Are clean fuels finally coming of age?

March 20th, 2007 <-- by Daniel Kammen -->

Daniel Kammen
Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy
Energy and Resources Group, Goldman School of Public Policy
Co-Director, Berkeley Institute of the Environment
Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Research Letters
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
URL: &
Date: March 20, 2007

The year 2007 may well go down in history as the year we finally began to seriously act collectively to address global warming. I say ‘collectively’ intentionally, and for a specific reason. We have already seen a number of nations – the entire European Union, all of Scandinavia, Japan, and a significant number of individual states in the United States – all commit to varying degrees to climate legislation and targets that could, if they become universal – finally put us on a path to address global warming. These efforts are each significant, and include such key goals as those in Sweden, that aims for an oil free economy by 2020, to the Global Warming Solutions Act in California that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the entire state economy by 25% over the next two decades.

Even the U. S. President Bush has said some of the right words. In his 2006 State of the Union Address he said, ‘America is addicted to oil”. That line became the most quoted aspect of his address. On Monday, January 22 a powerful and diverse group of industry leaders from General Electric, Alcoa, Duke Energy, and others – termed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership – called for federal leadership and action to meaningfully address climate. They urged a discussion of a cap and trade system.

Now, we have had two added critical announcements. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared unequivocally that the world is heating up beyond any natural cyclical variations, and that there is over 90 per cent certainty that the phenomenon of climate change is caused by humans. The nail is now firmly in the coffin of the debate over global warming, no matter what a few well-paid nay-sayers may say. The issue now turns to who will lead, and how will we collectively address the issue, and how quickly will we find efficient ways to not only address this problem, to turn it into an opportunity to make our economies stronger and more equitable (Kammen, 2007). This is important because global warming is only one the many reasons to support the transition to a clean, renewable energy future – a compelling case can also be made on the basis of economic development, energy security, or other environmental benefits (Kapadia, Fripp and Kammen, 2004).

The same week as the IPCC announcement British Petroleum, to some ‘Beyond Petroleum’ announced that our team at the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign won a historic 500 million, ten year, award to develop and disseminate biofuels to address global warming and local environmental concerns. The consortium has formed the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to take on this challenge.

There will be a great deal of attention and discussion about EBI in the coming months and years. It is a major endeavor – in fact the largest university research grant ever – and is aimed squarely at what has been the most challenging greenhouse gas issue – liquid fuels. It also presents a tremendous opportunity. In work published in Science in January, 2006, my research group published a paper (Farrell, et al, 2006) that provided an energy content comparison of gasoline, corn-based ethanol, and cellulosic-ethanol, and found that the benefits of a transition to cellulosic ethanol can be dramatic in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A simple expansion in corn-based ethanol use, however, produces only very modest greenhouse gas benefits, although it could be used as a first step to move to clean biofuels more widely, and corn ethanol can be justified on an energy security argument as a way to offset gasoline. Put more simply, however, ethanol, made from corn and refined to ethanol in a plant run on coal can be worse for the environment than using regular gasoline, while cellulosic materials turned into ethanol in a plant run by natural gas, or far better wind power or the plant’s own waste energy and heat, is far, far better than gasoline.

The EBI effort represents a chance to generalizes on this result: all fossil fuels, nor all biofuels are ‘created equal’, or are equally good or bad for the environment. What is needed now is the sophistication to work towards low-carbon fuels. California has adopted this in Executive Order 1-07, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard that will be implemented statewide through a series of ‘early actions’ to begin this July, and then through a longer-term planning process to be coordinated with the Global Warming Solutions Act.

What is needed next are a series of regional or national efforts to examine what the lowest carbon fuels are for different regions: plug in hybrid vehicles running off a clean grid; clean biofuels; high efficiency vehicle standards, and so forth. The new EBI can bring the intellectual muscle of a globally-focused but locally-based research team in California, a global leader in environmental legislation and in Illinois, a major agricultural center, jointly to bear on the pressing issues of carbon emissions reductions. The time to act is now.

References (all available at

Farrell A. E., Plevin, R. J. Turner, B. T., Jones, A. D. O’Hare, M. and Kammen, D. M. (2006) “Ethanol correction and clarification”, Science, 312, 1748.

Kammen, D. M. (2006) “The Rise of Renewable Energy”, Scientific American, September, 82 – 91.

Kammen, D. M., Kapadia, K. and Fripp, M. (2004). “Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate?” A Report of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.

7 Responses to “Are clean fuels finally coming of age?”

  1. Nigel Goddard Says:

    I would be interested to see calculations of what percentage of the world’s cultivated land (including managed forests) would need to be used to provide cellulose-ethanol sufficient to replace the projected world oil use in say 2030 or 2050. Can anyone point to such numbers? Is sunlight->cellulose->ethanol more efficient than other means of converting solar power to something we can use for vehicles, heating, etc? By 2030 or 2050 energy demand will have increased considerably as India, China, etc move up the consumption ladder. The overarching question is whether biofuels are likely to be able to play a significant role in world energy supply (remembering that we also will need to grow more food).

