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Saturday, December 10, 2011


In the early stages of any development, especially sustainable energy, the production cost of electricity or fuel is high, very high.  Part of the problem is that we are not smart enough to do it perfectly the first time.  When I directed the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, we agonized that our early wind energy (gears and propellers), solar concentrated PV facility (mold and bad location on Kauai), algae raceways (contamination, productivity) and so on kept failing.  It was only after I retired that I realized we were paid to be guinea pigs or laboratory rats.  Companies charged too much to do the research, so students supervised by professors (who were paid anyway by the institution) were cheap enough to do the initial work.  HECO's Boeing MOD 5B above.

Of course we failed, because nothing works the first time.  That iPod or computer you buy has been through a hundred generations and more, and the private sector can afford to do that development because the life cycle is short for electronics.  Energy facilities take so much time for permitting, environmental impact assessments and a bunch of other infrastructural and scientific steps that it can be a decade before a concept can be ready for commercialization.  When I chaired the Wind Energy Division of the American Solar Energy Society in the mid-70's and helped with the original drafting of the windpower bill when I worked in the U.S. Senate in the early-80's, all of us involved had no idea that this technology would, two decades later, become so successful.  Clipper  Windpower from California has announced a 10 MW turbine called Her Majesty after Queen Elizabeth--that is her and her Corgi above--to be installed offshore in the UK.  Note that the diameter is close to two football fields.

I've long been enamored of biofuels from algae because marine microorganisms can convert sunlight into biomass much more efficiently than any terrestrial land crop:

Plant Source                        % of land mass            Ratio of efficiency

Sunflower                                   34.4                                    1
Jatropha                                     17.3                                    2
Palm Oil                                      5.5                                     6
First generation algae                   2.7                                   13
Second generation algae              0.3                                  115

But that is on land.  There is almost three times more water surface.  Thus, at larger scales someday, maybe the high nutrient effluent from the OTEC process on a floating plantship could support marine biomass plantations for biofuels. The ocean engineering of this system, though, will be formidable.  In part, this is an element of the Blue Revolution.

So today in the Star Advertiser I saw where the Navy is planning to Go Green by using biodiesel during the 2012 RIMPAC exercise.  Part of this fuel would come from algae and some from restaurant waste oil.  However, this biofuel will cost the Navy $26/gallon (an equivalent of $1092/barrel, more than ten times the current cost of oil).  I suspect the algae fuel would actually cost even more, for this $26/gallon includes much cheaper waste oil.  Keep in mind, though, that there is only a very limited quantity of used cooking oil available, so, yes, use this fluid if available, but it is in the reduction in the the cost of biofuels from algae or general microorganisms where the focus should be placed.  This is a meaningless statement, but at $26/gallon, the Navy would have an annual fuel bill of $34 billion (the whole Navy gets around $150 billion/year).

Just two weeks ago this site indicated that $4/gallon was perhaps possible, but $12/gallon was a more realistic figure for biofuels from algae.  This field of production has been around since the mid-70's when I was personally involved with the research.  True that only recently has there been an uptick in activity, but scientists have been researching this subject for more than a third of a century, and the best a company can do today at a price of more than $26/gallon is a real disappointment, and does not omen well for the future.

Look at it this way.  Petroleum costs $2.38/gallon ($100/barrel).  Gasoline on average is about $3.50/gallon, so to allow for profit, these algae facilities would need to produce their fuel at $2.38/barrel, not higher than $26/barrel.  Thus, if it is someday possible to produce large amounts of biofuels from algae at $4/gallon, this would mean that petroleum would need to cost around $250/barrel to provide the same ratio of profit.

So the Navy stimulating the field by purchasing a rather significant amount (almost half a million gallons) for use next year is, sort of, progressive, for oil could someday shoot up to $250/barrel.  An unabashed optimist, or typical algae company CEO, would say, hey, we should in time be able to sell this sustainable product for $3/gallon ($126/barrel) at the pump.  But to do that, they would need to have a facility production cost of $2/gallon.  Frankly, I doubt if that will ever happen.

I equate this misguided enthusiasm to the plug-in electric vehicle.  While most in society might well have a feel good attitude about this pathway, and I kind of do, too, the reality is that wind and solar only produce around 2% of our electricity today, and for the next few decades, these vehicles would be drawing power from coal powerplants to worsen global warming.  I've long favored a fuel cell car, for this form will take it five times further than one using a lithium battery.  However, hydrogen is so expensive that a solution is to use methanol, which is the only biofuel LIQUID capable of being directly processed in a fuel cell.  But the U.S. Department has been well lobbied by the Farm Lobby to ignore this technology.  Now that they have abandoned ethanol tax incentives, perhaps the USDOE can re-visit the direct methanol fuel cell option.

I do give a lot of credit to the Navy for doing what it is doing with algae biofuels, and can understand why the electric utilities love the plug-in electric car.  However, the reality is that solar and wind and biomass will not be able to meet the expected energy needs of more than 7 billion people when Peak Oil hits and Global Warming forces a carbon tax to double the price of coal electricity.  Fission power is already crippled by Fukushima.  Then there is the element of time, because this double hammer of astronomical oil prices and cascading atmospheric heat could happen any day soon, and way before the generation or two it takes to get any hopefully safe form of new energy established.  So what else is there?

Solar Power from Space (Japan)?  Too expensive.  Geothermal energy, more specifically, hot dry rock?  Perhaps.  OTEC?  The Blue Revolution could well be the difference maker!

Fusion, the process used by our Sun and all the stars, has been on my priority list for some time, and I once worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on laser fusion.  A few colleagues have offered heavy ion fusion, and I wish them well.  There is that ITER project in France using magnetic confinement, with construction begun (left).  However, I harbor some grave doubts about this track.  Cold Fusion?  My staff tried at the height of the hype, and there is enough unknown that, maybe.  

To reveal my early desperation for a solution to our coming energy problem, I even went to work for NASA at the Ames Research Center on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, for what if more advanced civilizations were beaming to us the answer to energy or peace?  In my old age I am running out of options.  Perhaps I should just enjoy life and stop worrying about the future.  That might well be my optimal simple solution.


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