greenhouse gas

Biofuel from Prickly Pear Cactus

Universidad Mayor in Santiago, Chile is experimenting with the use of plantation-grown prickly pear cactus for use as biofuel. They intend to establish plantations in the Atacama desert, a place that averages 0.004 inches of rain a year, mainly as fog from the Pacific Ocean.

Reporter Anatoly Kurmanaev of the Santiago Times sets the scene:

The driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, wouldn’t seem an auspicious place for biofuel production.

Biotechnology experts, however, may have found a way to turn one of the desert’s only available plants, the cactus, into energy.

A US$500,000 pilot project in the Río Jorquera Valley in the Copiapó province aims to reduce Nopal cactus stems to high-energy dry briquettes that can be burned in coal-fired thermoelectric plants.

The five-acre experimental plantation will produce sufficient scientific data on cactus biomass production in arid conditions by the end of 2013, and will then begin supplying fuel to a small-scale onsite power station.

The project’s leader, Prof. Alexis Vega of Universidad Mayor’s Biotechnology Institute in Santiago, believes a pilot-scale plantation of 420 acres will be able to sustain 1.5 megawatts per hour (MW/h) of electricity generation.

At an estimated cost of US$112 per MW/h, cactus biofuel is competitive with fossil fuels at current global prices and is much cheaper than other sources of alternative energy in the region such as wind or solar.

“This is an opportunity to diversify the local economy by utilizing marginal soil—land which has little water and few agricultural alternatives,” said Vega.

The researchers hope to develop the plantation to a level where they can begin supplying large electrical utilities in northern Chile.

One of the advantages of the cactus plantations is their proximity to energy-hungry mining operations. Utilizing locally available sources of energy would reduce the need for costly energy shipments from the south, Vega explained.

“Four years ago, when we approached the big power distributors they told us no. Now the moment has arrived—they are keen to participate.”

A law passed in 2010 binds Chile to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable, non-conventional sources by 2024.

At present the figure stands at around five percent, and Vega believes the government’s support for alternative energy puts the nation well on course to meeting the target.

Apart from the environmental benefits, researchers believe the scheme also holds substantial economic potential.

Southern Atacama’s traditional crop has been the table grape, the profitability of which has fallen steadily in recent years due to growing competition from Peru and Argentina.

As cactuses require at most a third of the water used by a grape plantation of the same area, there are large potential savings for farmers, as well as stable year-round jobs.

“For the small declining indigenous communities of northern Chile this is a real development opportunity,” said Vega. “These people can stay on the land, produce fuel for their own use, and sell the surplus, instead of migrating to the cities where they will remain poor.”

According to a report from Universidad Mayor, the cactus can be used in two ways: 1) anaerobic bio-digestion can produce methane for use as a feedstock for electrical generation, much as we harvest methane from landfills here in Tucson; or 2) the prickly pear pads can be dehydrated using solar energy, then pelleted and used as a co-combustion fuel in coal-fired plants. The cactus plantations will have to be irrigated and fertilized to allow a harvest every six months. An added benefit, if the project proves feasible, is that this biofuel is produced from a non-food crop and will provide year-round jobs rather than seasonal employment common to most crops. The goal of the project is to produce at least the equivalent of 40 tons dry matter per hectare per year which they deem competitive with other biofuels.

Humans and the Carbon Cycle

Some people must think that humans are not part of nature according to two comments to my post: Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect . The comments alleged: “Human carbon emissions are not a part of the natural carbon cycle.” and “We are now releasing huge amounts of fossil carbon too rapidly for natural processes to adjust.” Both claim that human carbon dioxide emissions upset “the balance of nature.” This belief reflects a misunderstanding of what “balance” really is. Nature is never really “in balance” or static, it is always seeking equilibrium between forces that upset the status quo.

