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The Future of Biofuels Takes Root in Santa Barbara

Jonathan Parkinson, Independent (Santa Barbara, California)
At first sight, it looks like a weed – a ragged shrub bearing sickly green fruit, growing across a plot of wasteland near the dump that overlooks Highway 101. It grows on almost any soil, and with hardly any rain. Its seeds are as toxic as any poison. But this unusual plant conceals an unlikely secret: The oil from its thick black seeds can be used to power your car. And this hardscrabble patch here in Santa Barbara is a project on the cutting edge of one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

The plant is Jatropha curcas – also known as the Barbados nut or Physic nut, and originally brought to India from South America by Portuguese sailors centuries ago for use as a “living fence” that animals and insects instinctually avoid. Indian farmers soon found that the thick oil that came from crushed jatropha seeds could fuel their lamps. But it wasn’t until very recently that researchers found the same oil could also make diesel fuel. Since, jatropha has been the rising star of the biofuels boom in countries like India, where farmers are planting thousands of acres with this weed.
(21 February 2008)
Sent in by a friend involved with native plants. He wonders – what are the chances that jatropha will become an invasive weed in the California climate? This enthusiastic article makes it sound hardy enough. -BA

Weather Risks Cloud Promise of Biofuel

Jad Mouawad, New York Times
The record storms and floods that swept through the Midwest last month struck at the heart of America’s corn region, drowning fields and dashing hopes of a bumper crop.

They also brought into sharp relief a new economic hazard. As America grows more reliant on corn for its fuel supply, it is becoming vulnerable to the many hazards that can damage crops, ranging from droughts to plagues to storms.

The floods have helped send the price of ethanol up 19 percent in a month. They appear to have had little effect on the price of gasoline at the pump, as ethanol represents only about 6 percent of the nation’s transport fuel today.

But that share is expected to rise to at least 20 percent in coming decades
(1 July 2008)
Interesting to see Jad Mouawad write about corn ethanol. Most of his stories had been about petroleum. -BA

Financing Energy Independence

Ron Cooke, Global Public Media
There is a positive thread running through our energy crisis. Individual Americans keep coming up with great ideas for the development, manufacture, distribution and financing of alternative energy solutions. The following letter was sent to me by a nice lady in Minnesota that addresses the issue of financing. I’ll let you read her letter. Then, I add a few comments of my own.

The Letter:

Dear Ron,

My husband and I are real estate agents and developers and we also farm. We live on one of the windiest hills in the state and have often thought of getting a windmill, so last year I started doing research into wind and also solar and geothermal. I researched much of this over ten years ago when we built our house and I’m pleased to see renewable energy technology has improved a lot since I first began looking into it. We built our house facing south and we have in-floor heat on all our levels with large passive heat storage capacity in the basement so we’d be all ready to install solar and wind when it became economically advantageous. Plus, I was one of the first people in the state to install in-floor heat on second and third floors, so I got the experience of doing something no one else had tried.

There is a tremendous amount of interest in renewable energy from home owners and farmers all around me and it’s extremely clear the issue holding everyone back is financing. Most of us are fine paying more for renewable energy than coal-fired electricity or natural gas, expecting we will gain in the long run, but few people have the capital it takes to install a windmill or solar panels or a geothermal system to retrofit homes, especially now that home values are stagnant and the choice of getting home-equity loans for financing is fading.

(24 June 2008)