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Biofuel Developments

I woke up in Switzerland this morning after having spent the past 3 days in the Netherlands. Later today I travel to Germany. The weather here is cold. I love Europe, but do not miss riding my bike in rain that is 1 degree above freezing (as I had to do in the Netherlands on Tuesday). Switzerland is blanketed with snow; the country from the air looks like a Christmas card. I have been told that there is even more snow in Dresden, which is my next stop.

I have been trying to keep up on energy news, and there have been some interesting developments. The previous essay has also hit the 200 comment mark (Blogger is clearly not designed to deal with over 200 comments), so it’s time to put something else out there. A number of people have either commented here or sent me an e-mail about the recent LS9 news:

Bacteria rebuilt to make oil

Researchers have engineered a common type of bacteria to produce biodiesel and other goodies from plain old plants. The microbial trickery, detailed today in the journal Nature, promises to add “nature’s petroleum” to America’s energy supply within the next few years.

“We’ve got a billion tons of biomass every year that goes unused,” said Jay Keasling, a co-author of research study and chief executive officer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI. “We’d like to turn that into fuel.”

Keasling emphasized that the study published in Nature was a “proof of concept” rather than the demonstration of a commercially viable process. He and his colleagues are looking for a process that would utilize as much of the feedstock as possible, and not just the hemicellulose. “We got about 10 percent of the theoretical maximum yield, and we will continue to work on this to try to increase the yield,” he said.

One of the funders for the research is LS9, a California-based biotech company that intends to market fuels and other microbe-produced chemicals. “I’m reasonably optimistic that we’re going to have high-level production of these kinds of biofuels in the next couple of years,” Keasling said. Check out this Berkeley Lab news release to learn more about the research.

I have written a number of articles about LS9 (see LS9’s Oil-Crapping Bugs from three years ago), which I could summarize in this way. There are metabolic pathways that produce molecules that are very close to the structure of fuels. Our bodies produce fats, which aren’t chemically that far removed from diesel. It is probably technically possible to tweak those metabolic pathways to produce drop-in replacements for transportation fuels.

On the other hand, it is going to be technically quite challenging. So I deemed this a very interesting approach (in fact I have called it a Holy Grail), but I don’t place the odds of commercial success very high. If enough companies are attempting this, maybe someone will make it work, but the odds for any individual company to succeed in this area will be low in my opinion.

Then there was Shell’s announcement on a sugarcane ethanol JV in Brazil:

Shell, Cosan Sign $12B Brazilian JV Pact

LONDON (Dow Jones)–Shell International Petroleum Company Ltd, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA), and Cosan S.A. (CZZ) said Monday they have signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding, or MoU, to form a $12 billion joint venture in Brazil for the production of ethanol, sugar and power, and the supply, distribution and retail of transportation fuels.

-Shell will also contribute its 50% share interest in Iogen and its 14.7% share interest in Codexis.

Sugarcane ethanol is also a story that I have covered in great detail:

Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable

The key to the success of sugarcane ethanol as a true competitor to fossil fuels is the fact that massive amounts of bagasse end up at the sugarcane plants. That bagasse is then essentially free fuel for driving the ethanol process – and the logistical issues of getting biomass to the plant are already worked out. If you had to go out and harvest bagasse for use as fuel, then it would be a totally different process. But all of those logistical steps – including the labor and energy of getting the bagasse to the plant – are already being done as a result of processing the sugarcane.

At the plant, the bagasse has been pulverized and washed during the processing of the sugarcane, so it is a relatively clean fuel that has had many ash components washed out. Burning bagasse for fuel means that sugarcane ethanol isn’t nearly as dependent on cheap fossil fuels as is the case with some flavors of ethanol. For this reason, I am a fan of sugarcane ethanol as a model of how to do biofuels in a sustainable manner (not that sugarcane production as is often practiced is completely sustainable, but it is definitely in the right direction in my opinion).

On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that tropical countries have certain advantages with respect to rainfall and solar insolation, and just because Brazil can do it doesn’t mean temperate climates can follow the same model:

http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/06/lessons-from-brazil.html

That’s all the time I have for now. Bis bald!

