Biomass Energy Outlook: Energy Consumption Reality Check

Mark Jenner

Mark Jenner
BioCycle September 2012, Vol. 53, No. 9, p. 53

The United States continues to make gains in energy conservation and renewable energy consumption, but the incremental adoption is too slow to make a significant reduction in fossil fuel dependence. I have been on the road over the summer more than usual and I am amazed at the millions of internal combustion engines that move this nation. These mobile power plants grow our food and move our freight as well as our people, and are all hooked on hydrocarbon-based fuels.

I recently moved myself from Davis, California to Columbia, Missouri. I was imbedded in the flow of our transportation system for three days feeding my tiny rental truck with three times the fuel that my even smaller Toyota uses. This was an energy consumption reality check for me. It takes a lot of energy to move a load over several thousand miles with several mountain ranges in between.

Currently over 4 percent of our national transportation fuel consumption is from bioenergy. But my personal case study of moving a couple of tons of my biomass treasures — books, papers, wood, and textiles — is a great lesson in the challenge of replacing the large quantity of energy required to move America every day.

My trip east was essentially 2,000 miles. The first time I filled up the tank I had gotten 14 miles per gallon (mpg). That first leg included driving uphill for 100 miles crossing the Sierra Mountains into Nevada, so I wasn’t too worried. The speed limit in most of the West on the Interstates is 75 miles per hour. My second tank averaged 10 mpg, and I had nearly 1,500 miles left to go. I needed a new fuel consumption strategy, so I slowed down.

Energy Is Time

My rental truck had a powerful engine that effortlessly kicked in on the long grades. When that happened, I could feel the engine sucking fuel as my loaded truck began to defy gravity and speed up the mountainside. I got pretty good at keeping that from happening. That meant my truck slowed down — a lot. It was a humbling adventure to voluntarily follow the big rigs up steep grades at 35 miles an hour.

Going slower added time to my trip, but I got more miles per gallon. In Colorado I crossed two peaks at 10,600 feet and 11,130 feet going down to 8,500 feet between them. Creeping up the grades yielded a fuel efficiency of 14 mpg. By the time the mountains were behind me, I was out of time. My fuel experiment was over. I sped up again to the 75 miles an hour speed limit for the last 800 miles across the Great Plains. My fuel efficiency dropped by 20 percent to 11 mpg.

I enjoy driving across the West and often think about the pioneers that traveled there largely on bioenergy powered by horses and oxen. It took months. I have ridden a bicycle as much as 100 miles per day on long distance trips. On paper at that speed, I could have made my 3-day trip in 3 weeks without my 2-tons of baggage. Energy is time.

Comparing Footprints

I am not used to hauling freight. I am basically a frugal commuter. I minimize time, fuel and emissions as often as I can. If I had shipped my final 2-ton load and flown back to Missouri, it would have been part of someone else’s load. And there is no doubt that a commercial trucking rig would have gotten the job done more fuel efficiently. But moving freight takes more energy than moving just ourselves from Point A to Point B. Replacing the energy required to ship the freight that moves across this country each day with biomass is a daunting challenge.

An alternative to moving my stuff would have been to sell it in California and then purchase replacement stuff when I arrived in Missouri. I am not convinced that this has a lower carbon footprint, and newer furniture would cost more than the old furniture I sold or discarded in California.

I also learned that moving in August is a popular event. There are thousands of self-rental trucks and trailers on the road at this time. Many of the do-it-yourself movers are towing their fuel-efficient cars behind them. These trailered cars are typically too small to pull a rented trailer. Choosing smaller cars that use less fuel and emit less is a prudent choice, but then larger moving equipment must be utilized when hauling long distance is required.

Access To Biofuels

My point here is that it takes a lot of energy on any given day to move this nation. Moving past the 4 percent biofuels mark will not be easy, but it is not off the table. What fascinates me most about biofuels is that they emit cleaner leftovers. We still have all the air quality benefits gained by adding oxygenates like MTBE and we still have all the water quality benefits gained by replacing MTBE with ethanol. In 2011 we have replaced the ancient fossil emissions of 1.1 quad of our annual 27 quad transportation energy consumption with recycled recent carbon of biomass, e.g., ethanol, biodiesel, biomethane.

Even with the high cost of fossil fuel, the U.S. has a very efficient and cost-effective transportation network. We are good at moving stuff. Future reductions in fossil fuel consumption will come from completely rethinking our current energy systems. An example is learning to use more energy locally, whether it is for electric power production or vehicle fuel. These may not be the cheapest systems, but systems that generate and use energy locally will have some advantages over our centrally-distributed energy systems. Some of these local benefits are from reusing the untapped energy of our liquid and solid organic wastes from municipal, agricultural and industrial sources. Existing technologies are already turning these residuals into transportation fuel. We cannot fuel our entire economy on energy from residuals, but they will help.

Mark Jenner, PhD; World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Services (WAEES), California Biomass Collaborative, and Biomass Rules, LLC (www.biomassrules.com)

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