August 31, 2007

August 2007 Digest

Wildfires should top list of greenhouse gas catastrophes

If we truly care about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions we need to evaluate, plan, and implement solutions to the growth of record-breaking wildfires over the past decade - particularly in New Mexico, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, and California.

According to U.S. Senator Pete Domenici during Congressional testimony NASA reported that the 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado emitted more GHG in one day than all the vehicles in the United States emitted in a week.

The Forest Foundation claims that the fire in South Lake Tahoe burned 3,000 acres causing 190,000 tons of GHG to be released in the air. Combined with the emissions from decaying trees in the burn zone, unless they are harvested immediately the total emissions will reach four times that amount - roughly the equivalent of driving 143,000 cars for an entire year.

The Zaca fire in Santa Barbara has charred an area 100 times larger than the fire in South Lake Tahoe and is still burning after two months. With the above figures, it is easy to see that wildfires are the trump card of GHG - one bad mega fire can wipe out several years' progress of reduced emissions.

Many experts believe that well-intentioned efforts to protect the nesting grounds of endangered species are based on myths about wildfires. This has lead to obstructive litigation and counterproductive state and local policies that result in devastating destruction of whole forests teeming with wildlife. The wildlife that survives become refugees in adjacent ecosystems.

The problem is strongest on state and federal lands where decades of fire suppression and forest preservation has resulted in tree density 4-10 times historic norms. This has created unprecedented conditions for mega fires and bug infestations.

We need to create a massive scale emergency response relationship between public land management and private industry to implement an ecologically and economically sustainable forest restoration solution to this mounting catastrophe.

Below are links to stories that made August 2007 memorable...

BIOstock Blog--------------
· An educational "Hidden Treasure" on forest stewardship
· Restoration Forestry and 5 Myths about Wildfires
· California's Zaca Fire and Global Warming
· California wildlife threatened by mega fires

BIOconversion Blog--------------
· Why "Rolling Stone" gathers no moss
· Motivating U.S. energy growth with "carrots" and "sticks"
· LS9 - Using synthetic biology to produce renewable petroleum
· A four-star idea for rating biofuels
· L.A. Times editorial against ethanol

BIOoutput Blog--------------
· High Performance E85 with Jay Leno
· "Energy Victory" - Book of the Sentry

BIOwaste Blog--------------
· Creating products from the residuals of bioconversion

Each month we provide a similar breakdown of article titles from our favorite "companion" site - Biopact Blog. This list is kept current and is accessible in the right hand column of each of the three blogs.

Please forward a link to this digest to anyone you know who would be interested in keeping track of change that will affect us all. They can add their name to the mailing list on the BioConversion Blog.

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August 23, 2007

L.A. Times editorial against ethanol

Following the lead of the Rolling Stone diatribe against ethanol (see my response to The Ethanol Scam), the Los Angeles Times decided to devote their full August 20th editorial to an attack titled Drunk on ethanol. Such slanted media lobbying to the general public seems misplaced to me when it concerns such a multi-faceted issue as energy subsidies.

Unfortunately, I have used up my quota of letters to their editor (I wrote a published letter about illegal immigration two months ago) and I couldn't figure out how to comment online at the Times. But Treehugger helped me out by lauding the Times piece. Below is the comment I wrote in response to Bait and Switchgrass, a "bird dog" referral submitted by Lloyd Alter on the Science & Technology section of the Treehugger site.

Having attended about a dozen technological conferences this year where research labs, experts, policy makers, and developers have been sincerely exploring ALL the ethanol issues I have to say that I find the public spinning of these issues in major media a bit disconcerting.

At least the Times didn't call it an "Ethanol Scam" as Rolling Stone did. The writers apparently have no idea how global the effort to find several viable biofuel alternatives to gasoline really is.

Everyone has a right to their opinion. But to hinge one's arguments on a few studies that are singularly slanted at best (Pimental's, for instance, and Jacobson's) shows that these publications' agenda come first, science second. The bias creating public press is the last place these issues should be lobbied. Would it, for instance, surprise anyone to learn that oil companies might be pushing these arguments forward? Not that they have a vested interest or anything.

The fact is $16 billion is being spent on U.S. oil subsidies with nothing to show for it but strategic resource wars, cultural genocide, lopsided trade deficits, and ceilingless prices. Should we be shocked that knowledgeable people would like to see domestic investment to advance sciences that will make all countries self-reliant, reduce international cultural friction, and provide the best insurance against price gouging - consumer choice at the pump?

