August 1, 2006

Conversion Technologies are Available Today

I asked Jim Stewart, Chairman of the Board of the BioEnergy Producers Association to comment on the article written by Jamie Shreeve for the MIT Technology Review called Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol that I reviewed last week. The full text of his response is below...


Jamie Shreeve's article, "Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol," in MIT Technology Review magazine overlooked the potential of producing ethanol from organic waste materials and hydrocarbons. The processes that have achieved this major environmental breakthrough are known as "conversion technologies"--and they are ready for commercialization today. Through the conversion of organic waste materials, ethanol can now be produced for less than one-third of today's national average cost of regular gasoline, even if the federal and state subsidies were phased out.

Conversion technologies can produce ethanol, electricity and other biobased products from such feedstocks as municipal solid waste, sewage sludge, wood waste, green waste, agricultural residues like corn stover, used tires and plastics, as well as hydrocarbons like coal and landfill methane gas. This is a generation beyond the use of purpose-grown cellulosic plant materials, which was the focus of Jamie's article.

It is estimated that 1.5 billion tons of organic waste are generated in the United States each year, not to mention that we have a 300-year supply of coal, which can now be gasified, rather than combusted, to create ethanol and electric energy.

As these technologies use waste products that otherwise would have been placed in landfills and some have the potential to co-produce electricity, they can produce ethanol while consuming zero new BTUs in the process. This makes the current discourse about the energy efficiency of ethanol obsolete. And when organic waste materials are utilized as fuel, these technologies support the natural environmental cycle of CO2 generation and recovery.

Conversion technologies could turn states like New York and California into major exporters, rather than importers, of ethanol. In California, for example, 40 million tons of post-recycled municipal solid waste are placed in landfills each year, and this is expected to grow to near 50 million tons annually by 2025. Theoretically, conversion technologies could annually co-produce some 2.7 billion gallons of ethanol (approximately three times the amount that was imported to California from the Midwest last year) and some 2500 MW of green power--just from the state's post-recycled municipal waste streams--forgetting such other potential fuels as forest thinnings, agricultural residues, sewage sludge, animal wastes, plastics, used tires and manufacturing wastes. California must dispose of 33 million used tires per year, one-third of which are put into landfills.

The concept that today's waste streams can become tomorrow's liquid and electric energy supersedes all other solutions in our quest for energy independence. There is enough organic waste generated in America every year to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil.

James L. Stewart
Chairman of the Board,
BioEnergy Producers Association

Editor's Note: Jim is also VP/Marketing of BRI Energy of Fayetteville, AR - a pioneer in conversion technology.

technorati , , , , , , ,


Henrique Oliveira said...

Very interesting article. But I will insist that what we have now is a problem of perception - people have enough trouble grasping the idea of sticking a corn cob inside the tank, let alone a used tire.

In advertising, we commonly refer to AIDA (Awareness, Information, Desire, Action). First, a consumer is made aware of the product; then information is given to him; next, we create the desire to act; and finally, we bring about action (such as buying something or voting for someone).

The biofuels industry has ridden roughshod over the awareness phase of the process and is now busying itself with information, as if a more plentiful supply of facts will make people act more quickly.

It won't. We still have to give more attention to the "awareness" phase, as I underscore in my own blog. People are still worried that biofuels will only take them a couple of blocks in a miniature car. That is what is really keeping everything else held up.

Why is awareness at that level? Well, people are AWARE that Brazil uses ethanol - but, they think, Brazil (a developing country) probably uses it to fuel old miniature jalopies; people are AWARE that ethanol can be made from corn - but, they reason, that probably has more to do with the politics of pork and the sway the Midwest holds over the current administration.

Most importantly, people KNOW that there are several conflicting opinions on the matter, which may mean that biofuels are just a sham, a pipedream, or a fantasy spun by tree-huggers.

How do we undo these perceptions? Luckily, we have the example of Brazil to proffer. But we can't go on doing as we have done so far: (1) Look! Brazil makes ethanol and they're energy-sufficient! (2) Let's make ethanol from corn!

This makes absolutely no sense and opens the way for criticism of ethanol's potential as a fuel.

Giving more information to American consumers won't change the picture - infinite information generates infinite confusion.

A hard look at the world's only biofuels success story (Brazil) has the potential to do that. Let's take that a little bit more seriously.

Let's also get Madison Avenue involved.

Advertising people have an uncanny ability to synthesize complex situations into simple ideas. For starters, they could tell us how to escape the trap set up by the corn lobby, which has lumped together corn, ethanol, and national security. (For proof that Madison Avenue had a hand in this, look no further than GM's "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign).

Once the perceptions start to change, everything else follows. So I propose engaging in less talk about BTU's, joules, watts, etc., etc. - and sharpening the awareness that people already have of Brazil.

It will make everything else a whole lot easier for proponents of biofuels, whatever your favorite horse in this race is.

C. Scott Miller said...

You tell me but it seems a bit early to go Madison Avenue. We haven't built a commercial-scale facility yet and we aren't in a position to sell the American consumer.

We are pre-early adopter stage (the "bleeding" edge) when the focus is on selling Wall Street investors, municipalities, utilities, auto manufacturers, legislators, and "environmentalists" -otherwise we will never deploy any of these revolutionary solutions. In a sense you are right - we do need a grass-roots uprising to sway the legislature to loosen permitting in California.

It amazes me how important credibility is. It is quite a challenge walking the tightrope between factual accuracy and laymen's comprehension. Scientists like Pimental can be accurate on his findings but wrong on its import. Patzek kills himself with demeaning characterizations of his critics. Vinod Khosla is so passionate that he appears to be grandstanding ("right here in River City") - but at least he is getting a buzz going in the conventional media. He had an appearance on ABC Dateline that was impressive and important. So was Dr. Kammen's appearance on 60 Minutes on the same night. Two angles on the same story.

It's a very interesting process. Let us know more what you learn at U. Michigan about selling renewable fuels. We could use some new "energy."