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Saturday, April 3, 2010

THE FUTURE OF BIOFUELS

As slow as we are reacting to providing wind, solar and ocean power to replace electricity from coal and other fossil fuels (remember: Peak Oil and Global Warming are coming), at least windpower is now competitive, and considerable activity is ongoing compared to transportation. Yes, plug-in electric cars have finally made a move, and, while I think this is more good than bad, I do question the sensibility of solely heading in this direction for vehicles.

The civilized world runs on refined oil: gasoline and jet fuel. Knowledgeable people expect petroleum to reach peak production any day now, and, certainly in a decade. At this point, the price could double from the $85/barrel today, and more. Hawaii is particularly vulnerable, for, unlike the rest of the world, we use oil to also generate electricity. When the price zoomed past $100/barrel and up to $147/barrel in July of 2008, the cost of electricity increased to 32 cents/kilowatt-hour, while the nation did not move much from 11 cents/kWh. Which befuddles me, for we complain when our gasoline costs "only" 25% (today, $3.51/gallon versus $2.84/gallon, compared to that 300% for electricity) more than the national average, and so called watchdog organizations seemed to revolt at a $1/barrel (a little more than 2 cents/gallon) tax on oil being considered by the Hawaii State Legislature.

Mind you, if you click in the right box on FUTURE PRICE OF OIL, you will find that investors believe that oil will sell for $91.42/barrel in December of 2017. But oil economists, for example, have been notoriously, in fact, embarrassingly, wrong again and again in the past. Do you believe these prognosticators, or Peak Oil "experts?" Matt Savinar has long expounded on this subject and there are various blog sites on this subject. The Oil Drum is as good as they come in comprehensively reporting on the present and future of oil.

My gut feeling is that we cannot expect petroleum to remain below $100/barrel for seven more years. All things concerned, knowing that it takes decades for any new fuel to make any kind of impact, we cannot take any chance, should have begun a full court press for sustainable biofuels after the Second Energy Crisis in 1979, and must, absolutely must, initiate a monumental effort today.

Hawaii is more dependent on oil than any state, with gasoline and jet fuel prices higher than virtually any other location, making the commercialization of biofuels more attractive. We also serve as military headquarters for the Pacific. What better partnership than Hawaii and the Department of Defense (DOD) to initiate the R&D and provide the market for these next generation commodities?

Thus, the industrial forum to be hosted at the Kaneohe Marine Base on Tuesday and Wednesday this week is just the kind of spark we need to get something started. The key question is what will this bio gasoline/jet fuel substitute cost? The Defense Advanced Projects Agency of the DOD has suggested $3/gallon as a "near" term possibility, with $2/gallon, then down to $1/gallon as its goal. Now, $2/gallon is $84/barrel, so anything close to this figure will forever stabilize the price of gasoline and jet fuel. At the other extreme, I have talked to world class researchers, who tell me that anything lower than $5/gallon ($210/barrel) will be a real challenge, can only be attained through a major uptick in research funding, and will take a decade of intensive R&D. This, then, is the billion dollar question: which group will be closer to the truth, DARPA or credible researchers in the field? For now, I want believe in DARPA, otherwise, Hawaii will enter into a prolonged local great depression.

Thus, while we are moving along with renewable electricity and initiated the crusade for clean ground transport, virtually nothing is happening for next generation air travel. My Huffington Post article on sustainable aviation suggests a pathway. In short, DARPA has to prevail on a bio jet fuel and, for the longer term, a hydrogen powered aircraft must be developed.

What role can Hawaii play? For one, we have been mostly concerned about furloughs and internal politics. We need to get serious now and work together in a total partnership of government, industry, unions, Hawaiians and all. I even suggested in a recent HuffPo about what this galvanizing force might be: HAWAII SUSTAINABLE EXPO 2020.

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