A robust, decentralized renewable energy paradigm including many kinds of biofuels for a range of applications would not only benefit and quite literally save developing countries without oil resources but would also give us a self-funding way to solve a broad range of nagging environmental issues - global warming, forest mega-fires, wildlife diversity, forest stewardship, landfills, toxic waste disposal, etc.

The broader the range of biomass feedstock that can be converted - the great majority that are non-food - the more waste problems that can be mitigated.

One place Treehugger can start is the investigation of ways to manage stewardship of our forests to reduce the amount of fire-producing undergrowth and tree density that is creating massive beetle infestations and mega-fires 10 times greater than any we have ever experienced before. There is a plume 180 miles long stretching from Ojai to Yosemite that started July 4th and is not yet contained. How much global warming is that? That certainly accounts for much of Gore's hockey stick. And we are worried about ethanol being worse that gasoline in vehicles that haven't even been designed to run efficiently on it?

Energy production of ethanol and electricity from woody biomass "tinder" can fund the vital stewardship programs of public lands we need to expand.

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August 19, 2007

A four-star idea for rating biofuels

Any greenhouse gas cap and trade system for ethanol and other biofuels will be dependent upon an accurate assessment of its carbon footprint - not only the amount of carbon emitted to the atmosphere during usage but also the the carbon lifecycle of the fuel's production.

If coal is the fuel, the carbon emitted is not already part of the above ground carbon cycle and is therefore carbon positive. Plus it takes energy to mine, process, and deliver coal. At the other end of the spectrum, if hybrid poplars are the feedstock, not only are the emissions carbon neutral but the growing trees are effectively sequestering carbon dioxide (with a highly valued carbon negative impact). There are benefits to crops that do not need to be tilled, are perennial, or do not require fertilizers. There are benefits to conversion processes that do not require the use of fossil fuels or electricity.

Various groups are engaged in the task of coming up with a "green biofuels" rating system that incorporates the "global warming intensity" (GWI) of the fuel, a rating for the kind of feedstock being converted, and the use of fossil fuels in the conversion or refinery process. An excellent article written by Susanne Retka Schill for Ethanol Producer magazine reports on some of the more promising efforts to come up with a system sophisticated and reliable enough to provide industry benchmarks for setting caps and for trading credits. Concurrently, it must be simple enough for commercial and residental consumers to make informed buying decisions. The more comprehensive and comprehensible the system, the better the incentives will be to motivate change to renewable fuels.

Here is a small taste of what is contained in the published article...

Developing a Biofuels Rating System

Producing four-star biofuels may give producers a leg up when the United States develops a carbon cap-and-trade system. Methods to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and rate biofuels are being proposed and tested in an attempt to incorporate the multiple facets of cropping systems, conversion processes and industry and consumer needs.
By Susanne Retka Schill

The chart shows how a Green Biofuels Index might work for different cropping scenarios and biofuels technologies. GWI is global warming intensity. The formula shown in the middle column generates the number value. One star is awarded for each 40 value units.

All biofuels are not created equal. Renewable fuels have different carbon footprints, depending on the feedstock that's used to produce it, how that feedstock was grown, how far it was transported and how it was converted to ethanol. Before ethanol producers can join cap-and-trade programs or sell offset credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange, the hurdle to quantify and express greenhouse gas performance must be cleared. Although there are several systems and models being developed, EPM talked to researchers involved in two projects that are tackling the challenge from different angles. One is focused on a biofuels rating system, the other models a life cycle assessment of biofuels to provide a glimpse of what the future may hold for biofuels marketing.

In the end, the winners in the greenhouse gas reduction comparisons aren't surprising, but the numerical values are interesting. Switchgrass and hybrid poplar energy crops transformed into biofuels provide the most greenhouse gas reductions when compared with gasoline and diesel, at about a 115 percent reduction, in the long term when soil carbon levels are at equilibrium and no longer sequestering additional amounts. Reed canary grass reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent. The different rotations and tillage systems for corn and soybean rotations reduced greenhouse gas emissions around 40 percent. These numbers compare with current analyses of the corn-to-ethanol production process showing a 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction, Adler says.

The greatest impact on reducing the amount of greenhouse gases associated with energy use by switching to biofuels came from eliminating the life cycle greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use, followed by the storage of carbon in the soil from perennial crops. People most often think of carbon when considering greenhouse gases, but agricultural systems release methane from the soil, which is 23 times more active than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more powerful, Parton explains. Plus, the carbon sequestration effect of no-till or perennial crops has a relatively short-term positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions. "It's a positive for 20 years, then you reach a new equilibrium," Parton says.

Susanne Retka Schill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 746-8385.

