Wednesday, July 20, 2016

U.S. Pursues New Energy Solutions in Green Ponds

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

The past few weeks have been exciting for those following the progress of renewable energy in North America. As fellow policy intern, Sage Ertman mentioned in his post this past Monday, the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico met to discuss a renewed commitment to partnership in the pursuit of a green energy future for the continent. Spurred forward by the historical cooperation of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in developing a plan to further integrate and innovate a clean energy future as laid out in North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.

The plan has many ambitious initiatives for cooperation, conservation, and implementation of new technology. One example of the cooperation of the three countries can be seen in their development of cross-border transmission projects. According to the plan, the U.S. will cooperate with its neighbors “to achieve a goal for North America of 50% clean power generation by 2025.” Among the myriad of cooperation in policy and technology is a call for robust innovations in renewable energy technology.

Many innovations are currently underway to advance and diversify the means through which the U.S. can pursue these renewable energy goals. As I covered in my last blog post, there are some exciting innovations outside of what people typically see as the big three for renewable generation – wind, solar, and hydro. Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced they would be pursuing algae as a new source of renewable biofuel. When most of us think of biofuels, especially ethanol, immediately we think of corn. And for good reason: Corn currently accounts for 80 percent of the bio-ethanol produced domestically. Biofuel derived from corn has had a few major disadvantages from its very conception. Corn has traditionally been a source of food and feed for livestock, corn requires the use of arable land, and yields a relatively low amount of fuel.  However, bolstered by the new DOE funding, that may soon change for the better. Algae has a few distinct advantages over corn in terms of producing biofuel.

First, and most obviously, algae is not a source of food in and of itself, so it does not compete with other food sources for terrestrial farming space. Also, it is important to consider the type of land that would be used for algae production. Algae cultivation does not require the use of arable land the way corn does.  That’s not to say that algae farms wouldn’t have a demand for space, they would, but algae-based generation comes second in land-use efficiency, surpassed only by solar arrays. When it comes to biofuel generation, algae could produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than its land-based cousins. According to Florida company Algenol, algae can produce 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre annually, and corn averages around 420 gallons of fuel for the same time period.

Secondly, algae-derived biofuel serves not only as a source of clean energy, but also has the ability to help combat the effects of climate change. Climate change has the potential to cause our already limited supplies of fresh water to decrease. Algae presents an opportunity to help mitigate some of that stress.  As algae grows in salt water it actually provides fresh water. For every one gallon of biofuel, algae would produce 1.4 gallons of freshwater. Corn derived ethanol requires 2.7 gallons of water per gallon of fuel.

Finally, in addition to requiring less land, not competing with the food supply, and providing instead of demanding water for production, algae could help in the reduction and recycling of our existing carbon output. Like all plants, algae require carbon dioxide to grow. This means that while producing fuel and fresh water, algae would be actively removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The potential to utilize this for our benefit is huge. Algae ponds could be installed near operational fossil fuel plants and fed their carbon heavy exhaust as part of the ethanol production cycle.

As the U.S. continues to pursue innovation in its green energy future, funding these technological advances brings hope for a robust adaptation to the challenges of climate change. The green energy future could have huge potential for algae as a literal green energy powerhouse.

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