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Range Responds

I just became aware that BiofuelsDigest wrote a story on my recent blog on Range Fuels, and got some comments back from Range Fuels’ CEO David Aldous:

Battle of the Falling Timbers

Aldous said pretty much what I would expect the CEO of Range Fuels to say. He defended his company, and complained that the funding includes money for future phases. That may be, but it is true that Range recently went back to the DOE for more money. If they are already funded for future phases, then why not show us what you can do before asking for more money now?

The truth is that the early public statements from those involved with Range – prior to them getting taxpayer funding – don’t remotely reconcile with what they are now prepared to deliver. The costs have escalated, the capacity has been ramped down, and production went from “cellulosic ethanol” to “cellulosic biofuels” to “mixed alcohols” to “methanol.” Those are the facts, and I think Aldous is trying to put the best possible spin on a bad situation that he inherited.

In fact, left unsaid in my original blog is that things have obviously gone horribly wrong from the days of Range’s early claims. Reading between the lines, I think the capacity downgrades are an indication that the gasifier didn’t scale up as expected. Gasifiers are tricky, and one that works fine at one scale and with one feedstock may not work at all at a different scale. I also think Range found out that producing ethanol from syngas is much more difficult than they expected, and they couldn’t get a catalyst to do what they had hoped.

One interesting comment from Aldous was that their methanol would be a qualifying fuel because they will put it into biodiesel. Imagine that. Biodiesel is already struggling to compete, and now we are going to pay a subsidy on the methanol that is used to produce biodiesel, and then we will probably end up reinstituting the subsidy on the finished biodiesel.

That is going to be some expensive biodiesel (from a taxpayer perspective). Methanol presently trades at about $1.10 a gallon, so if we subsidize that as a cellulosic biofuel we would presumable pay a subsidy of $1.01 per gallon on top of the market price. In a nutshell, the real cost of that methanol going into biodiesel would be double what it should be. It all begs the question, of course, of why you wouldn’t just use the methanol directly as fuel.

There was a comment left following the story that allows me to finally tell a funny story that happened at the Pacific Rim Summit last November (here are my slides from my presentation). Alan Propp wrote the following:

Dear Editor,

My comment is this: you describe Mr. Rapier at the outset of your article with these terms, “Noted and widely respected energy writer…” I have met Mr. Rapier, and my description of him would have been, “Controversial, highly opinionated and frequently misinformed energy writer…”

His lack of knowledge or understanding of the Range Fuels project is indicative of his blog and other writings.


Alan Propp, Ph.D., P.E.
Merrick & Company

That comment is priceless on several levels. First, while Propp is smearing me he conveniently doesn’t mention that his company is the engineering firm for the Range Fuels plant. His company has made a lot of money on all the hype, and his fingerprints are all over the project. Think he might have an axe to grind?

But here is the really priceless part. At the Pacific Rim Summit, I was having a bite with a colleague at an evening conference event. Joining us was David Bransby, a professor from Auburn (and advisor to Range Fuels) who gave a presentation that I really enjoyed. His wife was also present, as well as some members of the Hawaii Science and Technology Council. We were having some interesting discussions around logistics, energy density, and the problems of scaling up biomass-based solutions.

Up walks Alan Propp, Ph.D., and he immediately began to berate me. Shortly thereafter, one person got up and left the table (telling me later that Propp’s behavior was the reason he left the table), and two more later asked “What was that guy’s problem?

We were talking about the difficulties with scaling up biobutanol (which I have blogged on here) and Propp said “You are wrong. They now have a new process which can get butanol titers above 10%.” I looked at him with a puzzled look, and said “That’s impossible. Butanol phases out of water at 7.7% concentration. You can’t have a 10% solution.”

Propp was undeterred. He said that a certain company had given a presentation that day, and if I had attended it “I might have learned a thing or two.” (I would have attended but had a conflict). I was really puzzled, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. I decided I would investigate later, but I knew one thing: He was wrong about butanol titers above 10%. That’s like saying “Our water freezes at 40 degrees.”

The conversation turned to energy balances, and Propp’s position was “Energy balances don’t matter.” We were discussing a municipal solid waste project for converting trash into fuel. I said that if the energy inputs into the project were higher than your outputs, then in most cases you don’t do the project (unless you are using non-fungible fuel like coal as an input to produce a liquid fuel output). Propp said (paraphrasing) “If the biomass is free, then usage of those BTUs is what matters.”

I knew that we were looking at this problem in two very different ways. I was looking at it from the long-term viability of an energy project. Propp was locked into the idea that because the BTUs are free, then any usage of them is an improvement over the status quo. I couldn’t get it through his head that if the usage involved consuming more BTUs than you could extract from the free biomass, you don’t do the project. So we had a very fundamental disagreement. For an energy project, I won’t consume more than 1 BTU of fungible fuel to produce 1 BTU of fuel unless there are some really special circumstances (e.g., if the project is really a waste disposal project and energy would have been consumed regardless).

The evening went on like that. Propp was extremely arrogant and condescending. Had I known then of his involvement in some of these biofuel projects, I would have had a better grasp on why he behaved as he did. But then I went back to my hotel and looked up the company he had been talking about. It turns out that the good Dr. Propp was actually confused and had been talking about iso-butanol, a fundamentally different compound than normal butanol (which is almost always shortened to just “butanol”).

From a biological perspective, it is true that i-butanol is less toxic to microbes than n-butanol, but the phasing concentration for i-butanol is also higher. What is needed to crack open the economics of producing butanol biologically (which used to be the case before the much cheaper petro-route came along) would be to get butanol concentrations above the phasing level, so it could be skimmed off instead of having to distill it all. From that perspective, the lower toxicity of i-butanol is offset by the higher phasing concentration.

Further, in the chemical industry the chemical properties of n-butanol are generally preferred over i-butanol. Therefore, butanol production is shifted to the greatest possible extent to n-butanol, and i-butanol almost always trades at a discount to n-butanol. There is still a market for i-butanol, but it is unclear if i-butanol would be an attractive renewable fuel. The published test results I have seen were all of n-butanol.

So I chuckled at the thought that Alan Propp, Ph.D., didn’t know the difference between i-butanol and n-butanol, yet berated me for not knowing about new technology that produced “butanol titers above 10%.” I sent him a note later that night and said “I think you meant iso-butanol.” He responded back “Yes, that’s correct.” (In fairness to Merrick, Propp did have a colleague with him – Steven Wagner, VP from Merrick – who I found to be much more reasonable and more interested in simply have a conversation about technology).

The next day, I saw Propp and his demeanor had changed entirely. Gone was the arrogance from the night before. (I presumed he was feeling pretty sheepish). He had promised to show up for my presentation later that day and put some tough questions to me, and I said “By all means, show up and give me your best.” He was a no-show.

So it is with an extreme sense of irony that I read Propp’s comment above. It is a classic case of projection. Of course the sort of pseudo-knowledge displayed by Propp that night is a big reason that Range is in the position it is in. The initial promoters failed to distinguish between cellulosic ethanol and biomass gasification, and therefore made certain representations that many of us knew were incorrect.

Second, they didn’t understand the chemistry of alcohol production well enough to know that the production of pure ethanol via this route is problematic, and that a mixed alcohol is what they would produce. Pure ethanol would only be produced at a very high cost. As reality began to settle in, we have seen the statements from Range evolve a very long way from the initial claims of what they would do.

So despite comments from Aldous and Propp, the verdict on Range is the same. What they are proposing to deliver is a far cry from the technology (and cost) that they initially went out and hyped. The public statements are there for anyone to read, and don’t need any particular interpretation from me to see that things have not gone according to plan. So whether I understand Range’s grand plans isn’t the issue. I understand what they have said publicly.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | butanol, ethanol, hype, methanol, range fuels | Comments Off on Range Responds

A Day Late on the Bloom Box

I wasn’t going to write anything on the Bloom Box, but people keep writing to ask what I think. My initial reactions were “What a lot of hype” and “I have seen this all before.” I also wondered why it is that people keep falling for these kinds of stories.

But fuel cells aren’t my specialty, and as such I won’t weigh in on the relative technical merits of this design over another. I know that fuel cells have been very expensive for many years, and the initial projections I have seen over the Bloom Box are that they will be very expensive.

Lots of people with expertise in fuel cells have weighed in on the matter, though. If you want a more technical assessment, see the National Geographic story:

Bloom Box Launch Is “Big Hype”–Invention Nothing New?

The Bloom Box—an as yet unbuilt in-home “power plant” designed to be about the size of a mini-fridge—could provide cheap, environmentally friendly electricity to U.S. households within ten years, according to Bloom Energy. Or not.

But fuel cell experts say that, based on the information the company made public today, the Bloom Box technology is not revolutionary, nor is it the cheapest or most efficient fuel cell system available.

“It’s a big hype. I’m actually pretty pissed off about it, to be quite honest,” said Nigel Sammes, a ceramic engineer and fuel cell expert at the Colorado School of Mines. “It really is nothing new. Go to any [solid oxide fuel cell] Web site and you’ll see the same stuff.”

Those were my initial feelings as well, and here is why I say we have seen this before. The year was about 2001, and I was younger and a bit more subject to being influenced by massive hype. There was a company called Plug Power (still in existence today; stock symbol PLUG, but they are flirting with getting themselves delisted) and they came out with pretty much the same story.

In fact, if you go back into Google’s news archives on Plug Power, you can see a histogram that shows the news stories on Plug Power spiking in 2000, remaining fairly strong until about 2005, and then falling to lower levels in the past few years.

The buzzwords used to describe Plug Power were the same as those used to describe the Bloom Box. The technology was called revolutionary, disruptive, and a real game-changer. There was a prediction made that most people would have Plug Power’s fuel cells in their homes by 2010 and we would all be locally producing and using our electricity in a refrigerator-sized box.

What happened? Plug Power’s stock soared to $2 billion on the hype at a time when investors would bid up companies that had no earnings but incredibly high growth projections. It just so happens that hype can lead to those growth projections (a hard lesson for me that permanently changed my investing style), and what happened was that reality eventually caught up with the hype.

Plug Power, like Range Fuels from my previous essay, could not deliver on the hype. They couldn’t deliver cheap fuel cells, and so they didn’t get the market penetration many had (unreasonably) expected. Their valuation came crashing back down to earth. Today Plug Power is worth about $70 million, or about 96.5% less than it was when I was following the story.

Bloom Energy looks like both Plug Power and Range Fuels to me. It is a company that is attempting to produce energy cheaper than all those who came before using known technology – and using hype to attract investors. And if Bloom Energy fails to deliver, they will learn just like Range Fuels that hype is a two-edged sword.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bloom Energy, hype, investing, range fuels | 3 Comments

Broken Promises from Range Fuels

When I first began my career, a wise old-timer gave me a piece of advice that I took to heart. He said “When you are planning and executing a project, it is important for you to do what you say you are going to do. People are going to make investment decisions on the basis of the numbers you project. So don’t over-promise and under-deliver.”

