News on a Lazy Sunday

First up, Vinod Khosla:

On the Record: Vinod Khosla

On biofuels:

I have no question that in 10 years, there’s no way oil will be able to compete with biofuels. Even in five years. Now it will take a long time to scale biofuels, but I’m the only one in the world forecasting oil dropping in price to $35 a barrel by 2030. I’ll put it on the record: Oil will not be able to compete with cellulosic biofuels. If you do it from food, the food will get so expensive you can’t make fuel out of it.

Let’s focus our energy on the research and development and innovation that allows us to produce a $1-a-gallon fuel. There’s no question about it, we can produce it for $1 a gallon and retail it at Wal-Mart for $1.99 a gallon and create a competitor for oil. Oil is a monopoly. It leads to an energy crisis, it leads to a terrorism crisis and it leads to an environmental crisis. So we have to replace it.

And on electric cars and solar power:

Others talk about things like electric cars. Nice cars. In fact, we can make money on them and are investing in electric hybrid batteries and things like that. But they will not make a dent in either worldwide oil consumption or carbon reduction in the next 20 years. And that’s why we have to be clear about nice, (patchwork) solutions that make people feel good.

People say, “Priuses are selling a lot, people want them.” Yeah, but so are Gucci bags. You know, they make people feel good, they’re great fashion statements. Do they reduce carbon emissions enough? If you do a critical analysis, a hybrid reduces carbon emissions about the same as corn ethanol, and costs 100 times more. So what’s the point?

I drive a hybrid, and I can afford it. But in the next 15 years, we’re going to ship a billion cars. Unless a technology can reduce carbon emissions dramatically for 50 to 80 percent of those cars, we haven’t made a dent in the climate change problem. And too many politicians are focused on silly ideas like that, because politically it sounds good.

Take San Francisco, for instance. Putting solar cells on anybody’s roof is absolutely silly, in a foggy city like San Francisco. If somebody wants to do it with their own money, that’ s great. Do it. But don’t do it with other people’s money.

Somehow, not-so-sunny Germany has developed a large solar industry.

Next, Barack Obama shows that he can pander like everyone else:

Obama: Solving energy crisisis going to take time

It isn’t right that oil companies are making record profits at a time when ordinary Americans are going into debt just to fill up their tanks. That’s why we’ll put a windfall profits tax on oil companies and use it to help Oregon families reduce energy costs.

We’ll also take steps to reduce the price of oil and increase transparency in how prices are set so we can ensure that energy companies aren’t bending the rules. And to help Oregon families meet the rising cost of gas, we’ll put a middle-class tax cut in their pockets that will save them $1,000 a year, and we’ll eliminate income taxes altogether for seniors making less than $50,000.

But the truth is, there is no easy answer to our energy crisis β€” and we need a president who’s going to be straight with us about that; a president who’s going to tell the American people not just what they want to hear, but what they need to know.

So, in addition to telling them what they want to hear, you will also tell them they need to hear. Funny, I didn’t read the “need to hear” bit in that article.

24 thoughts on “News on a Lazy Sunday”

  1. Khosla is probably right on his “ten year” prediction. His “five year” prediction sounds optimistic to me. Changing industrial infrastructure to pre-process, process, and refine biomass energy will be slow at first then it will take off like a rocket.

    The people who are calling biofuels a curse to the planet are clearly ten years behind the curve. That’s okay, the world is full of articulate ignoramuses.

    Speaking of articulate ignoramuses, Obama has always been good at pandering, like all the superstar “political idols.” He learned that skill back in that exclusive prep school in Hawaii.

    Read “Dreams From My Father”, 1995 autobiography by BH Obama.

