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Aggregating Energy Since 2006


Ethanol and biodiesel mostly

Study evaluates clean energy technologies and declares winners

And the winner is wind! According to a study done by Mark Z. Jacobsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, wind the cleanest of the "clean energy" technologies. Other winners, in order, are concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave, and hydroelectric. The losers include biofuels, nuclear, and "clean coal," which Jacobsen says are not nearly as clean as currently touted.

Not a huge surprise, but he used an apparently new method:

Jacobson has conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of the proposed, major, energy-related solutions by assessing not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.

For more information, see:

Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security
Wind, Water, and Sun Beat Biofuels, Nuclear, and Coal for Clean Energy
Stanford University Professor - Mark Z Jacobsen

theWatt Podcast

Despite my lack of posts over the past year or so, Ben Kenney invited me to participate in his weekly discussion podcast last week. I enjoyed the show - in which we talked a lot about biofuels and hot topics like Al Gore's $300 million campaign. It is especially interesting to talk with folks outside the U.S. - Canada and England in this case.

Food Prices

The March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Policy discusses high wheat prices in its FP Quiz. I found the following interesting:

Although the price of gold rose 35 percent and the price of oil skyrocketed 57 percent in 2007, the price of wheat grew a staggering 80 percent during the same period. According to the International Grains Council, a ton of American hard red winter wheat -- the common standard for the price of wheat -- sold for $203 in early January before leaping to $365 by the end of December, thanks to rising demand in developing countries and heavy droughts.

No talk of biofuels? I guess they should talk to Shell Oil. I just wanted to note this because rising food prices involve many factors despite the one sided coverage that likes to insist they are heavily dependent on corn prices.

I would guess another factor is the high price of oil, which drives up transportation costs. And as extreme weather events from global climate change increase in intensity and frequency, food prices will continue to rise regardless of biofuels policy.

This suggests to me that we may want to encourage some sort of change in policy if we are worried about people not being able to afford food. But I'm guessing the concerns for food prices are driven largely by cynical anti-biofuels interests who will go back to ignoring the plight or the poor immediately after their anti-biofuels polices were enacted.

Ethanol & GHGs

Biofuels have been tarred this week following some research in Science suggesting GHGs may be increased under some scenarios involving expanding use of biofuels.

In fact, our own local "weakest link" columnist got a column on MSNBC in which she continues her 100% always wrong streak.

Not that I'm coming back after a long posting hiatus to take cheap shots at people I disagree with. But I hate this sensationalist crap. Look, I'm not an expert on biofuels - and what I do know makes me think we need to rapidly slow the amount of driving we do rather than find a new fuel. But to claim that biofuels are increasing greenhouse gases today is absurd.

We should study just how effective they are though. So, kudos to those who are examining the true effects of expanding biofuel production and a giant sigh at those who trumpet some half-baked claims because it runs counter to the prevailing wisdom.

Disclosure: I work for the folks who put out this report debunking the claims made by some over-reaching researchers and the press on GHGs and ethanol. However, I don't do any energy work for them. I'm a tech-telecom geek.

From what I can tell, there are some environmentally destructive practices that are ultimately counterproductive when it comes to biofuels. However, most of what I have heard has been to produce biodiesel - which is why we need smart legislation that looks at the GHG emissions associated with each fuel and the manner in which it is produced. Coal-fired ethanol is right stupid. Planting non-native trees to produce biodiesel will probably bite us in the long run. Let's be smart folks, but let's be rigorous too.

Minnesota could be headed for higher biodiesel mandate

Minnesota is already ahead of much of the nation with its current B2 mandate and if Pawlenty and Minnesota state legislators are of like minds, that mandate would gradually increase to B20 by 2015.    See  

News Breeze


A drive-by look at interesting news stories just now...

Governor Pawlenty signed the omnibus ag bill. Mostly. Agri News covered the bill and its broad details.

As ethanol plants come off the state subsidy, other ag programs will receive that funding, Juhnke said. The money is going toward value-added research and NextGen ethanol now.

For whatever reason, Agri News does not talk about the Governor's two line-item vetos that eliminated spending on sustainable agriculture. Fortunately, Loon Commons covered it.

Nationally, the U.S. Senate is looking to improve fuel efficiency standards in cars.

Finally, on the West Coast, California has some problems with their solar industry. The L.A. Times covered the problem on May 8.

The problem appears to be that the rebate program requires customers to enroll in a variable pricing program. The program charges more for electricity during peak times than during periods of low demand. These higher prices means that people have to build a large enough system to cover all their electricity needs during those peak hours or risk making their investment uneconomical due to the increased cost of the electricity (though less is purchased overall).

Their electricity prices are stunningly high, with peak residential charges more 3 times higher than ours. Compare that with recent claims that businesses will flee MN if the cost of electricity rises by a few cents per kilowatt-hour (claimed during committee hearings around the climate change bill). Seems to me that California remains an economic powerhouse despite its high energy prices. It also conserves far more electricity than any other state.