February 4, 2010 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, LS9, sugar subsidies | Comments Off on Biofuel Developments

Brazil Flexing Its Muscles

A couple of years ago I was thinking about the possible fates of various nations in a world in which depleting oil reserves begin to have a very strong impact on oil prices. I had visions of $100+ oil and eventually $5-10 gasoline, which would place a crushing burden on the U.S. economy.

Of course higher prices will motivate people to conserve (and will contribute to recession), and then you may find yourself in a situation in which the supply/demand balance once again tips toward excess supply (as we found ourselves in as oil approached $150/bbl). Prices fall. The economy starts to recover. What happens then? Prices rise, putting the brakes on recovery. This is what I postulated in The Long Recession. Today I saw that someone else had weighed in with the same general thesis:

Oil prices mean perpetual recession

“The US has experienced six recessions since 1972. At least five of these were associated with oil prices. In every case, when oil consumption in the US reached 4% percent of GDP, the U.S. went into recession. Right now, 4% of GDP is US$80 a barrel oil. So my current view is that if the oil price exceeds US$80, then expect the U.S. to fall back into recession,” wrote Steven Kopits, managing director for U.K.-based energy-consulting and -research firm Douglas-Westwood LLC in New York.

Long recession, perpetual recession – the idea is the same. If demand starts bumping back up against supply because economies are heating back up, it will be very tough to dig out of a recession for very long for countries that rely heavily on oil imports. Maybe we aren’t there yet. Maybe we have another cycle to go. But I see this as a very plausible scenario.

One country that I have long felt is very well-equipped to thrive as oil prices go higher is Brazil. In fact, as I was preparing to buy Petrobras last year, I debated whether to instead buy into a closed end Brazil fund called iShares MSCI Brazil Index (EWZ). My reasoning was that as oil prices climb, the Brazilian economy stands to benefit in multiple ways.

There is of course the obvious in that Brazil has very large oil reserves relative to their population size, and their oil production is on the rise. It therefore stands to see cash flow into the country increase as they begin to export oil. I would expect to see consumer spending rise, benefiting many sectors in the country. For countries that wish to replace oil with alternative energy, Brazil is a key provider there as well. There is probably nobody better at efficiently producing ethanol from sugarcane. Their location in the tropics also means they have good solar insolation, improving the prospects for solar power (as well as for biomass, since they also get ample rain). All in all, they are abundantly blessed with fossil and renewable energy.

I saw another story today from MarketWatch that emphasized some of these very points and reminded me why I selected Brazil as a country with a bright outlook as oil production worldwide depletes:

Brazil’s JBS shows a nation on the march

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — The Brazilians are coming and they are buying, securing a firm foothold in weakened corners of U.S. agriculture. JBS S.A., the world’s biggest beef producer, just added Pilgrim’s Pride to its empire, speeding the Texas-based chicken producer’s exit from bankruptcy with an $800 million cash payment that will give JBS 64% of the company’s new stock.

JBS is not the only Brazilian outfit feeling its protein these days. The country’s economy is on a tear, much of it fueled by resurgent commodities. It posted surprisingly strong 1.9% GDP growth in the second quarter, making it the first Latin-American nation to emerge from the global recession.

Petrobras (PBR), Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, is in the thick of it. Over the past few weeks, it announced several major new deepwater oilfield discoveries, prompting talk that it might swap some of its bulging reserves for up to $25 billion worth of new shares in the company.

The new found oil wealth augments Brazil’s already booming sugar cane-based ethanol exports and vast hydroelectric supplies. Together, they have put the country in the enviable position of becoming a net energy exporter.

The article goes on to say that the Brazilian stock market is up 60% for the year.

So far, my decision to buy PBR over EWZ has proven to be the correct one. In the not quite 10 months since I bought it, the PBR is up 160%. The return from EWZ has been nothing to sneeze at though, up 117% over the exact same time period. This reiterates my belief that Brazil will be a safe haven in an oil-induced financial storm.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, EWZ, investing, investment, PBR, Petrobras, recession, sugarcane ethanol | 14 Comments

More Brazilian Ethanol Whoppers

I have written previously about Brazil’s “ethanol miracle,” and the tendency of the media and various advocates to ignore facts and embrace hype:

Lessons from Brazil

Vinod Khosla Debunked

There are two take home messages from those essays. First, ethanol provides a small fraction of Brazil’s transportation fuel, not 40% as is often reported. Second, the gap between supply and demand is gaping in the U.S., but very small in Brazil. Hence, ethanol is able to play a larger role in Brazil simply because Brazilians don’t use nearly as much energy as does the average American.

