Tuesday, July 24, 2007

FPL Plans Orange Peel-to-Ethanol Plant

Florida Power & Light (FPL) has just announced plans to develop the world's first cellulosic ethanol plant that uses waste from the citrus industry as the raw material for the renewable fuel additive. Ethanol and biofuels in general can be considered almost "carbon-neutral," since the CO2 that is released when they are burned in a car engine is CO2 that they had previously absorbed from our atmosphere. Cellulosic ethanol has several advantages over regular ethanol, which commonly comes from corn or sugarcane:

First, instead of having to devote food (and land on which food could be grown) to producing fuel, the cellulosic ethanol process can use waste material from food production. Instead of consuming something valuable (food product) in its production, cellulosic ethanol consumes something essentially worthless (waste).
Second, non-food crops that are much less energy-intensive to grow than corn or sugarcane can be used to make cellulosic ethanol. One such crop that has high hopes is switchgrass.

Third, since pretty much any part from any plant can be used (as long as it contains the polysaccharide cellulose), this means that areas of the world without the climate or the means to grow corn or sugarcane can take part in the renewable fuels game too. (Read: Florida!)

Of course, there are some doubts as to how effective ethanol (even cellulosic ethanol) would be in solving our energy woes. For example, the Wikipedia article on switchgrass (linked to above) notes that there are conflicting reports on whether switchgrass would have a negative, neutral, or positive carbon balance. Additionally, there are other ways to reduce the carbon emissions from our cars. Making higher fleet-wide fuel-efficiency standards and even simply driving less could have a more significant impact on our emissions than ethanol could ever hope to provide.

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