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Hydrogen reality check

Kevin Bullis, MIT Technology Review
Fuel cells won’t significantly dent fuel consumption for 50 years — we need to look elsewhere.
High oil prices and concerns about the long-term availability of oil have U.S. government officials singing the praises of hydrogen fuel cells as a solution to our nation’s transportation energy problem. But fuel cells, while a promising technology, could take more than 50 years to have a significant impact on gasoline consumption, according to estimates by MIT researchers. On the other hand, improved internal combustion engines and lighter vehicles could offset energy consumption much sooner, especially if consumers have incentives to buy them and manufacturers to make them.

“The potential for hydrogen fuel cells having an impact that you’d notice is a long way away,” says John Heywood, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. The estimates assume that competitive fuel cell vehicles will be available within 15 years, an achievement that will require improvements, for example, in hydrogen storage and production and fuel-cell costs. But even if and when fuel-cell vehicles come with the price and performance that consumers want, it will still take decades more before such new vehicles work their way into widespread use.
(5 May 2006)

Africa to benefit as world shifts from petrol to biofuels

Philip Ngunjiri, The East African
Under pressure from soaring oil prices and growing environmental constraints, momentum is gathering for a major international switch from fossil fuels to renewable bioenergy sources such as sugar cane or sunflower seeds, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years, we may see biofuels providing a full 25 per cent of the world’s energy needs,” says Alexander Muller, assistant director-general of FAO’s sustainable development department.

“Ministries of energy and agriculture must quickly find new ways of collaborating to exploit the potential presented by biofuels and biodiesel,” says Peter Kegode, a sugar industry and ethanol specialist in Kenya. This, he adds, is an opportunity to address the poverty experienced by maize and sugar producers in the country.

The surge in price of crude oil beyond $70 per barrel is responsible for renewed global interest in alternative energy sources.

…Kenya is poised to tap into the biofuel supply chain using commodities such as sugarcane, maize and sorghum. It is important, says Mr Kegode, that producers position themselves by forming energy companies that can negotiate better prices and enhanced compensation from their investments.

Currently, there are two existing stand-alone ethanol plants – Kisumu Molasses and Agrochemical. For Kenya to build up adequate supply of ethanol either for domestic blending purposes or export market, says Mr Kegode, it requires five plants – two in maize-producing regions and three in sugar-producing zones.

FAO’s interest in bioenergy stems from the positive impact that energy crops are expected to have on rural economies and the opportunity offered countries to diversify their energy sources.

“At the very least, it could mean a new lease of life for commodities such as sugar, whose international prices have plummeted,” FAO’s senior energy co-ordinator Gustavo Best, noted.

…”The beauty of bio-energy is that production can be tailored to local environments and energy needs,” Mr Best said. Where there is land, farmers and interest, bio-energy may be the best option. And if we add some sound analysis and good business models, we will get that option right.
(8 May 2006)

The Ethanol Solution
Could Corn-Based Fuel Help End America’s Dependence On Imported Oil?

60 Minutes, CBS News
Gas prices are passing $3 a gallon and climbing, oil companies are making record profits and there is serious concern about this country’s dependence on foreign oil. Those things have sparked a lot of talk about using something else, instead of oil, to fuel our cars.

As correspondent Dan Rather reports, Brazil faced similar problems and already has solved most of them. Instead of gasoline, many Brazilians are using ethanol – which can be made from plants into a kind of alcohol – to power their cars. It’s cheaper and cleaner. As a result, Brazil has virtually stopped importing expensive foreign oil.

