May 28, 2012

"Power Plays" Book Review

Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil by Robert Rapier (Paperback - March 28, 2012)

Robert Rapier's "Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil" is an important book to read for anyone who wants to engage in informed discussions on renewable energy and, more specifically, fuel alternatives to oil. It is an easy read, albeit focused on the facts without much embellishment.

The book provides an overview of the current energy paradigm and the salient factors for scientifically comparing various energy options. It doesn't trace the chronological history of oil the way Yergins' "The Prize" does but it gives a sober SWOT (strengths weaknesses opportunities threats) view of energy alternatives. The author uses this background to help explain his interpretation of energy policies that would enhance energy security.

Robert is best at explaining concepts that receive short shrift from journalists in the media. His explanation of "energy return on energy invested" (EROEI), for instance, helps clarify what it is and why it is important.

He is one of my most reliable touchstones for determining what technologies are likely to provide sustainable alternatives to oil. There are many reasons for this. The first postings I read from his R-squared blogs (about six years ago) was a debate with Vinod Khosla challenging the state of the art of conversion technologies for producing cellulosic ethanol. Like many biofuels supporters I didn't want to read that they might not be ready for prime time. Robert was certainly right to suspect Khosla of overhype about the Range Fuels project. Regrettably, it didn't survive commissioning after hundreds of millions of dollars in private and public investment.

While I have been reluctant to cede Robert's point of view on occasions, I have to admit that he has the credentials to challenge some base assumptions about the sustainability and the energy efficiency of many biofuels projects. He is one of the most respected writers on The Oil Drum community blog and Consumer Energy Report. His bio reports "he has 20 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy industries, and holds several patents related to his work. He has worked in the areas of oil refining, natural gas production, synthetic fuels, ethanol production, butanol production, and various biomass to energy projects." He has a MS in Chemical Engineering and was a Process Engineering Team Leader for ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, Scotland for six years.

He is occasionally accused of being stubborn and "brusque" but in the midst of overt hype about alternative fuel technologies, it is worthwhile submitting technologies to a skeptical eye - particularly if you are an investor. One of his favorite topics of discussion is promoting "due diligence" to reduce the risk of investment. It merits a full chapter in the current book and a summary list of ten indicators which should be on every analyst's "must consider" list.

His chapter on U.S. Energy Politics gives an interpretation of each of the last eight administrations' (starting with Nixon) declarations for energy independence. It is a subject about which much is promised but not much is achieved. The time is now and I hope this book get broad circulation among policymakers who might otherwise hew to the party line.

I think this book provides much needed information for planning ahead to meet an unpredictable energy future. As Robert affirms at the end, we must not take the availability of our energy resources or our energy future for granted. The longer range we plan now the better able we will be to meet the challenges ahead.

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August 15, 2011

"Freedom" Film promotes Choices at the Pump

It has been thirty months since Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell premiered their award-winning biofuels documentary "Fuel." That film tracked down alternative fuels that can help wean the U.S. from its "addiction" to oil (see my interview and reviews). After traveling the U.S. in his Veggie Van, Josh took a position that there were biofuels winners (biodiesel, algae, cellulosic ethanol, plug-in hybrids) and losers (corn ethanol). Launching the film included tours at conferences, schools, and statehouses all over the country in an effort to stimulate discussion about what a sustainable transportation energy future might look like.

The best way to learn is through experience and re-evaluation. Now married some thirty months later, with considerable pro- and con- feedback from their tour and a trip to the oil spill ravaged Gulf, they realized that they had some "'splain'n to do." The feedback that stung most was from the farmers and promoters of corn ethanol. While the drivers for change had gotten more urgent - energy independence, community building, human health, economics, the environment, and sustainability - the practical truth about the best way to achieve the desired paradigm shift had to be re-evaluated before all the momentum was lost.

Most of the new film "Freedom" is a series of interviews with farmers and biofuels innovators, economic and energy security experts, engaged government policymakers, and the occasional false prophets of inertia (Searchinger and Pimental). It treats its audience to an unblemished look at where we are and why public support now is so important to the well-being of future generations.

It is very difficult for new markets to emerge in the midst of a entrenched, hundred year monopoly. The biodiesel industry was not stable enough to survive an interruption of government subsidies and it shrank from scores of domestic producers to just a handful. The rest of the biofuels industry RD&D also had to withstand the considerable blowback from entrenched fossil fuel interests, a devastating recession, and a steep drop in oil prices. Algae, hydrogen, and battery technology are certainly promising trends - but they face a gradual 25-years transition away from alternatives that feed into the current infrastructure and vehicles.