As I began to become involved in projects, the wisdom of the advice I was given became clear. I learned to be conservative with my claims, because failing to deliver can have far-reaching impacts. Plus, a pattern of over-promising and under-delivering will ultimately destroy your credibility, and thus your ability to get anything done. (On the other hand, excessive “sand-bagging” is also poor practice, as too much money gets budgeted where it needn’t be).

Now imagine the following scenario. I go to the government and ask for $5 million to build a 10 million gallon per year ethanol plant. I announce that it is cutting edge technology, and I make various far-reaching claims. I issue press releases, and Congress invites me to give testimony in D.C. The government grants me the money I ask for, because I have had success in other ventures and I seem like a credible fellow.

Later, I go back to the government, and tell them I need another $5 million, and that unfortunately the project schedule is slipping. “By the way”, I tell them, “I will now only be producing 5 million gallons.”

As construction continues, I start to realize that the energy business is a bit more difficult than I had imagined, and things that I thought were new weren’t new. It becomes clear that I can’t even deliver on my downgraded promises because I hadn’t appreciated the challenges of scale-up. The government calls me up and asks me how it is going. “Well”, I explain to them, “I am out raising $10 million more in investor money. I am also going to only produce 1 million gallons, and it is going to be methanol instead of ethanol as I have been claiming. I am not really sure when I will produce ethanol. By the way, could you give me some more money?”

So I went from claiming $5 million for a 10 million gallon ethanol plant to $20 million for a 1 million gallon methanol plant. I still have not delivered. I am asking for more money. You still trust me, don’t you?

Range Fuels: Years of Broken Promises

I have for the most part held my tongue over Range Fuels for the past 3 years, but the scenario above essentially describes what has happened. The reason I have held my tongue is that I have heard various bits about their progress that was not public, and so I have held back on commenting. But I firmly believed they were making reckless claims from Day 1.

Now the EPA has just issued a report that gives some remarkable updates on Range Fuels, and I feel I have held my tongue long enough. Let’s walk through the timeline to show the remarkable evolution of their progress that has gone largely unreported.

October 2006 – In an interview with Wired Magazine called My Big Bet on Biofuels, Vinod Khosla gushed about E3 Biofuels (now bankrupt) and wrote about them as if they were a running, proven plant. He wrote about what they were achieving, despite the fact that they hadn’t started up (and would be out of business shortly after they started up). In the article, Khosla described his investment in Kergy (which later became Range Fuels).

IN THE CORNER of an unmarked warehouse tucked away in an industrial neighborhood north of Denver, a new company called Kergy has what is, to my knowledge, the first anaerobic thermal conversion machine (which explains why Khosla Ventures is a seed investor). It’s a 6- by 4-foot contraption that stands about 8 feet high. It looks vaguely like a souped-up potbellied stove. But it runs cleanly enough to operate indoors.

With those comments, everyone in the energy business knew Khosla was operating outside of his element. People have been gasifying biomass for decades, and there are numerous “anaerobic thermal conversion machines” out there. What happened was that Khosla wasn’t aware of this, so he thought this was all new and novel, and he invested – and then began to promote. He also went to the government telling them how wonderful it was, and that he would change the world if they would only fund him.

In that article, the inventor of the gasifier, Bud Klepper, is ominously quoted “We could double the ethanol output of the Mead facility.” I hope not. The output of the Mead facility (E3 Biofuels) is zero, so double that is…

February 2007Kergy changed its name to Range Fuels. They announced that they would build their first “cellulosic ethanol” plant in Georgia. The capacity was announced at “more than 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year” (Source.)

I had a problem with this announcement on two counts. First, this is not “cellulosic ethanol”, as I explained in Cellulosic Ethanol vs. Biomass Gasification. Further, if you are going to make an alcohol from syngas (the product of the gasifier), ethanol is a strange choice to make. Methanol is more efficient to produce, and ethanol is generally just a co-product when producing mixed alcohols (which also work well as fuel; see Standard Alcohol). It is only separated out at a great expense of energy – and then you have a lot of lower-value methanol to deal with. So this was looking like a very confused project from the start.

March 2007 – Range Fuels announced a $76 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Also during 2007, articles on Range Fuels began to appear everywhere. There were high profile pieces in The New York Times and in Forbes. In the Times’ article, the company refused to disclose how much had been invested to date.

An article in USA Today reported that the initial capacity would be 20 million gallons. The site was permitted for 100 million gallons of eventual capacity, and the cost of building a 100 million gallon per year plant was quoted at $150 million. Range said they thought they would be the first to win the “cellulosic ethanol” race (again, ignoring that the race was won a hundred years ago):

By next year [2008], the company intends to have a facility capable of creating 20 million gallons of ethanol per year. The site in Treutlen County, Ga., has received a permit to produce 100 million gallons per year, and Range Fuels expects to eventually reach that production amount, according to company CEO Mitch Mandich.

“A lot of people are talking about 2009, or 10 or 11—even Secretary of Energy (Samuel) Bodman will say cellulosic ethanol is five years away,” Mandich said. “We think by the time we enter production, we’ll be the first, so the race is on between us and some competitors.”

Well, it is 2010, and we still aren’t seeing any ethanol from the facility. Welcome to the real world.

November 2007 – To much fanfare, Range Fuels announced the groundbreaking of their Georgia facility. They continued to maintain that the first 20 million gallon phase would be completely finished in 2008. Those of us who have been involved in plant construction wondered when they would actually face the music and admit they couldn’t deliver.

March 2008 – Range announced that they had raised another $100 million to build the plant. By April this number was announced as $130 million in venture capital funding. They were still treated as media darlings – and nobody in the press was asking them critical questions. But their story was about to begin to unravel.

April 2008 – Range announced that they have received a $6 million grant from the state of Georgia.

October 2008 – In an incredibly ironic story, Discover Magazine published Anything Into Ethanol. It was incredibly ironic because in 2003 they had written Anything Into Oil, a gushing story about a company called Changing World Technologies (CWT) and their claim that they could make oil from biomass for $8-$12 a barrel. After a lot of wasted investor and taxpayer dollars, CWT declared bankruptcy when they couldn’t deliver on their claims. I did a post-mortem on CWT here. There were many more parallels here than just two nearly identical, uncritical stories from Discover Magazine.

November 2008 – Range Fuels CEO Mitch Manditch was replaced.

January 2009 – Although the plant in Georgia was still not complete, there was no explanation regarding the delay. But Range announced another $80 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One story announced that the company had received a total of $158 million in VC funding in 2008. This story also announced that the first phase was still under construction, and production was now not expected until 2010! (This new production time frame was probably the result of getting in a new CEO who was actually experienced in the energy business, ex-Shell executive David Aldous).

May 2009 – While Range Fuels stopped issuing so many press releases, former CEO Mitch Mandich was quoted in the New York Times admitting that “The soup’s not quite cooked yet.” This was extraordinary given previous claims from him that they would produce cellulosic ethanol at less than the price of corn ethanol.

October 2009 In a New York Times’ story that warned that cellulosic ethanol was falling far short of expectations, it was announced that Range Fuels had applied for even more funding from the DOE! This time, the DOE said no.

For the most of 2009, Range went into silent mode. Again, I attribute this to a new CEO who came from the energy business, where you better do what you say you are going to do. One pattern that started to emerge was that they referred less to cellulosic ethanol and more to cellulosic biofuels. This was significant, because I had always maintained that it wouldn’t be cost-competitive for them to produce ethanol via gasification. I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop…

February 2010 – A rather extraordinary update was issued that the mainstream media has still not absorbed. The EPA released an update to the Renewable Fuel Standards Program (RFS2). In that update, they had the following report on Range Fuels (see this document). From Pages 175 and 178:

At the time of our assessment, we were also anticipating cellulosic biofuel production from Range Fuels’ first commercial-scale plant in Soperton, GA. The company received a $76 million grant from DOE to help build a 40 MGY wood-based ethanol plant and they broke ground in November 2007. In January 2009, Range was awarded an $80 million loan guarantee from USDA. With the addition of this latest capital, the company seemed well on its way to completing construction of its first 10 MGY phase by the end of 2009 and beginning production in 2010.

As for the Range Fuels plant, construction of phase one in Soperton, GA, is about 85% complete, with start-up planned for mid-2010. However, there have been some changes to the scope of the project that will limit the amount of cellulosic biofuel that can be produced in 2010. The initial capacity has been reduced from 10 to 4 million gallons per year. In addition, since they plan to start up the plant using a methanol catalyst they are not expected to produce qualifying renewable fuel in 2010. During phase two of their project, currently slated for mid- 2012, Range plans to expand production at the Soperton plant and transition from a methanol to a mixed alcohol catalyst. This will allow for a greater alcohol production potential as well as a greater cellulosic biofuel production potential.

Did you catch that? Initial capacity is now slated at 4 million gallons per year and will be methanol. There will still be no qualifying “cellulosic ethanol” produced in 2010. The amount of money that we know has been poured into this – beyond Khosla and company’s initial investment – is $158 million in VC money, $76 million of DOE money, $80 million from the USDA, and $6 million from the state of Georgia. Further, they asked for more DOE money and were turned down.

So we have Khosla’s initial investment of unknown amount plus $320 million for 4 million gallons of methanol. Wow. At this point, I don’t know why anyone would care about what they say they are going to do during Phase 2, I am more interested in seeing some accountability for what has happened to date.

Let’s recap the highlights:

February 2007 – Range Fuels announced that they would build their first “cellulosic ethanol” plant in Georgia. In a story at Green Car Congress, the capacity was announced at “more than 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year.”

March 2007 – Range Fuels announced a $76 million grant from the Department of Energy.

July 2007 – In a story in USA Today, the Phase 1 capacity was announced at 20 million gallons. The full scale would be 100 million gallons at a cost of $150 million.

November 2007 – Range broke ground on the plant; announced they would be finished with Phase 1 (still 20 million gallons) by the end of 2008.

April 2008 – Range announced a $6 million grant from the state of Georgia.

January 2009 – Range received another $80 million, this time from the USDA, and announced receipt of $158 million in venture capital funding for 2008.

October 2009 – Range asked for more money. This time they were told no.

February 2010 – After investments that have been publicly announced at $320 million, the EPA announced that Range would initially produce 4 million gallons, and it would be methanol. Further, there would be no ethanol produced in 2010.

February 2010 – I write an article wondering why the mainstream media has completely missed this story.

In summary, we were given numbers of $150 million to build 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol capacity. What we are being told now is > $320 million to build 4 million gallons of methanol capacity. Of course they intend to do so much more, but I have a very big problem giving more taxpayer money to an organization with this history.

I don’t blame current CEO David Aldous for this. I think Range’s tendency to talk to the press every chance they got ceased once  reality started to take hold and they got an experienced energy veteran in. I think Aldous inherited a ship in which people had been in the habit of promising the moon to secure ever more funding. But I do blame a number of the original promoters of the company.

I have criticized Vinod Khosla in the past for what I said were unrealistic claims. I felt like he came into the energy industry without a very good comprehension of if, but felt that he would apply his golden touch from Silicon Valley to show the dinosaurs how Silicon Valley innovates. I also felt like he was attracted to people who made grandiose claims, but didn’t have the proper historical perspective to determine when something was truly novel (and really worked).

