Category Archives: biofuels

The Future of Biofuels

By Robert Potts

First-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol have well-known shortcomings. A a global water crisis looms and corn is a water-intensive crop. As food prices rise globally, corn ethanol diverts food a food crop to fuel use. Add  deforestation and large-scale changes in land use and corn ethanol seems to be a poor substitute for fossil fuels. 

Some see “second-generation” biofuels as the future of the biofuels industry. Second-generation biofuels are synthesized from crop waste or fast-growing grasses rather than derived from human food sources. This improves the efficiency of the agricultural industry by removing waste. And it doesn’t affect food prices.

The production of second-generation biofuels requires complex and costly thermochemical processes such as gasification, pyrolysis and torrefaction. The average cost of cellulosic biofuels is around 40 per cent greater than the cost of corn-based ethanol.

But costs are falling. A new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that cellulosic biofuels will achieve cost parity with ethanol by 2016. Improved technology is lowering costs. For example, the cost of enzymes, one of the key cost components, has fallen by 72 per cent in the last four years. Analysts believe that if the industry attracts more capital productive capacity will grow and the relative costs of production will fall further.

Critics continue to argue that sourcing biofuels from non-food crops will cause large-scale land use change and increased water usage. The difficulty is that the volume of fuel created from biofuel production, or the “net energy yield per hectare of land,” is not sufficient to supply our economy in the long-term without creating further environmental impacts.

Some maintain that sugarcane ethanol, the biofuel widely produced in Brazil, would solve this issue. However, its wider proliferation is currently constrained by U.S. agricultural policy which mainly favors corn and by Europe’s climate, which does not support sugarcane production there. Its status as a popular crop also limits its long-term sustainability.

One area of biofuel production that might sustain the industry in the long-term is “third-generation” biofuels sourced from algae and bacteria. These fuels are still in the early stages of development and allow the modification of species of algae to produce yields of long-chain fatty acids. Should technology emerge to allow scientists to generate large volumes of fuel from these sources, they may be able to negate the problems encountered so far. In the meantime, first- and second-generation biofuels will continue to play a role in a world-wide energy industry that is highly dependent on a variety of sources of fuel.

Do you think biofuels are a sustainable form of fuel? Are you concerned about the long-term depletion of fossil fuels? Will new technology continue to support our energy usage? Let us know what you think, below, or via twitter @dschatsky

Robert Potts is the owner of RPM Fuels & Oil Pumps, suppliers of tanks and fuel transfer pump equipment to the fuel industry and RPM Fuels, supplier of a range of oil tanks and specialist equipment for biofuels and biodiesel.


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New Tools for Navigating Renewable Energy Incentives

The tools for navigating the bewildering array of renewable energy incentives in the U.S. just got a bit better.

There are thousands of such incentives, and their purpose is to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in the United States. There are so many incentives, and they change so often, that it can be a full-time job to keep up with them, potentially undercutting their effectiveness.

That’s where the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE, pronounced “desire”) comes in. This Department of Energy-funded project attached to North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University operates a web site that provides continuously updated information on renewable energy incentives and policies at the federal, state local and utility levels.The information is searchable and browsable and serves a diverse array of users including homeowners, businesses policymakers and researchers.

The site receives some 200,000 unique visitors per month–ten times the level of 4 or 5 years ago–as well as some 200 e-mail inquiries monthly, according to Rusty Haynes, who works on DSIRE at the Solar N.C. State Solar Center.

What’s new is that in response to requests from commercial users of the information, DSIRE recently launched myDSIRE, a set of customized information services–XML fees, RSS feeds, and a policy tracking service–that are available to commercial users for a fee.

This is a great development. Making this data available programatically should make it more useful and, in a small way, help lower the barriers to the advancement of renewable energy in the U.S. 

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I Love Waste

“I love waste,” said Emily Bockian Landsburg, CEO of cleantech startup BlackGold Biofuels , when I ran into her at an an event in New York last night.  BlackGold Biofuels has developed a process for turning trap grease–the gunk collected in grease traps in restaurant sink drainpipes–into high-quality biodiesel.

BlackGold Biofuels has licensed its technology to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for use in its Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant, where it is expected to produce 100,000 gallons of biodiesel yearly. Here’s a story about the project.

Landsburg sees a vast market for her technology, which she says has a two- to three-year payback period for her target customers, mostly waste water treatment plants, who already receive payments to accept the crud for disposal.

Waste was a hot topic yesterday. That day I also made the acquaintance of Sameer Rashid, business development manager for Harvest Power, a Massachusetts-based cleantech firm whose technology converts organic wastes into a syngas and compost.

Harvest Power intends to design, build, own, and operate facilities on behalf of municipalities and may add renewable energy generation facilities as well. Here a story about the firm form the Boston Globe.

I can’t yet vouch for their business models or economics–please comment with pointers to good studies you know about–but I love waste too.

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Solar Powered Cars?

