Feb 26, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
The writer clearly defines the challenge: "For ethanol or other biofuels to have a major impact, they need to be used in more efficient vehicles - dramatically more efficient. For this, President Bush called for more research on better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, with a special nod to something new: plug-in hybrids."
OPINION: The carbohydrate economy
As technology improves, biofuel sources are everywhere
By Mark Braly -- Special To The Bee
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, February 26, 2006
Story appeared in Forum section, Page E1
A cliché and seeming footnote, the denunciation of the U.S. addiction to oil was the hit of the former oilman's State of the Union. President Bush, noted for his past indifference to renewable energy alternatives, went on to name what probably are the nearest-term solutions: biofuels and plug-in hybrids.
Buzz is rising about home-grown ethanol and other biomass fuels - the only renewable liquid fuels for transport available. Practical hydrogen fuel is decades away.
Loyd Forrest, chief of a leading biomass energy consulting firm, TSS Consultants in Rancho Cordova, says he has never seen such interest by big-time investors in biomass energy. Bill Gates put $84 million into Pacific Ethanol, a company headed by former California Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Ninety-three ethanol plants are in operation today, most of them in the Corn Belt. Fifteen are under construction and another 40 to 50 announced. Production is less than 2 percent of gasoline demand. Because of last year's Energy Policy Act, this will rise to perhaps 7.5 percent by 2012. As a gasoline additive, ethanol makes a huge market, but it won't be putting Saudi Arabia out of business any time soon.
The excitement comes from new technology that could create more energy from organic sources. Two California biotech firms, both Danish-owned, have been working to reduce the cost of making fuel out of cellulose materials - crop wastes, weeds, forest underbrush, urban garbage or nearly anything organic. Novozymes' bioenergy operation in Davis says it has proved a 30-fold reduction in the cost of the enzymes needed to break down cellulose material for fermentation into alcohol.
Glenn Nedwin, president of Novozymes' biomass operation, thinks the technology is almost here. He sees two to five more years of work on reducing costs of other steps of the ethanol process. But even today cellulosic biomass energy might be competitive, depending on the cost of oil and corn: "Corn costs $40 a ton, but garbage might be free."
The technology has been demonstrated in a pilot plant by a Canadian firm, Iogen.
It appears these feedstocks exist or could be cultivated economically in such abundance that oil independence by mid-century is possible. Equally important, the benefit for climate change and the environment is so evident that environmentalists, who have been leery of Midwest corn ethanol because it consumes so much fossil fuel to grow, are coming on board.
The National Resources Defense Council concluded in their 2004 report, "Growing Energy," that cellulosic biomass energy - not made from crops like corn but from waste or grass, among other things - could replace about half of current transportation petroleum in 40 years, raise farmers' incomes and reduce the nation's fuel bill and trade deficit, while cutting transportation greenhouse gas emission by more than 80 percent.
The United States already has the world's second largest ethanol industry and 5 million flex-fuel cars, which run on gasoline or 85 percent ethanol, on the road.
"This is nothing they haven't been doing in the hills of Kentucky for 200 years," said Terry Kulesa, vice president of Pacific Ethanol, as he briefed a busload of experts and enthusiasts at the construction site of the firm's new Madera plant, 10 miles north of Fresno. It was better known as moonshine then.
But biomass fuels on the scale of America's need would seem like a pipedream if it weren't for Brazil. The Latin American giant, having committed itself to ethanol in the 1970s, expects to be energy independent this year. The industry, using sugar cane, supplies more than 40 percent of its gasoline demand and is growing so fast it is looking for $10 billion in new investment capital to expand. Even Ford makes a flex-fuel car in Brazil that will run on gasoline, ethanol or both.
Meanwhile, gasoline consumption in the United States keeps growing. For ethanol or other biofuels to have a major impact, they need to be used in more efficient vehicles - dramatically more efficient. For this, President Bush called for more research on better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, with a special nod to something new: plug-in hybrids.
Hybrid electric and gas vehicles such as Toyota's hot-selling Prius don't have to be plugged in to recharge their batteries. But if they were, and had a better battery, they could run mainly on electricity. A range of 30 miles would cover most of the driving most people in the United States do in a day. State-of-the-art lithium ion batteries would double electric-powered miles and weigh half as much, but they would add thousands of dollars to the price.
Andy Frank, a UC Davis professor of mechanical engineering, is probably the father of the plug-in hybrid. He recognized the potential almost 30 years ago. He and his students have converted several American-made SUVs to plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids and are working on an ethanol plug-in with a lithium battery. He thinks lithium ion batteries for vehicles are close to commercial. (Computers and cell phones use them now.) With a little more refinement and mass production they might add only about $4,000 to the price of a car, "what some people pay for a sunroof and fancy navigation system." For that, he figures, you'd get the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline at about 70 cents.