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August 6, 2007

LS9 - Using synthetic biology to produce renewable petroleum

Most of the technologies explored on this blog involve the production of cellulosic ethanol using biochemical or thermochemical processes. But ethanol has its detractors, and the processes that produce cellulosic ethanol can involve the use of water and the expense of energy to produce heat. What emerging technology and renewable fuels might succeed cellulosic ethanol? Biotechnologists on both coasts think they have the answer - Renewable Petroleum™ produced using synthetic biology. Let the company's website and an article from Technology Review tell the story...

LS9, Inc., the Renewable Petroleum Company™, is a privately-held biotechnology company pursuing industrial applications of synthetic biology to produce proprietary biofuels. LS9's products, currently under development, are designed to closely resemble petroleum derived fuels, but be renewable, clean, domestically produced, and cost competitive. In addition to biofuels, LS9 will also develop industrial biochemicals for specialty applications.

From Technology Review
Hydrocarbon fuels are better suited than ethanol to existing delivery infrastructure and engines, and their manufacture would require less energy. To make biological production of hydrocarbons a reality, the company is bringing together leaders in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology.

Synthetic biology is the state of the art of bioenegineering, and refers to the design, construction, and improvement of biological machines at the molecular genetic level.

Using synthetic biology, LS9 has reached into nature and accessed the required biological tools, engineered them to function under industrial conditions, and is optimizing their performance to meet our economic objectives.

It has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.

Beyond custom-developing hydrocarbons, LS9 foresees licensing its technology. In particular, the company might someday forge agreements with ethanol producers, whose manufacturing plants could be put to more profitable and efficient use making hydrocarbon fuels.

LS9 is counting on the fact that ethanol is not really the best biofuel. Ethanol can't be delivered through existing pipelines. It also contains 30 percent less energy than gasoline, and it must be mixed with gasoline before being burned in conventional engines. LS9's fuels would have none of these disadvantages. What's more, LS9's fuels might be produced more efficiently than ethanol. For example, at the end of ethanol fermentation, the mixture has to be distilled to separate ethanol from water. LS9's products would just float to the top of a fermentation tank to be skimmed off.

LS9 now needs to prove that its technology is economical and can produce fuels on a large scale, says Jim McMillan, principal biochemical engineer in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Bioenergy Center, based in Golden, CO. "I don't doubt that [making hydrocarbon fuel from microbes] can be done; the question is how quickly and at what cost," he says. LS9 says it hopes to bring its hydrocarbon biofuels to market in four or five years.

Next year LS9 will build a pilot plant in California to test and perfect the process, and the company hopes to be selling improved biodiesel and providing synthetic biocrudes to refineries for further processing within three to five years.

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August 5, 2007

Motivating U.S. energy growth with "carrots" and "sticks"

Before breaking for summer the U.S. 110th Congress made strides on defining energy policies through passage of the 2007 Farm Bill (July 27th) and Energy Bills (August 4th). Analysis of these measures shows how the House seeks to achieve its goals by luring development with the "carrots" of incentives while threatening corporations with the "sticks" of taxes and regulatory standards.

In comparison to deliberations on the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPACT) - passed prior to Bush's alarm-sounding "addicted to oil" State of the Union message and the oil price hikes of 2006 - both sides of the aisle seem to be tripping over themselves to prove to their constituencies that they "get" voter concern about the impact of U.S. oil dependency on the war in Iraq, the steep increases in the price of gasoline, carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the overall need for more self-reliance for both electric and fuel energy production.

As a result, the Farm Bill and Energy Bill includes provisions that strongly support renewable energy development in general and biofuels development in particular.

So what are in these bills? While various news outlets carry detailed comparisons of the House and Senate versions of each, suffice it to say that the main issues break down between those usually held by pro-business Republicans vs. pro-environmentalist Democrats.

"Carrots" are incentives that enable private enterprise to reduce the risk of investment in new research, development, & deployment (RD&D). Reliance is placed on American business acumen, the power of profit-motive, and the social benefit of good jobs to spur innovation and positive action. They tend to favor a cap and trade system used in Europe to reward progress implementing carbon emission reduction and energy efficient technologies.

The carrots the House Energy Bill contains -
• New tax credits for consumers to buy plug-in electric hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles as well as low-interest loans and grants for consumers to buy energy efficient appliances and install solar panels and geothermal pumps at their homes.
• Incentives to build biomass factories and for research into cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel.
• Bonds to be used by cities and counties for energy conservation.
• Tax credits for installing E-85 pumps.
• Tax breaks, subsidies for research into better batteries for plug-in hybrid cars and up to $4,000 tax credit for purchasing such cars.
• Funds for an assessment of areas for underground carbon dioxide storage and calls for developing large-scale storage demonstration projects.