  2. I sure hope Khosla is right, but RR has pointed out all sorts of shortcomings to the “bio-fuel bonanza” solution.
    My fave, the E3 plant is defunct. Dreams die easy in the alternative fuel world.
    There may be hope for jatropha. (Horribly, Burma has planted 6 million acres of jatropha, using slave labor, pushing people off of land, and then not properly taking care of the plants. An inhumane disaster).
    Still, the price mechanism tends to work miracles. At these stratospheric prices, we will see declines in fossil oil consumption every year. I suspect bio-fuels will grow rapidly, but will be too small to mean much. And the concerns about “fuel vs. food” are genuine.
    On Obama: Are we jaded already? Usually, I can’t stand listening to a US prezzy after a few years of him being in office. I am getting that way already with these three candidates. Hillary is like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”
    RR for prezzy.

  3. The people who are calling biofuels a curse to the planet are clearly ten years behind the curve. That’s okay, the world is full of articulate ignoramuses.

    Please enlighten us all. The evidence so far is that biofuels aren’t helping. Please explain why you believe some future technology will turn this around.

  4. CS: The goal of $1 a gallon production cost biofuel, is claimed to be achievable from cellulosic ethanol within the next two years. That claim is made by several competing companies–not just by Khosla.

    Current plants producing billions of gallons of corn ethanol in the US will have to convert to cellulosic ethanol to compete on the open market. The Chinese are running up the price of maize anyway (to feed livestock for meat production), making corn ethanol production less profitable by the day.

    Every technology has its growth curve. Even the oil industry once had to build infrastructure for supply, transportation, refining, and wholesale/retail distribution. Expect the same S-curve from the buildup of infrastructure for bio-energy.

  5. Let’s crunch the numbers for 2020 (more than 10 years).
    Switchgrass yield according to Schmer et al in January PNAS: 7100 kg/ha
    Ethanol yield from switchgrass: 0.38 L/kg
    Ethanol yield per hectare: 2698 L/ha
    Fleet MPG in 2020 years: less than 30MPG (CAFE will be 35 MPG, but fleet takes 15 years to catch up)
    U.S. Population in 2020: 336 million
    Vehicle Miles Traveled per captia: 9300
    U.S. VMT in 2020: 3.1 trillion miles
    Gallons of Gasoline needed in 2020 at 30 MPG: 104 billion
    LHV of Gasoline: 32.1 MJ/L
    LHV of E85: 22.8 MJ/L
    Gallons of E85 needed in 2020: 147 billion
    Gallons of ethanol needed for E85 in 2020: 125 billion
    Liters of ethanol needed in 2020: 472 billion
    Hectares of land needed to grow switchgrass in 2020: 175 million
    Square miles of land needed: 650,146
    U.S. land area without Alaska: 3,130,799 square miles
    % of non-Alaska land area required in 2020: 21%

    (despite global warming, I am assuming Alaska won’t be a great place to grow switchgrass in 2020)

  6. The reason why Germany has a vibrant solar industry is because they pay a “feed-in tariff” way, way, way above the market rate to anybody who puts solar panels on their roof.

    Germany has a vibrant solar industry for the same reason Iowa has a vibrant corn ethanol indstry – subsidies. The structure of the subsidy is a little different, but at heart it’s just the same and, in my view, as much of a waste of money (the emissions averted will be dwarfed by Germany’s plan to shut down its nuclear plants and replace them with coal)

  7. “Somehow, not-so-sunny Germany has developed a large solar industry.”

    Indeed Robert, and last week the German press was full of stories about how this is proving to be a massive destroyer if value.

    Too right.

  8. Bio-energy is a local and regional solution–not a national and global solution. You have to assume that you must begin at the local and regional level first to truly make it profitable, and profitably expandable.

    A lot of other energy solutions will be included in the overall energy and transportation outlook besides just ethanol biofuel from cellulose.

    By 2020, what proportion of the vehicular fleet will run on electricity? On hydrogen? On gas?

    How much ethanol, diesel, gasoline, etc will be imported?

    How much liquid fuel from coal will be used?

    What about algal biodiesel in 2020? Or Venter’s synth bio?

    Maize ethanol has been a bridge to switchgrass (etc) ethanol, which will be a bridge to something else. Switchgrass is a weed. It grows fast, large, and virtually unattended.

    But other cellulosic crops may provide more biomass per hectare than switchgrass, and by 2020, switchgrass itself should yield more than 3 times the 7,000 kg/ha used in eak’s calculation.

