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Algae fuel and the politics of perception

When it comes to environmental issues, our own personal prejudices play a bigger role than we often realize. I present to you the example of Time to Eat the Dog?, a book about sustainable living that quotes research which has concluded that the environmental impact of owning a dog is equal to that of two Toyota Land Cruisers. The controversy ignited by this book has been enormous, with millions taking to  the internet to denounce the book’s authors. Now, I’m not here to comment on the validity of the study, but you will find no shortage of purported environmentalists who insist that, although they have done no research whatsoever, they know better than people who have spent years compiling environmental data. There are those who even question the study’s funding, claiming it must have come from some kind of anti-dog group, although who would stand to gain from an anti-dog conspiracy (cats?) isn’t immediately clear.

Issues of sustainability are all the more pressing when it comes to transportation. Adding to our concerns about the planet are concerns about our reliance on foreign oil, and the potential to solve both at once is very appealing. As we discussed last week, there is potential for algae fuel to solve all of our transportation energy needs, so why aren’t more people clamoring for more funding to go to algae research? It seems that our priorities are once again shaped by what we want to believe.

Algae is hurt in the first place simply by its classification as a biofuel. Corn has become unpopular with quite a few advocacy groups, both because its use for biofuel takes land away from the growing of food, but also because of the negative impact on our health which comes from high fructose corn syrup. But corn is the driving force behind biofuel in the US, and the corn lobby are the ones pushing hardest for more biofuel funding. With algae’s biofuel label, it sometimes finds itself suffering collateral funding damage by those in opposition to the corn juggernaut. The EMPA recently released a study denouncing biofuel as not very green at all, and although it didn’t touch on algae at all, this is still a blow to the image of the already-controversial fuel. What’s more, with the rising cost of crude oil, corn-derived ethanol has become much more economically viable as a fuel additive over the last couple of years, and so this is a problem which is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But what might be the biggest factor is that algae fuel just isn’t very exciting. It is in this area where electric cars have a clear advantage. Neither algae fuel nor electric cars are anywhere close to completely replacing fossil fuels, but the vast majority of sustainable transportation talk still revolves entirely around electric cars. Part of this is obviously because you can go out and buy an electric car today, and this is perfectly understandable. For this same reason, car companies are pushing much harder for electric cars, as there is no money for them to make from algae at present. So they let us continue to believe the lack of a tailpipe on an EV actually means it is carbon neutral. Now, there are a lot of misconceptions about this, and it’s not entirely on the part of the EV supporters. There have been quite a few people, not least of them Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, who echo the belief that the manufacturing process for EV batteries cancels out the environmental benefits. This is not true, but that doesn’t mean the news is all good.

The most comprehensive study on the subject of electric cars was carried out (again) by the EMPA, which studied the entire life cycle on an EV in comparison to that of a petroleum-fueled car. The study found that yes, an EV is better for the environment, even when manufacturing and disposal impacts are considered. But the margin is not huge, and some of the most efficient clean diesels and hybrids have a carbon footprint which is very nearly comparable. That is assuming that you are using nuclear, wind, solar or hydroelectric power to charge your EV’s batteries. If you are using electricity produced from coal, which much of the US does, you are essentially enduring long charging times and limited range for nothing, as a Prius or Golf Bluemotion would be pretty much exactly the same. That’s the reality, but the perception is that no emissions at the point of operation actually means zero emissions. There are even misconceptions about battery technology itself, with many people believing it to be evolving much faster than it is. This is because the batteries in the devices we use every day have been getting smaller and lasting longer, but this has much more to do with the improved efficiency of the circuitry than it does with the batteries themselves. This evolution of circuitry doesn’t help electric cars much, and the truth is that they are evolving much slower than their makers would have you believe.

There is one more factor, and for that we look to the Toyota Prius. Toyota has sold more than 10 times the number of Prii as Honda has sold of the Civic Hybrid, just in the US, despite the two cars being largely the same on paper. The Prius has been sold for longer than the Civic Hybrid, but only by a year, and this can’t account for the huge gulf between the two sales figures. The success of Prius was studied by Steven Sexton of Columbia University, who subsequently published a report on what he called “The Prius Effect.” This is the phenomenon whereby people will pay more for products which are recognizably green. Meaning that the Prius enjoys better sales because you can tell it apart from other non-hybrid models at a glance, whereas you have to look closer to tell a Civic Hybrid apart from a regular Civic. Sexton’s theory is that conspicuous conservation has become a means for status in America’s middle class in the way conspicuous consumption had been in the past. What this boils down to is that, since nobody can see you using algae fuel, it is unlikely to get people as excited as they are for a recognizable electric car.

Obviously, the lack of readiness in the technology itself is the biggest factor in our non-use of algae fuel, but this technology might never reach a state of readiness if it continues to get sidelined for what is fashionable today. As I said last week, this still might not actually be the way of the future, but we can’t know if we don’t try.