50 Comments

This is excellent. So much of agricultural policy in the US is set around subsidies to farmers, most of which goes to a handful of huge corporations. This is not the only corruption of climate policy by big ag. See subsidies for Tyson's "low carbon beef", for example.

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Sep 5, 2023·edited Sep 5, 2023

Excellent post. Biofuels, like switching to diesel, is just another example of what happens when you ignore evidence. Unlike the diesel disaster, however, the biofuels disaster continues to harm the environment and humanity, heavily subsidised by governments everywhere.

Sadly too many scientists and commentators give a free pass to schemes that supposedly reduce emissions.

By the way the same process is underway with those advocating that we can eliminate fossil fuels with solar, wind and batteries. This is clearly absurd if you look at the numbers, but too many people ignore the real world data on these technologies until they are well entrenched and have done great harm. In the case of the solar/wind/battery brigade the harm comes from driving up electricity prices so much that electrification is delayed and public support for trying to reach net zero weakens.

Meanwhile nuclear power remains largely unexploited because it had been regulated so heavily it is commercially unviable.

Our current regulations value a life lost to radioactivity AT LEAST 100 times more than a life lost to air pollution from burning fossil fuels or biofuels.

This regulatory mismatch has accelerated climate change and kills millions of people every year.

This is inexcusable but I have yet to see this challenged by anyone who cares about the environment.

Why the silence? Why no advocacy for regulatory parity?

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Nuclear is what’s missing from this article. Covering millions of hectares with solar panels and the batteries they need is impossible without mining millions of tons of more minerals and burning millions of tons of coal in China to produce polysilicon to make the cells. Just a few hundred acres of nuclear power plants would produce the same energy as all that solar and the land could be rewilded or used to grow food to supply the increasingly needed population to grow the world economy and make it richer to more quickly increase technology we need to solve the climate problem.

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Sep 5, 2023·edited Sep 5, 2023

There is the additional problem that the energy return on energy invested (EROI) for solar plus storage is too low to support an advanced economy. Some estimates put it below one for high latitude countries (e.g. North of the Alps) where the capacity factor is ~10%. While this estimate is disputed, the fact that EROI is almost certainly well below the 10 required for advanced economies should raise serious concerns. What few people realise is that manufacturing the polysilicone essential for solar PV panels is one of the most energy intensive industrial processes. The reason China has cornered the market in this is their energy and electricity is exceptionally cheap. Installing solar PV in countries like the UK is a very expensive way of moving energy from China to the UK while moving emissions in the opposite direction. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421517302914?via%3Dihub

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I find the conclusions of Ferroni and Hopkirk weak. The authors of this paper found their methods and calculations off. - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516307066

The link you posted is the response of the original authors to the response but reading it, I find that both authors are using a lot of assumptions.

My question is have any other papers or research come to the same conclusion that 'energy return on energy invested (EROI) for solar plus storage is too low to support an advanced economy'

Looking at the citations of the paper in question, it appears as if the only papers citing it, use it as an example that 'there is much controversy over the EROI for PV installations'

Do you have any others sources showing support for the argument? I wasn't able to find any with casual searching.

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Sep 12, 2023·edited Sep 12, 2023

Here are two other papers arguing that EROI for solar plus storage is too low to support an advanced economy.

https://festkoerper-kernphysik.de/Weissbach_EROI_preprint.pdf (see Figure 3)

https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2014/ee/c3ee42125b

It is generally accepted that EROI needs to be greater than 10 for an advanced economy. Even the most optimistic estimates of EROI of solar are barely above 10. Divide that by 3 for the UK where the capacity factor for solar is only 10% because of our high latitude. Nuclear power is close to 75.

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China’s electricity cost is cheap relative to Europe, but not to most US states if we’re comparing industrial cost.

https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.php?t=epmt_5_6_a

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1373596/business-electricity-price-china/

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Good point, but that is likely to change as China is expanding reliable electricity generation (fossil fuel and nuclear) much faster than the USA. Other advantages China has compared to the USA is access to extremely cheap labour in Xinjiang.

