Beyond Fossil Fuels

Through at least this week, my posting will continue to be sporadic. I have been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks, and this week (Thursday April 23rd) I head to Kansas City to give a talk that will be partially about biofuels and partially about acetylated wood:

Economic Forum – Biofuels, Biobuildings, and Beyond

After that, I think things will settle down for a little while. I am back in Europe next week, and I usually have more time for writing then (since my family isn’t there, I write in the evenings).

For now, there is an interesting series of articles that will be published this week at Scientific American:

Beyond Fossil Fuels: Energy Leaders Weigh In

Here is the line-up:

Monday, April 20:
Eric McAfee, chairman and CEO, AE Biofuels
Gerald Grandey, president and CEO, Cameco Corporation (uranium production)

Tuesday, April 21:
Barry Cinnamon, CEO, Akeena Solar
Aris Candris, president and CEO, Westinghouse Electric Company (nuclear)

Wednesday, April 22:
Alan Hanson, executive vice president, AREVA (nuclear)
Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer, Solazyme (microbial fuel production)

Thursday, April 23:
David Crane, president and CEO, NRG Energy (nuclear)
Leon Steinberg, CEO, National Wind

Friday, April 24:
John Melo, CEO, Amyris (renewable fuels)
Daniel Kunz, president and CEO, U.S. Geothermal

Monday, April 27:
John McDonald, CEO, ExRo (wind)
Sanjay Pingle, president, Terasol Energy (biofuels)

Tuesday, April 28:
William Johnson, president, chairman and CEO, Progress Energy (nuclear)
David Mills, founder and chief scientific officer, Ausra (solar thermal)

Wednesday, April 29:
Bob Gates, senior vice president for commercial operations, Clipper Windpower
David Ratcliffe, president, chairman and CEO, Southern Company (nuclear)
Lucien Bronicki, chairman and chief technology officer, Ormat Technologies (geothermal)

The first question and answer from McAfee’s interview:

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of biofuels? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?

The conversion and commercialization of cellulose inputs into fuel ethanol is a significant technology obstacle to the growth of the ethanol industry as a mainstream fuel. A number of companies are currently working on cellulosic technologies, and great strides have been made, but a gap remains between technology advances and full commercial deployment. Much of this challenge exists around two factors—scalability and cost. Science is no longer the primary gating issue—it’s now a matter of investment and resource allocation.

While I agree with the first part on the technological obstacles for commercialization of cellulose into ethanol (I simply don’t believe it will ever happen), I think the last sentence can be misleading. When one says that science is “no longer the primary gating issue”, that implies that recent scientific advancements have enabled the technology. However, the science has not been the issue for almost 100 years. As Robert Bryce points out in The Cellulosic Ethanol Delusion, conversion of “straw, corn-stalks, corn cobs and all similar sorts of material we throw away” was known technology in 1921.

The issue is simply the same as it was back in 1921: Biomass has a low energy density, and the cellulose is not easily converted. These factors worsen the energy balance, and there isn’t an easy way around this fact. (Gasification, as I have argued, is a way around some of the issues, but we are talking about a different animal from hydrolysis.)

Coming Up

As soon as I get some breathing room, I am going to do a book review for Oil 101– which I finally finished reading, and then to write an essay on the implications of being wrong.

29 thoughts on “Beyond Fossil Fuels”

  1. Sugar ethanol in Brazil may work, but otherwise, ethanol seems a dud. Palm oil is definitely viable, and production will increase continuously for decades, as land devoted and yields per hectare rise.
    While a global production of 2-3 mbd of palm oil may not seem like much, consider what it means in the balance: A world with 3 mbd of excess capacity is different from one in which there is 6 mbd of excess capacity.
    RR incorrectly reported that palm oil must be grown with 5 degrees latitude of the equator; in fact it is now readily grown within 10 degrees, thanks to new hybrids.
    In addtion, I would like to see RR tackle what appears to be a growing and long-term surplus of natural gas. There are reports that most NG in North America by 2020 will be shale gas, a newish source.
    Cars, busses and trucks can run on NG, and we seem to have plenty of it. Surely this is a huge hole in doomer scenarios. Abundant supplies of NG also suggest a ceiling price on oil–but where?

  2. Jeff Broin is a very solid young man. When he says Poet can produce ethanol from corn cobs, today, for $2.50, and in 2011 for $2.00, I think you have to take him pretty seriously.

    And, yes, Don’t underestimate the potential of micro-biology/gene-splicing technologies. The things they are doing Right Now are amazing.

  3. I’m glad to see that the BFF Energy Leaders are heavily weighted towards nuclear. If you think energy supply is important, for whatever reason (national security, pollution, global warming, peak oil,…) nuclear is the best solution.

    To take a page from the global warming alarmist playbook, those who have opposed nuclear power over the past few decades are guilty of crimes against humanity.

  4. re: DennisMoore
    That depends how you define best.

    Best at not being able to provide it's own R&D and capital financing, slow build speeds, and slow capital recovery.

    In that respect, I guess Nuclear is the "best" ;D

  5. I remember the Trojan nuke plant being built – in the 60's maybe. Everyone was whining about the expensive power – would never be economical.

    I happened to be back in Portland when they were decommissioning it – 90's and the new complaint was that they were losing some of the cheapest power on the grid.

    New power is always expensive & old power is almost always cheap.

    The present arguments about the nuke cost & time frame are all smoke & if true caused by court cases.