The thing is, the energy industry is full of very smart people who went to the same schools the people in Silicon Valley attended. There isn’t much that hasn’t been tried, and most of what is being announced to great fanfare by newcomers is being worked on in silence in numerous places around the globe.

When you step out there and make the sorts of claims that were made, you have some responsibility for your words. Failure tars an entire renewable industry as being hopelessly unrealistic. This is the reason I go after claims that I believe are unrealistic. If you promise and fail repeatedly, funding will dry up for everyone as the government and the public all become cynical. So your actions impact lots of people – and can impact the energy policy of the entire country – thus you need to be accountable for the things you say.

This has played out exactly like I thought it would. Claims that most industry insiders laughed at in private have now come to naught at great cost to taxpayers. Methanol from syngas? Oh, that technology has only been with us since 1923. Congratulations on reinventing the wheel and burning through taxpayer money in the process.

In summary, I will point out that the two primary sources of cellulosic production being counted on by the EPA for 2010 were Range Fuels and Cello Energy. Both are Vinod Khosla ventures, and neither has come remotely close to delivering despite lots of funding and taxpayer assistance. I don’t think these are isolated cases. I think they are a symptom of things to come. We have gotten a lot of overpromises, because face it, that has worked to secure funding. But what this leads to are completely unrealistic expectations regarding our energy policy, and numerous bad decisions regarding where tax dollars should be spent.

Finally, I want to make one thing crystal clear. I am not criticizing failure here. That is normal and expected. Failure is a part of what it takes to learn and move forward. What I am criticizing is the nature of the failure; that it was primarily because inexperienced people were making claims they shouldn’t have made, and taxpayers are going to get stuck with the bills. Personally, I have a problem with my tax dollars being squandered away by smooth-talking salesmen.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | Cello, energy policy, EPA, politics, range fuels, Vinod Khosla | 1 Comment

Energy Potpourri

I am at the 2009 Gasification Technologies Conference this week, with a pretty full schedule. But there are three stories that I wanted to quickly hit. One is a follow-up on the previous cellulosic ethanol post, one is about Paul Sankey’s new report on peak demand, and the last is on a technology that ExxonMobil has reported on here at the conference that I felt was quite interesting. There will probably be no more new posts from me until the weekend. I only got away with this one because I decided to write instead of network (which I hate to do anyway) during free periods today.

When Technologies Are Mandated

I don’t care too much for mandates. I think they are so much worse than subsidies, because with a mandate you are really saying that it doesn’t matter how much it costs, you don’t want to know how much it costs – just do it.

If the government thought it was a good idea to blend bio-butanol into the gas supply, they could offer a $0.50/gallon subsidy to do so. If that doesn’t result in butanol entering the fuel supply, then that’s a pretty good indication that butanol is at more than a $0.50/gal disadvantage to gasoline. But imagine instead that it is mandated. The costs could go very high in that case, but gasoline blenders would still have to pay up. We may find out that the cost to fuel suppliers was $8.00/gal. Had it been a subsidy instead – and it needed to go to $4 or $5/gal to make it economical – it would have never passed because the costs would be more transparent.

Thus, I was not too enthusiastic about the cellulosic ethanol mandates we got as part of the 2007 RFS. In 2010, for instance, it is mandated that 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels will be blended into the fuel supply. Cellulosic ethanol has been the technology that has been favored, but I have warned about costs that are going to be very high. Instead of a mandate, suppose we put a $1/gal subsidy in for cellulosic ethanol. Then instead of relying on people promising that they can make cellulosic ethanol for $1/gal if they can just get grants, mandates, and loan guarantees – you put the burden on the producer. Here is a $1/gal subsidy for you. Build the plant, make your $1/gal ethanol, and collect the subsidy.

Not surprisingly we are now getting news that despite throwing a lot of money at it, the 2010 levels of cellulosic ethanol are going to fall far short of the mandate – as I have been saying all along. They are going to need more money to meet future mandates – highlighting the problems I have with mandates. From the NYT:

Biofuels Producers Warn They Are Going to Fall Far Short of Federal Mandates

“The current economic climate almost makes the RFS a moot point for the time being,” said Matt Carr, policy director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

His organization estimated last month that 2010 volumes will, optimistically, reach 12 million gallons, far short of the 100-million-gallon mandate that year.

Range Fuels had gotten an initial $76 million from the DOE, then an $80 loan guarantee from the USDA. They also got $100 million in private equity. (I predict some folks are going to lose some money – including taxpayers). But that still wasn’t enough, so they went back to the DOE for more money. This time, the DOE said no:

The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, producers say, has been particularly flawed. No advanced biofuel makers, aside from a partnership between BP PLC and Verenium Corp., have so far won approvals.

“We received a ‘Sorry, Charlie’ letter,” said Bill Schafer, a senior vice president of Range Fuels Inc., which is now building a cellulosic facility in Soperton, Ga., slated for completion early next year.

He said that under the program, biofuels companies must compete directly against solar, wind and even compressed natural gas — all energy technologies that, unlike advanced biofuels, have already been built at commercial scale.

So there you have it. The DOE seems to be losing some of the earlier enthusiasm for cellulosic ethanol. Range Fuels is here at the conference, by the way. I should probably say hi.

Again, this highlights the risk of mandates. Costs can spiral out of control. The ultimate cost can’t be easily predicted. Instead of assuming that technology can be mandated if enough money is thrown at it, we would all have been better off had there merely been subsidies offered. In that case, if this is truly not economically viable, the taxpayer may not have to foot the bill for millions of dollars for failed or stalled plants.

Printing Money

One of the reasons I invest in oil companies is that I think oil prices will continue to spike higher in the future. Because of the recession, we currently find ourselves with excess production capacity. But it looks to me like that excess production capacity will be eroded in the future, which will once again put pressure on prices. Oil companies will again reap very big profits by supplying a dwindling resource. (Whether governments will aggressively move to confiscate these profits is another question entirely).

There is another view that the oil companies will die out as oil depletes, and therefore oil stocks are very risky investments in the longer term. I don’t subscribe to this view because I believe the oil companies will possess enough cash to enter into any future energy business that looks lucrative. If we are supplying 90% of the cars with liquid fuels derived from coal in 20 years, I suspect it will be the oil companies producing it. In fact, most major oil companies – ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips – have active programs in this area. It is a naïve view to think that the oil industry as a whole will fail to anticipate the changing markets. That’s why I always think it is humorous that people feel the ethanol industry is a threat. If the oil industry thought it was a threat, there is nothing keeping them from getting involved.

Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank just put forth both views in a new report. As I have mentioned previously, I think Sankey is an analyst who really understands the industry. And I agree with his first comments. I just don’t think he is right about the second point.

Don’t Fill Up on ConocoPhillips

That one is a somewhat misleading title because he is recommending ConocoPhillips (which I do own):

DESPITE NUMEROUS SIGNS that the global economy is still struggling, just about everyone following energy predicts at least one more spike in oil prices in coming years.

It’s just that scenario that prompted Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Sankey to publish today a 61-page opus to clients in which he upgraded shares of ConocoPhillips (COP) to “Buy” from “Hold” and raised his price target to $55 from $40.

Sankey’s thesis — and he’s not alone — is that Conoco will benefit in such a scenario by being able to sit back and milk profits from its existing reserves of oil with minimal new investment, thus leading to generous cash flows.

In brief, Sankey sees global demand surging again with economic rejuvenation, leading to a spike in oil of $175 per barrel in 2016, after which developments in global fuel efficiency, specifically electric cars, will cause demand for crude to fall off precipitously, until oil comes back into equilibrium with supply at $100 per barrel in 2030.

Sankey spells out why he is long-term bearish on the oil companies:

Peak Oil: The End Of the Oil Age is Near, Deutsche Bank Says

Deutsche Bank expects the electric car to become a truly “disruptive technology” which takes off around the world, sending demand for gasoline into an “inexorable and accelerating decline.”

In 2020, the bank expects electric and hybrid vehicles to account for 25% of new car sales—in both the U.S. and China. “We expect [electric propulsion] will reverse the dynamics of world oil demand, and spell the end of the oil age,” the bank writes.

But won’t cheaper oil in the future just lead to a revival in oil demand? That’s what’s happened in every other cycle. Au contraire, says the bank: Just as the explosion of digital cameras made the cost of film irrelevant, the growth of electric cars will make the price of oil (and gasoline) all but irrelevant for transportation.

He could be right, but I am betting against it. But I may find that in 20 years ConocoPhillips’ core business is something entirely different than it is today.

ExxonMobil’s MTG Technology

One of the more interesting presentations for me at the gasification conference has been ExxonMobil’s work on a different kind of coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology. Conventional CTL would involve gasification of the coal to syngas, followed by a Fischer Tropsch reaction that converts the gas into liquid fuels such as diesel. Exxon has a different process, in which they gasify the coal, but then they turn it into methanol. As I have said before, methanol can be made quite efficiently, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t allowed to compete with ethanol on an equal footing. But the technology doesn’t stop at methanol. The methanol is dehydrated to di-methyl-ether (DME, also a nice fuel). The DME is then passed over a catalyst and converted to gasoline in yields of around 90%. The technology is called methanol-to-gasoline (MTG).

The process has been around for a while, but hasn’t gotten much attention. In the 80’s and 90’s, they ran a 14,500 bbl/day plant in New Zealand. As far as synthetic fuel facilities go, that’s a big plant with an impressive track record of operation. The on-stream reliability of the plant was over 95% during its operation. (Following the oil price collapse in the 90’s, the plant stopped upgrading the methanol, and just made methanol the end product).

The advantage of the process is that capital costs are reportedly lower than FT, and the product is gasoline – in high demand in the U.S. The disadvantage is that the process produces relatively little diesel and jet fuel. The military and various airlines are highly interested in FT because of its ability to supply these important fuels.

Exxon reports that a new plant, based on 2nd generation technology with better heat integration and process efficiency, has been built in Shanxi, China. At 2,500 bbl/day, the facility is smaller than the earlier New Zealand facility, but Exxon has licensed MTG technology to a pair of companies in the U.S. DKRW announced in 2007 that they would utilize MTG in a 15,000 bbl/day facility in Medicine Bow, WY. Synthesis Energy Systems announced in September 2008 that they would license MTG for their global CTL projects.

While Exxon seems to be more focused on coal to gasoline, there is no reason this process couldn’t be used to turn natural gas or biomass into gasoline (GTL and BTL). This technology could be complementary to FT technology, providing gasoline while FT supplies the liquid fuels needed for airlines, marine applications, long-haul trucking, and the military.

During the Q&A, though, one guy asked “If this is so great, why aren’t you building these plants yourselves?” The answer was that they weren’t experts, and only wanted to license.

October 6, 2009 Posted by | btl, cellulosic ethanol, ConocoPhillips, COP, ExxonMobil, Paul Sankey, range fuels, XOM | 115 Comments

Cellulosic Ethanol Falling Short

The reason I spend time debunking wild claims is that I think they damage the entire bioenergy sector in the long run. People who issue press releases claiming they can produce fuel for $1/gallon – and by the way we can do it next year if you give us the money – may attract some funding, but in the long run if they can’t deliver, investors will shy away from the entire sector.

