Monday, May 22, 2006

Energize America

The good folks over at Daily Kos have been working on a long term, strategic energy plan for America. It is a refreshing break from business as usual.

Read it.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Is Algal Biodiesel a Red Herring?

OK, just one more biodiesel post (it's not a biodiesel blog, I swear!)

Looking into all these issues around sustainable biodiesel, I wandered over to the Green Fuel Technologies website.

What I found made me say -- duh!

So...we know that it makes all sorts of sense to grow algae at powerplants - it cleans up emissions and captures CO2. Biodiesel people mostly assume that this oil-rich algae will be turned into biodiesel.

But no. It looks to like it is much easier to just harvest the algae, dry it out, and co-fire the plant with it...really easy with a coal plant; a bit more complicated with natural gas, but you can gasify algae and send that right on down into the turbine. Plus, the plants will get to take the credit for putting renewables on the grid, because biomass cofiring counts towards RPS requirements.

This is as opposed to selling the algae to someone who will transport it somewhere, extract the oil, and turn it into biodiesel - in which case they get no RPS credit.

So will these plants ever make more algae than they need and sell it into the biodiesel market? I did the math so you won't have to.

If the plant was burning 100% algae, it would in essence be a solar power plant.

NREL says you can get 1 quad (10^15 BTUs or 293x10^9 kWh) of biodiesel annually for every 780 square miles of land (hat tip to Mike Briggs). How much energy there is in the algae itself is not easy for me to find; to get biodiesel from algae you crush it (losing some biomass), you add some energy in the form of methanol and process heat and take some energy out in the form of glycerin.

But for hand-waving, let's use the NREL number and call that the energy yield for algae instead of biodiesel. This implies a production of 375 x 10^6 kWh per square mile.

A "typical" 400 MW combined cycle plant running at 80% capacity factor, 50% efficiency and a gasifier operating at 80% efficiency would use 7 x 10^9 kWh in fuel energy annually. It would require nearly 19 square miles of land area to grow that much algae. This is basically 30 acres per MW. For contrast, single axis PV tracking systems require about 6 acres / MW (here's an example). Now my numbers are probably +/- 50% because I use biodiesel yields a a proxy for algae yields. However you slice it, though, it's still a lot of space!

Bottom line, it is very unlikely that any power plant would grow any more than a fraction of it's fuel needs on site; and it certainly seems to make more sense to me that this algae would go right in as biomass fuel rather than being turned into biodiesel.

Now in the big picture, using algae as fuel in power plants is really cool, and is probably equally beneficial as turning it into biodiesel.

However, biodiesel advocates shouldn't pin their hopes on power plant grown algae. At least if my math is right and I'm not missing something.

Some thoughts on the California Renewable Fuel Standard

Biodiesel on my mind, lately!

Following in the footsteps of the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy with regards to renewably generated electricity, comes what seems to be a groundswell of Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) for biodiesel.

These are mandated, low blends - B2 or B5. Minnesota, Washington, and Iowa have passed RFS bills that include biodiesel. SB1675 is pending in California

Eric Bowen has gone deep on this.

I haven't seen much discussion, however, on whether this is a good thing or not. I have my doubts. So do others, and I have reproduced some key comments to the bill at the end of the post.

I wrote, in a post to the Biodiesel Council of California email listserve:


On the face of it, the bill supports biodiesel but I for one am quite ambivalent about these low-blend mandates.

As a practical matter they favor the least sustainably produced, lowest quality, and most highly subsidized biodiesel. In other words, this bill will incentivize the expansion of the biodiesel production capacity that we least want. Most probably, the biodiesel that the refineries will buy for blending will be imported from the Midwest and made from GMO soy.

Because of this it also runs against the grain of the California biofuels roadmap.

It's great that biodiesel is getting attention in the legislature but I urge caution in support of this bill, in it's present form.

The solar industry has had to withhold support or even lobby against "pro-solar" bills in the past written by well-meaning but uninformed legislators (or watered down by other lobbyists seeking to undermine the legislation).


RPS's have worked well for the renewable energy industry in part because they have "set-asides" for a certain amount of energy produced a particular way. For instance, most RPS bills have a 20% set aside for PV. This recognizes that although PV is more expensive than other renewable sources (like wind and central station solar thermal electric), it also has certain external benefits - namely, coincidence with peak load and the benefits of distributed generation (less T&D, substation upgrades, etc.)

I think the biggest issue with the current RFS is that it does not recognize that all biodiesel is not in fact created equal. It should assign different values according to the sustainability and other external benefits of the feedstock. It should also include R&D funding for sustainable feedstock development in California, and incentives for biodiesel production based on sustainable & local feedstocks.

It is too easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, so I'm not coming out against this bill. However, I would love to see it modified to take these issues (and the ones following) into consideration.