  6. “When he says Poet can produce ethanol from corn cobs, today, for $2.50, and in 2011 for $2.00, I think you have to take him pretty seriously.”Rufus,

    If POET uses the corn cobs for fuel, what will replace the health the corn cobs and stover provide to the soil as they degrade and go back into the soil? Letting the stover bio-degrade plays a useful and necessary role in keeping the soil healthy.

  7. Buck, the corn “cobs” are VERY low in nutrients. IIRC, only about 6% of the nutrients returned to the soil are from the cobs.

  8. Determining the difference between good, better, and best is sometimes difficult but in this case Dennis Moore clearly has provided the best answer by identifying nuclear as the best.

    In the US, nuclear has displaced oil for base load electricity generation. I remember when a local nuke plant came on line in the early 80s. My electric bill show the lower cost with the expensive nuke plant compared to the old oil fired plant including the fuel adjustment factor.

    In France, nukes have completely replaced coal. Did not take them very long either. So much for the slow build theory!

    In the US, about 75% of non-fossil generation is nuclear. Nuclear is clearly the best when there is no other non-fossil source that is even close. One of the reasons is the longevity of nuke plants. This year 4 US nukes will enter their 41st year of operation. There will be no more closures like Trojan because $150/MMBTU natural gas is available. Natural gas fired power plants have very good capital recovery however natural gas is a fossil fuel.

    If you look at the difference between the fuel cost NG fired power plants and the total costs of a nuke plant, nuke plants are self financing. PUC in state after state with both nukes and NG fired power plants have figured out that it is good economics to let the old plants pay for the new ones.

    Meanwhile, the 104 ‘old’ nuke plants pay lots of taxes to support the very small amount of R&D for LWR.

    It is difficult to determine which new plants will have better economics, coal or nukes. However, nukes plants are clearly the best for reducing fossil fuels.

  9. I rarely bother to open a GreyFlcn link because of the wild leaps of logic.

    “Ooh, looks like an interesting ruling from California Air Resources Board.

    Corn Ethanol gets the axe.”

    I am always interested in what looney stuff California will come up. There is enough data to suggest that Iowa corn ethanol is a better choice than oil. Ethanol is far from being a best choice other than the facts there are exactly zero other practical choices for transportation fuel that are not 100% fossil. A better choice than growing corn in California’s central valley would be expanding oil drilling in the Santa Barbra cahnnel.

  10. The whole ILUC thing is based on Searchinger’s deeply flawed paper. The paper is full of idiocies; but the biggest one is not taking into account ever-increasing yields.

    Where the Searchinger paper assumes we would be planting ever-increasing amounts of corn, crowding out soybeans, leading to clear-cutting of the Amazonian Rain Forest to make up for the loss of U.S. Soy exports, In Reality our Exports of Corn and Beans are Increasing, and we’re Taking Acreage Out of Production.It takes 37% LESS Land to produce a bushel of corn than it did just two decades, ago.

    They, also, seriously underestimated the amount of corn, and soy beans, a pound of DDGS replaced.

  11. The 4/20 cover story on Newsweek magazine is “Cheap Oil Forever.”
    It looks like the tide is turning on oil markets. We may see oil bears for many, many years.

  12. Rufus,

    Corn stover not only returns nutrients to the soil, but also improves the soil matrix or tilth. Without organic matter in the soil such as stover, the soil becomes a dense, impenetrable mass.

    You can make fuel from stover, but you would only have to replace the stover with something else to keep the soil healthy. There is no free lunch.

  13. “The cobs, not very much.”And the cobs also don’t have very much energy in them. Back in the pioneer days on the Great Plains and in the Midwest, farmers rarely even bothered to collect the cobs to burn even though there was often a wood shortage. It took more energy to collect them than they returned when burnt in the stove or fireplace.

  14. Ethanol as a fuel is for lunatics. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of those. Full speed ahead then. If only people used more ethanol internally, and chilled out…

    Interesting column in the NYT: Use Energy, Get Rich And Save The Planet. You mean we can have energy, wealth AND a clean planet? Who would have thought?

  15. This is sad. The interviewer keeps asking the AE Biofuels guy about biofuels. He keeps aswering about ethanol as if it is the only biofuel.

    With that sort of vision I’d expect AE Biofuels to be filing for bankruptcy protection shortly…

  16. The CEO for AE Biofuels has had involvement with Pacific Ethanol. What is not mentioned is that the market cap is now about $20 million:

    Mr. McAfee is a founding shareholder of $800 million revenues Pacific Ethanol (Nasdaq: PEIX), a leading ethanol producer in the Western United States. Pacific Ethanol received an $84 million investment from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates through his investment firm Cascade Investments and then raised $146 million at a $1.1 billion valuation.

  17. Gee, so Mr. McAfee is not satisfied that they lost enough money at PEIX (Are you saying they lost >98%, RR, or ~$1.1 billion?). I can almost hear him: There are still gullible investors out there. How do I get them to invest? I know. Cellulosic ethanol!What was that about a fool and his money?

  18. For whatever reason, my link was truncated.

    Instead, go to google news, and enter the search terms:

    Voigt biomass gasoline

    It’s a story on a new application of a old microbe to produce methyl halides.

  19. Be sure to search Eric McAfee on the web and read the SEC proceedings against him. I have a feeling AE Biofuels is not really about improving the world’s energy picture.

  20. I personally thought McAfee was a curious choice for the series. But I do think he was pretty open about the technical challenges of cellulosic ethanol.


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