A greener alternative to ethanol? I’ll drink to that!

Following up on my co-generation/symbiosis post from earlier this summer, I came across a great example of this principle in action the other day. This story explains how scientists at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland have developed a way to turn two byproducts of whiskey production into a more-than-viable alternative to corn ethanol. Treading on stereotypes for a moment, I have to say this sort of discovery would seem destined to have been made by a Scottish or Irish scientist.

The article explains that the biofuel made from the byproducts, butanol, packs 30 percent more energy per unit than does ethanol, can be easily blended into gasoline at refineries, requires no modification to engines that use the blended fuel and does not pick up water, making it far easier to handle and use than the hydrophilic ethanol. This is all terrific, and from a symbiosis standpoint, the really good news is that it’s derived from a waste product created by a useful, needed, everyday manufacturing activity.

Truth be told, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this sort of useful byproduct in distilling. CNET’s Martin LaMonica covered a story last year wherein Sierra Nevada Brewing entered into a partnership to turn its beer making leftovers into a feedstock for a home ethanol start-up. Out on the road, distilling byproducts are already helping save money while improving safety. Read all the way to the bottom of this Wall Street Journal article from 2009 and you’ll see that leftovers from the rum-making process are an effective supplement to road salt.

So while drinking and driving don’t mix, distilling and driving may be a rather different story.

How many earths do you require?

Eco science can boggle the mind, and it’s easy to drown in the data. Unless we can see, smell or feel an environmental threat, we tend to ignore it. So if you want to make a memorable point, dumb it down. Way down.

That’s what TreeHugger.com and the Global Footprint Network (GFN) have done with respect to natural resource consumption. Here, for example, is an environmental data point anyone can grasp:

If every human consumed natural resources like an American, we’d need five planet earths to support us.

Pretty simple way to represent complex information, isn’t it? The Global Footprint Network chart documents the fact that we, as a country and planet, consume more natural resources than the earth replenishes and generate waste faster than the planet can absorb it. The chart considers energy production, settlement, timber & paper harvest, food & fiber and seafood. It’s backed up by more data than any of us care to examine here.

The bottom line is we have a natural resources deficit. Having considered that, GFN, in another example of dumbing-down genius, declares that…

August 21 is Earth Overshoot Day.

That’s the day when we humans have used up the planet’s annual supply of resources. If you pretend we get a fresh start every Jan. 1, then August 21 is the day we go into deficit spending of our natural capital. If we were prevented from borrowing against the planet’s future, we’d run out of resources on that day. As consumption soars, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year. Last year, it was Sept. 25.

Now that we know the day, do we know the solution to over-consumption? Well, that’s hard to dumb down. In addition to conventional sustainability measures, TreeHugger.com blogger Matthew McDermott recommends “radically reassessing how much stuff we believe is required for our happiness. Rejiggering what we believe to be needs and not just wants.”

He’s not alone. In fact, a minimalist trend is already under way, says the BBC, starting with young American urbanites digitizing their books and music and shedding large swaths of possessions, including homes.

That’s sounds smart.

And so does this personal ecological footprint calculator. Try it, and tell us how many planet earths you need to support your lifestyle. (I’d need 4.6. Ouch!)

A new selling point for renewable energy, courtesy of two former colonial powers

The New York Times front-page article on Portugal’s clean energy makeover is a must-read for anyone interested in sustainability. This warts-and-all profile of a small nation’s push to build a significant renewable energy economy is a big confidence booster if the sight of oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico has you down.

The short version is that Portugal and a handful of other small nations are way ahead in kicking the fossil fuel habit. Almost 45 percent of the electricity on Portugal’s national power grid is from renewable resources. Neighboring Spain, which recently opened a cutting-edge solar thermal plant, is having similar success to Portugal. Spain is expected to surpass every country except Portugal and Denmark for renewable energy production by 2025.

Spain and Portugal’s successes – and those of Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, etc. – are helping renewable energy shake off a stubborn image consisting of high costs and low reliability. No, it hasn’t been a bed of organically grown roses in Portugal. Some Portuguese citizens have chafed at higher electric rates, but prices are expected to drop after the first generation of facilities is paid off. According to U.S.-based renewable energy consultant Alex Klein, however, the long-term benefits eclipse the short-term costs and extend way beyond economics. “The cost gap will close in the next decade, but what you get right away is an energy supply that is domestically controlled and safer,” Klein told the Times.

Now there’s a message that could even sell with the large swaths of the American public who don’t give a tinker’s damn about the environment – security. The more we rely on oil to power our economy, the less secure we are. Sarah Palin can chant “drill baby drill” until nuclear dawn, but the bald reality is that no amount of domestic drilling is going to get us off the imported oil crack pipe. The U.S. depends on other countries for 66 percent of our annual oil consumption. Every drop of oil under offshore waters or the Arctic National Wildlife refuge wouldn’t make a dent in that kind of demand.

Five, 10 or 20 years from now, when OPEC jacks up oil prices, or a military conflict cuts off the flow of Middle Eastern oil, who’s going to be more secure? The country that gets most of its energy from wind, solar, hydro and biomass, or the country with an IV line of tankers stretching across thousands of miles of ocean? Cue the Portuguese-accented laughter, please.

‘Salt’ plant and Duke study make solar outlook brighter

In Northern New England, where I live, the sun exists only in rumor and faint memory for weeks at a time. So when sustainable energy advocates talk solar, I think of my late-February pallor and mentally check out of the discussion. Long nights, short days of limited sun. Wind for my region maybe, but solar?

Well, yes, actually. Two news items that filtered through the excellent Inhabitat blog recently give hope to anyone who thinks the sun could help wean us off fossil fuels. The first comes from Sicily, where the energy company Enel recently fired up “Archimede” the world’s first utility-scale molten salt power plant. Archimede uses mirror concentrators to super-heat a molten salt solution circulating through a pipe array. The heat pipes power boilers that create steam to drive electrical turbines. The key to this system is that it can store energy for nights and cloudy days, much like the solar thermal systems I blogged about a while back. The combination of sodium nitrates and potassium salts in the system can accumulate heat for extended periods. That ability to ride out nights and cloudy days makes thermal solar more practical for sun-deprived areas like mine. Photovoltaic solar, the more widely known solar technology,  generates electricity directly from the sun’s rays instead of through turbines. It’s  most often associated with places like the American Southwest, which have weeks on end of uninterrupted sunshine.

But photovoltaic’s geographical limitations were never a technology problem, they were an economic problem. Solar panels work as well on a sunny New England day as they do on a sunny day anywhere else. They just didn’t work often enough to make them economically feasible because solar panels are expensive. Maybe not for much longer, though. Researchers at Duke University just released a study that says solar energy is now cheaper than nuclear energy, partly because the cost of panels is dropping. When it drops enough, it will be economically feasible to mount solar panels on rooftops to power air conditioners during hot summer days, or heat during clear, sunny winter days to reduce oil and coal consumption.

Now if I could just do something about that late February pallor …