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Do you have sources supporting the argument that 'solar/wind/battery drives up electricity prices'?

I see many studies pointing to the opposite. https://www.wri.org/insights/why-renewable-energy-solution-high-prices

The biggest difference in the price being the fuel used. One advantage of renewable energy is that the power prices are generally stable because once the solar and wind farms are built (and storage as needed) their fuel is the sun / wind which is free and locally 'produced'

In contrast, electricity from gas or coal requires continuous fuel supply, which is vulnerable to disruptions in production and transport and geopolitical issues, and is often imported.

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Sep 5, 2023·edited Sep 5, 2023

Real world experience shows that everywhere that has increased intermittant renewable energy penetration has higher electricity prices. Just look at California, Germany, and Denmark as examples. They have the highest electricity prices in the USA and Europe, respectively.

The reason is that the low energy density and intermittancy of renewables is very expensive to deal with. The low energy density requires expansion of the transmission grid. The intermittency requires either storage of the maintenance of a duplicate dispatchable electricity generation, usually fossil fuels or biofuels. Both are very expensive. This cost increases exponentially as penetration of solar and wind increases, making getting to net zero extremely expensive.

That is why no country has ever got close to this with intermittant renewables. Only reliable clean energy has enabled this. Either hydro, nuclear or geothermal.

Here is one article that explains this in more detail. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianmurray1/2019/06/17/the-paradox-of-declining-renewable-costs-and-rising-electricity-prices/

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Pushing back a little on the 'real world experience' as evidence.

Unfortunately we can't just look at % of energy from renewables and prices of energy going up together and assume that as % renewable goes up price goes up. It could be the opposite, as the price of energy rises countries install more renewables to combat this. It could be unrelated. https://towardsdatascience.com/correlation-is-not-causation-ae05d03c1f53

Let's dig into the numbers. If you look at Denmarks energy mix, they get 40% of their energy from oil, 20% from coal and natural gas, and only about 10% from wind and solar.

60% of their energy comes from fossil fuels, which have gone up in prices in the last few years, as the % of renewable energy installed has also gone up.

https://www.iea.org/countries/denmark

Denmark themselves say the price increases are largely driven by the fuel costs.

"We started to see price increases for electricity in the second half of 2021, and they were largely driven by price increases for gas, which in turn was due to the world economy getting back into gear after the coronavirus lockdowns", Chief consultant Kristian Rune Poulsen from Green Power Denmark

https://www.thelocal.dk/20221209/price-of-electricity-in-denmark-increases-by-83-percent

I read the Forbes article. It relies on a single paper and opinion. However I then did a bunch of research and found more papers and articles with sources such as this MIT article, that do agree with the idea that renewables can increase the cost of the whole system because they make the whole system more complex. - https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/would-getting-all-our-electricity-wind-and-solar-power-raise-price-electricity

So I think I have landed on a mix opinion. Renewable energy is much cheaper to build and operate than fossil fuel plants. We should build as much as we can. However, the grid and system as a whole becomes more complicated which could increase the energy prices as a whole.

For this reason I agree with you on reliable clean energy is needed. I fully support building as nuclear and geothermal as we can. Unfortunately hydro is mostly built out in richer countries so it can't grow as much - https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/why-arent-we-looking-more-hydropower

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One can build nuclear anywhere, except where countries and states have banned it.

The trick is how to do so when electricity markets so strongly favour installation of intermittent renewables. A logical approach would be to require energy generating companies to provide reliable electricity, but this would quickly make all solar and wind power unviable until such time as affordable storage was developed.

One exciting option is to use nuclear power to synthesise hydrogen or desalinate water at times when there is plenary of of intermittant renewable power.

That would allow nuclear power to remain profitable while load following.

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I love the idea of building tons of nuclear then making hydrogen and desalinate water when renewable power is powering a majority of the grid.

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It is certainly a good way to keep everyone happy (except the fossil fuel industry). It gives people options and seems like to the lowest risk approach to get to net zero.