One of the things I have spent time debunking is the notion that we are going to rapidly scale up and produce massive quantities of cellulosic ethanol. I believe – for fundamental reasons of chemistry and physics – that it isn’t going to happen. I have said that I think the people who are getting money to build cellulosic ethanol plants will start coming up with a litany of excuses for the cash they burned through, and their failure to deliver. A year ago, I wrote:

The next few years will see a record amount of back-pedaling from most of the companies trying to establish a foothold in this space – and overpromising on their technology to do so. There will be the normal litany of excuses – such as ‘the oil companies are suppressing the technology’ – but in the end the chemistry, physics, and most importantly the capital costs and logistical challenges will catch up with them. Yes, excuses will be made, but those who know a little about the technology will know what really happened. It’s going to be TDP all over again.

Today a new article in Nature says that cellulosic ethanol schedules are slipping and prospects are dimming – partially because investors have gotten burned by rosy biofuel promises (which is exactly my fear). The article is:

Cellulosic ethanol hits roadblocks

The article is behind a pay wall, but I have access. So I can provide some excerpts:

In February 2007, the US Department of Energy selected BlueFire and five other companies to negotiate for up to US$385 million in funding for commercial-scale plants. And later that year, Congress issued a federal mandate to produce 61 billion litres of cellulosic biofuels annually for transportation by 2022.

As I have said on repeated occasions, I don’t believe the advanced biofuel mandates will be met, and I think you will start to see targets slipping next year (the first year the advanced mandate really phases in). I predicted quite explicitly a year ago that we wouldn’t come close to meeting the targets. The Nature article agrees:

According to ThinkEquity, an investment bank based in San Francisco, California, the United States will have the capacity to produce less than 13 million litres of cellulosic ethanol this year, and it will almost certainly fail to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) projection of 381 million litres of cellulosic biofuels in 2010. Two of the six companies selected by the Department of Energy to negotiate for commercial plant funding have dropped out of the programme, and several plants belonging to other companies have been delayed.

They also casually note more delays in Vinod Khosla’s Range Fuels project:

Range Fuels, based in Broomfield, Colorado, originally planned to complete the final phase of construction on a Georgia commercial plant in 2011 but has delayed that until late 2012, says chief executive David Aldous.

The reason I have criticized Vinod Khosla is that I believe he is out there making promises that he can’t deliver upon. But he is Vinod Khosla, so people (private equity and taxpayers) give him money to invest, potentially diverting it from ventures that make less noise, but have more real potential to deliver. And a lot has been invested into his Range Fuels venture. However, it is no surprise to me at all that the schedule has been slipping since the project was first announced.

I first covered the Range Fuels ground-breaking as one of my Top Energy Stories of 2007 (See #6). A year later, I covered the first announced delay in my Top Energy Stories of 2008 (again #6). The initial announcements from Range were that the first 20 MM gy phase is expected to be fully complete in 2008. Then that was delayed until 2009. Next it was scheduled to be completed by the first quarter of 2010, with the production of ethanol and methanol at a run rate of less than 10 million gallons per year to follow in the second quarter of 2010.” So now we see delays pushing into 2012. As some readers noted, this is the “final phase” they are talking about, but they need to start producing from the first phase before they have to worry about any final phases.

The article also discusses Iogen, and the fact that they “suspended operations on an Idaho plant to focus its resources on a possible plant in Saskatchewan.” Iogen has been producing for long enough at their pilot plant that they should have a good idea of what the economics really look like. That’s why I don’t expect them to build a plant, but instead to keep announcing that they are studying the issue.

The article also noted that researchers at Sandia National Laboratories had predicted that “cellulosic ethanol could compete with petrol in 2030 only if oil was $90 a barrel or higher.” Left unsaid is that this hinges upon technical improvements.

I find the entire issue very frustrating, because I have felt for years that our energy policy is being pushed by people with influence, but not necessarily people who are knowledgeable about energy. So what happens is that we waste years chasing dead ends and losing precious time as oil depletion marches on – and we spend our tax dollars because someone made a lot of empty promises.

These delays should also serve as a message to those who think the market will fix the problem of oil depletion by driving prices higher and making alternatives more affordable. The problem is that it takes years to bring these projects online, so you have to have a long-range plan for pursuing the right strategies. If oil prices are back to $150 next year, we will either pay up or do without. The energy business isn’t like a widget maker that can easily set up shop and compete for market share. It takes years and lots of money.

Note: I originally put this up in a hurry, and in reading it later I felt it came across as unnecessarily abrasive. In my haste I had also chopped off a quote that made it appear out of context. That was not my intention, but after viewing some of the comments I reread the story and I saw that this was the case. So I have corrected it.

October 2, 2009 Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, range fuels, Vinod Khosla | 77 Comments

Biofuel Contenders


I got quite a few interesting e-mails and comments following my previous essay: Biofuel Pretenders. I probably should have mentioned – but I thought it went without saying – that pretenders usually don’t think they are pretenders and will therefore protest mightily at the characterization. A number of people who e-mailed assured me that they have really cracked the code to affordable biofuels, and that we would be hearing more about them soon. Another person who wrote to me about algae said that he has been following algae since 1973, and he wrote “In spite of all the hype and non-stop press releases, no one to my knowledge is producing algae on a commercial basis for biofuel production.” Ultimately, I would be happy to be proven wrong on this, but I am just calling it as I see it.

On the other hand, there are some renewable fuel options that have either proven themselves as solid contenders, or have not yet demonstrated fatal flaws that would disqualify them at this point. In this essay I will cover some of those. First, I will cover a pair of first generation biofuels that have proven that they can compete with oil on a cost basis, and then a pair of next generation biofuels that I believe will be competitive.

The First Generation Contenders

Sugarcane Ethanol

Sugarcane ethanol, especially from tropical regions like Brazil, has some unique attributes that have enabled it to compete on a head to head basis with gasoline pricing. Specifically, during the production of sugar, the bagasse (sugarcane residue) is pulverized and washed many times. Many soluble inorganic constituents that may normally pose an ash problem for a boiler are washed out in the process. What remains after processing is a pretty clean biomass feed for the boilers. The normally vexing logistical issues aren’t there because the biomass is already at the plant as a result of the sugarcane processing. So they essentially have free boiler fuel, which minimizes the fossil fuel inputs into the process. That enables ethanol production that is relatively cheap, and that is largely decoupled from the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices.

There are several reasons we don’t do sugarcane ethanol in the United States. Last year I made a visit to the largest sugar producer in Louisiana, and they explained to me that the economics of their by-product molasses generally favor putting it into animal feed. If they had a year-round growing season as they do in the tropics, it is more likely that the animal feed market would start to become saturated, and conversion into ethanol might be more attractive. Further, a bagasse boiler is a major capital expense, so there needs to be a high level of confidence that in the future ethanol will be a more economical outlet than animal feed. For Brazil, this is certainly the case.

The ultimate downside of sugarcane ethanol will come about if the U.S. and Europe begin to rely heavily on tropical countries for their fuel needs – thus encouraging a massive scale-up. First, ethanol imports don’t do much for domestic energy security. More importantly, it may encourage irresponsible usage of the land in an effort to feed our insatiable appetite for fuel. I think the ideal situation is to produce the sugarcane ethanol and use it locally, rather than try to scale it up and supply the world. In this way, sugarcane ethanol could be a long-term contender for providing fuel for the tropics, but not a long-term contender for major fossil fuel displacement outside of the tropics.

Palm Oil

The other major first generation contender is palm oil – which also comes with a lot of environmental risk. Palm oil is derived from the African Oil Palm. The oil palm is a prolific producer of oil, which can be used as fuel (and food). This is also a plant that thrives in the tropics, and is capable of annually producing upwards of 500 gallons of oil per acre. To my knowledge there is no other oil crop that consistently demonstrates these sorts of yields (acknowledging that algae could theoretically produce more).

The price of palm oil over the past 5 years or so has traded in a range comparable to that of crude oil; $50-$75 a barrel for the most part (although like petroleum, prices shot up to around $150/bbl in mid-2008). Palm oil can be used unmodified in a diesel engine, although some precautions are in order (and I don’t recommend it). It can also be processed to biodiesel, or hydrocracked to green diesel. The extra processing will generally make the final product somewhat more expensive than petroleum, but demand has still been strong due to biofuel mandates.

The risks with palm oil are significant, though. Palm oil presents an excellent case illustrating both the promise and the peril of biofuels. Driven by demand from the U.S. and the European Union (EU) due to mandated biofuel requirements, palm oil has provided a valuable cash crop for farmers in tropical regions like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. The high productivity of palm oil has led to a dramatic expansion in most tropical countries around the equator. This has the potential for alleviating poverty in these regions.

But in certain locations, expansion of palm oil cultivation has resulted in serious environmental damage as rain forest has been cleared and peat bogs drained to make room for new palm oil plantations. Deforestation in some countries has been severe, which negatively impacts sustainability criteria, because these tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Destruction of peat land in Indonesia for palm oil plantations has reportedly caused the country to become the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Because palm oil is capable of competing on price, it was originally viewed as a very attractive source of biofuels. In recent years, countries have begun to rethink their policies as the environmental implications of scaling up palm oil production began to unfold. As is so often the case, the seemingly good idea of biofuel mandates has had some pretty serious unintended consequences.

Next Generation Biofuel Contenders

Here is how I would define a next generation Biofuel Contender: A technology that is capable of supplying 20% of our present liquid fossil fuel consumption on a net energy basis.

Yes, 20% is rather arbitrary, but it weeds out a lot arguments over many potential small contributors. I will focus in this essay on the United States, because I am most familiar with our energy usage and biomass availability, but these arguments should be applicable in many places around the world.

Consider for a moment the amount of energy locked up inside the 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass that the Department of Energy suggests can be sustainably produced each year. Woody biomass and crop residues – the kind of biomass covered in the 1.3 billion ton study – contains an energy content of approximately 7,000 BTUs per pound (bone dry basis). The energy content of a barrel of oil is approximately 5.8 million BTUs. Thus the raw energy contained in 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass is equivalent to the energy content of 3.1 billion barrels of oil, which is equal to 42% of the 7.32 billion barrels the United States consumed in 2008.

This calculation tells you a couple of things. First, the 42% represents an upper limit on the amount of oil that could be displaced by 1.3 billion tons of biomass. The true number would be much lower because energy is required to get the biomass to the biorefinery and then to process it. So replacing oil with biomass isn’t going to be a trivial task, and a process must be capable of turning a respectable percentage of those biomass BTUs into liquid fuel if it is to be a contender.

Imagine a process that only captures 25% of the starting BTUs as liquid fuel. The liquid fuel production of 1.3 billion tons would then be 10.5% of our oil usage instead of 42% – and that’s before we consider the energy requirements from the logistical operations (like getting that wood to the biorefinery). This is the realm of the pretenders; they waste a lot of BTUs during the production of their liquid fuel. What we really need is a process that can capture >50% of the BTUs as liquid fuels. That’s what it will take to be a contender, and quite frankly I don’t believe cellulosic ethanol has a chance of pulling this off on a large scale.

