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The St Louis Renewable Energy Conference – Day 1

Heading Out, The Oil Drum
This was the first day of the “Advancing Renewable Energy – An American Rural Renaissance” Conference in St Louis. At least that was the title at the top of the page, but over the course of the day it became hard to believe that it was not the National Ethanol Show. As one of the speakers (Robert Engel, President of CoBank) said this afternoon, “now is the perfect weather for Ethanol,” by which he meant that the oil price was up, the MTBE issue required a substitute, there are record corn crops , the regulations have become favorable, and the world is in a period of economic growth). And when Vinod Khosla got up to speak this morning, he followed a relatively gentle presentation by the President (Red Caveney) of the American Petroleum Institute. Not that those relatively benign comments stopped Vinod from piling on, as he gave his relatively passionate speech, but more of that later.

So, how is it going? Well the best set of talks, in my view, was the last panel discussion of the afternoon on liquid fuels and bio-products. The presentations were very informative and the discussion lively and interactive, and the panelists were very realistic. But to begin let me start with where I walked in, just after the meeting started. And I immediately found that I could not find a seat in a room seating over 800. (There is talk that counting everyone there will be around 1500 folk here).
(12 Oct 2006)

Report: Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
For those who are expecting a Brazilian debunking, I am going to have to disappoint you. My previous debunking was not aimed at the issue of whether Brazilian ethanol is sustainable, but rather whether their example can be exported to the U.S. Whenever the topic of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has come up, my response is generally that from what I have read, it appears to be a pretty good deal. Furthermore, I have never seen evidence to dispute the high EROEI claims of sugarcane ethanol. However, I will usually note that there are few comprehensive reports that have examined the process in detail, and I would feel more comfortable about the positive assessments if someone did such a study. My wish has been granted.

IEA Bioenergy has recently publicized a report entitled “Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol”. The report was commissioned by The Netherlands Agency for Sustainable Development and Innovation, and is in my opinion the most important endorsement of Brazilian ethanol to date.
(11 Oct 2006)

The Ethanol Alternative

Catalyst, ABC
Narration: The world is heading, full speed, for a fuel crisis. Some oil experts predict we’ll hit the bottom of the barrel within 30 years.Ethanol, a form of alcohol, could be the answer a cleaner, greener fuel made from sugar and starch rich plants. Unlike oil, it’s a renewable fuel source.

But current ethanol production makes up less than one per cent of our fuel needs. The problem is, even if we converted the whole of the Australian sugar cane crop into ethanol, using conventional techniques, we still don’t have anywhere near enough fuel to drive our cars.

Dr Paul Attfield and Dr Philip Bell might have the solution. They’ve actually managed to unlock more sugar within sugarcane almost doubling the ethanol yield.

Paul Attfield: This will open up the possibility to produce vastly more quantities of alcohol.

Narration: It’s a breakthrough that’s sure to surprise the world of science. The sugar source they’ve unlocked was considered impossible to ferment using non-GM – genetically modified – yeast.

Philip Bell: One of the first thing’s we expect to see is maybe one of disbelief.

Narration: Ethanol is not a new fuel source. In fact, when the Model T Ford was first built in 1908, it ran on both petrol and ethanol.
However, the duel fuel system was phased out when oil prices plummeted, making ethanol uncompetitive. But only recently has Australia taken ethanol for a test drive.

Paul Attfield: We’re lagging considerably behind, Brazil went into this in the 1970s after the first oil shock and is arguably the leader in the world in terms of turning sugar cane into alcohol. And they even run cars on 100% alcohol, proving the technology is viable in cars.
(12 Oct 2006)

The trouble with ethanol

Andrew Leonard, Salon
I went to see Tad Patzek give a seminar on the U.C. Berkeley campus yesterday titled “Agriculture, Biofuels and the Earth,” because I wanted a firsthand look at one of the more controversial figures in the emerging world of biofuels. The Berkeley chemical engineering professor is the co-author (along with retired Cornell professor David Pimentel) of two studies that cast doubt on the energy efficiency of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels.

…I was curious to see if any sparks might fly.

Conflagration, however, was in short supply. The lecture was attended by 50 to 60 people, most of whom appeared to be graduate students, and some of whom came with frowns already set in place, but there was zero heckling. Patzek’s evident good nature and friendly demeanor may have been partially disarming. But he also just happened to skip the section of his prepared talk that dealt with his data on energy efficiency

…Patzek’s primary message was that we (and by we, he especially meant “Homo Colossus Americanus”) consume too much energy. One of his favorite statistics is that each American consumes 105 times as much energy as he or she needs to live. Patzek did not come off as an oil industry shill. He’s a strong believer in peak oil who predicted that by 2020 the world will be consuming more energy than we produce, if current trends are extrapolated forward. He’s a fan of Greenpeace who said flat out that “ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] will not save us.”

His fundamental point is that our current energy consumption is unsustainable, even if biofuel production was ramped up at spectacular growth rates. Thermodynamically, we just can’t do it — we’re burning through the planet’s accumulated energy reserves faster than we can create or discover new sources of fuel.
(11 Oct 2006)
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Oil Giants Put Energy Into Other Resources

Elizabeth Douglass, LA Times
Firms are dabbling in a diverse range of projects, including one in which microbes eat grease to help produce electricity.
Inside two half-million-gallon tanks built in the 1950s, a team of microorganisms is preparing to munch its way into the annals of energy innovation.

Late this month, the microbes will start transforming truckloads of restaurant grease into electricity for a water pollution control plant in Millbrae, Calif. The one-of-a-kind setup relieves the city and area eateries of a fatty disposal headache while saving energy. And it has come with the help of a surprising backer: Chevron Corp.

“You don’t think of a big energy company being involved in anything but gasoline,” said Dick York, superintendent of the Millbrae plant. “But Chevron is really trying to diversify. Working together, we’ve brought forward a project … that puts waste to work.”

It’s a small undertaking for a company that takes in millions of dollars in profit each day from selling oil and natural gas, not saving them. But it’s part of a growing portfolio of projects backed by some of the biggest oil companies to wring energy from the sun, wind, water and waste.

Royal Dutch Shell has become one of the world’s largest developers of wind farms and is part owner of two in California. Chevron operates massive geothermal plants in Indonesia and the Philippines. And BP is a partner in hydrogen power plants proposed for Carson and Scotland.

Energy executives point to such endeavors as proof that oil companies are part of a global push to rein in pollution and boost alternatives to oil and natural gas.
(8 Oct 2006)