In spite of the challenges, corn ethanol has remained the U.S. cornerstone of a sustainable biofuels future. To their credit, Josh and Rebecca reexamined their stance on this first generation biofuel and admitted that (like many others in the sustainability culture) they had been hoodwinked by those who sought to protect the status quo. Upon further investigation controversial issues of energy balance, food vs. fuel, and indirect land use change had suspicious origins and backing - not to mention that they were based on highly speculative theories and a slanted interpretation of data. And why hasn't fossil fuels ever been evaluated and compared using the same metrics?

The Tickells realized that inertia is not an option and "perfection can't be allowed to be the enemy of the good." In a very real way, by attacking the only biofuels that worked at scale, well intentioned NGOs were further reinforcing the nation's oil addiction! To develop more commercial-scale alternatives, we should design policies that build and enable what works (good first generation solutions) rather than obstruct it in favor of unproven and unscaled solutions. Besides, any new technologies will require more flexible pumps at filling stations and vehicles that are able to run on alternatives. We don't have the thirty years it took Brazil to provide their population with a flexible fuel infrastructure based on gasoline and ethanol.

It gets down to the central theme that runs the length of the film. We can't be free if we don't have choices. We need to develop not only new technologies but new markets, vehicles, and infrastructure. Ending the addiction will take time, but during the Q&A session after the screening it was clear that a dread, helpless feeling was being lifted from the audience. There are alternatives and action we can take today to secure a sustainable future for our children. We shouldn't elect policymakers that limit our consumer votes at the pump.


Visit to view the movie trailer, buy the DVD, or maybe book a screening. The initial tour screening dates are available online so let your friends know what's coming. This screening sold out and is sure to generate great word-of-mouth.


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May 11, 2011

Social Media for biomass industries

Last week at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo Greg Veerman of Astronaut Studio, Matthew Spoor and John Nelson of BBI, and I held a two-hour conference panel titled "Social Media and PR Strategies to Grow Your Business and Win Over Industry Skeptics." I know panels on using social media are frequently held at conferences for business-to-consumer industries and I imagine that other business-to-business industries address them, too, but I hadn't seen one at any bioenergy conferences (and I've been to many) in spite of frequent calls for educating the public and informing their support.

It is well past time to recognize the double-edged sword potential of social media to either educate and galvanize public support of the industry or stop it dead in its tracks. So much of the success of emerging enterprises is dependent on the public perception of industry credibility and relevance - yet, we bury ourselves in technology issues and financing. If we are learning anything in marketing, it is that we must reach out and engage communities early in consensus-building on goals. We must engage with them on the development of solutions before we try to deploy ours in their midst. Social media can help us do that.

Biofuels Digest has started a three-part series this week titled "Brazilian renewable energy: Attitude before altitude" talking about the great environment of Brazil. Why - because of its vast resources? No - it's because of their positive attitude toward renewable energy. They are the flip-side of California - which has money, R&D, ample resources, but a terrible highly resistant attitude toward bioenergy. Brazil, in contrast, is happy to take the money, benefit from the R&D, allow access to the sustainable use of its resources - but most of all the Brazilian people are proud to grow as leaders in the development and deployment of bioenergy. They experience the benefits every time they compare prices at the pump. Choosing is empowering.

So many of California's bioenergy assets are moving to foreign markets like Brazil. No wonder the state's finances are in shambles! Frustrating development and deployment in other parts of the country hurt national finances as well. Iowa and the Midwest is the Brazilian experiment in the United States. They have emerged from being one of the most energy dependent states in the union thirty years ago to being one of the most independent now thanks to ethanol and wind power. Again the regional attitude is great and they have choices at the pump.

It is time to get to work providing links to postings about the progress, aspirations, and commitment of the bioenergy industry to sustainability. First we need more content. Greg Veerman made that point during his presentation last week. Working with Nathan Schock and Jeff Broin at the Broin Companies he was a major architect of the shift of corporate identity to POET, LLC.