However, there are at least two technologies that can achieve net liquid fuel yields in excess of 50% of the BTU value of dry biomass. These technologies are flash pyrolysis and gasification. I will talk about each below.

Flash Pyrolysis

Flash pyrolysis involves rapidly heating up biomass to around 500°C. The reaction takes place in about 2 seconds, and the products are pyrolysis oil (also called bio-oil) and char. The process can handle a wide variety of feedstocks, the oil yield is approximately 70% by weight, and the energy content per pound of oil is similar to the starting material. Thus, approximately 70% of the initial BTUs are captured in the oil before we have to start subtracting out energy inputs.

Char is frequently mentioned as a great soil amendment (as terra preta, for instance), but I don’t really know if there is a market for it. As someone recently said to me, it may be like biodiesel and glycerin. In theory there are all kinds of uses for glycerin, but the market was quickly saturated as biodiesel production ramped up. Glycerin suddenly became a disposal problem. Terra preta does in fact appear to be a great soil amendment, but people are going to have to show that they will buy it. It seems to me that the ideal solution would be to use the char to help heat the biomass, unless the ash properties are problematic for the process.

There are definite downsides to flash pyrolysis. Heating up to 500°C will subtract from the net energy production, and while heat integration is possible, it would be more difficult to achieve in a hypothetical mobile unit (which I think could finally provide an outlet for the millions of acres of trees destroyed by the Mountain pine beetle). The properties of the raw oil are such that it isn’t suitable for transport fuel as produced. It is not a hydrocarbon and is very acidic. Without upgrading, it can’t be blended with conventional diesel. There are various issues around reproducibility and stability, especially if the biomass quality varies. The oil is suitable for power generation or gasification, and can be upgraded to transportation fuel, albeit at greater expense and lower overall energy efficiency.

With those caveats, it is still a contender. It could be knocked out of contention as a viable transportation fuel if the upgrading process is too expensive or energy intensive, but at present no fatal flaw has emerged. There are a number of companies involved in pyrolysis research. Dynamotive Energy Systems has been working on this for a while (I first wrote about them in 2007). UOP – a company that specializes in product upgrading for refineries – has teamed with Ensyn to form a joint venture called Envergent Technologies. The company intends to make pyrolysis oils from biomass for power generation, heat, and transport fuel (this is where UOP’s skills will come into play).

Gasification: Biomass to Liquids

The following example is just one reason I think gasification is going to play a big part in our future. During World War II, the Germans were cut off from liquid fuel supplies. In order to keep the war machine running, they turned to coal to liquids, or CTL (coal gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch to liquids) for their liquid fuel needs. At peak production, the Germans were producing over five million gallons of synthetic fuel a day. To put matters into perspective, five million gallons probably exceeds the historical sum of all the cellulosic ethanol or synthetic algal biofuel ever produced. Without a doubt, one week’s production from Germany’s WWII CTL plants dwarfs the combined historical output of two technologies upon which the U.S. government and many venture capitalists are placing very large bets.

South Africa during Apartheid had a similar experience. With sanctions restricting their petroleum supplies, they turned to their large coal reserves and once again used CTL. Sasol (South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation) – out of necessity – has been a pioneer in gasification technology. Today, they have a number of gasification facilities, including the 160,000 bbl/day Secunda CTL facility, which has been highly profitable for the company (but very expensive relative to oil prices when constructed). In total, Sasol today synthetically produces about 40% of South Africa’s liquid fuel.

While we can speculate on the source of future fuel supplies in a petroleum constrained world, we do know that two countries that already found themselves in that position turned to gasification as a solution. The technology has a track record and is scalable. The same can’t be said for many of the technologies upon which we are pinning our hopes (and taxpayer dollars). We hope these other technologies scale and that technical breakthroughs allow them to compete. But gasification has already proven itself as a viable go-to option. There are presently a number of operating CTL and GTL plants around the world. Shell has been running their Bintulu GTL plant for 15 years, and is currently building the world’s largest GTL plant with a capacity of 140,000 barrels/day.

The biomass to liquid fuel efficiency for gasification is around 70% (See Section 1.2.2: Second-Generation Biofuels), a number cellulosic ethanol will never approach. In short, no other technology to my knowledge can convert a higher percentage of the embedded energy in biomass into liquid fuels.

Of course there’s always a catch. Despite large reserves of coal, the United States has not turned to gasification as a solution. Why? High capital costs. At the end of the day the desire to keep fuel prices low consistently overrides our desire for energy security. (There is also environmental pressure over using coal gasification which should not be an issue for waste biomass gasification).

But biomass is more difficult to handle, so there are added costs above those of coal gasification. So you are talking about a process that is more capital intensive than a conventional oil refinery, or even a cellulosic ethanol plant. But what you save on the cellulosic ethanol plant ultimately costs a lot in overall energy efficiency. Until someone actually scales up and runs a cellulosic ethanol plant, we can only speculate as to whether the process is truly a net energy producer at scale.

Interestingly, one of the “cellulosic ethanol” hopefuls that we often hear so much about – Range Fuels – is actually a gasification plant. (Ditto Coskata). The front end of their process is intended to produce syngas in a process very similar to that of World War II Germany. For their back end they intend to produce ethanol, which in my opinion is an odd choice that was driven purely by ethanol subsidies. But this is definitely not the optimal end product of a gasification process. They are going to lose a lot of efficiency to byproducts like methanol (which is actually a good end product for a gasification plant) – and that’s assuming they get their gasification process right. They are then going to expend some of their net energy trying to purify the ethanol from the mixed alcohols their process will produce.

The question for me is not whether BTL can displace 20% of our petroleum usage. It absolutely can. The question is whether we are prepared to accept domestic fuel that will cost more to produce. In the long run – if oil prices continue to rise – then BTL plants that are built today will become profitable. The risk is that a sustained period of oil prices in the $50-$70 range will retard BTL development. But I don’t expect that to happen.


In my opinion, the question of which next generation biofuels can compete comes down to fossil fuel prices. If oil prices are at $50 for the next 10 years, it will be difficult for renewable fuels to compete. Despite the many promises of technologies that will deliver fuel for $1 a gallon, I think that target is likely to be reached only on paper. My view on which technologies will be competitive is based on 1). An expectation of an average oil price over the next 10 years that exceeds $100/bbl; 2). An expectation that we will need to efficiently convert the available biomass. I expect biomass prices to rise as well, and inefficient technologies that may be competitive if the biomass is free and fossil fuel inputs like natural gas are low-priced will not survive as the prices of both rise.

I am certainly interested in helping develop promising next generation technologies, so if you think I have missed some really promising ones then feel free to add your thoughts. It is possible that a company like LS9 or KiOR will ultimately be successful, but they are going to require some technical breakthroughs. Given the great number of renewable energy start-ups, it won’t be surprising if one or more of them eventually makes a contribution, but the odds are against most of them. I selected pyrolysis and gasification as strong contenders because they don’t require technical breakthroughs in order to produce large amounts of fuel. The technical aspects of gasification at large scale are well-known. This is not the case with most companies seeking to compete in the next generation arena.

Personal Note on Technology Development

On a personal note, since I have long believed in the promise of gasification as a future solution to our liquid fuel problem, it will come as no surprise that my new role in Hawaii has connections into this area. While a few have figured out what I am doing (and quite a few others know because of various meetings I have attended), I still don’t have the green light to explicitly discuss it. We still have some pieces to put in place, and then I will explain why I believe we are building a platform that is unique in the world. I can say that my new role is as Chief Technology Officer of what we are building, and that it involves quite a few pieces.

One of the things I am very interested in is developing conversion technologies for woody biomass and crop wastes. I have a number of technologies on my plate right now, but I am searching for other pieces that improve the economics (scalability is important).

For example, in the earlier example of the beetle-infested forests, the logistical challenge of getting the biomass to a processing facility – without consuming a large fraction of the BTU value of the tree – is significant. Biomass has a low energy density relative to fossil fuels, and cost-effective technologies are needed for improving that equation. I am speaking to a number of people with promising technologies around this area, but am always open to speaking to others who have ideas, prototypes, or pilot plants demonstrating their technology. You can find my contact e-mail hidden away from the spambots in my resume.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, Coskata, Germany, pyrolysis oil, range fuels, Sasol, South Africa | 124 Comments

Answering Reader Questions 2009: Part 2

In this installment, I continue to work my way through the list of questions recently submitted by readers. This post picks up where Part 1 left off, and covers coal-to-liquids, technology hype, green gasoline, refining improvements, allocation of money toward renewables, electricity consumption, the Automotive X Prize, Big Oil, cellulosic ethanol, and Exxon’s recent algae announcement.

The Questions

Benny wrote: Arlington researchers’ work could lead to $35-a-barrel oil. Any chance of making oil from lignite? At these prices? Or are they just some guys who want research money? Answer

takchess wrote (and Doug also asked about): Thought this was interesting. If cost and technically feasible this would be cool.

Rive Technology Working to Increase Oil Refining Efficiency 7-9% by 2011 Answer

DDHv wrote: The new ionic liquid technique allows easier extraction of cellulose. Do you know if we have enough information yet to do energy and/or economic balances? If so, what are the present results? Improvements are likely, given the novelty of the technique. Answer

John asked: What do you think of pyloric conversion to make “green gasoline”? What are it’s peak lite and environmental ramifications? Specifically referring to an article in the Boston Globe RE: Anellotech and UMAss on July 13th: The greening of gasoline Answer

PeteS asked: How likely is money spent today on renewables to be wasted in retrospect because of “grey swans”? Obviously nobody can predict the future, but I’m thinking more in terms of, say, a plan to completely power a country from wind turbines, versus low-to-medium-probability dramatic improvements in wind-power within a decade or two. Answer

SamG wrote: I hear many theories about electricity consumption and the utility business model (sell more make more). Do you see any mechanism that puts suppliers in the loop for the reduction of consumption (not just demand reduction via passing through higher prices)? Answer

takchess asked: Any comments on this Urea fueled entry into the XPrize auto race?

Alternative Fuel Sciences Answer

John wrote: Americans are being “taxed” at a rate of 200 billion bucks a year to fund the U.S. Military to “baby-sit” the Strait of Hormuz and other oil company interests in the mid-east, etc.

Factor that in and the bio-fuels look good, as do CNG, electric vehicles or bio-fuel-electric hybrids. Imagine that…. a bio-fuel-electric hybrid. That completely shuts out the oil companies and their little “gasoline forever” game. The fact that bio-fuels, CNG and electricity are already cheaper than gasoline must be giving the traditional oil companies nightmares already. Answer

LovesoiL wrote: 1) What is a reasonable pace towards commercialization of ‘1st generation’ alternative fuels, e.g., cellulosic. Many ethanol advocates (DoE, USDA, EPA, US Congress) assume that while only 1 commercial scale facility is currently in construction (Range), somehow 1 billon gallons of annual capacity will get built during the next 3-5 years, and then we’ll build that much (30-40 plants) every year for the next decade?

2) How long is needed to operate a 1st gen facility to optimize its processing and demonstrate profitability before investors will agree to pay another ~$300 million build the 2nd facility?