Other publicly posted comments to the bill:

I am the fuel buyer for BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley, a biodiesel retailer in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I am in favor of the use of responsibly produced biodiesel, I am troubled by any bill that mandates the use of biodiesel at this time. My fear is that we do not have enough consistent, reliable sources of biodiesel to meet a mandate. Biodiesel was not available to us during the week after Katrina hit because of increased demand in other states. If suppliers cannot find locally produced biodiesel they will have to import more expensive fuel from across the country, or worse, fuel made from oil crops that have displaced rainforests in places like Malaysia and Brazil.

While I believe that biofuels have an important role in the energy supply of the future, that role comes with limitations. There is not enough arable land to grow nearly enough biofuel to replace the amount of petroleum that we currently use. We have to look at the broad picture so that our mandates do not create worse problems than they solve. I believe that more emphasis should be placed on finding ways to reduce the amount of energy we use. This will result in both cleaner air and a reduction in our dependence on petroleum.
--Gretchen Zimmerman (04-27-06)

I am a biodiesel 99% user and have been since sept 05. I have had no issues with the fuel or my vehicle, other then it is old. I look forward to buying a new diesel when they are going to be sold in CA again. I support this bill in general but would liked to have seen this bill as part of a package of incentives to all biodiesel parties needed to meet the mandate. I want biodiesel use in CA to be a economic boon to the state not a additional drain of money to imports, be it OPEC or biodiesel plants in TX or CO. This mandate would require a minimum of 60million gallons of biodiesel to meet 2% mandate. We only produced 5 million this year. We do not have farmers here growing seed crops, what we do have for feed stock is waste grease, but 90% of that is going to cattle and hog feed not fuel. We need incentives to the rendering industry to look to biodiesel first as a sale then buy the co-product of glyercin to use in thier feed products. We need research happening in Davis and Fresno as to what seed crops will grow the best in the various farming locations in the state. This movement in the state has to to start with the feedstock and production incentives. It takes 2 years to get production facilities built in CA with the regulatory process as it is, in MN is takes 6months, Iowa 8months, IN 8 mos, from planning to production.
Please lets do this smart and plan the growth and development of this new industry. Yes a mandate creates demand for fuel and venture to fund it, but we need a plan for all the parts of the industry to be built at the same time, in the correct order. Thank You
--Kari Lemons (04-17-06)


Goin' To Tanzania!

It's official! My finance, Christianna, and I are off to Tanzania in mid-July with Engineers Without Borders.

The San Francisco Professionals chapter has been working with the people of Ngelenge, Tanzania for a couple of years now through a local NGO called NGEDEA. The goal: to improve water supply quality and quantity, agricultural productivity, and public health in rural southwestern Tanzania.

The project includes the construction of a dispensary (health clinic & birthing center), rehabilitating some old wells and drilling a new well, a water filtration technology assessment, an agricultural pilot project involving an appropriate technology solution for micro-irrigation, and an extensive health survey to help us measure the impact of the project on the community.

This is a really great project. The nearest health clinic is 7 km away and there is no transportation; women must walk or be carried there to give birth. The dispensary will alleviate this situation and serve not only Ngelenge, but surrounding villages which are significantly closer to Ngelenge than to the current clinic. The improvement in the water supply has obvious implications for people's health; the agriculture project will improve the economy and standard of living of the people there. NGEDEA, the local NGO, is grassroots. NGEDEA consists of Ngelenge villagers who are working to improve their community, as well as several people from the village who live in Tanzania's main city, Dar Es Salaam. EWB-SFP is also grassroots and volunteer run, and was invited to the community by NGEDEA. Our mission is to serve and empower NGEDEA by providing engineering and public health expertise. Working closely with NGEDEA helps greatly in assuring the sustainability of the project by ensuring that it is aligned with community needs and by having local people with a real stake in the project's success, and the resources to make sure the improvements remain functional. To the maximum extent possible, we buy our equipment and supplies in Tanzania, and hire people from the village to help implement the projects.

Part of the dispensary project is outfitting it with a solar lighting system, with an eye towards possible expansion to power a vaccine fridge. I am leading this project. The PV system will be simple, about 120 Wp, with a sealed battery and DC fluorescent lighting. This will be a huge improvement over the kerosene lanterns that are usually used for lighting these dispensaries.

The dispensary won't be ready for the full system this year, so this trip will focus on laying all the necessary groundwork - sourcing equipment and parts, a detailed site survey, and training. We will be bringing a small demonstration system to train some folks on PV fundamentals and maintenance.

My fiance is on the health team and will be carrying out the baseline health survey, not an engineering function but a critical component of the project nonetheless.

We are taking some extra time to see the sights, because once the project starts we expect to be very busy. It's pretty expensive to get to Tanzania but fairly cheap once you're there, so we wanted to take advantage of that.

In the next couple of weeks we will kick off a fundraising drive for the project. We (EWB-SFP) has raised some money, but not enough to cover all of our goals. Also, the volunteers have all paid out-of-pocket for airfare which is a pretty big hit, and it would make a big difference to defray some of those costs as well.

