In the second of a three-part series, Michael O’Halloran calls for a second ‘Green Revolution’ and says biomass production on a global scale must be the immediate priority of any global climate-energy strategy
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A number of years after the arrival of the first tractor, the first diesel-powered combine harvester was manufactured. Today, the largest combine harvester harvests a staggering 80 tonnes of wheat an hour. How many thousands of agricultural workers have each harvester made redundant?

The first tractor was used to plough in 1906 and there are presently 25 million tractors in the world. Clearly, tractors and combine harvesters alone have replaced literally hundreds of millions of agricultural workers – but even the first ploughmen to be made redundant did not necessarily remain unemployed because more productive, hence more highly-paid, employment was becoming available in the new industries including the motor industry.

In 1908, the first Model T Ford went into production. It was no coincidence that it was also powered by the newly invented, oil-fuelled internal combustion engine.

An insight into exactly how the transition from the old pre-oil economy to the new oil-dependent, mass-consuming economy took place can be obtained by considering the achievements of Henry Ford, the man who led the way to mass-consumerism, and the case of a redundant ploughman who obtained employment at the new Ford Motor Company.

Before the arrival of the Model T only wealthy people – not factory workers – could afford to buy a car. It was Henry Ford who took the direct route to mass-consumerism in 1908 when he announced, I will build a car for the great multitude” and he put the Model T on the market. It was simple, robust and affordable at $825 since it was designed with economy of scale in mind.

Before the Model T, there were fewer than 200,000 cars on the road in the US. By 1914, Henry Ford was manufacturing 260,000 Model T Fords a year, which was half of all the cars being manufactured in the US. This was when Ford increased wages to $5 a day and announced that every worker at Ford Motors could now afford to buy a Model T, which then sold at only $550.

Tipping point into mass consumerism


Within six years of going into production Henry Ford had increased the productivity of his workers to the point where they could afford to buy the car which they themselves manufactured. This was ground-breaking because a car was a huge item in 1914. Furthermore, workers could earn the price of the car in four months. This was the tipping point into mass-consumerism.

  • Previously productivity was low and majority of workers made products for those who were considerably wealthier than themselves. Today there are 265 million cars in the US and more than one billion cars in the world.
  • This was when working peoples’ wages started increasing to the point where they became economically autonomous. During the 19th century, mill workers in England lived in tenements belonging to the owner of the mill. Their great grandchildren could afford their own homes before the economic downturn in 2008.
  • Crucially, this was when the great multitude also became consumers of oil, and it has been predicted that there will be 1.7 billion cars on the road by 2035. Interestingly, nothing was mentioned about where they will obtain fuel!

Thus a displaced agricultural worker who had the good fortune to obtain work at the Ford Motor Company took a single step from the old pre-oil, low-income economy into the new oil-dependent, high-productivity-high-income, mass-consumer-driven economy. He was in a win-win situation:

  1. Mechanisation was progressing at Fords; he was becoming more productive therefore his earnings were increasing.
  2. Agriculture was being mechanised hence the cost of food was declining therefore his disposable income was increasing.

The last Model T rolled off the production line in 1927. It took one eighth of the time to build and it sold for $260 (for only $4000 in today’s dollars), which was less than a third of its original price.

Fifteen million Model T Fords were manufactured. Not only did Henry Ford replace millions of horses, he provided ordinary people who could hardly afford to keep a horse with a durable 20 horsepower car. Today, some 45% of the oil consumed in the US is consumed by the private motorist. Apparently, some 70% of this is used by people living in suburbia commuting to and from work.

When one considers that around 1840, the first steam-powered threshing machines were set alight by the workers whom they had made redundant, one might wonder why redundant agricultural workers did not destroy the first tractors when they arrived about 60 years later.

The explanation is simply that the Ford Motor Company was among the first of several new employers offering highly productive employment in numerous brand new energy-consuming industries.

From the land to the city


In 1870, before the demise of the pre-oil economy, some 75% of the population of the United States were employed in agriculture. Whereas at present approximately 3% of the population work on farms and they the feed the entire population.

Today the vast majority of the 97% of the US population work in cities and towns. Their average disposable income has increased to the point that they spend only 8% of their income on food whereas their great grandparents spent 40% of their income on food, and their income was one seventh that of their great grand childrens’ income.

