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Miles per Acre, The Post oil Economy

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Feb. 27th, 2007 | 02:14 pm

Over dinner the other night I got into this discussion on the environmental cost of the different biofuels that are available. Living in Seattle means you live in a Mecca of bio-diesel. You can't drive a block in Capital Hill, my neighborhood, and not sea a bio-diesel bumper sticker proudly claiming 100% use of bio-diesel. In Seattle we only see the other major bio-fuel, ethanol, as an additive to oil derived fuel.

Bio-diesel has a strong feeling in part in the Northwest because it is locally made. Locally made means overall less cost and environmental impact (the cost of transporting fuel only increases the cost to our environment). The other bio-fuel, Ethanol, is not produced in quantities rivaling bio-diesel in the Northwest.

Over dinner I began to wonder about what the cost per acre is for fuel generation. Cost in soil, water, and required photo energy is all important, but it boils down to a cost in acres of soil. This made me go a little further in my thoughts to other fuel sources.

Take methane production for instance. Methane can be extracted from land fills. Smart land fills have begun to convert it over into sellable energy instead of just putting a torch in the ground and burning it off.

How much electricity is being produced per-acre of land fill?

What about other fuel sources?

How many acres of air field does it take for wind generators to power your car across town?

How many acres of land does a solar field need to produce the electricity to run the mixer for the bread I bake?

All of these energy sources are measurement based on acres of land.

I could extrapolate this argument out to the cost of dams as well. We use land to create them. In the LA basin there are 51 dams which were created from available land.

Different fuels carry different densities. Methane production per acre generates a fraction of the possible bio-fuel, or bio-mass energy, that an acre of soy beans can produce.

It should be possible to create cost calculations. In graduate school my research group was able to create energy calculations from a fire we started in Canada that was good enough to calibrate sensors on the Shuttle for measuring CO production in forest fires.

We have the technology to get at the heart of what fuel really costs us.

In a post oil economy we need to rethink our ideas on power consumption and how we measure it. Mile per gallon no longer answers that questions, we need to look at the broader cost of power generation.

We need to think in Miles per Acre.

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Comments {15}

M.

also..

from: 3countylaugh
date: Feb. 27th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
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Since you are already thinking this way....
Don't forget taking energy out of the system affects the system.
For every acre of solar energy how much is the surounding area's temperature affected.
For every acre of wind farm, how many weather systems are impacted and in what directions will they now move.
For every acre of crops grown for fuel how much of that is grown with pesticides that wouldn't be used if these fuel crops weren't utalized.
For every dam how much down stream impact does this have on things like aquifers, and farm crops for our food.
For every BTU of themal generated with geothermal, how does this impact plate techtonics, or does it.

It's hardly a simple matter of per acre even. Although I do like it as a place to start from as a universal measure of energy production and impact.

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Jonathan Korman

(no subject)

from: jonathankorman
date: Feb. 27th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
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This reminds me of an article I read (can't recall the source) in which someone talked about the energy cost of producing ethanol from maize. It turns out that if you total up the energy spent on tractors working the cornfields and trucks bringing the corn to the distillery and the big boilers that turn the corn into ethanol and the machinery to pump it out of the distillery, that ethanol from corn only breaks even. Ethanol works for the Brazilians because they make it from sugar cane, which is much more efficient, but ethanol in the US is just an invention of the corn lobby.

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Brian "Krow" Aker

(no subject)

from: krow
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 05:39 am (UTC)
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I've read about this several times, but no one has given me data that persuaded me one way or another. Its very conceivable that it is true, but I also know that farmers who produce and use ethanol on their own farms wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't economical.

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Jonathan Korman

(no subject)

from: jonathankorman
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 05:45 am (UTC)
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My understanding is that corn alcohol is economical because of agricultural subsidies that are a consequence of the strength of the corn lobby. But honestly I don't have the grounding to truly support that claim.

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Brian "Krow" Aker

(no subject)

from: krow
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 05:52 am (UTC)
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I almost mentioned the questionable cases around ethanol when I wrote this up, but was afraid of spreading a mistruth. I really need to spend some time to read up on this.

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(no subject)

from: naruvonwilkins
date: Mar. 2nd, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)
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The results I've heard of have been wildly different depending upon who's doing the measuring. The NREL says biodiesel from soybeans is much more efficient than ethanol, but I don't recall by how much or what they included in their calculations.

There's a publication from the NREL - "business plans for biodiesel producers" or something similar - that had some interesting numbers on that, anyway.

I do remember something sticking out at me - even if we converted all the vegetable oil we produce into biodiesel, we'd be looking at something like 10% of all the highway diesel sold today. That did propel me a bit more toward realizing electric trains are probably going to be our biggest solution...

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(Deleted comment)

There are acres and acres

from: ext_19370
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 12:21 am (UTC)
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An acre of desert or the tops of big box retail stores has a different value from an acre of, say, Napa Valley or Iowa. Maybe it should be miles traveled per person-day of food displaced.

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You can call me Edith

(no subject)

from: weizenwind
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 02:04 am (UTC)
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Ben would love to talk to you about this.

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Brian "Krow" Aker

(no subject)

from: krow
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 05:33 am (UTC)
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Set up dinner or coffee sometime between all three of us :)

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Lover of Ideas

(no subject)

from: omnifarious
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 04:59 am (UTC)
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Better is miles per acreyear. I think that despite the complexities others have mentioned that your idea is a really excellent way of calculating a general ROI for energy production. But it needs a time factor in order to be complete.

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El JoPe Magnífico

(no subject)

from: jope
date: Feb. 28th, 2007 06:24 am (UTC)
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The other bio-fuel, Ethanol, is not produced in quantities rivaling bio-diesel in the Northwest.

Not with corn as the source bio-mass. Switchgrass sounds like it would grow just fine in eastern Washington though. In fact, pretty much everything I've read recommends it highly for reasons across the board, in addition to high energy content. Just a matter of waiting for some of the inefficiencies in the metabolizing process itself to eventually get ironed out.

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(no subject)

from: naruvonwilkins
date: Mar. 2nd, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
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Don't we have serious water issues in eastern washington with the output we expect already? I don't know, I just know it's a contentious issue in state politics.

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(no subject)

from: toxrad
date: Mar. 15th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
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For a recent analysis of ethanol production efficiency see Matthew Walds article in Scientific American Jan2007, Vol. 296 Issue 1, p42-49.
It's true that production from the kernel does not provide much net energy (not to mention other environmental and political side effects), but production from the entire plant (cellulose) would improve this.

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Da Hozer

miles per acre..

from: hozed
date: Dec. 7th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
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Can you provide some input at:

http://www.bioenergywiki.net/index.php/Miles_per_acre ?

I'd really like to see some estimates of miles per acre of a VW diesel machine running on biodiesel grown in the pacific northwest.

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