R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Don’t Weep for the Trees

While I have no intention of changing the general theme of this blog, I will spend some essays in the future providing more details behind my new job in Hawaii. I did this on occasion with my previous job at Accsys, but the focus of the blog remained on energy, sustainability, and the environment.

As explained in the previous essay, my new role involves development of an integrated bioenergy platform. We believe this to be a different way of looking at the problem of turning biomass into energy, and then ultimately supplying that energy to customers. We are not tying ourselves to a specific technology platform; we are using different platforms as suited for specific local needs. We are also as concerned about the sustainability of the biomass as we are the sustainability of the processes we will utilize.

Since moving to Hawaii, I have been asked to give talks at the local high school here about energy and sustainability. During one recent talk I was explaining some of the things we are thinking about as a company, specifically for alternative energy in Hawaii. One of the students said “I heard you were going to cut down all the trees.” At that moment, I realized that her view of forestry was much the same as my own view of forestry growing up in Weyerhaeuser country in Oklahoma. I viewed foresters as people who cut down trees, and I associated them with clear cutting.

My views have changed a lot since then, because I have met a lot of foresters and have a better understanding of what they do. Foresters are people who manage forests. With a managed forest, sometimes that means you harvest the trees like you would harvest any other crop. But managing a forest entails replacing what you cut down (thinning is an important exception).

That makes sense when you think about why people went into forestry in the first place: They love trees (and not in the same way that a polar bear loves humans) and they love the outdoors. They are very conscious of the important role trees play in the environment, and as such they are generally very good stewards of the trees and land they manage.

As indicated in my recent interview with Katie Fehrenbacher, sustainable forestry is a critical component of our platform. We have a forestry company called Forest Solutions, and our ultimate goal is to manage all of the forest assets that we will use in our platform.

So why do we like woody biomass? Why not switchgrass? Sugarcane? Crop residues? Various sources of biomass have their strengths and weaknesses. Very high on the list for a sustainable model is to take care of the soil. One of the questions I sometimes pose is “What would the soil condition be after 500 years in a particular service?” If the answer is not approximately as good or better than the present, then it doesn’t meet the sort of criteria that I am looking for (of course taking into consideration that the soil doesn’t have to be utilized for the same purpose for the entire duration).

There are many potential pitfalls when considering biomass. Some sources are heavy users of nutrients, and as such the fertilization requirements can be high – especially when they are on short rotation. This can imply high fossil fuel inputs and a high risk for soil depletion. Some crops are heavy users of water. Sugarcane ethanol has been judged to be potentially sustainable for Brazil, but it may be a different story in areas that require irrigation.

Trees are different. During the first 10 years or so of their lives, trees can accumulate biomass at the rate of 7-10 bone dry tons per acre per year. You may see some switchgrass yields that are claimed to be that high, but those were almost certainly with fertilizer and plenty of water. But even if the yields were the same, the difference is that you have many harvests of the switchgrass over 10 years to get the same yield as one harvest of trees. Each harvest comes at the cost of energy and labor inputs.

But there is an even more compelling reason to utilize trees. Unlike most of the short-rotation crops that are frequently discussed as feedstock for fuel production, trees can actually improve the quality and health of the soil.

While this is not news to our foresters, it was something that I had not given much thought to until recently. I was taking a tour of a new energy lab being built here on the Big Island, and someone pointed out a plot of land behind the lab and said “We tested the fertility of that soil, and it is much higher than that of the surrounding soil.” I asked why, and was told that there used to be a stand of trees there.

What happens is that trees can bring up nutrients from the subsoil and concentrate them in the leaves and bark. This ends up falling back to the soil and adding to the organic material in the soil. Depending on the specific trees you use, managed forests can provide fuel while improving soil quality. You could also envision rotating trees with other crops to rebuild fertility.

A good example of the potential of trees can be found on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii. For years the coast was planted in sugarcane. While the area gets plenty of water, it is also very hilly. The sugarcane operations led to a large amount of soil erosion. People who were around during that time said that the normally blue water would be brown for long stretches as soil ran off into the ocean.

The sugarcane industry was ultimately abandoned there, and the area is now planted in trees. The erosion has stopped, and the soil has started to recover. The ocean is once again blue there, and I was told today that a reef that had been damaged by soil runoff is healthy again.