The 2007 Farm Bill (H.R. 2419) includes some other carrots -
• Funding to invest in rural communities nationwide, including economic development programs and access to broadband telecommunication services.
• New investments in popular conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Farm and Ranchland Protection Program
• New investments in renewable energy research, development and production in rural America. Rebalancing loan rates and target prices among commodities, achieving greater regional equity.
• Additional funding aimed at protecting and sustaining our nation’s forest resources.

How would these carrots be paid for, besides growth in tax revenues from development of new industries? The House voted to repeal $16 billion in tax breaks given to the oil and gas industry, shifting the money into programs to boost biofuels, renewable energy and efficiency programs.

"Sticks" are regulations and punitive taxes that would increase government oversight of the process of energy technology deployment. Sticks would retard those technological development that could possibly threaten the environment, institute mandates on renewable energy purchases, set high standards on vehicle mileage and emissions reduction, and tax companies that fail to implement emissions improvements.

Some sticks create business opportunities. State Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) are an example. These mechanisms require utilities to purchase a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. This tends to create market opportunities that encourage investment in chiefly solar and wind energy systems. California and Florida utilities are embracing these standards, in part because of other carrots and sticks. The Global Warming Act and similar California legislation that puts a cap on the use of coal to produce electricity threaten utility access to these mainstay sources of generation. However, the renewable energy sources can result in electricity that is more costly and more seasonal than current modes of generation, consequently they result in higher costs which are usually passed on to the consumer.

Another factor involved with RPS is that access to these wind and solar energy are regional. For this reason, Southern utilities are bristling at the attempt of Congress to pass a national RPS . They don't have much access to wind and solar energy. Biomass energy could rectify the imbalance because the Southeast is the wood basket of America and wood waste is actually a good source of bioenergy, but biofuel conversion technologies have yet to be employed commercial-scale and are at an early adopter stage of marketing.

The sticks the House Energy Bill contains include:
• Requirements that electric utilities produce 15 percent of electricity from renewable energy sources.
• New efficiency standards for appliances, lighting and building

The Farm Bill also contains -
• Strengthening payment limits for farm subsidies to ensure that people making more than $1 million a year (adjusted gross income) can’t collect conservation and farm program payments.
• Provisions that close loopholes that allow people to avoid payment limits by receiving subsidies through multiple business units.

One stick sought by the Democrats that didn't get passed was a big increase in federal fuel economy standards for all cars and trucks. The auto companies, like GM, have argued that this would cripple their industries because the American public still demands gas guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks, the most profitable vehicles they make. Nevertheless, Speaker Pelosi is expected to push to include a Senate provision to raise fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks by 2020 during deliberations.

What do the experts think about these Bills?
Bob Dinneen, President of the Renewable Fuels Association said this about the Energy Bill - “This bill could be to next generation cellulosic ethanol production what the 2005 energy bill was to grain-based ethanol. To achieve the ambitious goals the American people are calling for, it will require the production of ethanol from all available feedstocks, including corn, corn stover, switchgrass, wood chips and other cellulosic materials. This bill strikes the right chord by requiring that 21 billion of the 36 billion gallon requirement be met by cellulosic ethanol production."

Marchant Wentworth, a legislative representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists says "The Energy Bill saves consumers money, creates jobs and makes a down payment on reducing the threat of global warming."

Even though it satisfies the interests of most farmers, the Farm Bill looks like it might face a Bush veto. In one section Democrats added another "stick". They said they were closing a loophole and cracking down on foreign tax-dodgers, while Republicans called it a massive tax hike that would affect manufacturers that provide millions of jobs in their districts.

"This is an unprecedented move to use a farm bill as a vehicle to increase taxes," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 Republican. "We could have put the House imprint on the farm bill, and now it is veto bait, and that is a tragedy."

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Democrats had narrowed support for farm programs by including the tax measure in the bill. "If there was ever a time when our farm programs needed friends, it is now," he said.

Both bills will now go to the Senate to be merged with their versions.

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August 1, 2007

Biopact: August 2007 Digest

Biopact Blog writes many stories that are relevant to the study of BIOstock, BIOconversion, BIOoutput, and BIOwaste.

Rather than summarize and reprint excerpts from this excellent source of information, a breakdown of each month's most relevant titles is provided in one updated article...