But it is coming up on 3 years since I updated the numbers, and I have been asked how the numbers in Brazil stack up now. In fact, several people have pointed to the claims in the following recently-published report, now picked up and repeated without anyone bothering to do any critical examination of the numbers:

Clean Energy Trends 2009

In 2008 the global biofuels market consisted of more than 17 billion gallons of ethanol and 2.5 billion gallons of biodiesel production worldwide. For the first time, ethanol leader Brazil got more than 50 percent of its total national automobile transportation fuels from bioethanol, eclipsing petroleum use for the first time in any major market.

Big statement. Ethanol reportedly eclipsed “petroleum use for the first time in any major market.” The only problem is that it isn’t true. In fact, the full report itself has a little disclaimer that immediately falsifies the above claim: “(not including diesel)”. And there’s the rub. Diesel is certainly “petroleum”, and it amounts to over 50% of the transportation fuel in Brazil. The other thing is that Brazil is not the “ethanol leader.” The U.S. already produces substantially more ethanol than does Brazil, so Brazil may be “an ethanol leader”, but bear in mind as you read this story that the U.S. already produces about 50% more ethanol than does Brazil. (Brazil is #2).

I suspect if one is fluent in Portuguese, they can go and dig up all of this information for themselves at the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy (Ministério de Minas e Energia). Alas, I am not and must therefore try to dig up the information as I can find it in English.

My starting point is this 2006 presentation that the Ministry of Mines and Energy delivered. At that time, the breakdown of vehicle fuels in Brazil (by volume) was 53.9% diesel, 26.2% gasoline, 17% ethanol (which works out to be 10% by energy content) and 2.9% natural gas. The diesel number is unlikely to have changed much, but I will try to update.

According to History and policy of biodiesel in Brazil, diesel consumption in Brazil is approximately 40 billion liters per year. Per this story (in Portuguese), diesel consumption grew by 11.5% in 2007, while gasoline grew by 2.9% and ethanol grew by 56%. This report states that in the first half of 2008, ethanol and gasoline sales were neck and neck: 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.38 billion gallons of ethanol (but that ethanol volumes had passed gasoline in specific months).

Two things are often not made explicit when these numbers are reported. First, a large fraction of the ethanol in Brazil is hydrated, meaning it contains 5% water. So 100 liters of hydrated ethanol contains 95 liters of ethanol. Second, due to the energy difference, the comparison above of 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.38 gallons of ethanol is not comparing apples to apples.

But if we throw together the numbers we have (and ignore the lower energy content for ethanol), we find that in the first half of 2008 we had 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.4 billion gallons of ethanol, plus 5.3 billion gallons of diesel (40 billion liters per year converted to gallons in 6 months). Natural gas also accounts for several hundred million gallons. Just accounting for volumes of ethanol, gasoline, and diesel, we find that ethanol is contributing 2.4/(2.4+2.4+5.3) = 23.8% by volume, which is a far cry from the claim that it has eclipsed petroleum use. Correct for the lower energy density (diesel is 130,000 btu/gal, gasoline 115,000, and ethanol 76,000) and you find that ethanol is contributing 16% of the transportation energy. Also note that we haven’t considered the fact that a good portion of the ethanol has water in it, nor that natural gas is also in the transportation mix (both of which will drop the ethanol contribution to under 15%).

None of this is written to demean the contribution ethanol has made in Brazil. I think ethanol can be an important, (even) sustainable solution for many tropical countries, and I like the sugarcane ethanol model. Where we get into trouble is trying to extrapolate that to the rest of the world. By grossly stretching the truth and suggesting that ethanol has now surpassed petroleum usage in Brazil, we set up false expectations. People hear these things, and then wrongly think that 1). Brazil used ethanol to become energy independent; 2). We in the U.S. can follow their example. It just isn’t so.

