale.

This mostly untouched wilderness is home to something else very rare, however: the Yampa river. The Yampa is one of the very few wild rivers still left in North America. Today, however, after decades of buying up water rights in Colorado, the Shell Oil company has put forward a proposal to divert a significant amount of the Yampa into a reservoir that would be used to pump oil out of the shale below.

According to Shell, the reserves underneath the Dinosaur region of north western Colorado might rival the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia. Tapping this resource could lead to much needed energy independence from unsavory middle eastern dictatorships. Modern mining and drilling operations result in vastly diminished impact on the environment than they used to. As bumper stickers in mining regions remind us, “if it doesn’t grow, it’s mined.” It’s clear that a categorical refusal to support such activities is untenable.

The question, for me, comes down to which is the more precious resource? Water or oil? I drive a car, and I am not planning to give that up any time soon, but at the end of the day, can it really be argued that oil is more precious than water? Scarcity of water is painfully apparent in Colorado where water rights are a constant political companion and every day citizens are asked regularly asked to reduce water consumption. The earth may be covered with water over the majority of its surface, but the clean kind we can drink and water our vegetables with is like a cool glass of water spilled in the ocean.

We use water in a variety of industrial processes. Releasing oil from shale would be yet another one. Yet it takes about three barrels of water for a single barrel of oil. What will we use all the energy in the oil for? Will we put in trucks to carry bottled water to our super markets? Will we pour it into water treatment plants to create clean drinking water? Will we power industrial desalinization to make ocean water clean enough to drink? In the end, it will be a losing proposition.

And how will any of this help the rare fish and plants living along one of the last wild rivers?

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Queue forms to receive part of $800 billion

Posted in Energy, Society at 12:33 by RjZ

In the last two weeks I’ve been to two different symposiums on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Stimulus Bill. Both sold out their original venues and packed the newer larger ones to standing room only capacity. Both focused on the energy portions of the bill and featured Tom Plant, director of Governor’s Energy Office in Colorado. He’s an engaging speaker but I think over $800 million in government benefits had more to do with people lining up for a handout than his charisma.

Philosophically, you can guess, I am opposed to joining the queue, hat in hand, but the fact is, it’s my money (and yours) so we all have a vested interest in learning about how it’s being used. During the presentations and panels we heard well-meaning government officials ensure each of us that the intent of the bill is to create jobs, while also to building an infra-structure that will outlast the one-time funding it provides. However, the reason so many have come to this presentation, and others like it, isn’t the “why,” but the “how,” as in, “how do I get a piece of the pie for my business?”

Since symposiums focused on the energy funding part of the bill, we were able to hear not only from elected and appointed government officials, but from public and private utilities and the Colorado Public Utility Commission (PUC). We shouldn’t be surprised that their take on the intent of the bill, and how to implement it, differed from the Governor’s Energy Office. Always practical, the utilities want to make sure that projects are properly funded during the 18 month term of the bill, so their plan is to choose existing projects or ones that they’ve already budgeted.

We can appreciate their intention to ensure that accountable results are made sooner than later, one of the goals of the bill, but should we be surprised that government spending leads, once again, to further entrenching the status quo? Funding existing projects isn’t stimulus! It’s a handout to companies to continue with projects they were going to do anyway.

It’s not only utilities enjoying a windfall for activities they had planned anyway. Discussing Demand Side Management, Jeff Ackermann of the PUC said there are three types of people who will add solar to their houses, or purchase other efficiency improvements which reduce energy on the demand side. Some, he said, won’t add these improvements no matter what the government says or does. Some are thinking about it and need some encouragement, and some were going to do it anyway. It will be a victory if the stimulus bill converts a few who were on the fence, but those few will be paid right along with those who will enjoy government cash for going about their business as before.

For now, it remains to be seen whether or not these billions (and billions) of dollars will benefit new technologies and create green collared jobs, or if the stimulus bill will be the democrats’ version of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics, favoring big existing institutions first, and finally filtering through to individuals and tax payers later, someday, maybe.

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What’s good about expensive gas?

Posted in Energy, Society at 14:48 by RjZ

Oil consuming nations failed to impress the Saudi king during a recent Global Summit on Oil in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. 

The consumers expressed that the current high price situation is unsustainable. That’s easy to see when you live in the United States and see the spread out development and    number enormous cars traveling from their homes in the distant suburbs to their jobs. High fuel prices increase the price of everything and leave less for the commuting masses to spend.

Meanwhile, the developing world is buying more cars. India’s Tata is releasing cute $2000 car for the masses (and we’re talking India here, so masses is a whole bunch). China and India don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t live like the rest of the developed world and who can blame them. I just wonder how they’re going to afford it.

Neither China nor India are fuel producing nations. As demand increases and supply doesn’t, gas isn’t getting any cheaper for them than it is in the United States. (Strictly speaking, Chinese gas prices are controlled by the Chinese government, but there’s a limit to how they can reasonably subsidize the price).

