Dueling Renewable Energy Studies – Read the Fine Print

On February 21st, a story that made headline news was “Study Finds PV Economically Unfeasible, Even in Carbon-constrained Environment.” According to this new study by Severin Borenstein, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and director of the University of California Energy Institute, the cost of a solar photovoltaic installation today is three to four times greater than the benefits of the electricity it will produce.

To read the full article, click here.

During the same week Scientific American had published an article called “Dark Side of Solar Cells Brightens,” outlining a recent analysis that concluded that even accounting for all the energy and waste involved, PV power would cut air pollution — including greenhouse gases — by nearly 90% if it replaced fossil fuels.

But Scientific American had yet another negative article that became news on February 7, 2008 whose headline read “Biofuels Are Bad for Feeding People and Combating Climate Change.” The article subhead said that: “By displacing agriculture for food — and causing more land clearing – biofuels are bad for hungry people and the environment.” The article started off with this:

Converting corn to ethanol in Iowa not only leads to clearing more of the Amazonian rainforest, researchers report in a pair of new studies in Science, but also would do little to slow global warming – and often make it worse.

“Prior analyses made an accounting error,” says one study’s lead author, Tim Searchinger, an agricultural expert at Princeton University. “There is a huge imbalance between the carbon lost by plowing up a hectare [2.47 acres] of forest or grassland from the benefit you get from biofuels.”

Growing plants store carbon in their roots, shoots and leaves. As a result, the world’s plants and the soil in which they grow contain nearly three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. “I know when I look at a tree that half the dry weight of it is carbon,” says ecologist David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, coauthor of the other study which examined the “carbon debt” embedded in any biofuel. “That’s going to end up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when you cut it down.”


On February 15th the New York Times published a response to it’s coverage of the reports, “Studies Call Biofuels a Greenhouse Threat” that highlighted the recent USDA and University of Nebraska study.

To the Editor:

Biofuels are providing cleaner and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, as indicated in a number of emerging studies from both private and public entities. Unfortunately, none of these conflicting reports have received the same caliber of attention as the two reports published in Science and this author referred to the  recent joint study by the United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska indicates that biofuels made from switchgrass reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 94 percent and, moreover, produces 540 percent more renewable energy than what it takes to produce it.

So, What are we to believe? How should we react?

My first guidance on dealing with studies is “read the fine print” or more crudely, “Where’s the beef?”

The PV study that concluded PV was a CO² hog, for instance, made me laugh. Bornstein’s business school study concludes that,

Costs should have decreased in the sector as a result of investments made under the U.S. space program and in the semiconductor industry, and the PV industry has simply gotten larger, which could lead to savings from economies of scale – producing more units of output in each period — rather than experience effects, which result from a larger aggregate history of production over time.

Excuse me? Because space cells haven’t gone down in cost, the industry will not meet the price goals? Well, anyone who has read Michael Rogol’s excellent analysis knows that’s just not true. The study is referencing the space program — the author should know that space PV cells that are fabricated for maximum durability in the extreme environments of outer space have little to do as indicators for the terrestrial business. And contrary to the report’s assertions, the scale-up of manufacturing and scale-down of prices does in fact mirror the experience in the sister semiconductor industries. The price points asserted as unachievable in this California study, are to the contrary, not only achievable, but quite likely. And new materials and processes including solar concentration and nanotechnology solar will turn this report’s assertions on its heals.

The Searchinger and Tilman studies also had the same set of issues relating to biofuels, as did the earlier Boornstein study on solar PV. Interestingly, the principal author of the Science paper, Timothy Searchinger, is not a scientist but rather a lawyer and environmental activist whose previous position was co-director of the Center for Conservation Incentives at Environmental Defense. It was surprising that the media didn’t note that in their coverage of the paper.

These biofuels studies make some valid points, but in essence are looking backward, not forward. Anyone involved in biofuels pretty much knows that corn is a carbon-intensive crop requiring water, fertilizer, pesticides and lots of pre- and post preparation. So while the energy balance is positive, its carbon footprint would be questionable. But under the recent energy bill passed by Congress and signed into law (EISA07), the 36 billion gallon biofuels target included biodiesel (waste oils, seeds, and specialized crops) and a major rapid push to cellulosic biomass conversion. The Department of Energy already responded to the energy bill of 2005 (EPACT05) with mandates for loan guarantees and grants to cellulosic conversion plants — all which have been awarded.

Announced in March 2007, “five projects would receive $23 million over the next four years to develop highly efficient fermentative organisms that convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol. Cellulosic biomass includes a variety of non-food plant materials, such as agricultural wastes, saw dust, paper pulp, and switchgrass. Organisms that can ferment these cellulosic biomass materials into ethanol are crucial to the success of commercial-scale integrated biorefineries and cellulosic ethanol refining.”

The Department of Energy announced six recipients of cellulosic ethanol grants to help accelerate the development of the cellulosic ethanol industry. The grants are a public/private partnership between the DOE and the award recipients. The total investment from both sectors totals $1.2 billion with awards to: Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC, ALICO, Inc., BlueFire Ethanol, Inc., Broin Companies , Iogen Biorefinery Partners, LLC, and Range Fuels.

But the headlines of these two negative biofuels reports really didn’t acknowledge what these reports were missing, which is that the use of wastes as biofuel feedstocks — sewage, agricultural residues, manures, infected feedstocks (such as aflatoxin peanuts and corn), etc. — has nothing to do with rainforests or grasslands. The reports also did not address ‘no till’ agriculture, leaving grasses intact or the use of nitrogen fixing reserve crops for soil conservation and then utilizing them for fuels as we cycle in food crops, nor did they address the growing use of algae for biofuels — all which are destined to become the new wave of a sustainable biofuels industry – and are all in serious development.

In any case, authors Wang/Haq point out the many errors in the Searchinger paper and decimate it rather thoroughly in a follow-up response.

Obviously, academic discourse is healthy and should be pursued. And in my analysis papers for investment firms and government agencies, of course, I, too, bring out issues that need to be addressed regarding energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and applications. But I must say, some of the recent negative headline grabbers about new negative renewable energy studies strike me as nothing more than the media accepting analysis at face value, and in many cases by authors without background in the field.

My basic “take” of the recent negative papers is that they are addressing issues that are tangents in the market. For all renewables to be cost competitive, they must have the lowest resource inputs — materials, energy, water, carbon. The market is driving in just that direction even though there may be short term blips until advances in technologies, materials, and learning curves take hold.

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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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