I'm a supporter of time-of-day pricing. I think people should understand the impact of their energy usage - if they want to use lots of electricity during high demand, they should pay extra because that usage stresses the system far more than during periods of low-medium demand. The grid has a limited capacity and increasing that capacity is costly. Perhaps we can delay investments to increase the capacity of the grid by forcing people to pay for their usage.

However, pushing more usage to low demand periods will likely increased coal-based generation. That is why I think the variable pricing system should heavily encourage renewable energy with an artificial floor. Thus, the price of electricity would not drop below $.08 per kilowatt-hour regardless of demand unless there was a lot of wind on the grid at the time. As this floor would generate excess profits, that money could be diverted into conservation funds or revolving loan programs to encourage renewable development.

Capitol News

Last week's Minnesota House Session Weekly (pdf) details some of the wrangling over the Global Warming Mitigation Act and discusses increases in biofuels funding.

I hope to return to a regular posting schedule after in 1-2 weeks. As soon as I finish my coursework for the grad degree, I will devote a lot of time to creating original posts and covering local energy events. Thanks for sticking with us.

Sen. Klobuchar: Ethanol = Univac, Cellulosic Biofuels = PC

Corn EthanolSenator Amy Klobuchar made the analogy at a policy presentation on climate change sponsored by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey Institute.

For those less technically inclined, UNIVAC I was the first commercial computer. It used 5,200 vacuum tubes, weighed 29,000 pounds and consumed 125 kW according to Wikipedia. An apt comparison for those familiar with the corn ethanol vs. cellulosic biofuel debate.

While I could not attend due to class, a hat tip to Jeff Fecke at the Minnesota Monitor - he's posted a thorough live blog of the event.

Other notable comments from Fecke's live blog and Strib article:

  • Klobuchar is starting a "Carbon Busters!" award program (complete with generic superhero), which will be given to government, business, and schools that work to reduce their carbon footprints.

  • Thinks cap and trade is the most realistic short-term solution

  • "We don't need a silver bullet, we need silver buckshot."

Note that I am uncertain if the "generic" superhero of the Carbon Busters! program was Klobuchar's or Fecke's dry wit.

Future policy presentations will include other members of the Minnesota congressional delegation. Call your representative now if you want to see more energy related presentations.

Update: The presentation was heavily covered in the blog world -

Tom Elko at Sky Blue Waters, Flash at Centrisity and M. Brodkorb at Minnesota Democrats Exposed.  Another quote of Klobuchar I didn't see anywhere but the UMN Daily:

"This isn't just about 8-year-olds crying about penguins anymore."



WashPo Does Dr. Tilman

Prairie Photo

Sky Blue Waters linked to a a Washington Post interview with U of Minnesota's own Dr. Tilman on biofuels. The article is entitled "Outlook: The Negligible Benefits of Food-Based Biofuels Focusing on Current Ethanol Sources Could Raise Food Prices, Hurt the Environment -- and Make Almost No Impact on Fossil Fuel Use."

These questions from readers came after Dr. Tilman and Jason Hill published "Corn Can't Solve Our Problem" in the Post on 25 March.

Ethanol and Coal

Using coal to produce ethanol and a really dumb idea and state policies should guard strongly against it. Though using coal makes ethanol production significantly cheaper, the environmental impact is worse than actually continuing reliance on gasoline. It increases emissions of all kinds and generally is poor for the environment.

Nonetheless, some ethanol producers in MN are moving toward coal rather than natural gas. I'm thrilled to see California using intelligent policies to blunt that trend.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his state's Legislature have embraced a plan to rate all motor fuels by greenhouse gas emissions over their entire life cycles, from production to transportation to ignition.

Measured that way, ethanol made from plant residue would earn an excellent rating. Ethanol from corn would do moderately well. And corn ethanol made in a coal-fired plant? That would rate poorly — even lower than ordinary gasoline, according to Schwarzenegger's office.

Using coal to produce biofuels negates the environmental reasons to embrace biofuels and, in my opinion, causes more harm than good.

Ethanol and Coal

Given the short-sighted and counterproductive idea of using coal to produce ethanol (rather than natural gas), I was at first horrified to read about a new ethanol plant in North Dakota which uses coal.

Then I realized it was using waste heat from the coal plant.

The ethanol plant is co-located with the 1,100 MW Coal Creek Station and will use excess heat from the adjacent power plant to process an estimated 18 million bushels of corn into 50 million gallons of fuel ethanol annually. Blue Flint may be unique in the ethanol industry in its co-location with the power plant.

While this strikes me as a good idea from Headwaters and Great River Energy, I see that they are also cooperating on a coal-to-liquids plant. Coal to liquids is awesome for the anti-oil-import crowd but a rather poor idea after factoring in the externalities of coal extraction and climate change.

Introducing Green Options!

If you are looking for ways to "green the good life," then start today, because you now have a fantastic tool at your fingertips. Green Options is a site that provides practical, personal information on ways we can all live a more efficient, healthy, and eco-friendly lifestyle. I'm blogging daily there as well, covering the national renewable energy scene.