This misunderstanding is reflected in one of the comments: “The natural carbon cycle involves the production/consumption of carbon. Humans do exhale – but energy production involves humans using historic carbon from earlier carbon cycles that are not contemporary. It isn’t part of a ‘natural’ carbon cycle.”

Tell me, how can nature distinguish between a carbon dioxide molecule produced by someone burning wood in a fireplace versus carbon dioxide resulting from burning wood in a forest fire? How can nature distinguish between a molecule of carbon dioxide produced by burning coal to generate electricity versus coal burning in a seam due to natural spontaneous combustion? Yes, that does happen. So much for “historic carbon.”

There are actually two carbon cycles. The geologic carbon cycle stores carbon in limestone, dolomite, petroleum, and coal deposits. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is used up during the weathering of silicate rocks, a process that speeds up with increasing temperature or increasing carbon dioxide, thereby forming a negative feedback or thermostat. It takes millions of years, usually, for this carbon to cycle back into the biosphere. Volcanoes recycle carbonate rocks and emit 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There are also carbon dioxide gas seeps. Carbon dioxide is also produced from metamorphism of carbonate rocks.

The biologic carbon cycle is exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, biosphere, and ocean as shown in the graphic below. The biologic process involves photosynthesis, respiration, ocean absorption, and biological use of carbonates to form shells and other structures. Human emissions are part of these natural cycles.


The relative amount of carbon in each “sink” is shown in the table below.


Notice that the amount of carbon stored as fossil fuel deposits is just one-tenth of that stored in the oceans, and the ocean store in continually in flux. The ocean is also the connection between the geologic carbon cycle and the biologic carbon cycle. As the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, ocean uptake also increases. The carbon dioxide is stored not only as dissolved gas, but also as carbonate ions which are sequestered by marine life and the production of limestone and dolomite deposits.

There is another complication. Some carbon is missing. When calculating the carbon flux, i.e., the emissions from known sources versus carbon sequestration by known sinks, there should be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there is. So, either there is an unknown process taking up carbon dioxide or a known process is working faster than we thought (seeking equilibrium).

There is some observational evidence for that last process. We see that terrestrial plant life has increased its net primary productivity by growing more robustly and by making better use of nitrogen in the soil. (See here ) There are also new studies showing that small marine creatures, such as Thaliacea, are depositing more carbon into the geologic sink than previously realized.

Perhaps we still don’t know as much about the carbon cycle as we thought.

To put things in perspective, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, based on data derived from the IPCC, human carbon dioxide emissions represent about 3% of the total carbon dioxide flux, and 98.5% of that is reabsorbed in the biologic carbon cycle. (Source )

Slightly off subject but important: A new paper in Geophysical Research Abstracts (Vol. 13, EGU2011-4505-1, 2011) based on detailed spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere found that because the absorbance of water vapor overlaps the frequencies of long wave radiation that are absorbed by carbon dioxide and methane, the effective sensitivity of carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases is only one-seven that claimed by the IPCC and used in climate models.

That makes our emissions from burning fossil fuels of even less concern.

Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect

The “greenhouse effect,” very simplified, is this: solar radiation penetrates the atmosphere and warms the surface of the earth. The earth’s surface radiates thermal energy (infrared radiation) back into space. Some of this radiation is absorbed and re-radiated back to the surface and into space by clouds, water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases. Water vapor is the principle greenhouse gas; the others are minor players. Without the greenhouse effect the planet would be an iceball, about 34 C colder than it is. The term “greenhouse effect” with respect to the atmosphere is an unfortunate usage because it is misleading. The interior of a real greenhouse (or your automobile parked with windows closed and left in the sun) heats up because there is a physical barrier to convective heat loss. There is no such physical barrier in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse” gas, so let’s examine its theoretical and actual effect on temperature.

co2greenhouse3Even the IPCC agrees that the hypothetical capacity of carbon dioxide to change temperature is given by the formula: Tc = áln(C2/C1), where Tc is the change in temperature in degrees Centigrade and the term ln(C2/C1) is the natural logarithm of the CO2 concentration at time two divided by the concentration at time one. The constant á (alpha) is sometimes called the sensitivity and its value is subject to debate. This relationship was proposed by Svante August Arrhenius, a physicist and chemist, around 1896. This logarithmic formula produces a graph in the form shown at the left. This shows that as the concentration of carbon dioxide increases, its effects have less and less influence. This graph is the pure theoretical capacity of carbon dioxide to warm the atmosphere in absence of any confounding feedbacks. The different curves represent different values of alpha.