Bioenergy companies need to realize (like POET did) that they have content that can help script the future for the growth of their industry. Ignoring the responsibility to communicate cedes too much of the idea battlefield to the interests of project obstruction. It is disheartening to see the NRDC as bedfellows to the fossil fuel industry. They may not agree on much but they are united in their stance to see a slow-down in bioenergy and biofuels development.

Part of my role in the conference panel was to talk about the accelerating rate of change of media and the explosion of personal channels that characterize the social media paradigm. Companies were empowered by the internet and business websites. Individuals have been greatly empowered by social media. Just look at Wael Ghonim's Facebook impact on Egypt's overthrow of Mubarek and the fear the Chinese authorities are exhibiting with the incarceration of artist Ai Wei-wei - a social media acolyte in that country. Discussions, links, and group networks are democratizing communications and developing consensus on key issues.

But, again, social media is a double-edged sword. Waiting for someone else to take the reins could slow the domestic rise of the industry, lose valuable ground to foreign competition, prevent the development of new resource management tools for environmental sustainability, and further erode our balance of trade. We need to convince emerging companies that it is time to get involved at the local, state, and national level to build consensus on the urgency of these issues. Joining associations and taking an active role online are ways to get involved.

We need to admit that many of the bioenergy technologies we have are at bench-level, pilot, or demo scale. They aren't perfect - and they won't get better until we deploy scale-ups so we can deal with technical issues. In the meantime, we all need to support technologies that are at scale so we can build the infrastructure of distribution and alternative fuel vehicles for the day that new, better technologies have been allowed to mature.


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May 9, 2011

Who controls the Social Media conversation?

In a clarion call for more proactive thinking Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to predict your future is to create it." Something must have been lost in translation in the last 35 years because the U.S. energy policy has been anything but proactive.

In comparison, the digital media industry has been the beneficiary of the best and the brightest minds during this period. Its exponential expansion results from its remaining highly competitive and incredibly proactive. From 3 channels of TV in the 70's we now have hundreds of video channels to choose from, cell technology girds the earth in transmission connections, and the internet enables virtually unrestrained interactivity between users and content.

The accelerating shifts in communications has delivered the social media explosion. Now every user is their own channel opting-in and -out of connections on the fly. We don't need to go to the polling booth anymore - we vote and buy with each click to decide what's relevant and what isn't.

That begs the question "is bioenergy relevant?" Apparently this is a regional question. Dr. Bruce Dale reintroduced the term of "syllogism" to explain the following:

"House Speaker Tip O'Neill is famous for having asserted that all politics is local. Every farmer, rancher, and forester knows that all biomass is local. The syllogism is that all biomass is political!"

If you live in California you would be led to believe that bioenergy is not relevant. Greentech (photosynthesis) has been superceded with Cleantech (photovoltaics, geothermal, and wind). The Natural Resources Committees of the State Legislature votes down every regulatory change that would enable bioenergy projects to sprout. The California Air Resources Board seemed to go out of its way to de-certify corn ethanol as a low carbon fuel - affixing an unsubstantiated factor to indirect land use change that barely disqualified the fuel. Once challenged, they discounted the factor.

Why are they so obstinate? They'll insist that it is because of science but it is really the opposite of science. Science leads to more understanding and change. California, the most bio-diverse state in the union, could easily develop best practices to provide ag and forestry residues for biofuels while helping the proper funding of forest, farm, and ranch management. It's R&D centers can improve on developing conversion technologies.

It's all about local pressure engendered by social consensus building in the heart of California's liberal academia heartland. The inverted justice of guilty until proven innocent (of indirect land use change, toxic emissions, etc.) prevails. And you can't build anything until it is proven innocent. How else does one explain a regulatory standard that insists that a conversion technology cannot be permitted if it has ANY emissions?

Silicon Valley giants including Google, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn have built the swords of social media and they are available to all interest groups in this country. Unless bioenergy enterprises, associations, and leaders start employing these tools, the debate will be dictated by those resistant to change and those with deep pockets who favor the status quo.

One egregious example is the European "Stop Bad Biofuels" Facebook page which features a animated YouTube treatment to simplistically educate followers about indirect land use change. The info page asserts "For most current biofuels, the effect is to wipeout any benefits for climate change - making them worse even than fossil fuels."

The consequence of this video's "Joe Camel" treatment of speculative iLUC theory is more status quo monopolization of unsustainable fossil choices at the pump - harmful to future generations. Either we research, develop and deploy more biofuels technologies now or suffer more oil addiction later.