Daimler Chrysler has made a few plug-in hybrid versions of its Sprinter delivery van, but Toyota says it has no plans. It has just managed to get across to its customers that the Prius doesn't have to be plugged in, as did the failed GM electric cars that could leave you stranded about 70 miles from home. But UC Davis' Frank thinks Toyota may be working on plug-in hybrids now: "They said they weren't going to make hybrids until they started selling them."
A cautious Toyota spokesman noted, correctly, that electricity is only as clean as the fuel used to generate it. U.S. electric utilities burn oil to generate only 3 percent of their power, but more than half comes from coal. This will grow as natural gas becomes more precious.
The fuel mix for California power plants is much cleaner, but it could get better with biomass fuels. A new report from the California Biomass Collaborative and state Energy Commission concludes that the state currently has available enough biomass material to generate 12 percent of the state's demand.
Led by UC Davis Professor Bryan Jenkins, the researchers saw biomass conversion as an economical opportunity to deal with the state's 100 million-ton production of biomass, a growing disposal and environmental problem. This potential biofuel comes in about equal parts from agriculture, forestry and urban waste.
The forestry portion suggests an overlooked opportunity to reduce the growing economic losses and environmental impact of wildfires, driven by the small trees and uncollected deadwood that litter forest floors. Collecting this for energy could slash the more than $1 billion annual cost of fighting wildfires and repairing damage.
Converting urban waste to energy has a long, contentious history in the state. Fierce public opposition to incineration and the unfriendly regulatory climate have stopped new projects. But technology has improved.
Despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewables, California has not resolved regulatory hurdles. The state's Integrated Waste Management Board is bound by law to promote recycling over energy recovery from waste. And the state's Air Resources Board thinks that low blends of ethanol in gasoline could increase some smog ingredients. Biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oil, or even used restaurant grease, requiring little refinement, is stalled by similar concerns. With pure ethanol or high blends, such as the E85 mixture sold in the Midwest, these emissions do not seem to be a problem.
"There is no perfect fuel," Energy Commissioner John Geesman ruefully remarked at a biomass conference in Fresno.
The sight of 110-car trains rolling into California weekly with 110,000 tons of Midwest corn to feed Pacific Ethanol's Madera plant may raise hackles in these parts. But, the firm's Kulesa cheerfully asks: "Would you rather get your energy from the Middle West or the Middle East?"
Could California make its own energy? Maybe. Bill Jones, whose firm is building the Madera plant, says he is out to break the hydrocarbon monopoly: "You want fuel diversified so that people have a choice when they drive up to the pump. Gasoline or ethanol? Which is cheaper?"
The Madera plant itself could use half of California's current feed-corn crop. The state, says Jones, is already a net importer of corn, mostly for animal feed. What his firm is doing is diverting some of this to make ethanol before the cattle get it. This co-product of the ethanol plant is a high-protein animal feed left over after ethanol is distilled from the grain, and it is 20 percent of revenues.
The state also has 1.5 million acres of idle degraded farm lands that could grow salt-tolerant energy crops, according to the UC Davis report. Elsewhere in the United States, switch grass is considered a prime candidate for a biomass crop along with other fast-growing, high-yielding trees and grasses. Switch grass is a native prairie grass that is a perennial crop, needs less water and fertilizer and actually improves soil. The president's mention of it brought prestige to what is considered a weed by most farmers.
All this suggests that a government interested in energy independence will have to come up with some serious money to bridge the gap between the possible and the commercial. The money could come from a transfer of agricultural subsidies, which are under attack anyway from the World Trade Organization and developing countries.
The nation's 35 million-acre U.S. Agricultural Department Conservation Reserve now pays farmers an average of $48 an acre a year to grow soil-building crops that are not sold, cutting down on traditional crop surpluses. Energy crops such as switch grass would do the soil-building and could be sold.
Many advocates of increased energy self-sufficiency have called for a government-led Apollo-or Manhattan-type project to create this better energy future sooner rather than later. But those efforts sought to create technology out of basic science and dreams. The technology that could bring us energy relief is much closer, if not here.
Rather, the daunting task is to put the world's largest economy on a different energy footing. This will mean reconciliation of interests so complex they are almost impossible to sort out. It will mean reallocation of government budgets, smart interventions in the marketplace, redirecting consumer demand and dealing with economic, bureaucratic, economic and environmental interests that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to align. This will be much harder than locking our best scientists and engineers in a room and throwing money at them.
What it does have in common with those past heroic national efforts is the need for inspiring, galvanizing leadership.
About the writer: Mark Braly has followed environmental and energy issues for 30 years. He was director of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's energy office during much of the 1970s energy shocks. He sits on the City of Davis Plannning Commission and is a freelance writer. Reach him at mbraly@....