 Radiation transmitted by atmosphereThe reason it works this way is because carbon dioxide can absorb only a few specific wavelengths of thermal radiation. The current concentration of carbon dioxide has absorbed almost all available radiation in those wavelengths so there is little left for additional carbon dioxide to absorb. Notice too, that water vapor absorbs many of the same wavelengths of thermal radiation. Also notice that in a certain part of the spectrum there is an open window of no absorption.

We see, therefore, that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have a decreasing hypothetical effect on temperature. That is also why our proposed attempts to decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide will have almost no effect on temperature.

The IPCC says that warming will produce more water vapor which will enhance greenhouse warming, a positive feedback. All their climate models are based on this assumption. Sounds reasonable except in the real world, it doesn’t happen. Increased water vapor produces more clouds which block the sun thereby inducing cooling, a negative feedback.

Dr. Roy Spencer explains here why doubling the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will add only 3% to Earth’s greenhouse effect. Spencer has further discussion here in which he says, “that about 50% of the surface warming influence of greenhouse gases has been short-circuited by the cooling effects of weather.”

The atmosphere is not static; we have weather which tends to dissipate heat into space. According to real world measurements, the negative feedbacks overwhelm the theoretical positive feedback posed by the IPCC.

An example of negative feedbacks:

In 2001, a paper by M.I.T. researchers proposed that warming dissipated high-altitude cirrus clouds which had the effect of dumping heat into space, thereby helping to regulate earth’s temperature. This paper was controversial because it went against the orthodoxy of global warming and there were many detractors. However, in 2007 researchers from the University of Alabama, using NASA satellite data found evidence to support the theory. In 2009, the original M.I.T. researchers, using National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s 16-year (1985-1999) monthly record of sea surface temperature, together with corresponding radiation data from the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment, found more real world evidence in support of the theory (see PDF). It might be noted that 11 major climate models used by the IPCC assume positive feedback, but real world data shows a temperature-moderating negative feedback. However, the role of clouds is still poorly-understood and more real-world data is needed.

What happens on other planets:


Venus has a surface temperature of about 900 F and an atmosphere composed of 96% carbon dioxide. The temperature is the same from equator to poles, from day to night (Venus rotates on its axis in 2,802 hours rather than 24 hours). Venus is often touted as the extreme example of run-away greenhouse warming. But, there is almost no greenhouse warming on Venus because little, if any, direct sunlight gets to the surface. The atmosphere is too thick. In 1975, the Russian Venus lander Venera 9 measured clouds that were 30–40 km thick with bases at 30–35 km altitude. The surface air pressure on Venus is about 92 times greater than that on Earth. The high pressure alone can explain most of the high surface temperature. Although Venus gets almost twice the solar irradiation of Earth, Venus’ high albedo reflects back 65% of the sunlight.

 Venus has almost no water vapor in the atmosphere (about 0.002%), and therefore lacks the major greenhouse gas that Earth has.


Mars has an atmosphere composed of 95% carbon dioxide and only a trace of water. Its atmosphere is very thin. Its surface pressure is about 2% that of Earth. The temperatures on the two Viking landers, measured at 1.5 meters above the surface, range from + 1° F, ( -17.2° C) to -178° F (-107° C). However, the temperature of the surface at the winter polar caps drop to -225° F, (-143° C) while the warmest soil occasionally reaches +81° F (27° C) as estimated from Viking Orbiter Infrared Thermal Mapper (NASA data). Again, no water vapor, no greenhouse effect.