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Solar and wind are extremely vulnerable because they are so intermittent. Solar has a capacity factor in the US of about 25% and wind is about 35%. Nuclear is 92%. If solar and wind were cheap then Biden wouldn’t have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies which just shifts the cost to taxpayers. A perfect example if france which gets most of their energy from nuclear and has a healthy combination of renewables. Germany on the other hand has to rely on lignite coal every day when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind isn’t blowing. Just for reference in Germany solar has capacity factors of around 10%-16%. It seems pretty obvious nuclear is much more reliable and money well spent for carbon neutral energy for 80 years or more. Solar panels and wind turbines might last 20 years and then be put into landfills since it’s much cheaper than recycling them allowing the toxic metals to leach into the ground.

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You made a lot of claims let's look at them.

"Solar has a capacity factor in the US of about 25% and wind is about 35%. Nuclear is 92%. " - true. I support building as many nuclear plants as we can.

"If solar and wind were cheap then Biden wouldn’t have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies which just shifts the cost to taxpayers." false. Without subsidies it costs less to retire a coal plant and build solar, than it does to run the coal plant. This is because the nearly half the cost of fossil fuel plants are the fuel, while the fuel for solar and wind are free.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-01-30/new-us-solar-and-wind-cost-less-than-keeping-coal-power-running

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/06/15/renewable-energy-is-now-the-cheapest-option-even-without-subsidies/

"Germany on the other hand has to rely on lignite coal every day when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind isn’t blowing." - mixed. Germany has built enough solar that even when cloudy it still produces large amounts of power. "Adding more capacity also acts as a check against oscillating solar power production levels due to weather effects. Despite experiencing a comparatively cloudy summer, Germany’s solar PV installations between January and August 2021 generated roughly the same as during the same period in the previous year, when much more sunshine hours were recorded, thanks to capacity expansion."

https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/solar-power-germany-output-business-perspectives

"It seems pretty obvious nuclear is much more reliable and money well spent for carbon neutral energy for 80 years or more." I agree 100% we should build more nuclear. It is super reliable. However it costs much more than renewables and public support is super low which is sad. I think we should build hundreds of nuclear plants in all countries.

"Solar panels and wind turbines might last 20 years and then be put into landfills since it’s much cheaper than recycling them allowing the toxic metals to leach into the ground." mixed.

Turbines last about 20-25 years. Solar panels last 25 to 30 years. Currently wind turbine blades are thrown away but there are many companies recycling more and more of them. Solar panels have largely not been throw in landfills because the majority are still in their lifespan. When they do need to be retired more and more will be recycled since the metals are valuable. So yes some end up in landfills. This is not ideal. However we need to compare this to the alternatives. Nuclear also has pretty expensive spent fuel storage procedure. Fossil fuels use the air as the landfill and in the United States coal plants create 120 million tons of toxic waste. That means each of the nation's 500 coal-fired power plants produces an average 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year. It takes 120-350 wind turbines to replace a coal plants output. A wind turbine is about 164 tons of material. 164 tons in landfill * 350 turbines = 57,400 tons in the landfill. 57,400 tons over 25 years verse 240,000 toxic waste a year * 25 years = 6,000,000 tons of toxic waste. Nuclear is incredible in this regard. One nuclear plant produces only three cubic meters of high-level waste per year, if the used fuel is recycled.

So if your argument is 'lets build more nuclear' I 100% agree.

If you argument is 'lets not build renewable' I disagree.

If your argument is 'lets build nuclear and renewable' I agree. :)

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Definitely nuclear and renewables :). I just feel like we need to stop structuring our grid around intermittency. It would be better if we relied on nuclear then built solar and wind in the most beneficial areas.

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How can we bring the cost of nuclear down?

Small scale nuclear means we could deploy it easier but the cost is still much higher than solar and onshore wind.