As I have said before, if we want to emulate Brazil, we need to cut our oil consumption by 75%. There is simply no way we can emulate their ethanol model without making huge changes in the amount of energy we use.

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, sugarcane ethanol | 205 Comments

Trying to Make Sense of Ethanol Tariffs

Note that in the following essay, I am not trying to come down either for or against ethanol tariffs, but rather to discuss what I see as the key issues surrounding them. U.S. energy policy is slanted to favor U.S. farmers and ethanol producers, and I am merely trying to explain the tariffs within that context.

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You are probably aware that the U.S. imposes a $0.54/gallon tariff on ethanol that we import from Brazil. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met with President Obama last week and implored him – in the name of a better environmental policy – to remove the “absurd tariffs on ethanol.” In response President Obama said the situation is “not going to change overnight.”

Brazil wants help lifting US ethanol tariffs

Brazil is a world leader in biofuels and the world’s largest exporter of ethanol. But Silva, who met with President Barack Obama on Saturday, has made little progress persuading the U.S. to reduce the tariffs, which are in place to protect American farmers who make ethanol from corn. Brazil makes ethanol from sugar, in a process that is much more efficient and costs less.

By all accounts, ethanol from sugarcane is a more sustainable model than ethanol from corn. The key to this – as I explained here – is that a true waste product (bagasse) is generated and used to fuel the boilers, mostly eliminating the need for fossil fuels for the production of the ethanol. So why do we penalize Brazilian ethanol? Is it pure protectionism?

While I am no fan of the perpetual subsidies we have put in place to prop up our corn ethanol industry, I think the tariffs do make sense in light of what policy-makers are trying to achieve. Gasoline blenders receive a credit of $0.51/gal (soon to drop to $0.45/gal, which should be this year since the farm bill said the credit would drop “beginning in the first calendar year after the year in which 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol is produced”).

While the credit indeed goes to the gasoline blender, since it reduces their costs for ethanol, it provides an incentive for ethanol producers. That is why ethanol producers – and not gasoline blenders – are the ones who always scream the loudest when the discussion turns to removing the credit. The question on the ethanol tariff becomes “Do we want to extend that incentive to Brazilian ethanol producers?” In other words, do you want your tax dollars going to incentivize sugarcane ethanol producers?

Here is how the tariff prevents that. A gasoline blender could buy corn ethanol or sugarcane ethanol, blend it into gasoline, and get the same blender’s credit in either case. Because ethanol produced from Brazilian sugarcane is cheaper than ethanol produced from corn, without the tariffs in place blenders would likely get all of the ethanol they could from Brazil. Given that this is completely contrary to the goal of creating a U.S.-based ethanol industry, the tariff makes sense in that context. One could argue the point that the tariff isn’t there to punish Brazilian ethanol, but rather to prevent them from taking advantage of a provision designed to spur U.S. ethanol production with taxpayer money.

Of course the fact that the tariff is $0.54 while the blender’s credit was $0.51 and quickly falling to $0.45 is a different matter. If the tariff is equal to the blender’s credit, then indeed one could argue that this is merely the removal of U.S. taxpayer support from Brazilian ethanol. However, if the tariff is greater than the blender’s credit, it begins to look like a punitive tariff, designed to do more than just remove U.S. taxpayer support. There is a senate bill currently under consideration to level that playing field back out:

Bipartisan Senate bill seeks lower tariffs on ethanol imports

A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to lower U.S. tariffs on ethanol imports to achieve “parity” with the blender’s credit, which was reduced in last year’s farm bill.

The farm bill knocked the blender’s credit from 51 cents per gallon to 45 cents per gallon. A new Senate measure (pdf) is aimed at knocking down the 54-cent-per-gallon import tariff and the 2.5 percent ad valorem tariff to achieve “parity” with the lowered blender’s tax credit.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the sponsors, said in a statement that the higher import tariff creates a barrier for sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil, and hence gives gasoline imports a “competitive advantage.”