The greenhouse model is a simplified story that helps explain how our atmosphere works. However, the real world is very complicated and still not fully understood. Even global warming alarmist James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had this to say: “The forcings that drive long-term climate change are not known with an accuracy sufficient to define future climate change.” — James Hansen, “Climate forcings in the Industrial era”, PNAS, Vol. 95, Issue 22, 12753-12758, October 27, 1998.

And even the IPCC once admitted, “In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the prediction of a specific future climate state is not possible.” — Final chapter, Draft TAR 2000 (Third Assessment Report), IPCC.

Human carbon dioxide emissions are 3% to 5% of total carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, and about 98% of all carbon dioxide emissions are reabsorbed through the carbon cycle. (Source )

Although Earth’s atmosphere does have a “greenhouse effect” and carbon dioxide does have a limited hypothetical capacity to warm the atmosphere, there is no physical evidence showing that human carbon dioxide emissions actually produce any significant warming. If you disagree with that statement, then produce some physical evidence to refute it.

UPDATE March 3, 2011: A new paper in Geophysical Research Abstracts (Vol. 13, EGU2011-4505-1, 2011) reports that detailed spectrographic analysis found that because of the overlap absorbance of the much more abundant water vapor for long wave radiation, the effective sensitivity of carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases is only one-seventh that claimed by the IPCC and used in climate models.

Kerry-Lieberman Bill Bad for Consumers

The so-called American Power Act combines useless pork-barrel spending with just about all the bad ideas of previous Cap & Tax bills. The bill creates 60 new agencies and projects. You can read the 987-page sleep-inducing bill here.

The bill seeks to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions according to a schedule: 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020, 42% below by 2030, and 83% below by 2050. Those goals are similar to the Waxman-Markey bill of last year. The senators say those reductions are necessary to forestall global warming, even though there is no evidence that carbon dioxide significantly drives temperature. The possible effect on global temperature is negligible, too small to measure. Some estimates, based on UN’s climate models, place the potential temperature reduction at 0.043°C (0.077°F) by 2050 and 0.111°C (0.200°F) by 2100. I think those estimates are much too generous. To see why read my post: Your Carbon Footprint Doesn’t Matter.

To aim for a reduction in emissions of 83% by 2050 is completely absurd. That would be equivalent to U.S. emissions in 1910 according to Department of Energy historical statistics on energy consumption. Then, the U.S. population was about 92 million people. By 2050, the Census Bureau estimates the U.S. population will be 420 million. That means by 2050 the per capita emissions will have to be reduced to one-quarter the per capita emissions in 1910 and take us back to the economy in about 1875.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that imposition of carbon reduction schemes would result in fewer net jobs in the coming decades. They also said, “The increases in prices caused by a tax or a cap-and-trade program would cause workers’ real (inflation-adjusted) wages to be lower than they would otherwise be.”

Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said that this bill “will make it virtually impossible for energy companies to cut costs and create new jobs. Instead, they will have no choice but to raise prices for consumers who, in many cases, already find their energy bills unaffordable. Simply put, this bill is a time bomb wrapped in a nice bow. Over time, costs will explode through the roof and when it becomes too expensive for the industry to absorb the new fees and taxes created by this legislation, the consumer will be stuck holding the bill.” The “time bomb” refers to the fact that restrictions will be phased in over time for various industries. The Institute for Energy Research think tank said, “Two things are certain if this bill becomes law: energy prices will skyrocket, and jobs will be shipped overseas.”

Several large energy companies have come out in support of Kerry-Lieberman. That’s were the pork comes in. An analysis by the Competitive Enterprise Institute says, “Environmentalists know it will have no discernible impact on the climate, but it will reward favored companies with massive windfall profits.” “Cap and trade regulation, far from disciplining the energy sector, is poised to become one of the greatest wealth transfers from consumers to private corporations in the nation’s history.” “General Electric, Exelon, BP, Goldman Sachs, and Duke Energy will make out like bandits because of provisions they have written. That’s not democracy or capitalism. It’s political corruption and crony capitalism.”

