Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some more of my thoughts on Food vs. Fuel

Please consider a few thoughts I regularly mention when presenting on biofuels and the food-versus-food debate is brought up by someone who simultaneously thinks that biofuels are a net-energy loser but somehow agriculture is more energy positive without it.

Propose the question: "Where does ethanol come from?"

Corn carbohydrate.

Or to be exact something likely to be processed into corn-syrup (a process that takes energy as well) and then sold as a cheap filler to real food. This processed food being most aptly described recently in the book In Defense of Food as being a "food-like-substance".

The only thing sustained by corn-carbohydrate in the US is diabetes. Corn protein on the other hand is highly sought by any agricultural process feeding animals. The corn mash is the real value of corn and it is preserved in the process passed along as a value added good to feed lots.

Ethanol allows a growing corn market with a safer off-take partner in our vehicles appetites versus that of the low-price-leader junk food manufacturer. It also provides more high protein for the market with a wider future market mix for this agricultural input. In short, I don't weep for Lil Debbie's price pressures at my local 7-Eleven.

The next step, sustainability, is to improve our process. Reduce the inputs of petroleum fertilizer, water, and ultimately CO2 emissions while increasing our productivity. To reduce the inputs while maintaining or growing crop yields is the definition of wealth creation. This is the crux of business sustainability and the 'Lever of Riches' presented to us by the new clean tech movement afoot. Making more with less and improving the overall quality of life for those at every step of the value chain.

In the past the focus has always been on more. More calories, more weight, more yields. Now we must focus on quality and ethanol gives us a floor to work with. A floor for the transition from MORE to BETTER.

I realize that there are many who see no value in American mainstream Agriculture. They only see mono-crops, GMO's, and a spendthrift approach to consuming inputs in the ever expanding welfare state of Corporate farming. I on the other hand tend to look at modern American agriculture similarly as to how I consider the Egyptian pyramids. A giant monument of what human ingenuity can achieve. Overlooking the issues of human bondage and destruction these monuments to Pharaoh ego represent. Between the pessimist and optimist positions there is a huge middle ground of progress that can be achieved.

Food versus Fuel is the definitive issue of this middle ground. Where today is not a position of optimum results but it is definitely worth building upon. Progress can be had and I believe that ethanol moves us further towards a total better result than a farm and energy policy that doesn't include it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Purdue's Library of Sustainable Energy

Purdue University Extension has put together and launched a website on "Renewable Energy" which showcases a great collection of information.

I really liked was the collection of simple and easy to read information. Purdue seems to even give Wikipedia a run for its money on some subjects. I really like the platform of PDF's and whoever put this together did an awesome job.

If you are doing research on the subject it provides a great resource in one place. I would rank this collection of information up there with the Oregon Environmental Council and Northwest Biofuels Association similar efforts. One difference though. Purdue covers new ground.

I don't agree 100% with what I've read so far. Regardless, Purdue's website is worth the bookmark!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cascade Grains Files for Chapter 11 Protection

Its been a rough few months for the ethanol industry. First with falling commodity pricing washing away the protective assumptions of a hedged position. Then a recession reduced fuel consumption further reducing not only the price of gasoline but the mandate blend usages expected in Oregon.

To compound this Cascade Grain also shipped some product with (from what I've been told second hand) ASTM spec fuel that exceeding a sulfate content that threw the ethanol out of specification use by a major refinery selling E10 gasoline to retail users. This same (less than reliable rumor) source told me that the cause was the well water used in the manufacture of the product which had sulfur in it to begin with .

(NOTE: I have no idea if the above is true this is all second hand information that sounded plausible enough to post. If incorrect I will gladly pull this down and apologize).

This being reported in far less detail as part of the Chapter 11 story in the following news papers.
See it in the Portland Business Journal, Seattle Post Intelligence, an AP mention in the Oregonian (where I first saw the story this morning) and the local community to the plant the Longview Daily News

The best reporting on the subject is the local Longview Daily News. I recomend reading that first.

Algea from city waste. A common idea actually going forward.

In biofuels there are few unique ideas. What really constitutes a breakthrough (much like artistic projects) isn't the concept but finding a patron to move a project from the drawing board to demonstration.

Reuters UK reports a Dutch experiment going forward. Dutch biotechnology firm Ingrepro is the project developer moving waste streams into biomass.

"The waste of biomethane (biogas) plants has very rich nutrients left over. At the moment they just pump it to the river or throw it away -- but we say next to these biomethane plants you need to build algal ponds to grow biomass."

What I like about this is the co-locate with an existing methane recovery program. The fact that you already have an existing successful energy project sweetens the deal. In a future where CO2 off-set projects are going to be looking for easy to utilize methane to capture I see this as a nifty model to move algae projects forward as well.

So if the capital costs of a algae project are covered by an existing methane project with experienced technical staff capable of managing an algal operation that only leaves the cash value of monetizing the algae biomass. Ingrepro claims their market will be jet fuel.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tesla Motors is on Track

It looks like it might really happen for Tesla Motors.

Wired Magazine's blog shows a teaser photo (shown above) and quotes the CEO Elon Musk as claiming that they are on track to be delivering vehicles shortly as well as providing electric power-trains for other auto manufacturers. This delivery of real, live, operating electric powered cars in turn making them profitable before the end of the year.

Looks like its either time for doubters to double down their negativity bets or start getting as excited as the rest of us.