A report just came out this week from Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) that provides an in-depth analysis of the sustainability impacts of all the major transportation fuel types. This ambitious study evaluated the following:
- natural gas
- electric vehicles
The 84-page report looked at a breathtaking array of factors, illustrating just how complex the task of understanding the systemic impacts of all our major energy source can be. But because we use so much of it, the implications of getting it right, or wrong, are enormous.
The draft report, a joint effort of numerous stakeholder groups including businesses and NGOs, evaluated the various energy sources from the standpoint of environmental, societal and economic impacts.
According to Eric Olson, Senior VP of BSR, “Our research addresses a general dearth of analysis on the total life-cycle impacts and trade-offs of both current and emerging fuel sources, which we need in order to make better decisions about our fuel mix now and in the future. And while there are no simple answers and no silver bullets to this challenge, the stakes warrant greater investment in managing the total sustainability of fuels.”
In general, the report emphasized the need for a long-term, holistic, or systemic approach to the issue, to avoid the kinds of unintended consequences that have resulted from previous energy buildups.
From a market outlook perspective, the team found that oil will continue to be a major player for decades to come but that diversification of fuels is a certainty.
Looking into the report’s detailed findings, it is easy to see why there were no easily identifiable best choices.
For example, when looking at environment impacts, biofuels are clearly advantaged on greenhouse gas emissions, by as much as 174 percent, depending on which crop is used and under what conditions. There are a few cases where some crops are disadvantaged relative to fossil fuels, but only under certain production scenarios, such as coal-fired distillation or high levels of escaping methane and N2O.
On the other hand, when water consumption is considered, some (irrigated) biofuels use anywhere from 70 to 400 times as much water as other renewables such as wind or solar. The amount of water used for biofuel production in 2007, was more than six times the amount of drinking water consumed globally. However, as the report points out, it is not simply the amount of water consumed, but equally important is where the water is being taken from and how that impacts competing uses in those areas.
The subject of land use is where conventional energy sources stand out, with coal and natural gas at the top of the list due to their inherent power density. Nuclear comes next, requiring anywhere from 2 to 20 times as much land. But that is still a hundred times less per unit of energy than wind or biomass electric or a thousand times less than corn ethanol.
This shows why, in steering our ship into an unknown energy future, it’s not enough to avoid the rocks of climate change, because in doing so, we might inadvertently run aground on land use or water consumption.
The BSR report goes on to look at other things we might run into, like location-based impacts, health impacts, labor, and human rights impacts, all of which are important, but difficult to quantify.
Economic impacts include jobs, revenues and taxes, as well as local development, energy security and impacts on food and other markets.
- Gasoline and diesel have driven tremendous growth and prosperity at the cost of climate change, pollution of air and water and substantial health impacts. Unconventional variants of these generally involve even higher climate and health impacts.
- Natural gas has benefits compared to the former, but shares many of the same issues. It can and will serve as a “bridge fuel,” but as a bridge to what?
- Biofuels have a variety of sources and impacts. Those derived from organic waste generally have the lowest impact. Dedicated crops tend to have higher biodiversity impacts. Evidence suggests that electric generation might ultimately prove to be more productive than liquid fuels.
- As for electric-power vehicles, the impact primarily depends on the source of electricity. Renewable electricity is clearly preferred, though if it is to be used on an increasingly large scale, the issue of power density (i.e. land use) must be addressed.
Finally, we come to the market outlook. In order for any fuel to be viable, there must be abundant, if not renewable supply. There must be infrastructure and vehicle technology available, if not now, then certainly before any such fuel can be adopted. The fuel must have high enough energy density so that a sufficient quantity can be carried on-board to allow for a reasonable range. The fuel must also be affordable, and provide performance that approximates what is available today.
Then there are the projections. The baseline, provided by EIA, shows a 50 percent increase in consumption by 2035, with 80 percent of that still being met by fossil fuels. This translates to a 43 percent increase in CO2 emissions which leads to an atmospheric concentration beyond the 450 ppm danger level. Shell Oil has two scenarios (video): “Scramble,” which is basically business as usual. It shows CO2 peaking in 2040 and tailing off gradually. “Blueprints,” is more optimistic. It shows CO2 peaking in 2020 and then falling off sharply. Sadly, the Blueprints seems less likely now than it did in 2008, when it was first presented, due to government inaction.
Greenpeace has also developed two scenarios: Energy [R]evolution and Energy [R]evolution (Advanced). Both of these, unlike the EIA or Shell scenarios, show absolute declines in consumption by 2050 as the result of aggressive implementation of efficiency measures. This model starts with where we need to be by 2050 in order to maintain less than a 2 degree temperature rise, and works backwards from there. Needless to say it is a very aggressive, though not impossible, trajectory.
The BSR report is highly recommended for anyone that wants an in-depth view of the emerging energy picture. BSR will be accepting feedback over the next several weeks.
[Image credit: Dean Matsueda Courtesy of BSR]
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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