Sunday, April 27, 2008

Biofuels Update

A year ago last February I made my first post on this Blog. Among other things, I expressed my dissatisfaction with President Bush for his corn-based ethanol thrust and for ignoring the potential of wood. At that time I wrote “maybe we will come to understand that people would rather eat than have gasoline made from corn ethanol. Or see timberland and wildlife habitat cleared for corn fields. Perhaps soon a President will wake up to the fact that he/she has a nation with forests capable of providing ethanol (and other forms of fuel) and a very capable research team already in place that is capable of making it happen. Then forest productivity will once again be a major issue and timberland investors will be smiling. And capital will flow to forest research!”

To President Bush's credit, he woke up quite quickly and began a very real push for cellulosic ethanol research as well. Perhaps less well known is his core strategy of “next-generation-biofuels production from nonfood feedstocks”. At any rate, now would be a good time to assess what has happened since that original post.

First, the nation (world) now clearly understands that corn ethanol is not the solution or even a part of the solution. Corn ethanol's high energy inputs, very limited carbon reduction (if any), clearing of forest land, and hard pressure on food prices are all serious consequences that have now become well recognized. A recent, widely read Time Magazine article, “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald, had this to say:

“But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.”

“Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn't exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.”

“Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.”

Grunwald concludes with “But the world is still going to be fighting an uphill battle until it realizes that right now, biofuels aren't part of the solution at all. They're part of the problem.” And so is Grunwald.

The article, widely criticized by the ethanol community, paints a pretty accurate picture of corn ethanol and the agri-fuels but it paints all biofuels with the same brush. (Grunwald is an advocate: he ignored science and balance to make his point). Not once did he look at wood as a source of biofuel. Click to read the article. The danger stemming from Grumwald's article is that people will believe that all biofuels are “bad” and that “They are part of the problem” as he says.

The second point of this assessment is to look at what is actually happening on the wood front. Biomass co-generation plants have been successful for years and their use is expanding rapidly. Most of the fuel for these plants has typically been waste. There are over a dozen wood pellet mills operating in North America already. The largest one, in Cottondale, Florida, has an annual capacity of 550,000 tons. Another, perhaps even larger, is going in at Selma, Alabama with the intent of exporting to Europe. In Europe, wood pellets (carbon neutral) are mixed with coal to produce a cleaning burning product to reduce carbon emissions.

“Europe already consumes nearly 8 million tons of wood pellets a year, to run factories and power plants , and to heat entire neighborhoods (combined heat-and-power biomass systems with district heating). In 2005, the EU witnessed a 16% growth of electricity produced from biomass.” For more on this, here is a link to a Biopact article. This site also has a link to “A Biofuels Manifesto: Why biofuels industry creation should be ‘Priority Number One’ for the World Bank and for developing countries” by John Mathews. I would encourage Mr. Grunwald to read it!

Initially, the wood pellet plants have been sourced with wood waste but that will likely change. As consumption increases, it should be expected that fiber for pellets will begin competing with lower grade wood products like pulpwood. That makes timberland investors happy and research capital flows in that direction.

A DOE letter commenting on the Grunwald article stated that government “agencies invested more than $1 billion in research, development and demonstration of next-generation-biofuels production from nonfood feedstocks, which remains the core U.S. Strategy” (my italics). That's pretty significant. Both money-wise and strategy wise. Some of that grant and research money, along with private investment capital is also flowing into cellulosic ethanol. There are at least nine, perhaps more, cellulosic ethanol projects in some level of funding now.

“Despite all of this, Range Fuels Inc., which broke ground on its 20 MMgy wood-to-ethanol thermochemical plant in Soperton, Ga., is finding success quite unlike the rest of the biorefinery projects. On April 1, the company announced that it had raised more than $100 million in series B equity financing. This is in addition to the $76 million DOE grant Range Fuels received along with a $6 million grant from the state of Georgia. The company says the $100-plus million will go toward the completion of construction on the 20 MMgy biorefinery. Russo confirms that Range Fuels is the only commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant under construction by the end of the first quarter of 2008. Three more projects that were part of the original $385-million award have completed what’s called a Phase One award. (source: Biomass Magazine). For a more detailed look go to Commercial Biorefinery Update.

The third point that needs discussion is the use of wood as a feedstock for biomass to liquid, BTL, for a clean burning diesel fuel. We convert natural gas to a liquid form, LP, and use it as a fuel. Coal (which is wood under pressure for a few years) is being liquefied and being burned in the new diesel engines. This new biodiesel burns much cleaner and with increased mileage as well. A reader sent me a link to a very informative German newspaper article, BIOFUELS -- THE SECOND GENERATION, New Technology Foresees Trees, not Grain, in the Tank, by Christian Wüst from which I will extract a few quotes.

“The facility is fairly small. And even if all goes smoothly, its production will also be fairly modest -- just 13,500 metric tons of diesel fuel a year as compared with Germany's annual consumption of 30 million tons. Still, this tiny refinery in the eastern German town of Freiberg has managed to attract a number of highly prominent visitors, including ... Mercedes and Volkswagen..., Shell will be there, as will German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After all, the small cluster of concrete silos, combustion chambers and catalyzers owned by Choren Industries is worth paying tribute to. The only facility of its kind in the world, it is designed to turn wood into fuel for cars -- and thus represents a decisive step toward so-called "second generation" biofuels.”

“Now Choren wants to mark the dawn of a new age. The plant in Freiberg uses non-food biomass instead of traditional crops and is the first of its kind to cross the threshold from theoretical research into industrial production. This advanced refinery was designed to furnish proof that the new fuels are feasible -- and can be produced on a much larger scale.”

“Instead of sugar beets and rapeseed, the new plant processes wood as its raw material. In a pinch, it can also use straw. Using these materials significantly increases the yields from cultivated areas. According to estimates provided by the German Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR), the annual energy yields using the Choren process, based on a Central European climate, are 4,000 liters of fuel per hectare (1,057 US gallons), which is up to three times as much as previous biofuel production methods. What’s more, in contrast to production methods using rapeseed oil and ethanol, this technique does not produce fuel of inferior quality. Choren manufactures extremely pure diesel with virtually no sulfur. Moreover, these second generation biofuels do not harm particle filters or engines and meet top emissions standards.”

“ 'BTL is a dream fuel,' says Wolfgang Warnecke, CEO of Shell Global Solutions in Hamburg, 'the best of all the biofuels.'”

“The German technology is ready for production. And this has prompted traditionally gasoline-fixated Americans to take an interest in BTL diesel. In a competition held last year between 146 entrants, Choren emerged as the only foreign company in a group of winners to offer new energy technologies. Washington wants to promote these new technologies quickly and effectively -- and without red tape. Choren CEO Blades says a US government agency reviewed his company for just nine months. Soon thereafter came the offer for a loan guarantee amounting to 90 percent of the investment costs of a BTL facility on American soil.”

Here is my takeaway. Government policy has changed and is now pointed in the right direction (will Bush be known as the “Energy President”?). Capital is flowing in the right direction. Research is generally where it should be. The politics of all three Presidential candidates are inconsistent with the reality and the news media changes it's stance as food and gasoline prices waiver. And as the little company in Germany is showing us, at the heart of the solution is capitalism! Wood is good. --Brian

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