We will have to learn newspeak. Gasoline taxes are now “linked fees.” “Cap and trade” is now “emissions reduction targets.”

On the plus side, the legislation would authorize $54 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plant construction, which should be enough to support 12 new reactor projects. On the minus side, the bill also offers $2 billion a year for the commercial-scale deployment of technology that captures and stores carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. To see why carbon capture is a bad idea see my post: Clean Coal, Boon or Boondoggle .

President Obama said energy prices will “necessarily skyrocket.” That’s because of two factors. First, producers will have to purchase emissions permits or credits, adding to the cost of doing business, a cost that will be passed on to the consumer, and second, these producers will be forced to buy the privilege of continuing to produce, from the Chicago Climate Exchange, which will raise the cost of doing business even more. Again this will be passed on to the consumer. According to an article in the Cyprus Times, Texas, The Chicago Climate Exchange will be the only exchange for trading these credits and will make hefty commissions buying and selling these credits. I wonder if that deal is a payoff.

The carbon credits will become a new commodity to trade, but unlike gold or pork bellies, carbon dioxide emissions are not something tangible. There will be great opportunity for fraud as has happened in the European market (see here and here ).

The Kerry-Lieberman Cap & Tax bill establishes a price range for CO2 emissions indulgences with a floor of $12 per metric ton (increasing annually by 3% + inflation) and ceiling of $25 (increasing annually by 5% + inflation). According to the EPA, US emissions of CO2 in 2009 were 5787 million metric tons. Thus if, eventually, the legislation is applied to all US emissions, the cost would be $69 Billion (floor) to $145 Billion (ceiling) annually, increasing ~6 to 8+% each year forever. European carbon trading last year was valued at $125 billion. I wonder if there could be a more constructive use for that money instead of buying air?

For some background on global warming science see my blogs:

Natural Climate Cycles, and A Basic Error in Climate Models

Feedback from a Vested Interest

In my previous post on the global warming industry, I mentioned the names of several companies that I thought had a vested interest in maintaining the myth that carbon dioxide is a major driver of temperature.

Yesterday, I received some feedback from one of those companies : I represent Hara and wanted to clarify a sentence you wrote: “Al Gore’s venture capital firm, Hara Software which makes software to track greenhouse gas emissions, stands to make billions of dollars from cap-and-trade regulation.” My intention is not to dispute your opinion, but rather to make clear a fact: Hara is one of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers portfolio companies. Al Gore is a partner at KPCB, but Hara is not his VC firm.

The KPCB website says to “Think of it as relationship and venture capital.” So KPCB is a venture capital organization and Al Gore is a partner. The Hara website says “Hara was originally funded in 2008 by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.” That means to me that Hara is a firm founded by a venture capital investment from Al Gore and his partners. Glad we cleared that up.

Hara sells, among other things, software to track greenhouse gas emissions. From the Hara website I learned, that the City of Palo Alto, California, has a “Climate Protection Team” and a “Sustainability Team” and that with Hara software “each employee can enter commute and other data that impact overall City emissions.” I bet the city employees love that.

Note: The City of Tucson has a Climate Change Advisory Committee. Maybe they are potential customers for Hara.

Upon looking at KPCB’s website, under “initiatives” I found this statement: “At the same time we face climate crisis.” Recent events show the “crisis” is manufactured, see here and here.

KPCB’s next statement: “Atmospheric CO2 levels are at an all-time high, with accelerating growth,” is wrong on two counts. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has, for most of the history of this planet, been more than 10 times current level. According to the NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory, carbon dioxide levels are increasing but not accelerating. See graphs below.