People in the so-called developed world now earn their living in:

  • The old industries which expanded rapidly, namely in agriculture, construction, steel, shipbuilding, mining, textile, retailing also in medicine and education.
  • The new and larger industries, namely,
    • in the motor, aerospace, chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic, electrical and IT industries,
    • in the non-manufacturing sector, in retail and advertising which are now major economic sectors.
    • also in the enormously expanded service sector which includes the financial services and legal sectors, tourism, entertainment, sport, hospitality and leisure. These service industries expanded enormously as a direct result of increasing disposable incomes, and increasing leisure time.
  • The construction and maintenance of the expensive modern infrastructure which comprises the electric power systems, the highways, the airports, the telecommunication networks etc. All of which are now indispensable components of the new oil-dependent economies.

Clearly the transition to the new oil-dependent economy is irreversible since the billions of people who now earn their living in cities and towns cannot disperse and return to employment in agriculture.

Clearly today the cost of mass-production is low and economies now rely heavily on the mass-consumption of inexpensive mass-produced goods which include highly-advertised, non-essential luxury goods. In the US the average family now owes over $8000 on its credit card alone and the total gross national debt is now 104% of GDP. Global debt has now reached $215 trillion.

The present situation is sustainable while consumers continue to keep the economic cycle turning with borrowed money. However mass-consumerism is now vulnerable because both those who borrow and those who lend become more vulnerable as credit levels increase.

Today the new energy-dependent global economy is sustained by greatly increased borrowing to support greatly increased discretionary spending. Such an economy can be compared to an aircraft in flight in that if the speed of the aircraft falls below its stalling speed it falls out of the sky. Similarly, if economic activity within a modern economy falls below a certain threshold depression will follow.

It should be remembered that after depression hit the western democracies in 1929. Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, both through due democratic process. This is frightening.

Global benefit of the biomass industry


The worst step that any country, the European Union, the United Nations or any organisation could take would be to establish an organisation to solve the climate-energy problem which lacks the technical competence to do so. The organisation itself then becomes the equivalent of a defective parachute.

The climate-energy problem must be analysed and defined before anyone decides on a bespoke structure specifically designed to solve the problem. However the jury is out when it comes to deciding which organisation would have the competence to achieve the above. This is vitally important.

Interestingly a study into the fundamental economics of producing biomass was carried out recently at the School of Engineering, University College Dublin, and Mrs. Aisling Hennessy (nee O’Halloran) wrote a 75-page thesis on the subject.

She introduced a novel concept called a Tedbe which is a Tonne of Dried Biomass Equivalent (TDBE). One Tedbe of any biomass fuel is simply the Calorific Value (CV) of 1.0 tonne of this biomass with a moisture content of 0%. Clearly biomass with a CV of 19.2 Mj/kg has a Tedbe of 19,200MJ.

  • It emerges that 1.0 Tedbe of this biomass at 60% moisture content weighs 3.09 tonnes.
  • It also emerges that after the moisture content of this 3.09 tonnes of biomass has been reduced to 0% it weighs 1.23 tonnes and obviously has a CV of 1.23 Tedbe. The increase in calorific value clearly occurred since the energy required to convert all of the moisture into steam became available.

This approach is useful when it comes to determining the optimum moisture content taking into account the cost of drying biomass and the cost of transporting biomass.

A second ‘Green Revolution’ to produce biomass on a global scale must surely be the immediate priority of the global climate-energy strategy. The Green Revolution involved the development and introduction of high yield crops, multiple cropping, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and other measures which not only increased yields enormously, but also prevented crop failure due to disease. Obviously mechanisation played a major role and small gasoline-powered rotavators are now widely used by farmers in poorer countries.

Since humankind achieved the Green Revolution they are surely be capable of establishing the global biomass industry with the objective of replacing practically all of the oil, gas, and coal-fired heating and especially electric heating.

As already mentioned almost three kilowatthours of fuel must be burned in a fossil-fuel-fired generating station for every kilowatthour of heat outputted by a consumer’s electric heater.

  • Yet as recently as 2008 electric heating was being installed in new dwellings in the European Union – in fact it was being installed in Ireland – and consumers presently pay €0.09/kWh for electric heat on the night rate. The three kilowatthours of gas which must be burned in a generating station to provide the consumer with this one kilowatthour of heat could be sold directly to the same consumer for €0.19 and burned in a central heating boiler to provide more than 2.5 kilowatthours of heat.
  • Moreover it actually costs a fortune to waste this energy and unnecessarily discharge carbon dioxide because it requires fossil-fuelled electrical generation to do so and the installed cost of one kilowatt of electrical generating capacity is a few thousand euro.
  • There are two reasons why the growing of corn and rice to produce ethanol as a transport fuel should be reconsidered if not banned. The most compelling reason is that it increases the price of the food required by the poorest people on earth.