3) Both Choren and Range fuels have gasification of woody biomass as the first step for their transformation process. Choren finished construction a year ago and has been in the commissioning process ever since. Range says they will finish construction 1Q 2010, and begin ethanol production in 2Q 2010. Can Range really begin production that soon?

4) Ask POET what they think of cellulosic from corn stover. They seem to say that stover has too many collection and handling problems (dirty, low density, etc), and that is one reason they are concentrating on cobs only. Many others assume corn stover will be the primary source of cellulosic feedstock. Answer

Anonymous wrote: While you’re in Alberta, ask about Iogen and when they’ll finally get their cellulosic plant started in Sask. Also, Enerkem has been making news lately, both with a 10 mgy MSW plant and their just-released plans to construct a $100 million R&D facility in Edmonton. EnerkemR&D EnerkemMSWPlant Answer

bts asked: Comments on this partnership between Venter and Exxon?

Exxon to Invest Millions to Make Fuel From Algae Answer

The Answers


You always have to read between the lines. Sometimes people talk about where costs might be “in a few years” or “with technical breakthroughs” – as is often the case with algal biodiesel (and has been the case with oil shale for 100 years). Not that this is necessarily the case here, but those are the kinds of things I look for as I read these press releases. Is it possible to make oil from coal? Sure, it just traditionally takes a lot of energy. Coal into oil is essentially what you are doing with CTL, and there are several variations of the process (including non-gasification options). South Africa has been doing it for a while now.

So what the UTA researchers are describing is a chemical process for turning coal into oil. Such processes do exist, so the question is whether this is novel, cheaper, more efficient, etc. That will require peeling a few more layers of the onion than what one finds in a press release – where the best you may get is caveats. Generally speaking, press releases tend to over-simplify things a lot. If even a tenth of the press releases on “the next big thing” had turned out to be true, we would be living in a very different world. My favorite pasttime might be loading the family up in my cold fusion-powered hovercraft for a family outing. Or knocking out essays on my DNA-based computer (I remember in 1995 or so when this was going to put Intel out of business).

People have all sorts of motives for these press releases. Some are to announce something truly revolutionary. Those are a tiny fraction. More often, it is as you say; someone is trying to catch the eye of someone who might fund them. I have been in a position many times to issue just such a press release, and sometimes I think about that when I see one of these.

For instance, in 1994 at Texas A&M I had an idea to create a cellulose reactor based on the contents of termites’ stomachs. To my knowledge, I was the first person to attempt such a thing. The experiment didn’t turn out very well. My analysis detected only a small amount of butanol in the product. Had my imagination been big enough, here was the press release: “A&M Researcher Turns Trash into Fuel.” For the story, I could project increases in yields, renewable butanol bringing Arab sheiks to their knees, and an actual use for those pesky termites. Of course as my yield projections go up, my cost projections go down, and I could predict that this “may soon lead to sub-$1/gal fuel.” In reality, I considered it a failed experiment, stopped work, and wrote up my dissertation. But that is the sort of experience that always has me looking at these press releases in a pretty skeptical light.

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Jim, this is along the lines of my last answer. People are working on these catalysts all the time. I have spent time in the lab working on gasification catalysts, and sometimes you come across something that looks pretty interesting. Then you try to scale it up and find that it isn’t stable in a larger reactor because the temperatures are hotter than they were in the lab.

Again, without peeling the onion and having a look at what everyone else is doing, it is impossible to tell whether this really amounts to something special. It could be that their competitors have already achieved these milestones and just didn’t issue press releases. Most organizations don’t. I was awarded several patents from my days at ConocoPhillips, but we never issued a press release even though the potential implications of some of them were pretty interesting.

One thing I will say is that from my time in a refinery, there wasn’t 7-9% efficiency gain to be had. We were already pushing the maximum possible conversion efficiency of oil into liquid products, and while you might have squeezed out another 2-3%, no way could you get up into the 8% range. There may be some really inefficient refineries out there that could benefit from this, but we will have to wait a couple of years and see if they actually start penetrating the market. Then you will know that they indeed invented something with a distinct advantage over the competitors.

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There are a couple of developments in cellulose chemistry that I have been watching pretty closely: The ionic liquid techniques that you mentioned, and supercritical cellulose chemistry with either CO2 or ethanol.

Both of these techniques are energy intensive, so a lot of work needs to be done around the economics of these processes relative to competing technologies. A number of questions arise, such as “What other components are extracted along with the cellulose?” Or “What does it take to separate the cellulose from the component used to extract it?” That isn’t to say that these technologies aren’t well-worth further exploration. From an academic standpoint, they are very interesting. In the end, I think they will be hard pressed to compete with gasification if the intent is production of fuels. However, specialty chemicals might turn out to be a good niche application for these techniques.

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Building on the previous answer, I think the more interesting developments in lignocellulosic chemistry are in chemical processing, as opposed to biochemical processing. I discussed this in an essay a couple of years ago, which was about Vinod Khosla’s investment into KiOR. This is their approach as well; to use catalytic processes to produce fuel.

The challenge is that biomass isn’t very energy dense, and these processes require elevated temperatures and pressures. So a key question is how much energy (and in what form) it takes to transport one BTU of biomass and process it into one BTU of fuel. Presently I think the processing energy is a pretty high fraction of the contained energy. Those energy inputs are going to have to come down before these sorts of technologies make much of an impact. The research is certainly promising, and I favor continued government funding. Would I invest in a company based on this concept? Not at this stage of development.

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Generally speaking, I think we are going to look back and see that we wasted tremendous money, time, and resources chasing dead ends. As you say, nobody knows what developments are in front of us. But many are betting that there are revolutionary developments that will transform the energy sector. As a result, they are throwing a lot of money in a lot of different directions. I don’t have a big problem with this if the proper due diligence is done, especially if private money is being used to fund these various ventures. I do agree with Vinod Khosla’s philosophy of spreading his bets across many different technologies. What I find annoying is that often the proper due diligence is not done, and often taxpayer money ends up funding these dead ends. That is money that is truly wasted.

However, one thing to keep in mind with respect to your “grey swans” is that they also have entrenched lobbies to contend with. It may turn out that the grey swan finds itself in a difficult fight to penetrate the market. One particular example I am thinking of is the decision of Congress to kill support for more efficient 2nd generation green diesel production because the inefficient 1st generation producers argued that it would put them out of business. Add in the fact that it was an oil company involved in the 2nd generation technology, and we find that grey swan struggling to survive.

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Sam, I don’t see an easy answer to that. Utilities are in the business of making money. When people reduce consumption it costs them money. Is there a way that they can benefit from that? I suppose in a world in which we are taxing carbon emissions, the savings from lower emissions would partially offset the loss of the sale of the electricity. But truthfully, that will be a small fraction at best. I always had the same issue when I was in the oil business. I wanted to see lower consumption, and I couldn’t see any way the oil companies could benefit directly from that. I think an effective mechanism for enabling suppliers to benefit from lower consumption would really be a game changer. If you think of something, let me know.

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When I first saw this, I thought “That’s one of the strangest energy-related stories I have ever seen.” It reminded me of my reaction to a recent story: Greenland shark may become new source of biofuel. I like the wild and wacky, and both of these fall into that category. But can it make an impact? The problem with the urea idea is that the fuel is actually ammonia and hydrogen. Where do those come from? Mostly from natural gas. If you look at the efficiencies of the processes involved, you would be far better off just to burn the natural gas. So I don’t see it going far in its current form, but I applaud the creativity. Who knows, maybe this will evolve into something more promising.

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John, while I agree that we are spending dollars in the Middle East because of oil, I disagree with several of your points. First, we aren’t spending that money to guard oil company interests. It is being done with the intent to keep cheap oil flowing to the American consumer. So the key interest here is that of the U.S. government, so the voting public is kept happy. Not that there is no benefit to the oil companies, but the government views a military presence there as an important issue of national security – not one of oil company security. If the oil did get cut off, the average person is going to bear the consequences.

I also disagree with your comment that biofuels are cheaper than gasoline. There are some exceptions – like sugarcane ethanol from Brazil – but for the most part gasoline is cheaper based on energy content. For instance, at today’s close ethanol on the CBOT for September delivery was trading for $1.65 a gallon. Gasoline on the NYMEX today was trading for $2.07/gal. However, because of the difference in energy content, the cost of this ethanol was $21.71/MMBTU and the gasoline was $18/MMBTU. With rare exceptions over the years, this has always been the case – and at times the differences have been quite large.

Further, you are kidding yourself if you think the oil companies are running scared. As I have pointed out before, it is a matter of scale. If corn ethanol started to look like a viable, long-term business model for them, the oil companies would just buy their way in as Valero recently did. Oil companies won’t sit around and go extinct because some fancy new biofuel put them out of business. They have big R&D budgets, and their efforts likely cover every biofuel you ever heard of (and many options you probably haven’t).

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1. Put me down as someone who believes that the one currently under construction – Range Fuels – is going to see their schedule continue to slip, and I believe they are going to have a difficult time meeting production goals. Multiple sources are telling me that they have some issues.

Further, the national projected ramp-up in cellulosic ethanol – if it happens at all – will be a fraction of what has been projected. Right now there isn’t even a clear pathway. It’s like marking out the road map for curing various cancers over the next few years. It is great to have such a road map, but you are assuming technological breakthroughs that may not happen. Right now cellulosic ethanol still looks to me like a niche, and not a scalable, mainstream fuel.

2. That’s a good question, because I am aware of just such a situation now. Investors are dragging their feet on Plant #2 because Plant #1 is still not producing per the plan. In general, I think if a 1st gen facility comes online and starts to deliver per expectations, money will start to flow pretty quickly. I would think within 6 months of delivering, investors will be ready to jump in. But it is going to take more than 6 months to optimize production to optimize one of these next generation plants once it starts up. There isn’t a blueprint for success, and novel problems are going to be encountered and have to be solved.

3. No, the schedule for Range will slip because they still have kinks to work out. Write it down and hold me to it.

4. Here is what POET said about stover: “The yield of cobs is 0.65 tons/acre, and we can collect them commingled with grain with a modified combine. Or we can collect them with stover coming out of the back of the combine. The bulk density for cobs is higher than for stover, and that makes them easier to separate. We make sure sufficient stover is left on the field for erosion control and nutrition. We are focused on cobs because the bulk density for cobs is better than for stover, and cobs have 16% more carbohydrates than the stover. We don’t have to leave all stover in the field necessarily over soil depletion issues; we have just chosen to focus on cobs. How much one can remove depends on soil type, location, and tillage practice. Cobs take those variables away.”

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I did ask about both Iogen and Enerkem while I was in Alberta. My hosts were quite skeptical that Iogen will ever build a commercial plant. I will say that they have enough demonstration level experience that it is suspicious that they don’t have plants sprouting up everywhere. After all, they have been producing cellulosic ethanol at small scale for 5 years. There are people that have been producing it for 0 years who are in the process of building plants. Given that governments are throwing money at anything looking like cellulosic ethanol, I think this puts a big question mark over their true commercial viability (at least at the present state of their technology).