As the world races toward (or past) peak oil the pressure will grow to develop alternative forms of energy and transportation. Actually, we may already have a few practical choices, we just can’t afford them.  Standard of living improvement is strongly correlated to energy consumption. The better a society lives, the more energy it uses. There are nations that have a great way of life with less energy, and some, like the United States, that use more than seems to be necessary to support their lifestyle, but all of the rich nations are alike in that they are consumers of things like televisions and, now, cars, and they use more energy than those countries whose populace mostly lives by subsistence farming. 

What’s good about expensive gas? Not much. Putting the breaks on development will hurt these up-and-coming nations even more than Europe and the United States, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a chance to slow their development and make some better choices.

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Should I buy a hybrid?

Posted in Energy, Society at 16:58 by RjZ

Car sales are down in the United States. I don’t think we should be surprised. If you’re only a few years into payments on your SUV it’s unlikely that, with the extra pinch of gas prices, you have enough extra money just lying around to simply get rid of the car you’ve got and get another one. You could go a little deeper in debt, but then credit’s a little tighter these days.

Suppose you’ve got the money and you’re really more interested in saving the environment. The question is, should you trade in that guzzler for a hybrid? Hybrids burn much less gas and produce fewer green house gases (GHGs), right?

Imagine you’ve got another 10 years at 12,000 miles per year on your car. I’m guessing that’d be around 200,000 miles, give or take, which, with some care, I think most cars from the last few decades will pull off. Say you’re getting 21 miles per gallon. A hybrid will get around 46. So that’s 25 miles per gallon for 120,000 miles or a savings of 4,800 gallons of gas! Not bad, at $4, that’s $19,200 over the next ten years. This is great news, from a cost standpoint. The five year cost of ownership of a Prius is only around double that, so, with today’s prices, it’s not such a bad deal!

The question I am asking though, is should you trade in your still working car for the environment’s sake? A gallon of gas creates about 20 lbs of CO2, so buying that Prius will save the environment at least 96,000 lbs of CO2. Except, how much CO2 and other GHGs are produced in the manufacture of a hybrid? Alas, I couldn’t find this data quickly on the web, but I’ll hazard a guess. A Prius weighs almost 4000 lbs. It’s a pretty fair assumption that producing all those machined parts, mining and smelting all the metal for the body, engine, battery, suspension etc., four tires, foam and carpet filled interior, and not least, transporting all the various pieces half way around the world, probably works out to quite a bit more than another 90,000 lbs of CO2. Without doing the math, I wouldn’t be surprised at 900,000 lbs of GHGs. Anyone have a real reference here? A couple of papers on the web were available at charge.

If it’s time to buy a new car, consider a hybrid, I am sure it’ll help. Just don’t buy something you really don’t need just to spare the environment. Reduce first, as the saying goes: reduce, reuse, recycle. I’ll be driving my 130,000 mile car for a few more years, even if there are cleaner cars out there.

Update 9 July 2008:
Slate’s Green Lantern takes the opposite view to my point using BTU data. Honestly, I am not really in a position to dispute this much but the calculation there doesn’t take into account the waste of producing more cars, more frequently than necessary (although he does touch upon this.) Worse, we have little knowledge of just how much of a Prius is reusable or recyclable (let alone reused or recycled). Finally by stretching the use of the car out to 11.5 years, a good idea, but certainly not usually what happens, the scales tip in favor of the Prius. Cost of ownership and cost to the environment continue to drop the longer something is used. That, after all, is the point I concluded with above: reduce, reuse, recycle–in that order!

Thanks to one of my faithful readers for the tip. I am interested in other data on this subject if folks come up with any.

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Now more convenient: new Energy category added

Posted in Energy at 20:10 by RjZ

Over the last few years I’ve written now and again about energy. A little before the first post on energy I started working in the power industry and it’s been a fascinating adventure. My instincts for understanding things stem from my physics training and that usually means reductionism. Reduce interactions to as few rules as possible and understanding falls out. When I try to understand businesses my instinct is to apply the rules of capitalism and expect understanding to fall out. But the power industry just refuses to be so simple.

Since I’ve noticed all those posts on energy piling up, it seemed liked they needed their very own category for your reading convenience. Now, all you power industry professionals can sort through book reviews, news comments, political rambling, and travel stories and go right to the powerful stuff. I hope you like it.

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Wind or hot air

Posted in , Energy at 17:05 by RjZ

While discussing the the benefits of offshore wind instead of oil,
In One Ear… Out the other writes “This means the decommissioning of many harmful coal plants along the coast who have the added problem of having to ship in coal.”

Would that that were true. Planting off shore wind turbines doesn’t mean we get to shut down coal–unless everyone agrees to finally turn off extra lights, keep the air conditioner off, and maybe stop having children. Power requirements are increasing and while wind is going to play a part in our future energy mix, hopefully a growing part, it won’t be as simple as the author hopes.