Environment Arizona – The Rest of the Story

Scamming the Media

Last week we read or heard stories that said “Arizona’s global warming pollution increased by 61 percent since 1990, according to a new analysis of government data released today by Environment Arizona.” The “pollution” referred to is carbon dioxide.

Those stories are a good example of Mark Twain’s observation: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

Percapita-emissionsThe press release by Environment Arizona spun their findings to maximize sensationalism. It is clear from the media stories, that most reporters either did not read the full study, or chose to report only the headline-grabbing, but misleading statistic.

 The study itself says that Arizona per capita carbon dioxide emissions are below the national average. It also says that Arizona per capita emissions have decreased by 6% since 1990. Why didn’t that last statistic make the headlines?

 Along with statistics gleaned from the EPA, Environment Arizona spouts the tired propaganda of global warming alarmists such as: “Temperature increases of only 3.6° F higher than pre-industrial levels could have catastrophic consequences—and 1.4° F of warming has already occurred.” Regular readers of this blog will know that we are currently in an interglacial period of an ice agethat the “normal” temperature of this planet is about 18 F warmer than it is now, and that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide for most of the planet’s history has been 3- to 10 times higher than now. (See chart below, see also my seven-part series on geological history, Natural Climate Cycles, and other blogs in the climate change category.)

 Environmental Arizona claims that carbon dioxide is the “leading global warming pollutant.” But carbon dioxide is insignificant compared to water vapor as a greenhouse gas. The term “pollutant” is both emotive and erroneous. The dictionary defines a pollutant as “a harmful chemical or waste material discharged into the water or atmosphere.” Carbon dioxide, however, is vital to life. Without it, there would be no life on this planet, and geological history shows that life is more abundant and robust at concentrations above 1,000 ppm, three times the current concentration.

 Environment Arizona is one of the many branches of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), founded by Ralph Nader in the 1970’s as a consumer advocacy organization. PIRG seems to have morphed beyond that cause.

 In researching this article, I found some stories which show that PIRG has been less than honest in its fund raising and advocacy.

 A Boston Globe story ( ) says: PIRGs collect huge amounts of money through a dishonest scheme called a “negative checkoff.” Each semester, students are automatically charged for a “donation” to PIRG of several dollars; the charge is included in their tuition. It isn’t mandatory, but a student who is unwilling to finance PIRG’s left-wing political agenda must affirmatively refuse to pay. PIRG figures that many students — and many parents — won’t realize the fee is optional or even notice it on the bill. Sure enough, amid the tumult of each new semester, most students just pay up — and PIRG grows ever richer. In New Jersey last year, NJPIRG used the negative checkoff to milk students for an estimated $200,000. In Florida, the take was about $320,000. In Massachusetts, $400,000. (In some states, the PIRG “donation” is mandatory. New York students were euchered out of $800,000 — forced to subsidize NYPIRG’s political objectives whether they agreed with them or not.)

 A recent report by the Reason Foundation (a libertarian think tank) accuses PIRG of issuing misleading reports on transportation: “The always anti-privatization Public Interest Research Group has just released its second report criticizing the growing trend of state governments turning to long-term public-private partnership (PPP) deals to attract private investment into their ailing highway systems. The worst distortion of what’s going on is the way the PIRG report blurs the distinction between leases of existing toll roads and similar long-term deals that create brand new (and much-needed) toll roads via private capital investment.” (

The Competitive Enterprise Institute today (April 6, 2000 ) accused the U.S. Public Interest Research Group of misleading the American public about the ramifications of global warming. U.S. PIRG’s new report, Storm Warning: Global Warming and the Rising Costs of Extreme Weather, is yet another attempt to link global warming to events where there is no link to be made.,02595.cfm

 Yes, I realize that stories detrimental to PIRG come mainly from more conservative sources, perhaps because more liberal publications don’t usually print the stories.

 The conclusion I draw from this affair is that many news organizations publish by press release without checking the full story and the potential biases of its source.

 Phanerozic temp