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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A SIMPLE SOLUTION FOR OUR ENERGY PROBLEM

Singapore attained eminence because their benevolent dictatorship system worked.  The Germany of Adolf Hitler nearly dominated the world because Fascism almost succeeded.  The USA and much of the rest of the world are precluded from utilizing any form of authoritarianism to solve our energy/environment woes, where we have already proven that democracy has failed, for given an infinite number of options from an infinite number of competing interests, any governing body goes into a state of perpetual paralysis...until a two-by-four incident squarely convinces it that the crisis is real and serious.  But wouldn't it be a lot more sensible to wisely prevent the worst?

We've seen this in World War II, when America joined the fray after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then initiated the Manhattan Project, for fear that Hitler was close to such a weapon, and "succeeded" with Little Boy and Fat Man only four years later.  The Soviet Union's Sputnik in 1957 stunned the U.S. into then prevailing with the Apollo Project in a dozen years, ultimately leading to Cold War victory in a little more than a third of a century.

Unfortunately, Peak Oil and Global Warming do not sound as fearsome as the horror of Hitler nor the threat of a nuclear winter.  While this double-hammer menace could well be more serious to survival, it is lacking in imminence and purposefully obfuscated by disinformation interests with short term profit priorities and developing countries like China and India with an argument that they have not had a chance yet to use their share of fossil fuels.

There is now growing a more insidious threat.  The reality of economics.  For example, in the Honolulu Star Advertiser today is a letter to the editor from the Mayor of the Big Island, Billy Kenoi:

We're not interested in more renewable energy.  We're interested in cheaper renewable energy.  Unless it has lower rates, we will not support it.

Is this the kind of attitude we want from our leaders?  Actually, I kind of agree with him.  My posting of 8August2012 essentially expressed a similar opinion.  


Here is the problem. Yes, of course, there are sound arguments underscored by green energy advocates, such as life cycle analysis, externalities, leveling the playing field, security/benefits of locally produced sustainable energy and the like.  The private sector, though, is driven by short-term profits, and all these goodies worshipped by renewable interests are just not in the decision-making equation of industry.  SO, THE SIMPLE SOLUTION WOULD BE TO CHANGE THE LAWS SO THAT COMPANIES WILLFULLY INCLUDE THESE ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS INTO THEIR CORPORATE PRIORITIES.  As you can imagine, one of the problems with a simple solution is that it can be difficult, and many times impossible, to implement.

Returning to Mayor Kenoi, the price of renewable energy will remain high for a long time to come.  A few clean electricity technologies, such as wind power, are getting close.  However, more than half of all energy use goes to ground and air transport.  We are many, many decades away, as best described in a Renewable Energy News article of this week entitled, Flying on Woody Biomass and Camelina:  Consortium Seeks Biofuel Answers.

This paper promisingly overviews attempts at using trees and camelina (above left) to produce jetfuel.  Lignin is cited as a problem for conversion of woody biomass to a biofuel, while camelina (a shrub with oil seeds) will depend on reducing costs and taking advantage of co-products.  However, at least 70% of the volume remains.  (My note:  As jet fuel will ultimately need to be produced in enormous quantities, any high value by-product will very quickly flood the market.  This the basic problem of bio-products, for they have tiny marketing volumes.  Cheaper options such as animal feed might work.)

Worse, are comments from Cliff Claven:

The U.S. military is on the cutting edge of biofuel use and the lowest price they have paid for straight algae-based fuel is $61.33 a gallon from Solazyme last August. The fuel used for the Great Green Fleet was mostly Tyson chicken fat-based with just a hint of Solazyme algae oil. The purchase was 450,000 gallons for just over $12M which equaled $26.75 a gallon (don't be deceived by many who try to blend down the price--one gallon of biofuel displaces exactly one gallon of conventional fuel, no matter what the mixing ratio is). The stark choice facing the military today is whether to spend $2.30 a gallon on conventional fuel (current bulk contract price), $26.75 a gallon for chicken-fat, $59.00 a gallon for camelina or $61.33 a gallon for algae. Contrary to the implication of this article, Gevo (and Amyris) abandoned drop-in biofuel to focus on biobutanol, an industrial chemical 2X the price of ethanol they hope to get added to the RFS.

From the article: "Cavalieri says Gevo, Inc. in Englewood, Colorado has a proprietary line of microbes that will ferment sugar and produce isobutanol (an alcohol) that's readily converted into biojet and other products."  The conversion of isobutanol into "drop-in" hydrocarbon biojet fuel is about a 28-step process that takes months to accomplish in a batch process. 


The Department of Transportation paid UOP $11,000 a gallon last year to make 100 gallons for delivery this year. The Navy paid Albemarle $4,454.55 a gallon in February to deliver 55 gallons sometime this year. Neither of those prices include the cost of making the biobutanol via wood chip pyrolysis in the first place.  


In other words, if we want to willy-nilly proceed to commercialize biofuels, how much government aid can be justified?  Oil today costs $2.28/gallon ($96/barrel).  Gasoline is around $4/gallon and jet fuel  $3.20/gallon.  Given the above current costs of bio jet fuel, it seems optimistic to think that this price could drop to $10/gallon anytime soon.  Even with significant breakthroughs, $5/gallon would be a stretch.  Should taxpayers subsidize ground and air bio fuels so that, one, we are domestically producing these fuels, and two, lowering the potential for global warming?  The general public is open to spending a bit more.  But the key question is how much.  Mayor Kenoi brings up a fundamental point.  Consumers are just not willing to double or triple their energy bill for the sake of Planet Earth or to gain any energy security insurance.  While we must face the reality that there is no such thing as ample, cheap and clean energy, we can't continue to sit around awaiting a miracle.
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Tropical Storm Isaac remains at 40 MPH, and it mostly depends on Cuba to safeguard the Republican National Convention.  As shown below, the projection is for Isaac to attain hurricane strength after leaving that country, but now moving further into the Gulf of Mexico:


Tropical Storm Joyce follows right behind, but is expected to turn north into the mid-Atlantic.

In the West Pacific, the eye of Typhoon Tembin, at 120 MPH, will very shortly slam into the East Coast of Taiwan, and appears to be going through some strange moves.  The rainfall could be catastrophic if the storm just circles the country:


Meanwhile, soon to become Super Typhoon Bolaven, now at 120 MPH, will dangerously threaten Naha, Okinawa as a Category 4, then move towards  Cheju Island, Korea:


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