Dynamotive and Mitsubishi Corporation sign cooperation agreement
Interpellets 2007: conference looks at wood pellets as an alternative to fossil fuels
Technip to engineer biomass power plant that will run on dedicated energy grass
Forest genetics researchers to sequence and catalog conifer genes for future biofuels research
Efficient timber harvester delivers wood chips on the spot, improves biomass logistics
Mitsubishi Corp creates firm to produce biomass pellets
Guide to installing wood pellet heating systems in green buildings
BioWeb launched: new information resource will help develop biobased economy
Volvo releases comprehensive analysis of seven biofuels for use in carbon-neutral trucks

U.S. House passes Energy Bill: boost to biofuels, CCS and renewables
Shell and Virent to cooperate on production of hydrogen from biomass
Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop 5MW biocoal project
Japan's RITE develops cellulosic biobutanol technology
Sun Grant Initiative funds 17 bioenergy research projects
Australia's EPA approves largest geosequestration trial, report warns for leakage risks

Worldwatch Institute: biofuels may bring major benefits to world's rural poor
Expert: 'net energy' - a useless, misleading and dangerous metric
Researchers: cellulosic biofuels already cost-competitive
Terra preta and the future of energy: the Secret of El Dorado
Volvo releases comprehensive analysis of seven biofuels for use in carbon-neutral trucks

Steps to biorefining: new products from biofuel leftovers

Why "Rolling Stone" gathers no moss

"Because it generates heat, not light."

The current issue of Rolling Stone carries a feature article referenced on the cover as The Ethanol Scam and titled as "Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America's Biggest Political Boondoggles" written by Jeff Goodell.

Putting on my "Jeff Greenfield" hat temporarily, I believe such articles are extremely dangerous - not because the author's arguments aren't worth debating (which Vinod Khosla is ready and willing to do at the drop of a hat) but because it is printed in Rolling Stone magazine.

I can't comment online at the magazine without subscribing (which I am reluctant to do). However, Jeff referenced statements by noted and insightful Chem-E blogger Robert Rapier at R-Squared - with whom I occasionally converse - and he wrote about the Goodell article. So my response to the article are on Robert's site and reprinted here.


There is no bigger threat to developing realistic, technologically sound solutions than to have masses of under-informed trendsters see a political/industry conspiracy while innovations are being worked out. You (Richard Rapier) certainly have seen Big Oil on the receiving end of such conspiracy mongering - same for biomass-to-energy technologies. Doesn't that trouble you?

I have always been a skeptic about the promises offered by producers of cellulosic ethanol using both biochemical and thermochemical processes. Which is why I started writing my blogs on BIOconversion - to shed some light in the midst of all this media-driven heat.

I also hope to influence the direction of these developments by keeping the processes true to the California standards of environmental cleanliness - standards which have been studied and raised significantly during the last two years.

The more I research the subject and attend conferences (see my reviews), the more I see the complexity of the interlocking facets of the problem - which is why you see a Rubik's cube on each of my blog pages.

But I have never been more optimistic about the promise of these technologies to replace a huge percentage of the fossil fuel paradigm while simultaneously mitigating urban and rural air and land pollution and adding to the economic well-being of these depressed regional economies. Why people think a solution has to fix 100% of a problem seems absurd to me. Solutions and their benefits will be regionally determined.

Half of all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol. It is an additive because it oxidizes gasoline combustion making it cleaner. The accelerated introduction of E85 pumps is also a gradual, scalable solution which can help transition away from our dependence on oil. There may be better alternatives in certain regions of the country.

I admit to having a vested interests in the outcome. Not just because I have a son that I don't want fighting a war in the Middle East in ten years. I am also weary from my asthmatic daughter's constant health battles for clean air and the implications for future generations.

I am working on the logistics part of the feedstock equation (see BIOstock Blog) for Price BIOstock Services. By doing so I am trying to help revive America's farms and forest industries and the sagging logistical infrastructure of our rivers, rails, pipelines, and electrical grids.

There are many solutions to be tried. And if electricity is your solution - great. But you better support biomass-to-energy development because most non-renewable electricity comes from fossil fuels. Regional solar and wind technologies are not going to fill the gap.

More important, I assume you are in favor of the light of reason over the heat of passion. Solving these problems requires research and experimentation. Stoking popular Luddite bias discourages investor interest and gets us nowhere against a corrosive status quo. It is one of the reasons the government subsidies on RD&D are necessary. But public outreach to overcome hot media-fed popular misinformation becomes perhaps the biggest hurdle innovators face.

As one who dabbles in both, I'll take technology over media opportunists any day. At least they are working toward solutions.

To Rolling Stone my fervent plea is... "No mas!"

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