There was less talk about Enerkem, and frankly before the trip I didn’t know much about them. The talk I did hear was that Enerkem is really only focused on the front end of a GTL plant (the gasification step). Enerkem’s view is that their post-gasification steps are flexible, and they can produce a variety of chemicals. They have announced that one site will produce ethanol (this is not the most efficient usage of syngas, by the way). Enerkem’s Press Release page certainly implies that they are busy with projects.

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I think there are two approaches to algal fuel that might work. One is if algae can be made to naturally excrete oil. If so, then it may be possible to let the oil layer build up and then skim it. This avoids the materials handling nightmare of separating the algae from the water, and then the oil from the algae. This is apparently the focus of the research. Still, it is a long shot. Exxon’s VP for R&D was quoted as saying “I am not going to sugarcoat this — this is not going to be easy. Any large-scale commercial plants to produce algae-based fuels are at least 5 to 10 years away.” I think that is a realistic assessment. If the breakthrough came tomorrow then you are still looking at piloting and finally commercialization. I don’t think that is likely to happen in 5 years. So first you have to have some technical breakthroughs – and those aren’t a given – and if you pass through that gate then you won’t see this on the market for 10 years. I believe that is a realistic assessment.

The second approach that might work is if a valuable product – such as a pharmaceutical – is being produced as the primary product, and oil is being produced as a co-product. The expense of collecting and processing algae is just too great for oil to be the primary purpose of the operation.

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August 4, 2009 Posted by | algal biodiesel, biodiesel, biogasoline, Choren, coal, ExxonMobil, green diesel, Iogen, range fuels, refining, Vinod Khosla | 39 Comments

Obama’s Secret Meeting With the Oil Industry

Sometimes I come across information that isn’t publicly known. That occasionally happens because I am digging, and I uncover something newsworthy. I can generally report on those kinds of things. But sometimes it is because someone sends me information that is confidential – or they tell me something they learned in confidence. That has happened a couple of times with some of the biofuel companies I have written about. In those cases, I would never use such inside information. While I appreciate the knowledge that my intuitions were correct, it also hampers me from being able to objectively write about those companies in the future.

A particular example I will name (but not the only one) is that of Range Fuels. I have written about them in the past, and while I am a fan of gasification, I don’t think gasification to produce ethanol is the right path. But if you search through my blog, you will find that I have not written much about Range Fuels. Why? Because two different people have passed on sensitive information to me that compromises my ability to criticize the company. Now if I write that I expect Range Fuels to be wildly successful – or not – my writing could be influenced because I know some things that aren’t public. So, I play it safe and generally don’t say much about Range Fuels – even though they would appear to fit the criteria of a company that I would normally focus on.

Such was the case with some juicy information I received last year. In July of last year I received the following tip: Presidential candidate Barack Obama had summoned some of the CEOs of the top oil companies to a secret meeting to talk about energy policy. I knew who was at the meeting, and I knew what the meeting was about.

Some may know that Vice President Dick Cheney also summoned a number of energy executives to private meetings at the White House in 2001, and he had been criticized heavily over the secret meetings:

Document Says Oil Chiefs Met With Cheney Task Force

The task force’s activities attracted complaints from environmentalists, who said they were shut out of the task force discussions while corporate interests were present. The meetings were held in secret and the White House refused to release a list of participants. The task force was made up primarily of Cabinet-level officials. Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club unsuccessfully sued to obtain the records.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who posed the question about the task force, said he will ask the Justice Department today to investigate. “The White House went to great lengths to keep these meetings secret, and now oil executives may be lying to Congress about their role in the Cheney task force,” Lautenberg said.

So now we had Obama conducting secret meetings with Big Oil, but the press didn’t seem to have wind of it. I had a possible scoop on the story. The only problem was that I was asked not to divulge the information. So, I waited until it hit the press. And I waited. And I waited until now, almost a year later. I have finally seen the story in the press for the first time. Not surprising to me that Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson would have the story:

How Obama Made Energy Platform ‘Pop’

After a long day of campaigning on July 8, candidate Barack Obama arrived at his Chicago headquarters for a three-hour brainstorming session about a suddenly hot issue: energy and climate change.

He had summoned a cross section of experts, including top executives from three utilities and two oil companies, the chief energy economist of an investment bank, a climate scientist, a California energy and environment expert, an oil consultant-historian, and several campaign staffers. Despite the late hour, one participant recalled, “He walked in as if he had just gotten up after a refreshing night’s sleep to lead a class. He was clearly there to harvest information and then do something with it.”

My version is slightly different from this. I was told that the meeting happened in D.C. – not Chicago – and it happened on July 10th – not July 8th. Not sure which of those versions is correct [RR: My source has sent me a note correcting previous statements; the meeting was in Chicago on the 8th, although there was a similar meeting on the 10th in D.C.], although I got the information very close to the source. Otherwise, the description of the meeting is consistent with the information I had been given.

To be clear, the Washington Post story isn’t about uncovering a secret meeting with energy industry executives. That bit is just the preamble to the story of how Obama’s energy policy crystallized into a high-profile part of his campaign. Oil and gas prices were headed to record highs, and Obama wanted input from energy insiders on how to tackle energy problems (although I was told that he did most of the talking).

So how will partisans react to this news? Will those who denounced Cheney for his secret meetings now do the same for Obama? I had seen endless speculation that the Cheney meetings were all about carving up Iraq for the oil companies to loot. This, despite there being no public details about the meeting available. Once again, the Washington Post finally broke the news of who some of the attendees were to Cheney’s meetings:

Papers Detail Industry’s Role in Cheney’s Energy Report

Provided a copy of the list, Cheney’s office said he would not comment on it. “The vice president has respectfully but resolutely maintained the importance of protecting the ability of the president and vice president to receive candid advice on important national policy matters in confidence, a principle affirmed by the Supreme Court,” spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said by e-mail.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who unsuccessfully pushed for details of the meetings, said it is “ridiculous” that it has taken six years to see who attended the meetings. He described the energy task force as an early indicator of “how secretively Vice President Cheney wanted to act.”

Waxman said he was not surprised to see the prevalence of energy industry groups on the list of meetings. “Six years later, we see we lost an opportunity to become less dependent on importing oil, on using fossil fuels, which have been a threat to our national security and the well-being of the planet,” he said.

One thing that fueled the speculation was that Cheney fought to keep the names of the participants and the discussions that took place a secret. But that certainly didn’t stop the speculation that the meetings were for planning the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent division of the spoils among the oil companies.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad Obama summoned energy executives to these talks. To formulate a good energy policy you had better be engaging those who provide the energy. I am also sensitive to the fact that this could have been unpopular with his supporters. But I suspect that those who suggested sinister motives behind Cheney’s meetings won’t do the same over Obama’s meetings.

June 1, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, energy policy, politics, range fuels | 45 Comments

My Top 10 Energy Stories of 2007

First, thanks to all who contributed ideas. You may have an entirely different opinion on the most important energy stories. Feel free to share it. Many of these stories were contributed by various readers. Comments by readers are italicized. If you want to know who wrote what, you can see the entire comment thread here.

Here are my Top 10 Energy Stories of 2007

1. Oil price soars as media becomes Peak Oil aware

One reason I felt pretty safe in making the $1,000 bet on oil prices is that a move from $60 – the price in January – to $100 – the price at which I would lose the bet – would be unprecedented. Of course a worldwide peak in oil production will also be unprecedented, and I expect oil prices to soar when that happens. While I still don’t think we have quite peaked, what did happen is that Peak Oil awareness really hit the mainstream in 2007. I started noticing a great many stories on Peak Oil (and quite a few on Peak Lite), especially following the ASPO Conference in October. This was right in the middle of the sharp run-up in prices. So I believe that a major factor contributing to the fast run-up was the sudden realization by a critical mass of people that Peak Oil is on top of us. In that case, the value of oil will be much higher.

In addition to record oil prices, back in the spring we saw record-high gasoline prices as a result of sustained, record-low gasoline inventories. Conditions are currently favoring new record-high gasoline prices in 2008.

2. Criticism of biofuels mounts

The bloom comes off the biofuel rose. European studies showed oil-palm biodiesel was actually worse for the environment due to tropical rainforest destruction, and US corn ethanol plants lost money because of overbuilding. A general biofuel backlash took root due to higher food prices and other side effects.

While I was criticizing corn ethanol before criticizing corn ethanol was cool, in 2007 the media started asking critical questions about water usage, pollution from industrial corn farming, and the impact of ethanol mandates on food prices.

3. The Chevy Volt is announced

GM has dedicated a full product team and allocated a plant for mass production — the first time in history an electric car has achieved such status.

Years after GM killed the electric car, they are bringing it back in the form of the Chevy Volt. I have long advocated the need for the electrification of transportation as one of the key elements in any Peak Oil mitigation plan. Therefore, I am very pleased to see GM making another effort at electric cars.

4. Nanosolar begins to deliver

Cost-effective solar power would be a very big silver BB in a Peak Oil mitigation plan. Nanosolar has the potential to deliver a game-changing thin-film photovoltaic technology. If you don’t know much about Nanosolar, check out this interview with their CEO: 10 Questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen

However, the potential for cost effective solar power also highlights the desperate need to tackle and solve the problem of energy storage for intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar power. Hopefully we will see some breakthroughs there in 2007.

5. LS9 starts up

For years I have dreamed of a microbe that eats garbage and excretes hydrocarbons. The beauty of such a system would be that the hydrocarbons would just phase out of solution, thus ensuring a low-energy purification step. If you think about it, the concept is not that far-fetched. The human body produces fats and fatty acids that are not too far-removed from the hydrocarbons that make up gasoline or diesel. There is no reason, in principle, that a microbe couldn’t be designed to do just that.

The difficulty lies in understanding the metabolic pathways well enough to modify them to produce the target molecule without severely compromising or killing the microbe. This is exactly what LS9 – the “Renewable Petroleum Company”, is attempting to do. And they have certainly assembled a team that just may pull it off.

6. Range Fuels breaks ground

In November Range Fuels – formerly Vinod Khosla’s Kergy venture – announced the groundbreaking of the first commercial “cellulosic” ethanol plant in the U.S. While I dispute the terminology (as I explained in this essay, it is actually a gasification process, which is not specific to cellulose), the process does have a chance to be a success in the long-run. Short-term, I believe they will remain highly dependent on generous subsidies because the capital costs for gasification processes are so high. But on down the road I think gasification makes a lot more sense than most fermentation processes.

One thing that I would have done differently would have been to produce diesel instead of ethanol. Once syngas is produced in a gasification step, there are many different products that can be made. It is not particularly efficient to produce ethanol in this process, but this is the kind of thing you end up with when the government is picking technology winners.

I do think Range Fuels has a high likelihood of becoming a significant technology. What little information is available certainly sounds promising, including the result from EBMUD that the Klepper gasifier was the most efficient.

7. First application for US nuclear plant in 30 years

NRG announces first application for US nuclear plant in 30 years:

NRG South Texas Nuclear

They propose to use GE’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor technology.

My personal belief is that we are going to need nuclear power to continue making a significant contribution toward our electricity needs. This will be especially true if electric transport takes hold. Therefore, I think it is a very big story that 2007 saw the first application for a new U.S. nuclear plant in 30 years.