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May 8, 2011

Due diligence on content as well as technology

On March 29, 2007 the biofuels industry witnessed an audacious transformation - Broin Companies President Jeff Broin announced the name change of his company to "Poet, LLC." There must be an important reason why a company the size and scale of the world's largest producer of corn ethanol decides to recast their corporate identity.

Isn't "a rose by any other name still a rose"? Not at all. Corporate identities impact all stakeholders' perception of the enterprise. That includes management, investors, policymakers, community leaders, and company employees. As the Broin Companies, this Midwestern enterprise appeared to all to be a family dominated business of self-interest and bottomline conservatism. As POET, the enterprise becomes a creative entity that is “writing the next chapter in the story of bio-refining.”

“We wanted a name that would represent, rather than describe, who we are and what we do,” the 41-year-old Broin told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “Just as a poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful, our team takes information that comes from common sense to leave things better than before.”

A company that is more than the sum of its parts? A company that seeks lasting relevance rather than just bottomline results? Maybe this is just public relations manipulation masking viler interests. Or maybe this is a sophisticated, innovative company that pursues deeper truths and accepts its responsibility to communicate them to the people whose futures are impacted. Ultimately, they saw themselves as developers of content important to the biofuels industry - not just builders of biorefineries.

I use this example to suggest that companies in emerging technologies need to think beyond what they are capable of doing and more to what ends society seeks and the means to get there. Developers who attempt to convince stakeholders of the wisdom of their plans, without first reaching out to the communities and insuring buy-in to the perceived need, are finding harsh and dogged resistance. The justification for resistance takes various forms - social injustice, environmental harm, toxic emissions, etc. - but they mask the true objections:
  • Many stakeholders don't trust corporations and their own community leaders to make decisions based on the good of the community.
  • Change is messy and could result in a drop in property values. Why should this community be the fall guys?
I recently made a presentation titled "Building your business' C.R.E.D. using social media" at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo in St. Louis (5/5/11). Two of the points that I made were that the bioenergy industry needs to focus on building its credibility and relevance for efforts to increase sustainability. Stated another way - companies need to jealously guard against the twin accusations of misrepresentation (the opposite of credibility) and self-interest (the opposite of relevance).

It may seem obvious to us that we are working on the side of the angels but not all truths are self-evident - particularly in the tempestuous environment of politics and mass media (which have their own self-interests). Stakeholders need to be convinced and assured not only of our the due diligence of our technology but also our intentions. For this reason we need to forge with society a transparent compact, in word and deed, based on the aim of achieving clean, sustainable solutions for renewable energy.

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March 26, 2011

Will the GOP scuttle the second U.S. Manhattan Project?

Tex Carter, CEO of biofuels developer New Planet Energy, reports that he recently participated in a roundtable discussion with a Republican congressman about funding for biomass conversion technologies (CTs) for the creation of biofuels. He was told that these loan guarantee programs were on the list of top ten expenses that the GOP is seeking to cut from the national budget through the Continuing Resolution 2011.

This is penny wise and pound foolish in the extreme. If the GOP had decided to cut the Manhattan Project from U.S. Dept. of War funding during WWII, would they have been ready to accept responsibility for the consequences of being second in the development of atomic weapons?

Texas-oil President Bush used the platform of his 2006 State of the Union address to make the following assertion - "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." He could not have been more clear. Our energy dependence on oil is like an addiction that jeopardizes American national and economic security.

Oil is the life's blood and the Achilles heel of the U.S. economy. Curing addictions requires finding non-addictive substitutes. The only renewable substitutes for gasoline are biofuels.

In agreement with Bush's pronouncement, a bipartisan House and Senate voted in 2007 to pass the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that defined what quantities of alternative fuels would be mandated by the federal government to help wean America off foreign oil. Calling for development of new technologies to provide liquid alternatives to oil products, EISA is the modern equivalent to a Manhattan Project.

By seeking to cut conversion technologies from the budget, the GOP appears to be saying that Bush was wrong in calling the oil dependence "an addiction" and party members were wrong to give EISA their support.

Between 1942-1945, the Manhattan Project cost $2 BILLION dollars (roughly $60 BILLION equivalent in 2011 dollars). The government mandate in this case was totally government funded and managed throughout the RD&D of the project development. Many expensive failures were accepted as necessary to find the right process for building atomic weapons. Being the first "to market" with atomic weapons and their vast explosive potential would probably insure military victory. The consequence of not being first probably meant capitulation to foreign adversaries who won the race.

