Skepticism in renewable fuels

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.

Switch grass

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.

5 Comments

  • March 3, 2011 - 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Claims should definitely be taken with a grain of salt as they’re written as much to generate capital to move technology out of the lab as anything else. You’ll probably see a lot of this over the summer with people running to invest thinking “We need to make fuel now!” without realizing that even with a mature technology it takes two to three years to construct a full-scale plant.

    To put this into perspective, the first two liters of ASTM-certified (aka legal for on road use) algae-derived biodiesel was made just a few months ago with construction of full-scale plants just now getting underway.

    Biomass is an interesting case: We will probably see cellulose track crude oil prices as the technology to turn it into fuel becomes more widely available, but there are cases where companies will also leverage internally-produced products for their own use. New Zealand’s production is dominated by ethanol produced from whey and process water left over from cheese making. This is processed into ethanol that can either be sold or used in plant burners displacing natural gas. Likewise sewage plants and landfills already produce methane, but with upgrading this can be used in vehicles and natural gas lines, while properly treated sewage waste can also be sold as fertilizer.

    As for thermal depolymerization, the plant in question had numerous complaints about odor and the parent company didn’t have the funds to outfit it to deal with the smell.
    It was recently purchased and will reopen. The last I heard the plant will use waste oils and fats instead of turkey feathers which should also mitigate some of the problems the plant had.

  • Nick/295bus
    March 4, 2011 - 3:58 am | Permalink

    I tend to agree with you. On the other hand, probably batteries will continue to improve and full electric cars will be practical in a few years.

    The reason I think this is worth discussing here is because I worry sometimes that us “alternative transportation” advocates probably rely too much on peak-oil/global warming arguments against cars.

    The best reasons to encourage people to ride bikes & transit are (a) it’s good for you, (b) cars make the local environment crappy for humans, (c) better use of land.

    Although in the near/medium term I think the arguments you make here will be important: we’ll run out of oil, and composting’s not going to keep the cars moving. Ha ha!

  • March 4, 2011 - 7:43 am | Permalink

    Actually, biogas production is composting that captures the gas that comes off of the rotting organic matter. If you have a CNG car you really could power it with fuel from compost.

    We aren’t going to get away from petroleum using just biofuels, battery-powered vehicles, civic planning, or public transportation. It’s going to take all of those.

  • March 4, 2011 - 1:27 pm | Permalink

    It is a very American thing to think the only way for us to be saved in any situation is technology. I recently watched a Nova series about new technology, and my potentially new products seemed to jump through an extremely large number of loops to solve problems that some simple behavior changes would address. We need to be reminded that innovation is not just about technology. Its about doing things differently.

  • March 4, 2011 - 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Reducing our energy use can be done today and is truly free.

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