It's never a bad thing to have a guy in suspenders give a scientific presentation. And Dr. Jan Kreider of the University of Colorado didn't disappoint with his talk on the "Comprehensive Life cycle Analysis of Future, Liquid Fuels for Light Vehicles." He may have depressed us all with the numbers (kind of a theme for the day), but he's a scientist at heart and therefore gave us all something to chew on with an in-depth comparison of the energy content and the input and output energy values, of oil, diesel and biofuels.
Because ethanol has a heating value of around 76,000 BTU (2/3rd as much as gasoline) a $3 gallon of ethanol is about the same, energy-wise, as a gallon of gasoline. "The bloom is off the corn ethanol rose," he said, and he's got the charts to prove it. For example, we'd need an extra Lake Eire or three's worth of water to grow enough corn to make enough ethanol to displace half of the gasoline used in the U.S. The problem with switchgrass is that, while it requires far less water to grow than corn, it takes a lot more energy to process it into ethanol, and in the final analysis actually needs more energy overall to make switchgrass ethanol than corn ethanol. Not good. Looking at the cradle-to-the-grave energy analysis (shouldn't that be seed-to-tank?) you get less energy out of making ethanol than if you just burned the gasoline straight up. Kreider directly discounted the "typical hype" that "one company" (read: Coskata) claims to be able to make a gallon of ethanol for a dollar. Kreider responded that, "In fact, there is nowhere in the world where this can be done without a large negative cost for the biomass needed or by voodoo economics." A more reasonable biofuel, according to his numbers, is algae biodiesel, which uses less water and land to create (just compare the algae biodiesel land requirement chart with the one for corn ethanol). Note that all of Kreider's numbers are based on data from the U.S. He said the numbers could be crunched for any nation, and the results would be different because of variations in land quality, rainfall and things like that.

Kreider spent a lot of time on this chart (bottom, and sorry it's so small), which summarized his presentation in numbers. Even though in so many ways traditional gasoline and diesel beats most other alternative fuels, the problem is the last column. As you can see, it's the CO2 emissions, where these fuels still pose a serious issue. Not included in the chart are the political angles, which we all know pretty well. Also easy to notice in the chart is just how good algae biodiesel looks – too bad it's still in its infancy.

Need more? Audio (39 min) and slides below.

John Merson, of Sandia National Laboratories, brought two of the previoius topics together with talk talk on the "NEXUS of Water and Energy." The impact of water on our energy situation in the U.S. is too often ignored but they are completely interdependent, he said. People rarely think of water consumption when they turn on the light switch or drive their car, he said, but there is an impact. Specifically, energy accounts for 27 percent of the non-agricultural fresh water consumption use in the U.S. (based on USGS data from 1998). And, given that the U.S. will need 50 percent more electricity by 2035 (assuming no serious changes in electricity use, which means that plug-in cars are not included in this estimate), and that we'll will need 33 percent more transportation fuels by 2030, things start to look pretty dicey. Don't forget that biofuels need a lot of water for irrigation, and Merson said that irrigating even a small percentage of biofuel acreage will increase water consumption by an additional five billion gallons a day. Need the details? Click on this chart.

One interesting tidbit: just 18 percent of the corn crop in the U.S. is irrigated (the vast majority of Iowa corn, for example, is not irrigated). Menson said he wasn't speaking for or against ethanol, but just wanted to make it clear that water issues need to be taken into account when talking about the biofuel (and biodiesel). All in all, corn grown for ethanol production will peak in around 2016, Merson said, and after that cellulosic technologies should make things like wood residue and wheat straw take over as the main ethanol feedstocks.

Note to the hydrogen heads out there, one of Merson's slides includes this line: "Major hydrogen use will be post 2030." Just in case you were curious.

The last upbeat presentation of the morning was by Gordan Feller, of the Urban Age Institute (a part of the World Bank) talked about how "Shift Happens..." (clever title, no?). This presentation was more about non-personal transportation options in large cities than anything that Toyota is doing, and it was appropriate that he gave the talk on "Earth Overshoot Day." This day, which is shifting earlier and earlier on the calendar each year, marks the day when humanity has used as many resources as can be generated in a year, the day we stop living in a sustainable way. We're about two weeks earlier this year than last, and the tend should continue for the foreseeable future.

In any case, Feller discussed changes to the transportation landscape in Asian and Latin American cities (specifically Singapore and Curitiba). We may be used to the European city style of compact, pedestrian cities where people get around by biking, walking or using public transportation, but the emerging new feature is what the UAI calls the "Mega-City-Region." These are urban-suburban clusters that in some areas stretch for 120 kilometers (Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou).

In a city of this size, how do you reduce the number of vehicle miles driven? Feller talked about the "Latin American breakthrough," as the Urban Age Institute sees it. These are busway cities, a trend borne out of necessity of lack of money and no rail infrastructure set up. Curitiba, for example, includes many types of bus routes (local, express and orbital) with tubular bus stops set up to offer more efficient loading and unloading. While the UAI found that bus-based cities can work, there are a lot of questions about if they can work everywhere.

Toyota will webcast the entire day's presentation in about a week, but we've got it for you now. A post on the afternoon sessions will be up soon.

Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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