While we’re at it, have an aerial look at Rawhide Power Plant in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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In the center of that scene you can make out their boiler and pollution control equipment (look for the shadow of the stack). There’s the cooling lake, and then the coal yard on the top. In the upper right are four gas-fired combustion turbines used to meet peak load requirements. The power station is rated at 270 MW and can put out up to 285 or more. It’s a middle size power plant. Almost half of the 1400 north American plants are this size or smaller and the rest range to as much as 1300 MW or more.

Now let’s compare to Solar Two.

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This is one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world. It’s inactive now but the technology is being commercialized at Solar Tres in Spain. Nice looking set of concentrator mirrors and, this is on the same scale, you can see that it takes up a bit less space. Unfortunately Solar Two is only rated at 10.5 MW of power (back when it was in service). You’d need nearly 30 of them to do what average ol’ Rawhide does.

Wind is more powerful off shore than it is inland. Still, Texas has some of the best wind in the nation. And it’s home to the worlds largest wind farm Horse Hollow Energy Station.

View Larger Map

Horse Hollow puts out considerably more power than Solar two and almost three times the juice of Rawhide at 735 MW; but only when the wind is blowing full speed. Rawhide runs all day–and all night, of course, but Horse Hollow is admirable just the same. Horse Hollow also occupies 47,000 acres. The portion I’ve linked to is the same scale as the other two pictures, but only a tiny section of the farm. Then there’s the distribution lines to get that power to some place useful.

To be fair, we’d really have to include the size of the mine that feeds coal to Rawhide, and maybe even the train tracks that feed it, but, as I’ve mentioned before, coal is pretty energy dense and the result is, even with all the infrastructure included, fossil fuel plants don’t take up as much room as wind and solar, and while many say we’ve got plenty of space, they always clam up when it’s their back yard we’re talking about.

The point of this exercise isn’t to say wind and solar are bad, but rather to make people aware that there are other trade offs; some as simple as where are we’re going to find all the land. I think Out the Other Ear may have a great question for McCain and others about thinking further outside the box than simply repealing off-shore drilling prohibition, but, alas, it doesn’t mean we’re likely to get to turn off those coal plants any time soon.

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Burning question

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:39 by RjZ

General Motors has spent piles of money on it’s questionable advertising campaign “Live Green, Go Yellow” to promote the use of renewable bio-fuels. When I ‘go yellow’ it’s usually a hint that I am not drinking enough water, but whatever. My real question is does using bio-fuel help reduce carbon?

Coal, oil, and other fossil fuels are really just stored solar energy. Hydrocarbon bonds built up in plants with the help of the sun and photosynthesis are dried and compressed into coal, or eaten by dinosaurs first, then compressed into oil. We dig it up and burn it, breaking down those hydrocarbons into CO2 and water, for energy. We get so much energy to fuel our economy and way of life simply because so many years of solar energy is stored in that compressed fossil fuel.

Bio-fuels, meanwhile, are considered renewable because while growing they were busy absorbing CO2 and when we burn them, it’s simply released again—net zero CO2, or so the marketing hype goes. It comes down to this: as long as we don’t burn these bio-fuels any faster than it takes to grow them, we’ll have a completely renewable, and carbon neutral source of energy. An energy source that, by the way, is essentially just solar power stored in hydrocarbons by the plants.

It’s ridiculous to imagine that we can suddenly get by with the solar energy stored in plants (or even algae) when we’ve been burning through our compressed, energy dense fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow! Actually, it takes quite a bit of fossil fuel to grow a plant these days, whether it’s a tree or switch grass as President Bush recommended, there are fertilizers, tractor fuel, and diesel fuel to carry it to the point of use (whether that’s your home or a centralized power plant.)

I’d be unfair if I said there were no advantages to renewables. There is, for example, energy independence and reduced CO2. Using ethanol to supplant oil gives the United States (or any other nation) more political independence to negotiate with countries whose behavior they may not agree with but from whom we’re currently buying critical energy. Using renewables certainly does reduce the amount of CO2 released from all that coal and oil (it was all previously stored, as opposed to being stored slowly over the last season it took to grow the crop—it’s just too bad it will only last a few minutes to extract the energy stored there). Plants are also remarkably efficient at turning solar energy into hydrocarbons, so long as they’re allowed their sweet time to do it.

Unless we can figure out a way to use energy as slowly as the plants did, we’d better keep looking for a real solution, and I’ll leave the going yellow to the bathroom.

Update: It’s worse than I thought. This article sites three folks from three different disciplines; an economist, scientist and environmentalist. They’re not so up on the bio-fuel idea either. I agree with the idea that locally, if it’s sustainable; for example if you’re burning all your bio-waste that would just go into a landfill (which by the way is a form of carbon sequestration!) there might be some point to burning bio-fuels. Aside from that, I am scared of people cutting down forests just to plant switch grass.

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