 I’ve been monkeying with energy statistics long enough to know that, as with any statistics, with enough ingenuity you can find some number somewhere to prove your point. My goal on this blog has not been to prove points but rather to learn and maybe to teach. Today I set out to learn a little about the future of electric vehicles.

It seems likely that a material portion of the automotive fleet in the U.S. will consist of electric vehicles in the next 20 to 30 years. I haven’t done a forecast of the electric vehicle market, but many others have (for example here and here).

Others have also shown that electric vehicles can be less polluting than internal combustion engine vehicles–even if the electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels–because electric motors are more efficient than gasoline engine in converting stored energy to motion.

So I was wondering whether renewable energy sources like solar and wind might ever power a significant amount of our driving. My highly superficial analysis suggests that’s plausible but far in the future.

Consider this: it is estimated that today’s electric vehicles will travel a mile on between .2 and .4 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. residential vehicles travelled some 2,922 billion miles. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), some 843 MW hours of solar energy and some 52,000 MW hours of wind energy were generated in the U.S. last year. Together that’s enough to power about 176 billion miles of driving, or just about six percent of the total. Little to none of that electricity was actually used to power electric vehicles, though. The EIA says that in 2007, the most recent year for which I could find figures, all electric vehicles consumed just 168 MW hours of electricity.

Today, wind and solar account for a relatively small share of the country’s supply of renewable energy; hydropower is the largest source, and there will be very little hydropower capacity added in coming years. The EIA expects that our supply of renewable energy will nearly double by 2030 compared to 2007 levels, with growth led by solar and biomass. If half of that increase is used to power electric vehicles, assuming their efficiency doesn’t improve (a conservative assumption), that will be enough to power them for nearly 500 billion miles, a substantial share of the total.

It seems plausible, therefore, that renewably generated electricity could power a significant portion of the country’s driving needs over the next decades. Whether strong demand for plug-in electric vehicles will develop remains uncertain, of course. And like any analysis of the country’s energy needs, this one suggests that energy will continue to come from a broad mix of sources for the foreseeable future.

I welcome your perspective on the electric vehicle future and the role of renewables in it.

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My Clean, Green, Sustainable Reading List

Over the last few months I’ve been reading through the literature on clean tech, energy and sustainability. In case you are looking for suggestions, I can recommend any or all of these. If you have any reactions or suggestions for further reading, please consider leaving a comment.

Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry
Solar Revolution” provides an excellent overview of the spectrum of solar energy technologies and the prospects for the growth of solar energy. It is the

most thorough treatment I’ve ever read on the subject. Travis Bradford presents a holistic model comparing the total cost of solar energy with grid-based electricity alternatives and finds that solar is already more cost effective than many people realize. He also develops a sophisticated and persuasive model of the growth of the solar industry to show convincingly that solar is destined to become “the preferred energy choice for a large majority of locations and applications.”

Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming
Interesting and inspiring overview by Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, of the many technologies that are pointing the way to a carbon-free future and a chance of averting environmental catastrophe. Plenty of specific examples and some colorful characters as well. The book returns repeatedly to the importance of creating a cap and trade system in the U.S. It’s logic is as good as any I’ve seen, but it gives the carbon-tax approach short shrift (which is the author’s prerogative.) An engaging read for folks newly wondering how the world will get past fossil fuels.

Harvard Business Review on Green Business Strategy (Harvard Business Review Paperback Series)
Good collection of some classic and more recent articles on the topic of Green Business Strategy, including must-read “A Road Map for Natural Capitalism” by Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken.

Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution
Charming and witty look at how sustainability happens–and doesn’t–at real companies. Real-world, nitty-gritty examples mixed with some punditry and policy, this book is a good complement to the literature about greening and sustainability. And author Auden Schendler is an engaging storyteller.

Making Sustainability Work: Best Practices in Managing and Measuring Corporate Social, Environmental and Economic Impacts (Business)
Dry but systematic and tailored to the needs of executives and corporate sustainability professionals. Recommended for those kicking off or managing corporate sustainability initiatives.

Strategies for the Green Economy : Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business
Nice, crisp and current overview of green/sustainability from corporate and corporate marketing perspective by long-time pundit and consultant Joel Makower.

Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage
Packed with light case studies and some handy frameworks. If you are doing corporate sustainability you should probably read it, but but I suspect it works best as a lead generator for the authors’ consulting business.

The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity
Good overview of the clean tech space.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
Liked it a lot. See my thoughts at elsewhere on this blog.

I welcome your comments on the above or your suggestions for other reading.

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Energy Technologies and Unintended Consequences

In my recent post on biofuels, I highlighted some of the unintended consequences that biofuels development has or might bring about:

  • paradoxically increasing greenhouse gas emissions
  • distorting agricultural land use
  • reducing supply and increasing cost of human and animal food sources
  • necessitating increased use of fertilizers

It turns out that all energy technologies carry some baggage of unintended consequences. Here are some others.

