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Friday, September 16, 2011


My first job after graduating with a chemical engineering degree was on the subject of biomass, more specifically, sugar, the photo above.  I became a process engineer with C. Brewer at the Hutchinson Sugar Company, adjacent to the southernmost community in the USA, Naalehu.  My 11May2008 posting provides more details.

A decade later I joined the College of Engineering at the University of Hawaii, with kind of an obligation to assist the sugar industry, for they were very generous in absorbing part of my graduate school expenses. I became associated with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at its inception, 1974, and, among assorted tasks, managed some R and D on biofuels from algae raceways (right photo) and directed a group to develop a computer model of Hawaii's energy future.  These studies, arriving at biomethanol for ground transport and hydrogen for aviation, inspired me to join the staff of U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga in 1979.

Thus, zooming back to today, three articles appearing over the past 48 hours:

U.S. Biofuel Industry Prepares for Life Without Subsidies (Tildy Bayar)

provide an ideal opportunity for me editorialize.  You need to read the above, for they don't necessarily agree with me, in fact, the middle one, totally contradicts what I'm about to say.

So here is my grand summary:

1.  Renewable power will happen, especially in Hawaii, for we pay 300% more for electricity than the U.S. average:

  a.  While the wind and the sun are only intermittent, I suspect that most of the investments will go towards wind energy conversion systems because they are the most cost effective.

  b.  Baseload options, geothermal (therefore, those undersea cable planners better look closely about linking the Big Island) and OTEC (meaning that an ideal at-sea connection link should also be integrated) will grow in importance, both capable of delivering various co-products, too.

  c.  While biofuels for power generation are also baseload, and Hawaiian Electric installed a liquid fuel combustion system expressly for this purpose, I think biofuels are too valuable for this application.  They should ALL be used for vehicles.  However, that 300% factor will weigh in and we will also burn this precious fuel for electricity.  Not smart!

  d.  The difficulty, in any case, is that, with federal subsidies soon to disappear for ethanol (a fight has begun to qualify this fuel if produced from non-food biomass--but in these debt reduction days that could turn out to be difficult).  This is the problem with the renewables.  The rules change over time, as it could take a decade from R and D to commercialization, and while the investment might have made sense in the first year, by the time you are about ready to make money, you go bankrupt.

  e.  The biggest hurdle faced by biofuels producers is the cost factor.  I doubt that they will be able to produce this sustainable option cheaper than oil...for the next decade at least, if not much longer.  Externalities do not count today, which is shortsighted and unfortunate.  While it is admirable to plan for the total life cycle (that is, oil surely will increase to $150/barrel and higher sometime in the future, so you might as well start now--but will it, for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange never shows oil beyond $100/barrel through December 2019, and only at $96/barrel that month).

2.  Renewable ground transportation will advance, but I don't know if this mode will proceed much in Hawaii because we only pay from 10-20% more for gasoline than the national average.  If you run through the calculations using the "Gasoline Prices" section to the right, you will get 12% today.  The plug-in electric car is getting a lot of good publicity.  I'm more happy than not, but I worry, because I don't think this is the optimal path.  Biomethanol makes more sense, but the Department of Energy has been prevented by lobbyists from developing the direct methanol fuel cell, and this is the key to the next few generations of ground transport.  Maybe in a century it will be hydrogen fuel cells or cold fusion.

3.  Aviation is a long term matter for the nation and world, but a particular concern for Hawaii because our economy is so dominated by tourism.  Oil at $150/barrel and our state goes into depression.  We tried to spark something a third of century ago with hydrogen, for this gas seemed then ideal to power jets, but it never made it.  Read about next generation airships.  I was an early researcher in the mid-seventies for biofuels from algae, and that remains possible.  Present data, however, indicates that this technology will take a lot more time and will not be cheap.  $4/gallon looks possible soon, but this is $168/barrel.  Sustainable aviation is Hawaii's biggest problem, but we are too small to do anything about this alone.  We need a lot of help.

As dismal as the above sounds, there are solutions, and here they are for Hawaii:

1.  Get Hawaii's billionaires (here are just three of them:  Steve Case--top, Pierre Omidyar--middle and Henk Rogers--bottom) to host a sustainable resources summit, so that a $10 billion effort can be developed to:

  a.  Diversify our economy by launching the Pacific International Ocean Station.  This analog of the International Space Station (which cost $150 billion, is rapidly being abandoned), will feature a 5-10 MW OTEC prototype to produce electricity, freshwater and various co-products off Barbers Point.  This will be the at-sea testbed for various sustainable marine technologies.

  b.  Produce an infallible plan for President Obama and Senator Inouye to enact the National Smart Grid Act (like Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Act), allowing for Hawaii being the first test case, connecting all the islands (save for, sorry, Kauai...too expensive and you have nothing to contribute) with an undersea electric cable system.  While you're at this, also get them to initiate an Apollo Program for a next generation aviation system, both the aircraft and fuels.

  c.  Seal a partnership with China for the direct methanol fuel cell.

  d.  And more....

2.  We just got to work together.  To the first mass transit assassination by Rene Mansho to the second struggling attempt today, you can add the Superferry and Lanai/Molokai wind farms.  Wait until Lockheed Martin of OTEC International tries to get an OTEC plantship heard.  The whale people, Greenpeace, some Hawaiian group and who knows what else will delay that attempt enough that the project will move to the Caribbean or South Pacific.   Nothing monumental can happen anymore in Hawaii, and won't until there is the equivalent of Fukushima, which will be known as the the third energy crisis.

3.  Appreciating that reality, then, can we find a game-changing project everyone likes and can support?  Scroll to the bottom of my 26August2011 posting for the Hawaii 2020 Ocean Expo.  

At the national level:  an immediate $1/gallon gasoline tax and 10 cents/kWh electricity tax, with the amount dropping depending on the percentage of renewables in the mix.  The revenues should not go to reducing the national debt, nor to cut taxes (it is now at the lowest level since the '50's), but sent to a fund to accelerate the commercialization of the most effective sustainable projects.

That's it.  How simple!

The Dow Jones Industrials went up for the fifth straight day, +76 to 11,509, with world markets also mostly up.  Gold increased $29/toz to $1810, with the Dated Brent Spot at $115/barrel and WTI Cushing Spot at $88/barrel.


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