In addition to a blog hosted by a stable of writers covering issues like green business, politics (the site is strictly nonpartisan), and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) posts, Green Options features a Green Life Guide, discussion forums, daily green news, and other tools.

We haven't even been live for a full month yet, but we're adding more tools all the time and still have more to come. In response to suggestions that we cover more geographic areas then just green living in the United States, we've added a blogger from Israel and may be adding more. And stay tuned for more practical, applicable tools coming out in the near future to help you incorporate renewable energy into your life.

Hybrid Buses and Biodiesel

I thought this story was interesting. It comes from the Session Weekly from 2 February, 2007. Session Weekly is a non-partisan publication that covers the Minnesota House.

Metro Transit, the bus service serving much of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, is trying to make its bus exhaust fumes more environmentally friendly.

"We are the largest user of fuel in the state of Minnesota, we we take environmental issuse quite seriously," Peter Bell, Metropolitan Council chairman, told the House Transportation Finance Division Jan. 25. No action was taken.

The system now uses ultra-low sulfur fuel, instead of just low sulfur fuel; since July 2006 it has used 5 percent biodiesel in its buses; and it is testing a fuel that is 20 percent biodiesel.

Currently the system operates three hybrid buses, and Bell said the intent is to purchase 150 more by 2011.

Doing so would likely be more expensive. A 40-foot hybrid bus now has a price tag of about $500,000 but he expects the cost to decrease with improved technology. The current diesel buses cost about $315,000.

However, Bull noted that Metro Transit would use 19,682 fewer gallons of diesel fuel over the 12-year lifespan of a hybrid bus. "The cost savings of the diesel doesn't make up for the $185,000 difference," he said. "But who knows what will happen to the price of fuel."

In addition to running more quietly, Bell said hybrid buses should emit 91 percent less particulate matter, mainly soot, and 85 percent less nitrogen oxide.

Other changes to the current fleet have reduced particulate matter emissions from 85 tons per year in 1995 to a projected 12.8 tons this year and 8 tons by 2011.

U Alumni Challenge Corn Biofuels

I first saw this story on Loon Commons - Minnesota Magazine published an article detailing problems with corn-based ethanol. Apparently, Governor Pawlenty did not like it, but the article appears to be pretty accurate. Read the original article here.

I found the 4th problem quite interesting - the one that discusses greenhouse gases.

Ethanol indeed reduces air pollution—in small doses. Ethanol has become a much-needed replacement for the gasoline additive MBTE (a possible carcinogen and pervasive groundwater pollutant) to help gasoline burn cleaner. Blending a small amount of ethanol with gasoline reduces carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulates.

But when you look at the entire life-cycle of ethanol—from growing to harvest to processing to combustion—burning E85 (85 percent ethanol) as fuel actually produces more carbon monoxide, volatile organics, particulates, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen than an energy-equivalent amount of gasoline, according to the University’s study.

And ethanol doesn’t do much to address the big issue: global warming. "We found corn ethanol as currently produced saves about 12 percent greenhouse gases from gasoline," Hill says. And that’s if the corn is grown on existing fields. "If you take land out of CRP you may have a net greenhouse gas release." That would actually exacerbate global warming.

The actual GHG savings of corn-based E85 are doubtful. Though U studies show corn-based ethanol is energy positive, it does not offer a sizable reduction.

Because so much fossil fuel is burned just to make ethanol, turning our entire corn crop to ethanol production would reduce our fossil fuel use by just 2.4 percent.

This article highlights the need for many solutions to do a little each. Corn-based ethanol can do a little and Minnesota is right to encourage it. We need to make other changes as well though and the most important is to reduce what we demand.

By making housing developments in a transit-friendly manner and raising the price of gas (slowly, over time) via a tax, we will reduce demand for all liquid fuels. This is a key step in the process because no new fuel will allow us to continue and certainly not add to present consumption.

Bush acts on energy efficiency and renewable energy

The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office of the US Department of Energy is reporting today that President Bush signed Executive Order 13423 calling for increased energy efficiency in Federal Government operations and increased usage of energy from renewable sources.

Following are summaries of the directives in the order:

  • Agencies must reduce their energy intensity 3% per year or by 30% by 2015 relative to their 2003 baseline.
  • That at least half of mandated renewable energy use come from newer facilities. Agencies are also encouraged to work to have renewable energy sources constructed on agency property.
  • Agencies must reduce their water usage intensity by 2% annually or by 16% by 2015 relative to their 2003 baseline.
  • Requires increased sustainability in goods purchased and used by agencies. This includes requiring paper have at least 20% recycled content, use of bio-based products, and energy efficiency products.
  • Agencies to improve waste management including increasing recycling, reducing use and disposal of toxic materials, and improved waste handling.
  • Ensure that new buildings comply with the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings. 15% of all Federal buildings are to meet these guidelines by 2015.
  • The fleets reduce petroleum product usage by 2% annually and increase portion of fuel used that is non-petroleum-based (yes, it says non-petroleum instead of renewable) by 10% per year.
  • Increased use of Energy Star products.

Many of the provisions listed above are mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

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