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I think one of the issues with high prices for small modular reactors and micro reactors is that none have been built in the US yet. The first wind turbine built was way more expensive because infrastructure didn’t exist to speed up the process and make it easier. If we encourage the nuclear industry and invest more in efficiency it would be cheaper. Another thing is the environmentalists who do everything in their power to stop nuclear from being built because they think it’s dangerous. If we educate more people on the fact that nuclear is actually one of the safest and the most efficient energy source than it would have less baseless opposition. The regulatory process is also somewhat troublesome as organizations like the NRC base their research on possible leaks of radiation on the LNT model which is inherently wrong. We have a ways to go before nuclear is widely accepted as a solution.

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Can I just point out that by Europes standards and IEA standards Africa is greener than Europe because they use so many biofuels. Which just isn’t true

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Using wood and animal dung to cook and heat does enormous harm. Indoor air pollution is one of biggest preventable causes of death. Gas or kerosene are safer. Electricity is best. But it needs to be generated. Even coal fired electricity is better than using wood, dung, charcoal or coal in homes.

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What's the nuclear build rate like, in countries that don't have oppressive regulation of nuclear ?

I'm not convinced the low rate of nuclear builds is solely due to red tape. It might be fair to say that in USA, but it can't be true for the rest of the world, i.e. Korea, China.

CA has already knocked off 20% of its powerplant NG consumption in ten years. Years less than NuScale has been incorporated, and they haven't powered up one reactor yet.

I don't claim that NP renaissance is impossible, only that I haven't seen evidence - in USA or anywhere else - that a build rate of multiple GW per month can happen with nuclear.

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Sep 8, 2023·edited Sep 8, 2023

Historically nuclear has achieved by far the fastest decarbonisation rates, in western countries. See the second figure in this paper.

In any case building nuclear alongside renewables will be faster than just focusing on renewables.

https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/5lerrj0g1n5tvl88vklbb/Science-2016-Cao-et-al.pdf?rlkey=9avyiws5vj9v36q1fqhwh2k28&dl=0

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to the extent that any new NP generation does appear, I welcome its contribution.

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I grew up in NE Iowa on a family farm. It was a good but hard life in the 60’s and 70’s and seemed virtuous and noble. Given the present thinking that is evolving around climate change it is definitely hard to think of this valuable farmland being used inefficiently for feeding animals or producing ethanol. It will be hard to change the thinking, inertia and politics around the way farming has evolved but there are signs of hope. It is not uncommon to see wind turbines and corn fields using the same land. Iowa produces the most renewable energy per unit of area of any state, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/16032023/inside-clean-energy-renewable-wind-iowa/ . Imagine what would be possible if it was dual use with solar! Educating people and showing them the reality and economics is a start but the information will have to come from a trusted source and right now because of politics, the “trusted sources” are spewing misinformation about climate change and renewables. I’m afraid significant change may require generational shifts that only happens with time.

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Insights from Paul Martin, energy expert/farmer:

Anybody who can use an EV instead, WILL DO SO, because biofuels made properly will be so expensive that they will be the tool of last resort, not something anybody would choose voluntarily.

The best review study he’s seen puts corn ethanol at about a 50% reduction in GHG emissions relative to the fossil gasoline it displaces. Proper regulatory tools- carbon taxes and emission bans- could decarbonize agriculture and corn ethanol production itself. Big job, including

- Replace fossil diesel for farm equipment.

- Minimize fossil derived ammonia as fertilizer, or replace via something like what Pivot Bio is doing with microbes produced by their fermentation production process to deliver nitrogen

- Replace fossil gas for corn plant stills and dehydrators.

- Use corn stover instead of corn to make biofuel.

- Generate char and return that to the soils, and make fuel of the energy left over.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bbb.2225

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Most people don't know that a single acre of solar can make enough juice on an annual basis, to push EV's 70X as far as ICEs fed with ethanol. Not 70% higher, 70 times higher.

A farmer trying to decide whether to grow corn to turn into ethanol, or to put up PV and generate power for sale, can even make more money on the latter route.

The main problem amongst all the ethanol / synfuel routes is they are stuck feeding their product to machines that waste 70% of the transported energy.

