The ultimate, or maybe a stopgap, panacea

1 August 2011

Plants harnessed to meet the entire calorific needs of power stations

I know that economics is described as a science, albeit (in what has become a cliché) a dismal one, but I tend to feel uneasy about the scientific qualifications of economics when I contemplate certain of its units of measurement. In what is undoubtedly science, and in engineering too, if we cannot define our units in any better way, we usually manage to find some credibly stable natural manifestation for our standard units. We have for instance sanctified physical exemplars of length, mass and time to calibrate our yard (or metre) sticks, our pound (or gram) weights and our sundials or clocks: and wonderfully well they have served us, too. But for trade, commerce, business – economics, in brief – we have nothing better than the money measure of value: and no more fickle, bendable, fluid, whimsical or otherwise unstable quantifying medium can any idealist imagine.

It is partly doubt about these measuring units that makes some members of the ‘hard science’ communities lack total faith in market economics. The value-measuring units of the marketplace seem to be such poor relations of, say, the metric system or the SI. I am told that some thinkers have dabbled with ideas of an energy standard as a modern-day replacement for the old gold standard, but the underlying philosophy escapes me.

Energy economics, as more conventionally understood, provides a number of examples illustrating the confusion caused by the units used for comparative measurement of value. A topical case is that of biofuels and whether particular crops should be grown for at least partial replacement of fossil fuels, the combustion of which has given rise to some plausible, if frantic, climatology in our time.

Precious forest land has, under economic incentives, been given over to the cultivation of crops for biofuel production, and I for one lament the diversion of any fertile ground to such ends. Human nourishment must merit high priority on any humane scale of value judgement, and to turn our vital rainforest resources to cereal production thus denied for sustenance must be wrong.

But that kind of valuation does not necessarily apply when one considers the prodigious supply of vegetable matter that is not, or not adequately, exploited. A challenge has long been posed by the cellulosic portion of unused biomass. There is, however, some good news in this field. A report by Andrew Ward in the Financial Times, the international business newspaper, acknowledges that cellulosic ethanol has been an enduring favourite objective for research, ‘the most promising long-term alternative to petroleum-based fuel because, unlike the corn-based ethanol currently used in some motor vehicles, it can be made from agricultural waste and therefore avoids competing with food producers for crops’.

Apparently there has been promising progress in Europe, and the chemical engineering is being collaboratively taken up in the USA. Worldwide industrial prospects are being more than hinted at for what is called second-generation cellulosic ethanol. Taking the reference to ‘petroleum-based fuels’ at face-value one must be tempted to guess at potential diversification of the product range into the greater part of the application spectrum of existing hydrocarbon fuels from mineral sources. Is it just wishful thinking that raises visions of plantations and chemical production plants in harness to meet the entire calorific needs of power stations?

But note well that those riches would be won from ‘waste’ biomass already plentifully available, without felling forests to grow more corn. That is a ‘value’ incentive with the human(e) enhancement that a plain market-economics appraisal might fail to spot.* But I may be straying into perilous waters here. The fact is that economics is harder (ie, more difficult) than engineering and than most sciences. The word value becomes iridescent with complexity when allowed into unfettered discussion.

How wonderful, though, to imagine a time, not far away, when the human inhabitants of this planet may find themselves able to cultivate its fertile parts for food and fuel alike, and have to choose between the qualities and quantities by appropriate criteria. In joyous fancy, at least, let the choice never be dismal.

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