World beginning sustainability revolution, says UGA scientist

written by: Lee Shearer

Humanity is at the beginning of its third major cultural and economic revolution, a University of Georgia scientist told bioenergy researchers at UGA.

First there was the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, when humanity switched from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and domesticating animals.

Then came the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when humans moved away from manufacturing things by hand to machines, harnessing water power and new fuels such as coal to run those machines.

Now, the sustainability revolution has begun, bringing dramatic changes in fuel supplies and carbon management, said Michael W. Adams, a UGA professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Adams was a featured speaker Monday at this year’s annual retreat of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, a large multidisciplinary group of scientists exploring how to create fuels, energy and other products from biomass such as fast-growing grasses, wood and algae.

The retreat brings UGA researchers together with outside experts to talk about the status of their research and where it’s headed.

Adams does research on extremophiles — bacteria and other creatures that live in very hot or other extreme environments. Scientists hope such creatures may one day help as they look for cost-efficient ways to convert biomass into bioenergy that can fuel machines.

A century from now, machines may be powered by fuels produced by solar-powered chemical processes inspired by biological processes, Adams said.

But in the shorter term, scientists are focusing on such methods as converting wood or grass into fuels, relying on biological processes for part of the work.

This year’s retreat focused on sustainability, beginning with simply figuring out how to define and measure sustainability, said Ryan Adolphson, director of public service and outreach in UGA’s College of Engineering and associate director of the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, or BSRI.

Like school performance, sustainability is not easy to measure, said UGA economist Gregory Colson, another speaker at the conference. In evaluating school performance, results like students’ contributions to society are hard to measure. Instead, policymakers focus on something easily measured — test scores. Similarly, economists focus on easy metrics such as price when evaluating something like the sustainability of a fuel source, ignoring some less easily measurable costs such as the health consequences of pollution or the environmental damage it may cause, he said.

Policymakers can use strategies such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs to make the price of fuel a closer reflection of its true costs, according to Colson.

Consumers, who don’t always make strictly rational choices, tend to respond more strongly to a message that says they’re losing $5 per month by not switching from one thing to another, such as a fuel, than a message that says they could gain $5 per month by switching, he said.

“People focus much more on losses than gains,” he said.

People are also more likely to take steps to conserve energy if they know their neighbors are conserving, he said.

But biofuels will become increasingly competitive, Colson predicted.

“As the prices of fossil fuels increase, biofuels will expand,” Colson said.

The idea of getting energy from trees and other kinds of biomass has great promise, said another speaker, F.G. Courtney-Beauregard of the National Wildlife Federation.

“The challenge is to do it right,” said Courtney-Beauregard, the federation’s Southeast sustainable bioenergy manager.

The characteristics of some plants seen as good candidates for fuel crops because of their rapid growth and drought tolerance, can be the same characteristics that make a plant likely to be highly invasive, disrupting natural communities, she said.

And depending on how it’s done, burning woody biomass could actually put more carbon into the atmosphere than it prevents, she said.

But some small-scale existing plants in the Southeast are promising, burning waste material and only transporting it a short distance, she said.

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