The battle of alternative fuels

With all the potential sources of alternative energy now being bandied about, how’s a green-minded citizen to really know which technologies to throw their support into? Energy sources from wind and solar to biofuels to “clean” fossil fuel technologies receive major attention in the news. Yet these views are often  propelled by the interests of industry stakeholders, and we also hear that real clean coal technology hasn’t even been developed yet, that increased corn-based ethanol production can mangle food webs and that fuel cells use fossil fuels to create their hydrogen stores.

In response, a researcher in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford has taken on the Herculean task of assessing the viability of the major alternative fuel sources on today’s market.  Mark Jacobson collected information not only on the fuels’ potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also “their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.”

Jacobson weighted each type of fuel source with respect to the above 11 categories and calculated its ability to power three different types of electric or liquid-fueled cars. The big winners? Wind, solar and hydroelectric power. Wind-fueled battery-powered electric vehicles ranked first in seven out of 11 categories, including climate damage reduction. The losing combination was ethanol, both in grain and cellulosic form. These were ranked lowest with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage and chemical waste.

EPA scientist Rick Haeuber has said that one of the issues scientists have with research informing policy decisions is that science is really only one part of the equation, and that many other factors play into a final policy decision.  This is an example of just such a rare venture within the scientific community: one that attempts to account for as many factors as possible, from a social, political and scientific standpoint. The field could benefit from more of these interdisciplinary studies.

Read the rest of Jacobson’s paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.