A blueprint for energy efficiency

A blueprint for energy efficiency

How does a comparatively poor developing nation trump the United States and other wealthy Western countries? By creating a blueprint to attain energy efficiency and sticking to it through thick and thin.

Using such a blueprint, Brazil embarked on a long, arduous path toward energy independence more three decades ago. After many fitful bumps and starts along the way, its determined quest for energy self-sufficiency finally has paid off.

Brazil is now one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy resources, with roughly 60 percent of its sugar production invested in ethanol. While renewable energy supplies only 6 percent of the national energy demand in the United States, ethanol alone accounts for 13.5 percent of Brazil’s energy use. Ethanol fuels nearly half of Brazil’s automobiles – a share that is increasing steadily, thanks to the advent of flex-fuel vehicles, which run on gasoline, ethanol or a mixture of both.

That’s not to say that the path to energy self-sufficiency hasn’t been grueling and, at many points along the way, frustrating. Despite the government’s relentless push toward energy efficiency, a huge spike in world demand for sugar in the 1980s led to a temporary lapse in ethanol production as Brazilian mills ramped up sugar production to meet this demand. As recently as 2002, ethanol-powered vehicles, a common sight in the 1980s, had dwindled to only 3 percent of the market.

Now, producers are confident that if they can keep the cost of ethanol at less than 70 percent of the cost of gasoline, as many as 9 out of every 10 cars sold in Brazil will be flex-fuel. By 2010, Brazil hopes to produce twice the amount of ethanol it is producing now.

There is a lesson here for Americans – simply trying to avoid the Sirens of cheap gas prices and staying the course won’t be enough. All levels of government must continue to help us stay focused on the prize. President Bush’s energy bill, which calls for 7.5 billion gallons of renewable energy each year, is a good start, but more is needed – particularly, more measures designed to protect the biofuels industry while it is still in its vulnerable infancy. Part of this should include steps to ensure that renewable energy prices remain high enough to attract investors – something only governments can provide at this point.

Several states have taken another vital step by implementing measures that require diesel fuel to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. This not only creates more market incentives for potential investments, but also it sends a clear message that the government is not going to pull the rug out from under innovators and investors at a critical state in the biofuel industry’s development.

Policymakers and Americans in general also should bear in mind that renewable fuels make up a very big and complicated picture. Indeed, current biofuels may only represent the first step toward energy independence and should be viewed as bridge technologies that will help us gain a measure of self-sufficiency until more lucrative technologies can be developed.

Feedstocks, such as corn, may evolve into long-term energy sources, or they may turn out to be only short-term solutions until other more efficient technologies prevail.

What are some of these potentially lucrative technologies? Many researchers are particularly excited about the use of algae, which can be bred and developed specifically for energy needs. But here are other exciting technologies on the horizon, notably biomass derived from the cellulosic material of trees, switchgrass and other crop residue. These second generation biofuels may be closer than we realize. For example, scientists recently announced that they had completed genome mapping of a poplar tree, black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa, which offers huge potential as a biofuels source. The poplars, which grow 12 feet a year, mature in as little as four years and can reach as high as 100 feet.

Scientists are hopeful that the knowledge they’ve gained through gene mapping will enable them to undertake dramatic improvements in plantation productivity associated with the tree, possibly even rivaling the strides made from the green revolution in agriculture.

More recently, Honda Motor Co. announced that it has co-developed the world’s first practical process for producing ethanol out of cellulosic biomass, representing a potentially huge stride toward using nonedible plant materials as fuel.

The new process would allow large volumes of ethanol to be produced from widely available waste wood, leaves and other sources typically described as soft biomass.

Meanwhile, Auburn University’s David Bransby has emerged as a world leader in the adoption of switchgrass and other cellulosic materials as bioenergy alternatives. Indeed, Bransby believes it’s not unreasonable to hope that, by 2025, as much as 35 percent of energy in the United States will be produced by farmers.

Bransby, like so many other biofuel experts, still believes the critical ingredient for success will be government incentives – incentives that will put the nation’s growing biofuels industry squarely on the path toward energy independence. Mark Hall is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent with statewide responsibility for educating farmers and other clientele about the merits of biofuels. E-page: hallmah@auburn.edu.

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