I don’t find myself agreeing with Senator Feinstein very often on energy issues, but here I think she is correct. This is the other side of the coin. While the tariff may have the effect of ensuring that the blender’s credit only goes to U.S. ethanol producers, it also has the impact of putting Brazilian ethanol at a competitive disadvantage to gasoline or crude oil imports. Is this desirable? I don’t think so. To the extent that we require fuel imports, I fall into that camp of preferring to deal with Brazil over Venezuela.

So, how might I write a better policy than the one we have now but still protect U.S. ethanol producers? First, eliminate both the blender’s credit and the tariffs. This removes the barriers to Brazilian ethanol, while leveling the playing field with gasoline imports. Second, given that the present policy is designed to protect U.S. ethanol producers, require that some percentage or some volume of ethanol blended into the fuel system must come from them. Third, even with the current blender’s credit in place, U.S. ethanol producers are struggling to survive. If they had to sell their ethanol in a competitive (unprotected) market, they would all go bankrupt. Therefore, you have to keep the mandates in place regarding the amount of ethanol that must be blended into the fuel supply. This ensures that even if they can’t compete in an open market, they still have a captive market.

Of course I have said many times that I don’t favor mandates at all, nor do I think the corn ethanol industry will ever be viable in an open marketplace. However, it would be disastrous for Midwestern economies to completely pull support from under the industry. I would favor a policy in which we no longer encourage expansion of the industry, and over time phase the mandates out. This would in my opinion be the end of the corn ethanol industry, but a slow end without a shocking impact. If it isn’t, and they can survive in a world without mandates, then more power to them. But if they still can’t manage to live without subsidies after receiving them for 30 straight years (and even that wasn’t enough, hence the mandates), why should we expect that they ever will?

Incidentally, one final note on Brazil. People sometimes ask me which countries I think have a bright future, despite the prospect of peak oil. I think it is hard to make a case that anyone is going to be better off than Brazil. They are sitting on top of huge oil reserves, they can produce ethanol very efficiently and have the infrastructure in place to utilize it, and they have good solar insolation for solar panels, solar hot water, etc. I just don’t know of other country as well-positioned as they are. Not only do I think they will survive peak oil, I think they will thrive and their economy will continue to grow. That’s just one of the reasons I have invested money in Brazil.

March 22, 2009 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, energy policy, PBR, Petrobras, politics, sugarcane ethanol, Venezuela | 122 Comments

Why Energy Independence Eludes the U.S.

The following is an essay I wrote by request for another website. Regular readers won’t see anything they haven’t seen before, but I figured I would go ahead and post here as well. It is a condensed version of some of the topics I have hit here several times.

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Every president since Nixon has promised to make the U.S. energy independent. Yet each successive administration has seen us become ever more dependent upon fossil fuels extracted from foreign lands. Why does a noble goal such as energy independence elude the U.S.? Let’s investigate.

Money Talks

The U.S. is an energy hog. We are 5% of the world’s population, and we consume 25% of the world’s oil. We consume on average double the amount of oil of the average European, and six times the amount of oil of the average Brazilian. I will get to Brazil in a moment, but why should we consume so much more oil than Europeans? Are they simply that much more enlightened than we Americans? One could make that argument, but as someone who has lived in Europe on multiple occasions, I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s simply that people respond to price.

European governments have placed very high taxes on gasoline for many years. And in order to favor more efficient diesel engines, they provided favorable tax treatment for diesel fuel. These policies have had the effect of causing people to demand mass transit, it caused them to drive more efficient vehicles (with far more diesels operating than in the U.S.), and it caused them to live close to where they work. The overall impact is that Europeans use less oil, which also means their economies aren’t quite as sensitive to spiraling oil prices. They are not immune to higher prices, but if gasoline prices increase by $1/gallon, the impact on the average European is far less than on the average American.