Fossil fuels, the granddaddy of alternative energies:

  • greenhouse gas emissions and climate change
  • environmental degradation
  • geopolitical blackmail

Nuclear energy:

  • safety issues
  • disposal of radioactive waste
  • dispersal of weapons-related technology

Electric vehicles:

  • batteries may depend on access to scarce minerals (see “geopolitical blackmail” above)
  • Those minerals are primarily found in environmentally sensitive areas (see “environmental degradation” above)

Also see my post on “Is Lithium Better than Petroleum?

Carbon capture and sequestration:

We don’t really know, since it hasn’t been tried on a large scale. But some are worried about the consequences of storing massive quantities of carbon. Under what conditions does it present a safety or environmental risk?


  • Can release ultra-powerful greenhouse gases in the production process (See this article, for example.)

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs:

  • Contain toxic mercury that is not present in incandescent bulbs


This is far out. It refers to mad scientists’ plans to release particles into the atmosphere that would create a kind of sunshade to counteract global warming. The possible consequence here?

  • Diminishing the efficiency of photovoltaics

No Way to Avoid ’em

At the Aspen Environment Forum last month, a panel titled “Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences”  examined this topic in some depth. There panel asserted that, given the seriousness of the global warming “there is no choice for humanity but to try out as many types of new technology as possible in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” But, said the experts, according to an account of the panel in the Aspen Times, there is “no way to avoid the potential for unintended consequences that can arise from a willingness to try new things, and can create problems as serious as the ones they solve.”

If you are interested in the idea that all technologies come with unintended consequences, you should have a look at Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Vintage). The book is from 1996, so may seem a bit dated, but the arguments are the same. There is also a good reading list of some of the fundamental arguments about this topic.

Have any observations about unintended consequences? I’d love to hear about them. Please leave a comment.

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Are Biofuels the Answer?

Are biofuels the answer? It depends on what the question is.

Biofuel Investment Prospects

BusinessWeek this week has a solid article reviewing the investment landscape for biofuels. The question it tries to answer is, Who will make money in biofuels? The short answer, according to BusinessWeek: “Shell, BP, DuPont, and other majors.” Read the article to see why.

But there are other vital questions about biofuels. Are they really a feasible source of energy? Can biofuels reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign energy sources? Can they mitigate global warming?

A Liquid, Mass-Producible Fuel

Since biofuels are made from plants, some consider them inherently renewable, especially compared to fossil fuels, which are extracted from the ground and would take millions of years to replenish. In theory, biofuels can be created in huge volumes, over millions of acres of forest and agricultural land, and even in the water (for algae-derived bio fuels). Although they release greenhouse gases when burned, they absorb them when growing, theoretically making them friendlier to the environment than fossil fuels.  And, as a liquid fuel, they could share the existing pipeline and tanker-based distribution network already developed for oil and gasoline. That is one reason why Shell has made multiple investments in biofuels.

Some Schemes Blasted for Ineffectiveness

There are probably dozens of biofuel schemes under development or discussion. Some of them have come under harsh criticism. Corn-based ethanol programs, for instance, are blamed for driving up food prices, as farmland was shifted to food-crop use. And ethanol has up to 36% less energy per gallon than gasoline. It is said to offer  relatively little benefit in reducing greenhouse gases compared to other types of biofuels. And the picture of greenhouse gas benefits has recently gotten blurrier.

Biofuels Exacerbate Global Warming?

Last year a controversial study was published that asserted “Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these ‘green’ fuels are taken into account.”

If this were true, that would make biofuels useless from the point of view of abating global warming. But how to calculate the true, full-lifecycle impact of a biofuels program on greenhouse gas emissions is still being debated. A California Air Resources board, which just adopted a new regulation to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, has decided that the question needs further study and has asked staffers to report back on this issue in January of 2011.

The Limits of Market Forces

It is seductive to believe that market forces will usher in our energy future so long as the true cost and benefit of all alternatives is reflected in market prices. But the true carbon-cost of biofuels looks like it will be debated for some time. And it may well be ultimately defined via a political, rather than a scientific, process. That could cause free-market hopefuls to despair.

Unintended Consequences

It’s worth noting that biofuels programs carry the risk of several unintended consequences:

  • paradoxically increasing greenhouse gas emissions
  • distorting agricultural land use
  • reducing supply and increasing cost of human and animal food sources
  • necessitating increased use of fertilizers

Unintended consequences are not a distinctive feature of biofuels–all energy technologies seem prone to them. (Look for a blog post on this topic soon.)

Alas, More Study Is Needed

But altogether, it seems that there is more research and debate required before there is clarity on the role of biofuels in our energy complex. Personally, I am incline to favor those that focus on reclaiming agricultural and forest waste and make use of marginal/unproductive agricultural land, rather than the vast programs that forsee dedicating tens of millions of productive agricultural acres to it. At least not yet.

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