While we are not now on a wartime footing comparable to WWII we are witnessing the folly of a dependence on oil including armed conflict. Desert Storm was fought to stop Saddam Hussein's power grab for control of Middle East oil in Kuwait. Operation Iraqi Freedom was NOT about the perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction. It was about something far more dangerous longterm - consolidation of the control of oil by rogue nations and terrorist groups who could destablize global access to oil.

This war has become the longest, sustained military operation in the history of the United States - at a significant cost. The cost is compounded by the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind - from countries that need oil including the United States to those that produce and export oil.

The imbalance of power between have and have-not nations is disrupting political and economic stability worldwide. A 2007 Rice University study of The Role of National Oil Companies in International Energy Markets underscores the risk - "The gap between the high ranking of national oil companies’ resource holdings and the ranking of the world’s largest oil and gas production operating companies highlights a potential source of supply instability in world energy markets. The fate of emerging national oil companies, their strategies and policies, will have a substantial, long term impact on the pace of resource development in the coming years... Many of these emerging national oil companies are bankrolled or have operations subsidized by their national governments, with geopolitical and strategic aims factored into investments rather than purely commercial considerations."

The recent unrest in Egypt and oil-producing Libya shows the direct relationship between political instability in these regions and the price of oil. The correlation between oil price control and tyrannies has been widely discussed - "Oil-exporting countries become less free and democratic as oil prices rise, and their leaders are enabled to enrich themselves without investing in their people."

Dr. Gal Luft is the executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and author of several books about U.S. energy security. He and the equally eloquent Anna Korin co-wrote a book titled "Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice." As long as there are powerful "strategic commodities" in the world - like salt in the 19th century and oil in the last 100 years - there will be dangerous political imbalance between nations that have the commodity and those that need it. The cure is to reduce the strategic impact of the commodity - the way that salt as a preservative was rendered a mere condiment by the invention of electric refrigeration. We must similarly render oil "boring" by providing renewable, clean alternatives at the pump - namely, biofuels.


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January 12, 2011

Cross-country EcoTREK runs on cellulosic ethanol

It is not only the first cross-country promotional tour headlining "Cellulosic Ethanol", but it is also a timely one. Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article claiming that in the second half of 2010 "not a drop of cellulosic ethanol was commercially blended with gasoline." Coincidentally, EcoTREK began its cross country journey using a blend of E85 comprised of 5% gasoline and 85% POET Inc.'s cellulosic ethanol made from corn cobs.

The driving force behind this trip is custom auto enthusiast and adventurer Tom Holm who is no stranger to mounting expeditions of this type. He is Executive Director of a non-profit called EcoTrek Foundation. He spent three years customizing GM sport utility vehicles for driving to exotic locations for adventure sport activities on a GM-sponsored TV series called "Adventure Highway." He next turned his attention to the research of renewable fuels for his vehicles.

He intends to criss-cross the U.S. driving approximately 10,000 miles and stopping off for interviews and speeches at educational venues along the way. He will also stop at distinctly American travel destinations like the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rushmore. The developing calendar is available online. In so doing he would like to wake up America to the reality and potential benefits of cellulosic ethanol - an advanced biofuel made from grasses, crop residues, and waste material.

Should we be surprised that the fuel provider POET Inc., the world's leading "corn ethanol" biorefiner, is also pioneering the use of harvest residue to create more ethanol? Of course not. Once they perfect their system they will be able to leverage their existing base of biorefineries and progressively "bolt-on" a separate production line that takes lower-value biomass and converts it into the same fuel. It's a move that extends the three dimensions of sustainability for the ever-improving U.S. ethanol industry: environmental (use of low value waste), economic (new profit streams for existing biorefineries), and social (fortifying community businesses and cohesion).

Knowledgeable people recognize that if we want to make cellulosic biofuels available at the pump we need to first create the infrastructure that will enable it to be produced, marketed, distributed, and sold. The corn ethanol industry is building feedstock sources, developing experts, perfecting new technologies and best practices, and providing fuel blends and markets for the first edition flexible-fuel vehicles.

I will be providing periodic updates based on news and insights revealed as EcoTREK journeys across America. For further information visit


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