URBANA – Air quality, not potential fossil fuel shortages, will be the driving force behind the push to bring new alternative fuels to the world market, a scientist said Thursday.
Dan Kammen of the University of California-Berkeley, who spoke at an international symposium on renewable energy at the University of Illinois, said he disagrees with the idea that high energy prices will pave the way for clean energy.
"There's a huge supply of fossil fuel out there," Kammen said, speaking to more than 100 scientists invited to the conference.
"There are a lot of coal plants scheduled to be built. There's no shortage of fossil fuel, and high prices mean more will be discovered."
"We're running out of atmosphere dramatically faster than we're running out of oil."
Kammen said California has taken the lead in the country in mapping out an aggressive strategy to reduce pollution. He said the United Kingdom, Sweden and Austria have taken similar action.
"How do we get there when we're all here?" Kammen said. "Efficiency is the first thing. It facilitates all other efforts."
He said the use of electricity in California and New York is now essentially flat, not growing as it is in the rest of the country, and California has been aggressive in developing solar and wind power resources.
Kammen said ethanol can contribute to carbon emission reduction but warned it's not the complete answer because "not all biofuels are created equal."
"Ethanol made from corn in inefficient plants shows only a very small improvement in carbon emissions compared to gasoline," he said.
"Substituting ethanol for gas is the wrong way to think about it. The right way is to get carbon out of fuel."
John Ferrell, who is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy, said attacks on the World Trade Center and the war in Iraq have changed the government's interest in and support for alternative fuel development.
"The No. 1 focus is reducing oil imports," Ferrell said. He said that turned the spotlight on ethanol and raised public awareness about biofuels.
"This time around, there's more support in Washington for alternative fuels and there's a huge increase in funding," he said.
A representative of BP Energy Biosciences Institute, Jim Breson, said his company is investing in alternative fuel research because the petroleum giant is bucking conventional industry wisdom that says in 2030, the sources of fuel will be very much the same as they are now while demand will be 60 percent greater.
"BP thinks that's limited," Breson said. "We think technology will change the business."
He said BP markets 10 percent of the world supply of renewable fuel but doesn't produce any of it, so the company has formed partnerships with universities to find out more about the future technologies the company believes will transform the industry. BP is particularly interested in biobutanol, Breson said.
He said there are a lot of unanswered questions about alternative fuels.
"It's not clear at all what the feedstocks will be and how they'll be handled." Breson said.
"Will it be ethanol, or butanol? Are we (petroleum companies) going to operate farms? I think there will be strong expectations that this be done right all over the world."
The conference continues today at the UI.
On Saturday, guests will tour UI alternative energy projects; The Andersons elevator northwest of Champaign, where a new ethanol plant may be built; and Twin Groves Wind Farm at Ellsworth.