So, 60 Minutes wondered: Why can’t we do that here in the United States? Farmers, automakers, Wall Street investors and many scientists think it can be done.
(7 May 2006)
The good – at least energy issues have made it onto prime time. The bad – is there a punctuation mark on the keyboard to express skepticism, extreme skepticism? Or disappointment that CBS did not do the digging to uncover the shortcomings and problems of bio-ethanol? Does broadcast journalism have to be superficial and happy face? -BA

Miles Per Cob (NY Times Op-Ed by former Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla)
Ethanol policy: For people or for agribusiness? (Tacoma News Tribune)

Hopes Rise for Energy Savings As East Europe Tackles Waste

Marc Champion, Wall Street Journal
Ukraine, Spurred by Price Jolt On Gas From Russia, Aims For Broad Efficiency Gains
…Ukraine, with its obsolete industrial plants and leaky urban heating systems, last year consumed almost as much natural gas as Germany, a country with a gross domestic product 10 times as large. Now, Ukrainian companies that relied on cheap gas to export low-cost metals and chemical products are scrambling to cut back or find other energy sources.

Rising oil and gas prices are forcing governments around the world to rethink energy policies, including looking for ways to curb demand growth. President Bush has warned Americans about their oil addiction, and Congress is drafting a flurry of legislation aimed at limiting energy consumption and oil imports. The European Union has endorsed a goal of cutting energy consumption 20% by 2020. Over the same period, fast-growing China has a plan to reduce by 40% the energy used to produce a unit of gross domestic product, an attempt to slow the Chinese demand increases that are a big contributor to rising global energy prices.

Former Soviet republics were built on cheap energy pumped out of the ground in Russia and Central Asia. Now they are home both to great waste and to great opportunity for savings — plus, thanks to Gazprom, great urgency.

Gazprom’s price move was seen here as Moscow’s revenge for Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution, which led to the election of a Western-friendly government in 2004. Gazprom, in which the Russian government holds a controlling stake, denies any political motivation. But the effect has been that Ukraine, which has a population of 50 million, has quickly produced a program to reduce gas consumption. It has set up a new energy-efficiency agency to direct the plan and is pouring government money into efforts to carry it out.
(8 May 2006)

Americans Head Out Beyond the Exurbs

Ford Fessenden, NY Times
…The new destinations are precisely the places, like Archer County, that have been undervalued — whether by industry or agriculture or mass leisure or urban flight. They are the places where you can still get something that feels like a good life, without the salary of a chief executive.

…Worries are growing in some precincts about what gas prices will do to this trend. “That’s the big question,” said Warren Karlenzig, an executive with, a research organization based in San Francisco. “Are the people moving to these areas dependent on jobs and services far out of their area?”

His group recently published a study of the best places to live during a gasoline crisis. That study concluded that New York City, because of its density and public transportation, was the place you should be when prices hit $100 a barrel.

Amanda Peterson, 27, a machine shop worker, moved from Zimmerman, Minn., a fast-growing exurb 40 miles north of Minneapolis, to Milaca, a small town 20 miles farther out, to find a house she and her fiancé could afford. “We saved forty to fifty thousand dollars on a house, and that buys a lot of gas,” she said.

“It’s always a tradeoff between housing costs and commuting costs,” Dr. Frey said, “and up to now people have said the commute is something I can put up with to get a nice house. But when you get to $100 a barrel, that’s different. That could be the one thing that stops the American movement” from spreading farther out.
(7 May 2006)

Report: 98% of U.S. commuters favor public transportation for others

The Onion
WASHINGTON, DC-A study released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that 98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.

“With traffic congestion, pollution, and oil shortages all getting worse, now is the time to shift to affordable, efficient public transportation,” APTA director Howard Collier said. “Fortunately, as this report shows, Americans have finally recognized the need for everyone else to do exactly that.”

Of the study’s 5,200 participants, 44 percent cited faster commutes as the primary reason to expand public transportation, followed closely by shorter lines at the gas station. Environmental and energy concerns ranked a distant third and fourth, respectively.

Anaheim, CA, resident Lance Holland, who drives 80 miles a day to his job in downtown Los Angeles, was among the proponents of public transit.

“Expanding mass transit isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity,” Holland said. “My drive to work is unbelievable. I spend more than two hours stuck in 12 lanes of traffic. It’s about time somebody did something to get some of these other cars off the road.”
(29 November 2000)
Please note that this is satire! (Even though the facts are probably true.) -BA