Potential growth in biomass


Returning to the Green Revolution, it was a combination of advances made in both agriculture and medicine during the last hundred years which brought about the fivefold increase in the global population. As mentioned the greatest increase in population took place in the third world. The population of Kenya for example was three million in 1920. It is now over 46 million and all of these people require food.

  • The responsible development of the global biomass industry should not and would not increase the cost of food. Instead it should provide a new source of income to people in the third world with which they would buy food.

There are two reasons why the growing of corn and rice to produce ethanol as a transport fuel should be reconsidered if not banned. The most compelling reason is that it increases the price of the food required by the poorest people on earth.

  • The other reason is that an acre of land can produce more energy in the form of biomass than in the form of fuel for an internal combustion engine.

Considering the case of rapeseed oil which can be used as a fuel in diesel engines, one acre can produce 770 litres of rapeseed oil per year with a calorific value of 27,000 Mj to replace approximately 730 litres of diesel oil. Alternatively the same acre could produce 5 tonnes (Dry Matter) of short rotation coppice with a calorific value of 90,000 Mj to replace and conserve almost 2,400 litres of heating oil, and avert the emission of almost 6.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

  • Researchers would target the development of biomass crops which can be grown on poor land in Africa and elsewhere of no agricultural value, but on which biomass could be grown profitably. Is there a variety of biomass which could be grown in the dustbowl in the US? Maybe a suitable crop could be developed!

Sunbelt Biofuels in the US claim that the giant miscanthus they are now marketing, yields 25 tons per acre. Should an acre of land in the African tropics produce a comparable quantity of dried biomass annually, the yield per acre would retail as 125,000kWh of heating fuel in Europe with a retail value of €12,500 when sold at €0.1/kWh which is considerably cheaper than heating oil. This would surely provide the growers with a cash crop and enable them to purchase food which could not be grown on this land anyway.

  • The Strategy/Plan would counteract short-term fluctuations in both the price of biomass and the price of oil which would otherwise jeopardise the long-term objective by,
    • adjusting both the subsidy on biomass if and when required and adjusting taxes on oil, on gas and on coal as required.
    • purchasing biomass, putting it into intervention and releasing it onto the market as required.
  • Many people would point out that wood pellets and wood pellet boilers have been around for a long time but have not been successful. The main reason why wood pellet heating has not been a success is that several manufacturers have advertised and sold wood pellet central-heating boilers claiming that they operated at acceptably high efficiency when they certainly did not. Many of these boilers were installed and then disposed of. This problem is easily solved by the enforcement of legislation to establish standards governing the efficiency of boilers.

There are indeed a few manufacturers producing very expensive efficient boilers, but because their market has remained small the cost of automating the production of these boilers has not yet been justified.

When biomass becomes widely available at a price which includes a reasonable profit margin for everybody involved, long-term market forces would prevail and biomass should replace heating oil, providing of course that there are reasonably-priced, fully-automatic biomass boilers on the market. These must be as convenient to use as oil and gas-fired boilers and they must operate at efficiencies comparable with those of oil-fired and gas-fired boilers.

Author:

Michael O’Halloran was reared in Kenya, obtained a degree in electrical engineering at University College Cork and returned to work in Kenya for a few years. He moved to Canada and worked with consulting engineers before returning to Ireland where he lectured in engineering at the Dublin Institute of Technology for over thirty years. He has also acted as an expert witness in the courts.     

O’Halloran has also developed a boiler specifically for fuels with a high volatile content, namely turf and biomass, which operates at high efficiency over a wide range of output.

This boiler is novel in that it burns the fuel in a devolatilisation chamber located in the upper region of a flame chamber. The liberated burning volatiles are turbulated as they exit the devolatilisation chamber and then they are forced to spiral downward around the devolatilisation chamber before the resulting flue gases exit through the exhaust located at the bottom of the flame chamber. The merit of this method is that it operates at high efficiency over a wide range of boiler output by exploiting thermal buoyancy to concentrate the burning volatiles as they spiral downwards around the devolatilisation chamber irrespective of boiler output.

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A number of years after the arrival of the first tractor, the first diesel-powered combine harvester was manufactured. Today, the largest combine harvester harvests a staggering 80 tonnes of wheat an hour. How many thousands of agricultural workers have each harvester made redundant? The first tractor was used to plough...