    Different biomass crops will be more appropriate for particular locales and regions.

  9. No one has ever accused Vinod of being shy about his opinions πŸ˜‰

    January PNAS: 7100 kg/ha
    Ethanol yield from switchgrass: 0.38 L/kg
    Ethanol yield per hectare: 2698 L/ha

    Problematic assumptions. Vinod is assuming new genetically modified crops with much more than 7100 kg/ha, and a higher yield than .38 L/kg.

    However, I would love if someone could ask Vinod this question directly . . . and have him “clarify” realistic assumptions.

  10. Anand said, ‘However, I would love if someone could ask Vinod this question directly . . . and have him “clarify” realistic assumptions.

    Khosla has written about this. You can find his assumptions on this website. I tend to use numbers published in peer-reviewed journals (like PNAS) rather than handwaving, if possible. But if you want handwaving, go read his stuff. I did, but I wasn’t impressed. Miscanthus is much more likely to yield than genetically modified switchgrass, IMO. I didn’t use Miscanthus because there isn’t as much data yet, but if you like, just multiply the yield by 2.5 or 3. The land areas are still huge.

  11. al fin said, “By 2020, what proportion of the vehicular fleet will run on electricity? On hydrogen? On gas?“. This is easy; it will be probably 99% gasoline.

    But let me suggest that the short-term does not justify anything. By 2040-2050 we need to have GHG emissions in the U.S. down by 80%. With a 40% increase in population by 2050, that means an 85% per capita decrease. Cellulosic E85 is only a 64% decrease in GHG emissions according to ANL. How do you get from 0.36 down to 0.15?

    We are in danger of taking a detour down a scenic dead-end. When we realize we cannot get to our destination that way, we will have to back up and try a different way. In taking the dead-end road we will have lost precious time. Time we don’t have. Doesn’t it make sense to consult a map to avoid the dead ends? That’s the point of doing some simple calculations ahead of time.

    The whole point of my calculations is not a particular number, but to illustrate the scale of solutions.

    al fin said, “But other cellulosic crops may provide more biomass per hectare than switchgrass, and by 2020, switchgrass itself should yield more than 3 times the 7,000 kg/ha used in eak’s calculation.” Sure, I just said that Miscanthus might do that in response to another comment. Does 3x make it workable? I doubt it.

    Mischanthus E85 may have its place. It might be the appropriate liquid backup fuel for a PHEV-60, for example, though personally I am hoping that algae biodiesel moves out of research into development and deployment. But let’s not ask E85 to power all of U.S. passenger travel. That doesn’t work.

  12. $1 a gallon for cellulosic ethanol production costs ( or hopefully butanol) by 2020 is credible. How much do you think gasoline will cost in 2020? $5 a gallon? $10? More?

    No one is talking about replacing all the gasoline with biofuels. But what will be the impact of replacing between 25% to 40% of the gasoline used in vehicles by cheaper bio-alcohols?

    What about replacing 15% to 30% of the gasoline with electric motor propulsion for vehicles?

    You do not do calculations assuming total replacement all at once, then come back and say it is unworkable. That is not how the economy works.

    We will see an increasingly variable medley of fuels and energy sources as we move through a period of higher oil costs. Biofuels (from cellulose, algae, sorghum etc) will be economic for some areas and regions. Solar electric replacement will be better for drier, sunnier regions. Geothermal electric replacement will work for others.

  13. $1 a gallon for cellulosic ethanol production costs ( or hopefully butanol) by 2020 is credible.

    I am curious, what makes you say this? You realize that we have been working on this problem for 40 years or so?

    Cheers, RR

  14. I tend to use numbers published in peer-reviewed journals (like PNAS) rather than handwaving

    A couple of things. That particular article was a direct submission, and not peer-reviewed. Second, the number they reported for yield is not actually being achieved by anyone. Iogen, with the most experience with cellulosic ethanol, is achieving about 0.20-0.25 L/kg, not the 0.38 L/kg reported in the PNAS article.