  2. Alex Sagady Says:

    I’ve been waiting for a discussion about the carbon dioxide emission consequences of renewable fuels. Some might say that burning wood for home heating in a 60% thermally efficient stove is somehow better for the environment than burning natural gas in a 96% efficient, state of the art home heating furnace….but I’m not buying it.

    There seems to be all of this buyin to the concept that Renewable Fuels equals Greenhouse Gas reduction. Isn’t our carbon dioxide problem more related to our level and intensity of fuel combustion utilization and our trashing of carbon sinks than to what type of fuel we use?

    Is it time for a thought experiment?? Suppose we replaced all fossil fuel combustion tomorrow with the same level of biomass combustion…. From the standpoint of carbon dioxide, would the atmosphere-biosphere be better off? I have my doubts. While getting rid of “new” fossil fuel introduced carbon dioxide, we would likely be interfering with long term carbon sequestration in nature.

    We have to get our carbon-climate management policies right, now, on the first try. Let us see the models that tell us more about fossil fuel vs. biomass-created carbon dioxide emissions and its consequences.

  3. Pani Says:

    Please include us, , in your links or resource section under global warming, sustainability, environment, climate change, or other relevant categories.

    Global Warming Articles provides facts about the causes, effects and answers to global warming; the environment; energy conservation, climate change and more.

    Thank you for considering our request for a link to .

  4. Kammen, Dan Says:

    The call for true (i.e. life-cycle) energy and greenhouse gas impacts of fuels (fossil, bio-fuel, and renewables) is critically important. We have a version of this completed and available online as
    both the full downloadable spreadseet (which covers, gasoline, corn- and cellulosic-derived
    biofuels), and ours and other papers that debate the issue. You can download these at:

    Second, the full analysis of the energy balance and the carbon content of biofuels for transportation is going on right now here in California as we develop the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. Much of this
    will appear online at the California Energy Commision site

  5. frflyer Says:

    I believe the kingpin to a sustainable energy plan is solar thermal with heat storage in the southwest deserts. As Joseph Romm says in the article below, they are the only renewable that can provide base load power, as well as follow on and peaker power.

    I have been following the solar thermal story for the past year, and Joseph Romm’s article convinced me of what I already thought.

    We have the technology. At least 8 companies are ready to get busy building them
    Solar thermal plants can store heat in molten salt, oils or water. They can provide steady power day and night. They are perfectly suited to the daily energy demand cycle. They are cost competitive, especially when they get up to scale. They can be air cooled or water cooled.
    They are low tech, using readily available building materials. The salts are basically harmless and abundant. When they are water cooled they can also purify water, like brackish or polluted water. This would be a boon to countries like India. Large areas of the world are suitable, including the mideast, large areas of China, India, North Africa, Australia, Mexico etc.
    1% of the Sahara desert could power the whole world. 3% of Morocco could power all of Europe. 8% of federal lands in Nevada could power the U.S.
    Photovoltaics as distributed power all over the country added to the solar plants in the southwest gives you solar on a vast scale. Add in wind and most of the problem is solved.
    Once you have a clean energy grid it can power cars too. In the meantime we can move toward plug in hybrids and electric cars. Plug in hybrids would give the average driver 100mpg overall.

    As we phase out coal, this will free up large amounts of rail freight capacity.
    Rail is much more efficient at long distance hauling than trucks. Trucks can be hybrids too.

    Biomass to methane is another contribution that kills two birds with one stone, capturing methane, a strong greenhouse gas and using it for power, either burning it or in fuel cells.

    Ships could save 10-30% on fuel by adopting parasails like the Skysail.
    They are cheap. Another company in the U.S. is Kiteship. The Skysail can provide 6800 hp. Look them up.

    Wind and solar are much faster and cheaper to get up and running than nuclear plants.
    This article shows why nuclear is completely non sustainable.

    One of nuclears biggest weaknesses is that it needs enormous amounts of water for cooling.

    Argonne National Lab says that an airliner crashing into a nuclear power plant could cause a complete meltdown, even if the containment building isn’t compromised. Think the twin towers was bad?

    Oh and then there’s peak uranium, coming soon. read the article

    The renewable energy plans that I have read all seem to have a lot in common. I am referring to the plan at Repower American,
    Set America Free,
    the Solar Grand Plan article in Scientific American,
    partially T. Boone Pickens’ plan(the windpower part of it)
    Plug in hybrid and electric vehicles
    solar power plants in the southwest
    wind farms in the midwest and Texas
    biomass to methane

  6. frflyer Says:

    I forgot to say that 1% of our desert in the southwest, filled with solar thermal plants could power the whole country. This is less land than is now used for coal mining. That’s 2% of the suitable available land in the desert.

    Joseph Romm also has an interesting article about how we might go about stabilizing the CO2 to the level recommended by the IPCC at 450 ppm.
    Some think we need to reach 350 ppm to be safe. These two links cover it.

  7. Anton Marsh Says:

    Nice post. Looks like wind power is really starting to get some serious consideration in Australia now.

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