So do not weep for the trees we will use. The right trees are ideal sources of biomass if they are properly managed. Besides providing fuel, they are going to perform an important function – recycling nutrients from the subsoil to the topsoil. The trees that are cut will be replanted. The forests we use will be from managed plantations, and not from rain forest or old growth forests.

That is a general overview of the first leg of the platform. There are a number of assets under management, as well as various acquisitions in progress. At some point I will provide details of these holdings and how we plan to use them.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | alternative energy, forestry, Hawaii, sustainability | 127 Comments

Soliciting Reader Input for Bioenergy Chapter

9/8 Update: Lichtblick/VW announcement is now in the English version of Der Spiegel:

A Power Station in Your Basement

Green-energy provider Lichtblick and German automaker Volkswagen are joining forces and promising to stir up the energy market with an unusual plan. Instead of relying on massive energy facilities, the average consumer may soon have a miniature power station in their basement.

Chief executives of Germany’s major energy suppliers usually don’t have much time for their junior counterpart, Lichtblick. The Hamburg-based green-electricity provider’s half a million customers may be “impressive,” they say, but Lichtblick works in a niche market and is no competition for the larger companies in the industry.

The ambitious new project could be worth billions of euros and generate enough electricity to replace up to two nuclear power stations or even coal-fired power plants in the near future. The technology required to put this plan into practice is highly complex, but — depending on demand and the market situation — the new setup could network 1,000, 10,000 or even 100,000 small natural-gas-powered thermal power stations and, in effect, instantly create a virtual large one.

A giant quantity of electricity could be generated by such a system. Channelled straight from the basements of individual houses, where Lichtblick plans on installing the mini power stations, it could then be fed into the public powergrid. Likewise, the mini stations could also provide a source of cheap thermal energy and warm water for each household.

Calling All Wood Experts

In 2007, I wrote the renewable diesel chapter for a book called Biofuels, Solar and Wind as Renewable Energy Systems. One thing I did when I was working on the book chapter was to solicit feedback from readers on what I might have missed. Some of that feedback turned out to be quite useful, and I provided an acknowledgment in the book for the feedback from readers here.

Once again, I am working on a chapter for a book on sustainable development in the forestry industry. My specific chapter is Bioenergy/Biofuels. I am basically trying to cover all aspects of the energy-related things one might do with woody biomass. Some of the things I am covering are gasification, pyrolysis, torrefaction, hydrolysis and conversion to ethanol, production of steam and electricity, use as fuel for cooking, and use as fuel for home heating. So what am I forgetting?

Volkswagen/LichtBlick Announcement

There was an announcement earlier today that has gone pretty much unreported in the U.S., but has gotten heavy media coverage in Germany. Earlier today, the German automaker Volkswagen announced that it is partnering with LichtBlick – a German company that only sells ‘green’ electricity – to produce small combined heat and power (micro-CHP) units for homes. (For a rare story on LichtBlick in English, see Target Customer Base: One Million). Here is the only story I could find on today’s announcement in English (but if you read German you can find loads of media coverage):

Volkswagen To Sell Home Power Plants

Together with the German Green Power supplier Lichtblick, VW wants to sell tiny natural gas power plants people can install in the cellar of their homes. Besides power the VW home power plants also generate warm water and heating.

The tiny power plants are supposed to be networked and feed power into the grid when it is needed most. The plan is to replace at least two nuclear power plants.

Honda has already entered this market, and have installed their micro-CHP units in 50,000 homes in Japan. Personally I think there is great potential for these units to displace the conventional oil furnaces found in many cold climates. I have been privy to some of the cost/output information on micro-CHP from three different suppliers, and based on what I have seen I believe this will be a very strong growth market.

I should disclose, though, that while I am not invested in LichtBlick, in my new job there is only one degree of separation between them and me. So while I don’t have a direct vested interest, I definitely have a personal interest in seeing them succeed with this venture.

Offline for a Week

Finally, my book chapter is due at the end of the week, and I plan to spend my normal blogging time finishing it up (and hopefully incorporating some reader feedback). I don’t foresee having much time to blog again until after September 11th, when the first draft is due. If there is a particularly interesting story, I may post a link, but I can’t afford to spend much time writing this week.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | bioenergy, biofuels, chp, forestry, Lichtblick | 59 Comments