Of course solar hardware costs money, and it's easy to see a case for converting a small sliver of farmland first, see how it goes, repeat.

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Good article.

My complaint is the mixing up of units of power (eg MW) and energy (MWh). In particular, in many contexts you're clearly referring to power output but give numbers as MWh (eg solar output X MWh per hectare). The most logical assumption would be that you've intended X MW per hectare, however at one point you refer to the (power) unit of MWh/year and so perhaps that's what it's intended to mean?

Perhaps it's sufficiently common usage in power generation to say MWh when you mean MWh/year (or MW) but to a layperson like me it's pretty confusing.

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Sep 5, 2023·edited Sep 5, 2023

I find it irritating that the units for electricity are so illogical. Instead of sticking to just energy (joules or J) and power (J per second or watts, one come across confusing mixtures like watt hour [(J/s)*s] for energy and watt hour/year {[(J/s)*s]/s} for power.

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But have you not overlooked the fact that if no fossil fuels were available today then it would not be possible to extract and make the solar panels, the batteries, and wires for the electricity distribution in the first place. However, the biofuel industry always has the option of switching to biofuels for their production.

You have also overlooked the use of biomass being converted to hydrogen - which potentially could be used either as a drop in substitute for fossil fuels or for further sythesis to other hydrocarbon fuels. Using the existing vehicle fleet with fossil fuel substitutes would avoid the need for China to make a whole lot more electric cars and use up resources. Biofuels (ie carbon (or for that matter hydrogen) from biomass processing) is always going to be much more sustainable than resources mined from the earth in the long run! There could be a hint of bias in your analysis!

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What about biodiesel? I raise this because although electric cars can replace gas, or ethanol fuelled cars, I think farm and heavy machinery used in mines will be much harder to run on batteries. That is because the charging time will be a major hurdle. Farmers have to harvest their crops when they are ripe, and before weather destroys them so they run their harvesters all day, and sometimes all night until the harvest is in. Of course, they could employ more machines to make up for lost time, or extra batteries for quick changes, but that would mean extra capital and increased costs. Similarly, all heavy-duty machinery is high capital cost and is run 24/7 whenever possible to be economic.

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I find the argument that we should switch heavy machinery to natural gas as opposed to bio diesel.

There are several companies progressing towards creation of natural gas from air https://terraformindustries.com/ and it wouldn't tie up so much land.

Also this video about a Canadian mine switching to electricity shows heavy machinery used in mines can be run off electricity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TxMeHRq1mk

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I have looked at your links and the Canadian Copper Mountain approach of using overhead wires to electrify the haul trucks looks an excellent method and unless I am missing something is the best way to electrify mining. That said, I cannot see it working for farm machinery like tractors and harvesters so I think some biofuel product will still be necessary.

Regarding the Terraform Industry DAC plan, it looks hopelessly un-thermodynamic to me. CO2 in air is extremely dilute so much entropy to overcome and that can only be done with a lot of heat. Their plan is silent on that and also on the need to purify the water supply. E-fuels from CO2 point sources like cement kilns might be economic relative to biofuels but we wait on that.

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Yes, agreed the dilute nature of atmospheric CO2 does seem to an issue. You need to pump a lot of gas to get the molecules needed.

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Great article. The biofuel industry has always seemed a wasteful way to get fuel, climate change concerns aside even. If they would just shift some of those crops to cattle feed they could lessen another harmful use of land and resources---using vast amounts of CA and AZ desert lands and CO River water for cattle crops. Honestly I'm not crazy about going big on solar farms unless there is a non-storage requiring use for the electricity locally.

It's going to take some time to switch to an EV centric system. There is not nearly enough lithium on the planet to do that currently nor can most folks afford them so we will have to wait for solid state batteries with cheaper, more plentiful components.

Nuclear seems to me the best solution, especially if modular designs are used and can be built in shuttered coal plant areas that have existing grid infrastructure. And as and you mention the grid will have to be built out to a higher capacity. But all these solutions have a long time line to get in place so we need to start now.