Biofuel Myths

One thing high gas taxes in Europe didn’t do was to enable biofuels to gain solid footing as an alternative fuel source. Only mandates have boosted the market share for biofuels. Why? When gasoline prices reached $10/gallon this summer in parts of Europe, why didn’t we see biofuels ride to the rescue? Two reasons. First, the energy inputs into most biofuels amount to a large fraction of their overall energy content. Thus, when oil prices rise, the cost to produce biofuels rises in tandem. Second, the true cost to produce biofuels in most locations is substantially greater than it is to produce oil. Of course many producers and hypesters will claim otherwise. But the truth is that we have directly subsidized corn ethanol for 30 years. It is no closer to being able to stand on its own, subsidy and mandate-free, than it was 30 years ago. We have been working on cellulosic ethanol for 40 years. But the cost of production is too closely tied to the cost of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas because the energy inputs are so substantial.

Brazil Did It

Sugarcane ethanol can be produced efficiently and sustainably. I have been to a sugarcane ethanol plant in India, and I quizzed them intensely on their energy inputs into the process. Their energy inputs consist mainly of bagasse (sugarcane residue) that is burned for boiler fuel. Sugarcane is removed from the field during harvesting, and the bagasse is waste left at the factory after processing. The bagasse is burned for fuel, and the ash is mixed with compost from the process and returned to the soil.

Some claim that this is how Brazil reached energy independence, and the U.S. should follow Brazil’s lead. This is a myth. While Brazil is the #2 producer of ethanol in the world (the U.S. is already the #1 producer of ethanol), fossil fuels still provide 90% of their energy requirements. Brazil did recently declare energy independence – but not because of ethanol. Brazilian President Luiz da Silva made the announcement of energy independence in 2006 on the P-50 oil rig in the Albacora Leste field in the Atlantic Ocean.

So what of it? Ethanol still played a vital role in helping Brazil achieve energy independence. But the U.S. is a different ballgame entirely. The biggest problem is that in the U.S., each person uses 25 barrels of oil each year, but we produce only 6. In Brazil, each person uses 4, but they produce 3. They produce 75% of the oil they use, and in the U.S. we produce 25% of what we use. So sugarcane ethanol – which is produced with much lower fossil fuel inputs than corn ethanol – has a very small gap to fill in Brazil. In the U.S., we have a huge gap between what we use and what we produce. There is no proven biofuel technology that can economically bridge that gap.

Tax Fossil Fuels

If we can’t bridge the gap, perhaps we can make the gap smaller. How? There are many things we need to do, but I will focus on one. This summer when gasoline prices were setting new records, Americans began to conserve. They drove fewer miles. They bought more efficient cars. They embraced mass transit. As a result of high prices, we finally responded. Thus, I would argue that we need to keep fossil fuel prices high. I have proposed that we increase taxes on fossil fuels, and at the same time reduce income tax rates to prevent the taxes from being regressive. I would strive to make the fossil fuel tax revenue neutral, while providing an incentive to conserve.

There are two major advantages. First, people will know that fossil fuels are going to continue to be more expensive, and they can begin to plan accordingly. People who have been holding out for lower gas prices can finally join the people who have already begun major conservation efforts. Second, it levels the playing field for alternatives and for mass transit. Alternative energy is currently expensive relative to fossil fuels, but I would argue that this is partly because we don’t pay the true price for fossil fuels. For instance, we pay no price for carbon emissions. By raising fossil fuel taxes, those alternatives with low fossil fuel inputs will gain an advantage.

Conclusion

Why does energy independence elude us? In a nutshell, because we are unwilling to pay the price. The political parties make energy independence promises, because 1). We love to hear them; and 2). They (and we) are naïve about the difficulty of achieving the goal. Republicans tend to think we can drill our way to independence, and Democrats overrate the ease at which alternative energy can displace fossil fuels. The fact is, we love our cheap fossil fuels (and ironically loathe the companies that bring them to us).

But if we are to achieve energy independence we will need to use less. We will need to sacrifice. We will most importantly require bold leadership, because there is no easy way to get there. This is clear, given the inability of one administration after another to make headway in that direction. The thing that these administrations lacked was a serious policy designed to cut into our fossil fuel consumption. And the only proven method of getting us to collectively use less gasoline is by making it more expensive.

October 7, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, energy independence, energy policy, ethanol | 380 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 27 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 26 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 184 Comments

How Corn Ethanol Destroys Rain Forests

At least according to a new story in Time, which is a blistering critique of our ethanol policies. It also documents the change of heart that has taken place among some prominent ethanol boosters.

