Published Jun 2 2009 by Aleklett's Energy Mix
Archived Jun 5 2009

Ethanol Summit 2009 and President Clinton

by Kjell Aleklett

The conference’s main attraction was former US president Bill Clinton’s speech. The security associated with his presence was impressive and there was an atmosphere of expectation as we gathered in the lecture theatre. His entry onto the stage reminded me of that of a pop-star and at the beginning of the speech we were told that this was his 6th trip to Brazil. When he made his first trip, Brazil was a poor nation that needed to borrow money from its wealthy brother. Today the roles are reversed. The USA now borrows money from the entire world while Brazil has money in its “piggybank”. The decisive change is that Brazil is on the way to becoming self-sufficient in oil and that they export ethanol, while the USA is becoming increasingly dependent on imported energy. Access to energy is decisive for a nation’s future.

The main theme in President Clinton’s speech was “Climate Change”. He noted that it was not his and Al Gore’s fault that the USA said no to Kyoto. It was the elected politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives that said no. Now afterwards that explanation does not seem believable. It reminded me of a certain football [soccer] coach’s explanation for why his star-studded team did not win against a little nation like Sweden.

As a Swede one could still be proud. On four occasions President Clinton asserted that Sweden was top of the league when it comes to “Climate Change” and he called us “hyper-efficient”. He was impressed that Sweden, according to the Kyoto Protocol, could even increase its emissions. Now we know that the government’s ambition is rather that we will reduce our emissions. In all honesty we must confess that it is not the current government that laid the foundation to the cause of Bill Clinton’s admiration. They inherited that groundwork but their ambition is to maintain it.

When President Clinton looked into his crystal ball he saw three challenges for the future:

  1. That “Business as Usual, BAU” is not a possibility

  2. That the financial crisis is a threat to the future
  3. That economic inequality must be combated.

Those of you who have followed my blog know that these questions have been central for me during the previous 12 months. It is great that President Clinton is on the same wavelength. One problem is that President Clinton said only a few breaths earlier that the world must have economic growth exceeding anything we have previously experienced. It is completely apparent and a little terrifying that he does not understand how significant increased use of oil has been for economic growth.

We have just submitted an article to Energy Policy in which we discuss economic growth and increased use of oil. Before I left Uppsala the plan was that I would give a copy of the article to President Clinton, but the security barrier prevented this. When I complained about this to the organisers they promised to give him the report. The answer from Bill Clinton was that he would read our article with interest and we will see if it has any influence on him.

Points 2 and 3 are fairly obvious but, in my view he missed the most important point of all:

“In a future with contracting oil resources, how will we produce the food that the world’s growing population needs?”

For the USA’s future, President Clinton noted again and again that CCS [carbon capture and storage], i.e. separating out carbon dioxide from emissions and storing it under ground, would be part of the future. If one studies the real numbers one realises that this is an enormous task. Just now it seems as if CCS is a life-line that the politicians need to justify why they are not getting to grips with the core of the energy problem which is, according to my definition, that “too many people in the world have access to too little energy”. At the moment politicians around the world are casting out the life-line called CCS and hoping that we will grab hold of it and shape an alternative future.

For Brazil there is doubt as to what extent the inspiring growth that we now see is ecologically sustainable. President Clinton is not alone in asking this question. For several years we have made large investments in ethanol use in Sweden, but the connection between ethanol and food has made many doubtful. Ethanol is a manufactured product and we need to look at the ingredients that contribute to the manufacturing process. The relationship between the energy produced and the fossil energy inputs is decisive. For ethanol from maize and wheat there is little net energy produced, but when we discuss ethanol from sugar cane there is 9 times the energy produced compared to that put in.

The largest emissions footprint in production of ethanol from sugar cane is from the diesel that the machines need to process the sugar cane at different stages. The Swedish company Scania has developed a new diesel motor that uses 100% ethanol as fuel. Today there are a large number of busses in Stockholm that use this fuel. If Brazil’s ethanol industry invests in this solution they can have a fossil fuel-free industry. Despite this the most important thing remains that we must be fed. It is time to place our farmers on the high pedestal they deserve.

The presentation and question time were over. As an old Elvis fan one can remember how it was announced that “Elvis has left the building!” The translation of the concluding words in Portugese by my translating machine were “President Clinton has left the building”.

(An article by Reuters about President Clinton’s speech, http://www.reuters.com/article/mnGreenAutos/idUS267341701020090603)

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Kjell Aleklett is Professor of Physics
Global Energy Systems, Uppsala University, www.fysast.uu.se/ges

He is also President of ASPO International, the International Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, www.peakoil.net, and a regular contributor to Energy Bulletin.

-BA

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Original article available here
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