Delusions of a Harvard Professor

A lot of people presume that technology is going to provide a nice, cost-effective solution to our energy problems. Who could blame them, when you have people like Ricardo Hausmann, the director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development telling them that it’s all true? Professor Hausmann expressed this view in an Op-Ed piece in Financial Times:

Biofuels can match oil production

Hausmann, like so many others, doesn’t have a clear understanding of just how much oil we actually consume. As I have pointed out before, the entire U.S. output of ethanol is only equivalent to a single mid-sized oil refinery. The scale difference is immense. And Hausmann’s article represents the kind of delusional thinking that runs rampant among those who don’t have a solid grip on our energy usage:

Peering into the future seldom produces a clear picture. But this is not the case with bioenergy. Its long-term impacts on the global economy appear to be pretty clear, making many long-term predictions quite compelling, including the demise of the price-setting power of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the end of agricultural protectionism.

No, we usually can’t see the future, but this time it’s different. Lots of people disagree with what he sees, including the EIA who forecasts biofuels to supply less than 2% of our liquid fuel needs by 2030. But the Harvard Professor peers into the future, and the view is clear.

First, technology is bound to deliver a biofuel that will be competitive with fossil energy at something like current prices.

How about a couple of corollaries?

Technology is bound to deliver interstellar flight that will be competitive with international air travel at something like current prices.

Technology is bound to deliver a cure for cancer that will be competitive with a tooth extraction at something like current prices.

How do I know these things? Because it’s technology. And I know that looking into the future seldom produces a clear picture. But this is not the case with space flight or cancer cures.

Brazil has been exporting ethanol to the US at an average delivery price of $1.45 for an amount with the energy equivalence of a gallon of petrol. It is doing so profitably and in increasing amounts, in spite of a 54 cents a gallon tariff to protect American maize-based ethanol producers. Many countries are following suit.

Well then there’s our solution. All we have to do is use technology to move the U.S. and Europe to the tropics, where high year-round levels of solar-insolation are key to producing cheap ethanol. Then, it should be a simple matter to get the average American consumer to cut their oil usage from 27 barrels a year to the 4.2 barrels that the Brazilians use. Problem solved. The future has never been clearer.

I can’t read any more of it. I have exhausted today’s quota of sarcasm just addressing his first 2 paragraphs.

5 thoughts on “Delusions of a Harvard Professor”

  1. as often happens in discussions on energy/climate, rules/laws of science are referenced and used, precedent of previous technolgical success is highlighted. but absent are the basic rules of arithmetic–starting point quantity, replacement rate capability, time, money.

    as tertzakian points out in “a thousand barrels a second”, a breakpoint will likely occur, a transition to a different energy source will likely follow.

    no guarantee that the trip will be enjoyable or timely.

    i suspect same will be true for climate/GHGAS.


  2. For a nice contrast, listen to this presentation by Rodney Brooks. It is at a singularity conference, but I think it is a little more current and practical than that might imply.

    Technology will change our world (a theme of the talk) but not in the way casual observers expect (another theme).

    I personally think that technology might help us dodge a fuels crisis, but by leveraging our exponential growth in moving and enjoying bits and bytes … even as we may be less able to ship bricks (and people) around city/nation/world.

  3. I should not have put the word “casual” in there at all.

    It is conventional to say ‘not the way casual observers expect’ but that is usually framed by a would-be expert, someone who is usually asserting confidence without proof.

    That said, fuels are getting more expensive, and bits are getting less expensive, in our current world. That does not require revolution.

    … and the cautious position would be that tomorrow will be an evolution of today.

  4. Brazil exporting ethanol to the US reminds me of a nagging question. As a practical matter, how does the fuel consumption of the tankers affect the final EROEI of Brazilian ethanol in the US? I assume oil-based bunker fuel is used to deliver ethanol, which by volume has only has two-thirds the energy of gasoline. Has anyone ever calculated this?

Comments are closed.