Sympathetic Stupid

Friday, September 16, 2005

Grow Pot For Power

If the surfeit of research is any indicator, we'll have replaced oil in months. This one [from WorldChanging] is about growing crops of elephant grass as fuel for biomass power stations.

This is good for global warming because biomass is essentially neutral in emissions terms; it grows and extracts carbon dioxide from the air, then as it burns (or indeed rots), the carbon dioxide is released back in to the air. It's good for farmers because it can be interleaved nicely with growing food crops so making the land more productive - assuming the sale price beats the production price. One underlying concern would be about increasing the possibly ecologically damaging use of agriculture (fertiliser, pesticides, erosion, salinity), but sustainable farming practices are another debate.

Talking of carbon-neutrality brought me to a hitherto unrealised, um, realisation. There's a lot of carbon in and especially on this planet. It's in maybe three different forms: solid - animals, plants, minerals like coal, liquid - minerals like oil, gas - natural gas, carbon dioxide. Overall, the amount of carbon is roughly constant, but it's constantly transitioning from one from to another. We love it when plants grow and leech carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - gas to solid, but we hate it when hydrocarbons (gas, oil) are burned and turn into gas - solid or liquid to gas. Why? Because carbon in gas form fills the atmosphere, rising to form an insulating layer which heats up the Earth - this is the Greenhouse Effect.

The important point, however, is that the overall amount stays about the same. So the problem with burning fossil fuels (produced by animals and plants being compressed over millions of years) is that it removes 'safe' carbon from the ground and turns it into 'dangerous' gas. It's not the carbon itself that is the problem but the balance. The more carbon we can store in safe places, like in solid or liquid form, or underground, the more the Greenhouse Effect will be mitigated. (This is partly where geosequestration comes in and starts to sound less stupid; though why not use that carbon to make something, like pretty plants?)

Coal and oil are pretty safe places to store carbon, but we like to use them for other things. Plants are safe for a while but when they die and rot or burn, the carbon is released, so it's only temporary, and it takes a lot of plants to store much carbon. They're not a panacea. But that's where this option comes in. Grass releases its carbon so quickly that it can barely be counted as a store. So let's make the most of that and proactively release the carbon as part of a process which also generates useful energy. The most important point is that it's renewable. As the carbon is released, more grass is growing and taking it back in, keeping the system closer to stable.