Monday, July 28, 2008

How Biofuelled Is My Valley?

Speaking of policies that fit our world-view but not necessarily the facts, the dramatic turnaround in the status of biofuel has been a welcome fillip to those of us who care more about pesky little things like facts; we'd expected it to take a lot longer for everyone else to notice. Nevertheless, the real lesson of the whole saga still hasn't quite hit home as it should.

Ultimately, the reason we liked biofuels is the reason we like householder recycling, is the reason we like energy-saving light bulbs. It's all a question of the total sum of individuals making little contributions; biofuels were meant to help in this respect because it's much easier to change from diesel to biofuel than it is to change your car. As Liberal Democrats, we've embraced the idea wholesale and with good reason; for all their talk about neoliberalism, the parishioners of the Church of Environmentalism have failed to notice that this part of their own ideology is the most authentically liberal of the lot.

The key word in that paragraph, however, is car. If changing individual behaviour is your goal, the car is obviously the key target in the transport arena. We've had experiments in other modes, but they've met with a mixture of indifference and antipathy. The biofuel train got the Prime Minister's bum on a seat, but once it reached Llandudno everyone stopped caring. Meanwhile, the biofuel plane was met with positive hostility, but that was more a reflection of a visceral hatred of air travel and Richard Branson than any problem with the energy medium.

Before we write the obituary of biofuels, then, we should at least consider how valid that focus on cars was. Moreover, as much as we need to consider the Kyoto enforcement period (six months down, fifty-four to go), we should also think about the long-term scenario, the eventual low-carbon society we will need to meet the next set of targets and the set after that and the set after that. In the long-term, the criterion to apply is relatively simple. All we are looking for is the technology that delivers, for any particular purpose, the necessary quantity of energy at the right rate for the right period with the lowest emissions.

For the car, you're talking about a technology that can make a one tonne vehicle go from 0-60mph in about ten seconds, maintaining 60mph for about 400 miles with an engine and fuel tank of similar size to those in existing units. For that sort of performance, battery/solar electric systems, fuel cell systems and hydrogen systems are all likely to get there in the next decade or so; on that basis, biofuel is a pretty poor contender.

With the train, the answer is even more obvious because it already exists. Heck, between their massive use of nuclear and the level of electrification of their network, France are already operating an effective model for the sort of zero-carbon system we could introduce in quite short order. Even without a move to nuclear, increased electrification in Britain would mean an effective fuel switch from oil to gas, with at least some reduction in emissions.

(It's worth noting at this point that Labour are perilously close to matching their Conservative predecessors by capping their decline with a disastrous railway-related decision. The crimes of the foot and mouth cull and Iraq and the wastage of the NHS IT programme will be as nothing to the insanity of the current Intercity Express Programme if it does indeed produce a new diesel High Speed Train instead of the wholesale electrification of the remaining inter-city lines we so desperately need.)

And so we come to air travel, where we face a fundamentally different challenge. Jet propulsion absolutely requires a combustible medium, nothing else will do. Moreover, whereas an electric motor for 60mph is a relatively easy proposition, a lightweight pure propeller engine for 60,000lbs of thrust is not. Barring that sort of technological leap, your options are basically hydrogen and biofuel, and even then you have to figure that unless metal hydride storage takes off, hydrogen for air travel pretty much ended with the Hindenburg...

As it turns out, not only are the Envionmentalists wrong that biofuel shouldn't be considered for air travel, but air travel is the only area where pursuing biofuels is essential. I'd be surprised that the truth is the exact opposite of the dogma, but that point has long since passed...

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