Please help out if you can. It is a great cause and there is no administrative overhead -- all donations go directly to the project. Donations in any amount are helpful and assistance in reaching out to more potential donors is also much appreciated! EWB-SFP has a Paypal link. Please select the "Tanzania" project from the pull down menu...the other projects are also great, but not immediately in need of funds!

If you would prefer to help Christianna & I out with the airfare directly, that would be very much appreciated. EWB-SFP isn't set up to route that kind of donation through to the volunteers at present, so it would not be tax-deductible. Please send me an email if you'd like to help in this way.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bioenergy - Gettin' Some?

Bioenergy is receiving renewed attention in California with the release of the final California Bioenergy Action Plan.

Bioenergy, particularly when it comes to electrical generation, has gotten the short end of the stick. It just isn't sexy. PV is sexy (and full of sexy people, of course!) and so is wind. Guess where the money goes?

This action plan is a good start to rectifying that. Bioenergy is really important to our sustainable energy future because it can play a role that other renewables don't naturally lend themselves to - base load generation. Bioenergy plants are, for the most part, very similar to conventional combustion powerplants. They can run 24/7. You can bring them online or take them offline as needed. It's very valuable.

Bioenergy plants can also be small to take advantage of combined heat and power (CHP) and the benefits of distributed generation.

The Bioenergy Action Plan indicates that the technical potential of biomass, almost entirely from waste products, is 18% of total statewide energy consumption by 2017 - 60,000 GWh from 7100 MW of powerplant capacity. This is enormous. For perspective, the biggest PV powerplant in the world is 10 MW; a typical large coal or nuclear powerplant is about 1000 MW. In other words, waste biomass has the potential to avoid the construction of 7 nuclear powerplants in the next ten years - or more realistically for California, 24 natural gas fired plants.

The really great thing about this plan is that it strongly emphasizes sustainable feedstocks, primarily materials that are currently going to waste. Dedicated energy crops, in general, are less desirable - but not necessarily unsustainable, as some would argue.

The main complaint that I have about this report is that it does not mention, never mind support, sustainable feedstock development for biodiesel such as algae.

It does recommend support for development of Fischer-Tropsch diesel from waste biomass. This is all well and good, but I would argue that supporting sustainable biodiesel feedstocks is the quickest path to a sustainable, low emissions petrodiesel substitute, with the potential for major secondary benefits (also see this article).

One frequently heard argument against bioenergy is that it will literally steal food from the mouths of the poor by dedicating arable land to energy, instead of fuel. This assumes the use of dedicated energy crops on productive farmland.

First, it should be noted that a substantial amount of energy can be generated from waste products, as we've seen. This is also true of biofuels.

It also ignores the fact that dedicated energy crops can often be grown on land that is unsuitable for crop production, and even be part of remediation strategies that bring unproductive land back into agricultural use - such as where soils are contaminated with salt (a growing problem in California's central valley). Energy crops have even been proposed to remediate the effects of radioactive fallout.

Now it's clear that today, the majority of biodiesel and ethanol is produced from soybeans and corn respectively. This is not ideal, but it isn't stealing food from anyone. US overproduction of soy and corn due to subsidies results in "dumping" of agricultural products on the developing world at low prices, destroying local agriculture and promoting dependence on US food exports. Finding an increased domestic use for these crops actually works against this trend. In the long term, it's not sustainable to use corn and soy for fuel. However, it also will not be economical, so those who shoot down the possibility of biofuels solving our petroleum addiction based on the current feedstocks are tearing down a straw man.

Speaking of which, the other commonly leveled charge against biomass energy is that it may take more petroleum energy to grow and process it into fuel than the end product provides- most recently in the infamous Pimental / Patzek study in reference to ethanol and biodiesel. This has been widely refuted as bad science. NREL and UC Berkeley's EBAMM project are two respected peer-reviewed studies that have taken Pimental and Patzek out to the woodshed. Just for fun, check out where Patzek works, and who funds his research.

The biggest problem I see is the trend towards energy plantations (sugarcane and palm oil) in the developing world to feed the demand for biofuels in the developed world. This means tearing out rain forest and a continuation of the exploitative pattern so evident in the petroleum economy. This is all the more reason to accelerate R&D into sustainable domestic feedstocks, and make such activity uneconomical and irrelevant.

So. It looks like California is headed in the right direction as far as biofuels - and as goes California, often, so goes the nation. Hopefully state sustainable biodiesel advocates can get the CEC to pay more attention to sustainable feedstock R&D, and the perverse incentive created by the soybean lobby in the Federal biodiesel tax credit that provides double the tax credit for biodiesel made from "agricultural" (virgin soy) oil than from waste oil.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why this blog?

Anyone who's found this blog is probably interested in energy issues, and familiar with the various types of renewable energy. There are plenty of blogs out there that keep up on the latest innovations in renewable energy; as well as the energy issues that face society.

My focus here is to provide more in the way of discussion and analysis of these issues. I work in the solar industry and give energy issues a lot of thought. I expect to explore various facets of the nascent green energy system from both a critical, and encouraging perspective.

Hope you find it valuable.