These days, I mostly ignore claims of breakthroughs and innovations in renewable and alternative fuels that the technology and green blogs so breathlessly report on. Energy from plastic bags, algae, sewage waste, hemp fibers and so forth sounds wonderful, but a lot of energy reporting comes across a lot like what I pass along as “news” here on this cycling blog — just a rehash of press releases and marketing fluff.
Robert Rapier has a chemical engineering degree and real world experience in industrial chemical processes and in the oil industry. Today, he’s Chief Technology Officer at a renewable energy company. His uses his expertise as technologist for a firm that evaluates and invests in renewables efforts.
Last year, Rapier wrote up a list of bad assumptions that lead to the failure of most renewable energy efforts. His top bad assumption? The idea that biomass will always be free to cheap.
I see many companies claim that they will produce cheap biofuel, but when you take a closer look they are basing that on getting cheap, free, or even negatively valued biomass. Unless one can lock up a long-term supply agreement with someone who has a track record of being able to deliver biomass, I don’t think this assumption will hold up. Further, farmers are going to command the highest price they can get for any purpose-grown biomass. So I think the dreams of cheap switchgrass or miscanthus enabling cheap biofuels will fail to materialize. It won’t cost any less than it costs to buy hay from those same farmers today. In fact, it will probably cost more.
He lists several more bad assumptions at his blog.
He followed up on this with his guide to due diligence for renewable energy claims. He encourages investors and reporters alike to investigate the claims.
There are a few energy claims that are pure snake oil, and there are a few that maybe are right on the money, but the big part of any news in renewable energy falls somewhere between these two extremes. He reminds his readers that making the hurdle from the lab to real production is often what breaks the bank. (Does anybody remember thermal depolymerization?) He tells potential investors and reporters what questions to ask, and tells them how and where they can dig up more information. He reminds you and I to read between the lines and use common sense.
It’s a good guide worth reading for anybody interested in the topic. I like to keep an open but skeptical mind on this stuff.
Disclosure: I’m not a hater on this stuff, but I do think some of our efforts could be directed toward more useful and beneficial changes to reduce energy use instead of merely shuffling things around. My dad’s been tinkering with solar energy since the mid 80s. Today, he has over 3 kW of photovoltaic generating capacity on his roof supplemented with a small windmill. His home is mostly heated through solar power as well.