What ABB has taught me about genetic modification

Solar powered cars versus biodiesel

As a young, idealistic genetic engineer, I once believed that genetically modified (GM) crops were the cure for many of the world’s ills, and, to a large extent, I still do (my opinion, not necessarily ABB’s).

Engineered crops, modified to cope with climate change and be tolerant of flooding, drought or disease, are undergoing field trials around the world, others are already in use. It’s controversial, but engineering beneficial characteristics into plants is a more targeted approach than the use of broad-spectrum pesticides or the provision of nutrient supplements to compensate human dietary deficiencies. Golden rice, for example, which has been engineered to increase its naturally low vitamin A content, could help reduce the risks of blindness for millions across the globe. Such endeavors seem highly commendable to me, and I felt the same about the production of carbon-neutral biofuels from crops like Canola (oil-seed rape). In fact I felt so strongly that I went out and bought a biodiesel car. But after a few years of working for ABB, I’ve learned that using productive arable land for biofuel crops (even high-yielding GM varieties) makes no sense. There are better solutions available.

Here’s what changed my mind…

Take the example of a typical family car, fueled by near carbon-neutral biodiesel. Assuming an efficiency of about 60 miles per gallon (3.9 L/100 km) and a total of 12,000 miles (19,312 km) a year, that car will have an annual consumption of 200 gallons (757L) of biodiesel. If the biodiesel was produced from Canola, it would take two acres (0.81 hectares) of agricultural land a year to fuel a single car for 12 months, (an acre of Canola can generate about 100 gallons of biodiesel a year according to the US Department of Agriculture).

An alternative to occupying this much land, which could otherwise be used for food production, would be to switch the biodiesel car for an electric model; the new mini E, for example, which consumes an average of 22 kWh per 100 miles(1), or the Tesla Model S, which consumes 28 kWh per 100 miles(2). The Tesla covering 12,000 miles (19,312 km) would require 3,360 kWh of electricity, or 3.36 MWh/ year.

If this electricity came from a field of 2-axis CPV(3) solar panels, those two acres needed to support the biodiesel car could provide enough power for 212 Model S Teslas(4).

These are estimates and one can argue over the exact acreage and the productivity of solar panels in different locations, but the point is that however you calculate it, solar-electricity is a much more efficient fuel than biodiesel for low-carbon transportation.

By 2035, the International Energy Agency predicts that 1.7 billion cars will be on the roads. If these were all powered by Canola biofuel, we’d need to allocate 3.4 billion acres of arable land to biofuel production. For electric vehicles, just 16 to 17 million acres would suffice, and we wouldn’t need to compete with food production: solar plants work best in deserts and arid areas with cloudless skies where crops don’t grow.

With the human population rising exponentially, why would we use agricultural land to produce fuel in place of food. The Sahara desert covers about 2,223,950,000 acres (9,000,000 square kilometers). With the right infrastructure in place, only a fraction of this would be needed to power our cars. And the technologies for the necessary changes to transmission and distribution grids, car parks and recharging stations are available now. Perhaps all that’s missing is the political will.

For me, the answer is clear, but what do you think?

1 – http://www.myelectriccar.com.au/images/MINI-E-spec-sheet.pdf

2 – Tesla Motors set a goal to deliver a range greater than 300 miles with the 85 kWh Model S battery (ie, 0.28kWh/mile) http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/model-s-efficiency-and-range

3 – According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory NREL, it takes 2.8 acres of land to generate 1GWh/year using 2-axis CPV solar panels http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2013/08/calculating-solar-energys-land-use-footprint

4 – Two acres could fuel nearly 212 Tesla Model S cars a year on the road. ie, 1,000,000 kWh/ 2.8 x 2 = 714,285.7 kWh / 2 acres, then 714,285.7 / 3360 kWh = 212.6 cars / year.

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About the author

Mark Curtis

I am content manager for Electrification Products division at ABB Headquarters in Zurich
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