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She actually wrote an article about is enough lithium for a EV centric system.

https://www.sustainabilitybynumbers.com/p/lithium-electric-vehicles

She found:

1. Yes, the world has enough lithium for our electric vehicles, decades into the future.

2. The world is currently not producing enough of it to keep up with demand. This could be a major bottleneck this decade.

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You should check your analysis again: "Solar PV needs about 20 m2 to generate one MWh of electricity per year". (1 MW-hr/yr) x (1 yr/365 dy) x (1dy/24 hr) = 0.11 kW

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Soy to diesel ("bio", "renewable," etc.,) is even lower/worse in gallons/acre. But the "bio-refineries" do co-produce meal and hulls and maybe tri-glycerides.

Now I read that fuel wood pellet production is expanding again. The proponents of all of these bio-fuels talk about "waste" to whatever, but when you dig in you see that 90% of the feedstock is a crop of some kind.

A couple things could help to make solar farm development more acceptable to nearby residents. They should get a big break on electricity rates when the sun is shining, vs. all the juice being spoken for through a PPA and RECs for some company from Seattle. Work with the locals to "electrify everything." The tech of choice for tractors is swappable batteries. For heat in the midwest, ground source heat pumps have been the bomb, but maybe if rates are low enough you just toast up a pile of bricks or a tank of HW when the sun is shining.

Much of the ugly fencing can be eliminated if the building code officials and insurance companies allow it, over-ruling yet another overly safteyist American regulation. Then there are wonderful bifacial vertical solar mounting systems which allow tractor use and can't reflect glare up to any sensitive types. https://next2sun.com/en/testimonials/agripv-systems/

Another thing the USA is falling behind on while we try to protect incumbent industries who co-opt their workers into claiming they can't do a single thing besides what they've been doing.

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P.S. I pay an extra $0.75/gallon for ethanol-free super-premium gas because this nonsense annoys me so much.

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Great article Hannah! Also note that ethanol-petrol blends have lower fuel efficiency and higher maintenance costs in some engines. This is another instance of consumer green-washing. 'Bio-fuel' really should be called 'farmed-fuel' but possibly that's not pejorative enough. Any other suggestions?

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As always, some interesting calculations, Hannah. You had me at hello when it comes to critiquing subsidized biofuel, but this is still a good quantitative exercise.

When discussing alternatives for rural land use, please keep in mind there is a profound human dimension that rational mathematical calculations cannot capture. A world designed purely by engineers would be a very dismal place indeed. This falls outside the focus of your Substack, so it is not really meant as a criticism. Before we all get intoxicated by the calculations, though, it is worth considering less analytical, more human points of view. Literature and film is a great place for that, and directly relevant to this post is Carla Simón's beautiful film from last year, Alcarràs. In questions of land use, concerns of family and sense of place are no less important than extracting energy to fuel our bodies and our machines.

https://letterboxd.com/film/alcarras/

And speaking of intoxication, it is such a shame that we pay farmers to sell their corn to distilleries connected to the liquid fuel industry while taxing heavily an alternative use of that corn, with the mashed, fermented, and distilled product directed instead to charred oak barrels. I'd prefer a world of no subsidies and no excise taxes, but if we have to do both, tax the biofuels and subsidize the bourbon.

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Great analysis! That being said, it seems to me like plants are the best direct air capture technology we are likely to get for a while. What prospects do you see for things like biochar and biomass burial as ways to go carbon negative once the rest of the economy gets closer to carbon neutral?

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The trouble with biochar, I would suspect, is that outside a rainforest it would be susceptible to wildfires.

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It would not power airplanes 3X over.

Biofuels may be our only way to keep flying, and much of the "make it worse" argument goes away if we decarbonize farming...which we must do, anyway, and I think, can.

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Two words: Iowa Caucuses.

:-(

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The two words I’d pick are Chuck Grassley! 🙄

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Great post. I imagine that burning wood pellets for electricity generation is analogous.

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