Posts Tagged ‘rising food prices’


What is a plug-in hybrid? It is a car that runs on electricity via a battery that you can charge by plugging into a regular electrical outlet. These cars, being hybrids, also have gas tanks that can be used to power the car and recharge the battery, giving you what some might call the best of all world’s (assuming mass transit, bicycling or walking aren’t options). Best of all would be to burn no liquid fuel, but plug-in hybrids allow us to reach, or closely approach, this ideal in many cases.

What is different about plug-in hybrids? The plug! Current commercial hybrid cars use batteries, but they inconveniently keep a barrier between you and the electric company. You have to burn gasoline (petrol) to charge the battery.

How can you buy a plug-in hybrid? You can buy a hybrid car “off the shelf” and have it converted to a plug-in hybrid. This service is available in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Plug-in hybrids may be available directly from Toyota by 2010. For more information on plug-in hybrid cars, the following sites are very valuable: Plug-in Partners, Plug-in America, Hybrids Plus (a manufacturer of plug-in hybrids in the US). See also the DVD “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, read the book “Plug-in Hybrids: the cars that will recharge America”, and read the blog “plugs and cars”. The site “What Green Car?” provides information about plug-in hybrids for consumers in the U.K.

What are the running costs of plug-in hybrids? Estimates suggest that the transportation costs are equivalent to gasoline at $1.00/gallon.

Don’t forget that purely electric cars and trucks and buses are also available in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. For example, in the US, Tesla Motors, Volt and Phoenix Motor cars offer a range from trucks to sports cars. I wrote a recent, short post on very small and inexpensive electric cars being made for India.

I’d like to hear about other plug-in hybrid and electric car options in the US and around the world, and people’s reaction to (a) the low cost of plug-in hybrids coupled with the security of a gas tank if you need it, vs. (b) purely electric cars, which now have long range driving ability as well as high power (in some cases).

Don’t forget that you can couple electric cars or plug-in hybrids with solar and/or wind powered electric systems for your home or work-place to minimize or eliminate the use of liquid hydrocarbon fuels like gasoline/petrol, ethanol, etc. You can even run your home off your car battery!

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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I have discussed biofuels, and especially bioethanol from corn, in quite a few posts so far. Some of the discussion has centered on promising (old and new) approaches to biofuels, which I believe include:

  • Biodiesel from waste (fish oil, cooking oil and other sources)
  • Ethanol (bioethanol) from agricultural waste (specifically not from food products)
  • Metabolic engineering of bacteria to aid biodiesel production
  • Chemistry and engineering of new catalysts for biodiesel production (which probably have to be tailored to each different source of raw material)

With the exception of biodeisel from waste cooking oil and very similar sources, these processes are typically still at the research stage and are not being practiced on a large scale.

Much of the discussion here has covered the problems I and others see with current biofuels practices, which include:

  • The terrible impact on the environment of dramatically inefficient processes such as corn to ethanol (corn ethanol)
  • The conclusion by many scientists, myself included, that sound scientific shows a net loss of energy by using corn to make ethanol
  • The environmental impact of corn ethanol or even some “biodiesel farms” is both direct and indirect
  • Clear cutting of rain forests is being driven by biofuel farming
  • Fertilizer alone from corn ethanol production damages fresh water and salt water, not to mention other agricultural chemicals
  • The problems with air quality associated with ethanol as fuel (mostly ozone and formaldehyde generation and increased photochemical smog, all of which lead to respiratory ailments)
  • My belief that research and development can solve problems with air quality from ethanol fuels
  • My prediction that catalytic converters for ethanol-based cars will be cheaper than current models because ethanol fuels can greatly reduce or eliminate nitrogen- and sulfur-containing impurities found in crude oil and gasoline/petrol (depending on whether one uses ethanol or ethanol/gas-petrol mixtures such as E85)
  • The problem that people are taking political and dogmatic stances on alternative fuels instead of examining each issue critically and on its own merits

Then of course, we have the problem that not enough people are talking about and doing something about energy conservation:

Ignoring conservation is particularly a problem in the US and developing countries- Europe is taking conservation seriously and always has in some ways, such as a the huge investment in public transportation

Now a U.N. spokesman has stated that current biofuel practices are creating hunger and starvation problems amongst the world’s poor (though future biofuel generation methods are predicted not to cause such problems):

As reported by EDITH M. LEDERER, an Associated Press Writer,

“A U.N. expert on Friday called the growing practice of converting food crops into biofuel

“a crime against humanity,”

saying it is creating food shortages and price jumps that cause millions of poor people to go hungry. “

The statement by Jean Ziegler called for a stop to the current practice of using food crops to make ethanol, saying that it is leading to hunger of catastrophic proportions among poor people.

Mr. Ziegler did not call for an end to biofuels as a source of fuel. Instead, he proposed a 5 year break in biofuel production to give new technologies that don’t threaten the food economy time to make an impact on the marketplace. These technologies include

  • nonfood crops and cellulose-based sources of biofuels
  • crops that require far fewer resources than corn
  • agricultural waste as a source of ethanol
  • new methods of biodiesel production

Careful to point out that current biofuel practices grew out of good intentions, Ziegler still made it clear that the conversion of huge amounts of food crops into ethanol will lead to serious food shortages in many areas.

As reported by Lederer,

“The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, (Ziegler) added.”

Read the full article for more details. Thanks to John B. for pointing out the article to me.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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With thanks to George L. in St. Louis for the heads up, here is what The Economist has to say (in regard to US corn-ethanol efforts):

“Everyone seems to think that ethanol is a good way to make cars greener. Everyone is wrong”

The article does not dismiss all bioenergy, and it reports on new research and development that may provide economically-viable bioenergy supplies. The discussion of these potential new approaches is supportive and hopeful.

However, the article dismantles myths about corn-ethanol as a fuel. These include the matter, well-known by technologists but seemingly unknown to politicians or the public, that ethanol is a lousy fuel for many reasons. Not the least is the “hygroscopic” nature of ethanol- its property of absorbing water from the atmosphere. Automobile fuel with significant water content is bad for combustion efficiency.

It is time we realized that “natural” is not synonymous with “environmentally friendly”, or even “harmless”. It is time we stopped allowing senseless government subsidies of environmentally-wasteful corn ethanol programs that are driving up the cost of nearly all food, everywhere, in the US and around the world… without doing a single thing to solve any energy problem.

If you want to read more about the harmful effects on “normal people” of increased food prices, just see”Biofuelled: Grain prices go the way of the oil prices,” from The Economist print edition, or online at the link. The fact that demand for grain is exceeding supplies is explained in this article:

“The culprit is the growing use of grains to make biofuels, such as ethanol. … Ethanol distilleries (in the USA) now consume 1/5 of the Nation’s corn.”

But how can this be? Bioethanol is all natural. Isn’t that good? In a word, NO, and the stresses that corn-ethanol places on the environment, the food economy, and the cost of living are serious. Farm production may not be able to keep up with demand, and, the article reports, even if production is increased, it may not matter:

“… even if new land is planted, argues Jeffrey Currie of Goldman Sachs, it will not necessarily reduce the cost of grains. Since high oil prices and generous government subsidies ensure that biofuels are profitable, any extra grain will be used to make more (ethanol). That will not dent the oil price (…). Instead, the price of biofuels has risen to that of petrol (gasoline), and the price of corn and crude oil, the main feedstocks for the two, have converged.”

How can it happen that food prices are being driven up with NO environmental benefit? Among other things, we should consider the following points:

  • the convergence of pressure from large national and multinational farming companies and from small farmers
  • the readiness of politicians to use public funds to “give back” to their constituents and campaign contributors through huge subsidies
  • the undoubted joy in some circles that this behavior can be successfully linked, however falsely, to “improving the environment”
  • the willingness of the public to believe that anything “natural” has to be better than alternatives

For additional relevant articles in The Economist and many other news and scientific sources, see the World Headlines link under my blogroll heading. Comments and feedback are welcome, as always.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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