The Clean Energy Scam

In Brazil, for instance, only a tiny portion of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane that fuels most Brazilian cars. More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it’s subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets.

It is a sobering article, and well worth a read. It does contain some errors. First, the author repeats (and actually embellishes) the claim that ethanol “provide(s) 45% of Brazil’s fuel.” As I have shown previously, from actual energy usage statistics, it is about 17% of transportation fuel on a volumetric basis, and 10% on an energy equivalent basis. Second, on carbon emissions, the author mentions that the “gains approached 90% for more efficient fuels.” Important to note that while these 80 or 90% carbon emission reductions for next generation ethanol are liberally thrown around, they are all based on models. Nobody has actually demonstrated this. To demonstrate it requires a cellulosic ethanol plant that is highly integrated. The waste biomass must be used to provide power for the plant. There are a number of problems to be worked through – if not we would already have a cellulosic ethanol industry – but these numbers continue to be repeated as if they were demonstrated.

One other paragraph that I want to mention:

There isn’t much sugar in the Amazon. But my next stop was the Cerrado, south of the Amazon, an ecological jewel in its own right. The Amazon gets the ink, but the Cerrado is the world’s most biodiverse savanna, with 10,000 species of plants, nearly half of which are found nowhere else on earth, and more mammals than the African bush.

I haven’t seen a lot of mainstream coverage of the situation in the Cerrado, but I did write about it in the renewable diesel chapter that I recently contributed to a book that is still pending publication. When proponents say that sugarcane isn’t grown in the Amazon, they are right. But the story is much more complex than that.

March 29, 2008 Posted by | Amazon, Brazil, Brazilian ethanol, deforestation, ethanol | 169 Comments

Delusions of a Harvard Professor

A lot of people presume that technology is going to provide a nice, cost-effective solution to our energy problems. Who could blame them, when you have people like Ricardo Hausmann, the director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development telling them that it’s all true? Professor Hausmann expressed this view in an Op-Ed piece in Financial Times:

Biofuels can match oil production

Hausmann, like so many others, doesn’t have a clear understanding of just how much oil we actually consume. As I have pointed out before, the entire U.S. output of ethanol is only equivalent to a single mid-sized oil refinery. The scale difference is immense. And Hausmann’s article represents the kind of delusional thinking that runs rampant among those who don’t have a solid grip on our energy usage:

Peering into the future seldom produces a clear picture. But this is not the case with bioenergy. Its long-term impacts on the global economy appear to be pretty clear, making many long-term predictions quite compelling, including the demise of the price-setting power of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the end of agricultural protectionism.

No, we usually can’t see the future, but this time it’s different. Lots of people disagree with what he sees, including the EIA who forecasts biofuels to supply less than 2% of our liquid fuel needs by 2030. But the Harvard Professor peers into the future, and the view is clear.

First, technology is bound to deliver a biofuel that will be competitive with fossil energy at something like current prices.

How about a couple of corollaries?

Technology is bound to deliver interstellar flight that will be competitive with international air travel at something like current prices.

Technology is bound to deliver a cure for cancer that will be competitive with a tooth extraction at something like current prices.

How do I know these things? Because it’s technology. And I know that looking into the future seldom produces a clear picture. But this is not the case with space flight or cancer cures.

Brazil has been exporting ethanol to the US at an average delivery price of $1.45 for an amount with the energy equivalence of a gallon of petrol. It is doing so profitably and in increasing amounts, in spite of a 54 cents a gallon tariff to protect American maize-based ethanol producers. Many countries are following suit.

Well then there’s our solution. All we have to do is use technology to move the U.S. and Europe to the tropics, where high year-round levels of solar-insolation are key to producing cheap ethanol. Then, it should be a simple matter to get the average American consumer to cut their oil usage from 27 barrels a year to the 4.2 barrels that the Brazilians use. Problem solved. The future has never been clearer.

I can’t read any more of it. I have exhausted today’s quota of sarcasm just addressing his first 2 paragraphs.

November 10, 2007 Posted by | Brazil, Brazilian ethanol | 5 Comments