    In my opinion, that article would never have passed peer review.

    Cheers, RR

  15. al fin said, “No one is talking about replacing all the gasoline with biofuels. But what will be the impact of replacing between 25% to 40% of the gasoline used in vehicles by cheaper bio-alcohols?” You had better be talking about replacing 85% of gasoline (and coal) by 2040-2050, or we’re going to have one hell of a hangover from all the CO2 left around in the atmosphere. Just what is your solution to our greenhouse gas emissions if you think gasoline is still 60-75% of transportation fuel? Or even 30-60% with electrification?

  16. Robert Rapier said, “A couple of things. That particular article was a direct submission, and not peer-reviewed.” Show me where PNAS says that direct submissions are not peer reviewed? Their guidelines say, “For direct submission papers, the PNAS Office will invite the referees, secure the reviews, and forward them to the editor.”

    Robert Rapier said, “Second, the number they reported for yield is not actually being achieved by anyone. Iogen, with the most experience with cellulosic ethanol, is achieving about 0.20-0.25 L/kg, not the 0.38 L/kg reported in the PNAS article.” 0.25 would of course make the numbers even worse. FWIW, the 0.38 is cited via the reference Renewable and Applicable Energy Laboratory (2007) Energy and Resources Group Biofuel Analysis Meta-Model, http://rael.berkeley.edu/EBAMM.

  17. Two companies are announcing plans to produce cellulosic ethanol at $1 a gallon costs in the next couple of years. There are a couple more I read about but can’t find links to right now.

    Coskata’s technology originated at (Oklahoma) OSU, with some background info here.

    While several companies are trying to produce $1 a gallon cellulosic ethanol by 2010 to 2012, I am willing to give them until 2020.

    The number of years already spent trying to achieve a goal becomes irrelevant when the proper combination of technologies is developed and put together to actually achieve that goal. Significant advances in several relevant cost-cutting/yield raising technologies are occurring as we discuss this issue.

    Best to stick to discussing technological and economic goals and technologies and leave climate change to another discussion. For a lot of reasons. Otherwise, one’s thinking becomes unnecessarily cluttered and constricted.

  18. Show me where PNAS says that direct submissions are not peer reviewed?

    Direct submissions by members are able to bypass normal peer review. I recently saw a discussion in which this paper was the topic, and the claim was that this paper fell into that category.

    FWIW, the 0.38 is cited via the reference Renewable and Applicable Energy Laboratory (2007) Energy and Resources Group Biofuel Analysis Meta-Model

    Right, which I think they first published in Science. But my point is that it’s a model, and hasn’t been demonstrated.

    Cheers, RR

  19. Two companies are announcing plans to produce cellulosic ethanol at $1 a gallon costs in the next couple of years.

    Announcements don’t impress me, when nobody has actually done it and lots have been trying. In fact, I have covered Coskata’s announcement here already, and it smells quite a bit of hype. The “anywhere in the world for $1” is definitely not true.

    The other thing, as I have pointed out, is that those processes aren’t actually cellulosic ethanol. They are gasification processes, which are not specific to cellulose. They also produce mixed alcohols, not ethanol. The mixed alcohols then need to be distilled, else they risk some patent infringement.

    So what I am asking is essentially, “Do you have any technical basis for thinking anyone will achieve this claim, other than they made the claim?”

    Significant advances in several relevant cost-cutting/yield raising technologies are occurring as we discuss this issue.

    There are still laws of physics and chemistry that you run up against. No matter how much effort we throw into commercializing Mars travel, we are not likely to be successful any time soon because of those same laws. It boils down to: Biomass isn’t energy dense, yet must be transported to a factory, and then the waste must be disposed of. This becomes a logistical nightmare on a larger scale, which is why the $1/gallon claim is difficult to envision. There may be some special situation, in which one is being paid to take the biomass, but I predict $1/gallon is going to be a very unusual situation.

    Cheers, RR

  20. Just an FYI, San Francisco has very good solar potential. There is fog, but much less than most people realize.

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