8. Carbon capture & sequestration moves forward

The FutureGen alliance announces the site for its demonstration plant on Tuesday, Dec. 18:

FutureGen Announcement

For those not familiar with it, FutureGen is a clean coal demonstration plant that will include carbon capture and sequestration. There are 4 finalist sites. Two in Illinois and two in Texas. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate commercial scale CCS technology.

FutureGen selected Mattoon, IL for their site.

FutureGen runs a combined cycle instead of the single cycle of existing coal plants. Combined cycle plants can achieve 50-60% thermal efficiency vs. the 33% typical of single cycle, so it’s quite possible FutureGen will deliver more kWh/ton of coal than existing plants.

9. Progress on next generation biofuels

The biofuel spotlight turned to the future. Dozens of startups focused on cellulosic ethanol, gasification and other next-gen processes competed for headlines with “green diesel”, butanol and other biofuel initiatives from the oil majors.

Most of the oil majors have taken a pass on the ethanol craze, but they are looking at other biofuels. 2007 saw announcements from BP that they would team with D1 Oils to produce biodiesel from jatropha; from ConocoPhillips that they would team with Tyson Foods to produce “green diesel” from waste animal fats; and that BP and Dupont would team up to produce bio-butanol. (I wrote a reality check on bio-butanol here).

10. US Navy funds Bussard Fusion

I think you have to include the US Navy funding Bussard Fusion in there:


Bussard died a couple months ago. I had really given up on fusion, but his work actually appears to have a reasonable change to work. Hopefully with more funding his team will be able to make it work.

Yes, Dr. Bussard’s work will be carried on. First step is to construct WB-7 and replicate the results achieved with WB-6. Hopefully by the end of April 2008. If that works, then on to WB-8, and then an actual power generating plant.

The rest of the list (in no particular order), many of which could have easily been in the Top 10 list:

11. King Coal is still king

If we look for the stories that did not attract attention, surely one of the big ones has to be the continued surprising vitality of the international coal industry. King Coal has officially been dead for a long time. Who would have predicted that, 10 years after Kyoto, coal would once more be where it’s at, supplying more Btus to the world than ever before?

12. US Coal Plant cancellations, headlined by TXU cancelling 8 of 11 planned plants.

CO2, the primary driver behind the other half of our top 10 stories, has long played in Europe but will only achieve global influence by spreading through the US into the developing world. 2007’s coal plant cancellations marked the tipping point.

13. Al Gore wins Nobel Prize for work on Global Warming

Gore’s tireless efforts to educate the world on Global Warming was recognized with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Tiny Carthage, Tennessee now claims two Nobel Laureates. (Cordell Hull is the other).

14. Shell releases details of their shale oil process

Probably the most important energy announcement was Shell’s release of info on their proprietary in-situ process for generating oil from oil shale. Could open a whole new branch of the oil industry, put a cap on the price of oil from conventional fields, and thereby inject some realism into windy dreams. But it turns out that Shell has been working towards this for about a quarter of a century. “Incremental advances” indeed!

15. Resource nationalization grows

While the seizure of the assets of international oil companies by Hugo Chavez got the most press, many other countries are moving to nationalize their oil resources. Many other countries, and even states like Alaska, are also passing laws to increase their tax revenues from the extraction of oil. The U.S. needs to sit up and take notice, because this will further constrain supplies. We can’t continue to count on a steady supply of oil from countries who don’t like us, yet we lack the political will to reduce our dependence on these countries.

16. New efficiency record for silicon PV – 42.8 percent from sunlight at standard terrestrial conditions


The highly efficient VHESC solar cell uses a novel lateral optical concentrating system that splits solar light into three different energy bins of high, medium and low, and directs them onto cells of various light sensitive materials to cover the solar spectrum. The system delivers variable concentrations to the different solar cell elements. The concentrator is stationary with a wide acceptance angle optical system that captures large amounts of light and eliminates the need for complicated tracking devices.

In a way I find the Nanosolar story more compelling since they are actually in commercial production now. Still, the prospect of high efficiency PV without using exotic and/or toxic materials gives me hope.

17. Manpower shortages in the energy sector

Big Oil’s Talent Hunt

From the article:

ConocoPhillips (COP) has grand plans. With demand for oil soaring, the company announced on Dec. 7 that it will boost its exploration and production budget by 8%, to $11 billion, a war chest intended to fund massive projects from Canada to China to the Caspian Sea.

But there’s a potential obstacle to the company’s vision: not enough people to get the work done. Half of Conoco’s employees are eligible for retirement within five years. Unless older workers can be replaced, Conoco’s expansion could be costlier and slower than planned. In an interview with BusinessWeek, CEO James J. Mulva said that the lack of talent is one of the most dangerous threats to his company’s long-term health. “People are a big concern,” he said.

This is not just a big oil story. Lack of workers is hitting all sectors of the energy industry. It seems that college students would rather be lawyers or investment bankers than scientists and engineers.

18. Texas surpassed California in wind energy

This signals a shift in wind from high-cost, subsidized eco-darling to cost-effective energy source. As the low-cost provider, wind now thrives in low bureaucracy states such as former oil-king Texas. Meanwhile high-regulation states such as California lag behind.

19. Potential PV improvement

Potential improvement on PV front

Transparent electrodes created from atom-thick carbon sheets could make solar cells and LCDs without depleting precious mineral resources, say researchers in Germany.

Solar cells, LCDs, and some other devices, must have transparent electrodes in parts of their designs to let light in or out. These electrodes are usually made from indium tin oxide (ITO) but experts calculate that there is only 10 years’ worth of indium left on the planet, with LCD panels consuming the majority of existing stocks.

“There is not enough indium on earth for the future development of devices using it,” says Linjie Zhi of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany. “It is also not very stable, so you have to be careful during the fabrication process.”

20. Study analyzes off shore wind in US Northeast


The wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia–with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand–according to a study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University.

The study marks the first empirical analysis in the United States of a large-scale region’s potential offshore wind-energy supply using a model that links geophysics with wind-electric technology–and that defines where wind turbines at sea may be located in relation to water depth, geology and “exclusion zones” for bird flyways, shipping lanes and other uses.

21. A123Systems mass produces next generation lithium batteries

Shipping in DeWalt’s 2007 line of 36V cordless power tools, these new cells mark the 5th wave of rechargeable batteries (lead-acid, NiCad, NiMH, Li-ion and now advanced lithium). Advanced lithium chemistries from A123 and dozens of other vendors offer the possibility of cost-effective plug-in hybrids as well as applications in the electrical grid.

22. Electricity shortages, particularly in the developing world

Some appear to be related to climate change — droughts that require major hydro cutbacks. Some are clearly due to oil prices/supplies — poor countries that burn heavy diesel in their power plants and can’t afford it at the new world prices. Some are due to bad bets on fuel sources — natural gas generators put in, and the gas supply declining sooner than planned.

23. Solar thermal heats up

For decades the SEGS parabolic trough plant in California’s Mojave desert stood alone as the only large-scale CSP plant on earth, but 2007 saw a rebirth of this technology with the inauguration of the 64MW Nevada Solar One plant and construction of plants in Spain, Australia and elsewhere. California utilities have ordered up to 1750 MW of capacity from dish-Stirling purveyor Stirling Energy Systems and startups such as Ausra are pushing the price/performance barrier with linear Fresnel architectures.

24. First Solar market value hits $20 billion

As the first mass producer of non-silicon thin film PV, FSLR cashed in big-time in 2007. Their $1.40/W manufacturing cost is a huge competitive advantage, yielding fat profits and an eye-popping 200% growth rate. True to their name, First Solar got out of the gate first, but other non-Si players are still in the race. Companies using CIGS, including the much-hyped but yet-to-deliver Nanosolar, promise to break the $1/W barrier.

25. Cooper Pairs in insulators


One of the AIP’s top stories of the year, this discovery may well help us reach a better understanding of superconductivity and insulators both. Superconductivity is of course a holy grail in energy research, and while this discovery doesn’t directly lead to a room temp superconductor, it does add to the fundamental knowledge of material in the solid state.

26. Medvedev slated to take over from Putin


Essentially Putin’s Russia will continue, and that has direct implication for all the fossil fuel industry in Asia, regarding everything from global warming to export control to defense postures. Putin’s Russia, one of an energy oligarchy, will continue to express those policies likely for a good portion of the 21st century.

27. Conditions in Iraq improve enough to get the oil industry back online


Opening the possibility that Iraq just might return to a functioning member of OPEC has direct implications on the availability of oil for import around the world.

28. USAF test flight of transport aircraft C-17 using CTL synthetic fuel


This heralds the onset of CTL and likely portrays our (US) future over the next couple of decades.

29. And now, for my wildcat speculation of the most important news item:

Namibia: Expert Confident About Oil Reserves

Southwest Africa will turn out to be a major oil exporting region over the next couple of decades, slowing the decrease in available net exports of oil.

30. The response of the global economy to the large increase in oil prices

Most people would have probably assumed that $90 oil would have caused mayhem in the global economy a year or two ago. Yet the effect has been relatively muted. I think this says a lot about how effectively individuals, businesses (and hats off to alternative energy firms), and governments have responded to increasing oil prices over the long term. Oil now has a much smaller (I believe around 50%) impact per GDP than it did in the 1970’s in most of the big western economies, including the US.

31. Tesla troubles

A not-positive but nevertheless noteworthy story is Tesla Motors recent troubles with putting the final touches on its long-awaited car, particularly with the transmission failure and the management shuffling.

And I love this suggestion for 2008. What a great idea this would be:

My favorite energy story for 2008 would be — Congress recognizes they cannot pick winners, and instead sets up a multi-billion dollar X-Prize competition for the first three alternate energy sources to supply reliable commercial-scale power at costs competitive with fossils.

So those were the energy stories that I, or various readers thought were significant in 2007. Were there other significant stories that we missed?

Looking back at the list, many (most?) of the stories were not anticipated at the beginning of the year. So, who knows what 2008 will bring. Any thoughts?

December 22, 2007 Posted by | Al Gore, Chevy Volt, ConocoPhillips, ethanol, food prices, LS9, nuclear energy, oil prices, Peak Oil, range fuels, reader submission, solar efficiency, solar power, Tyson Foods | 12 Comments

Help Brainstorm the Top Energy Stories of 2007

While Platts has done a great job listing all of the major oil company stories of 2007, I am working on a Top 10 list for energy in general. I am about to be offline for a few days, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to gather input on the top energy stories of the year. My short (non-oil company) list of potential candidates would be Nanosolar, the Chevy Volt announcement, the LS9 start-up, the Range Fuels groundbreaking, the BP/D1 jatropha announcement, and the COP/Tyson green diesel announcement. Those are some that spring to my mind.

What else? I am struggling to remember any major developments in wind, tidal, or geothermal power. What about coal? Nuclear? Feel free to debate the list as well. I will check in later on next week and start crafting a post around the list.

December 15, 2007 Posted by | Chevy Volt, ConocoPhillips, LS9, Nanosolar, range fuels, Tyson Foods | 116 Comments