September 30, 2006

September 2006 Digest

It has been five years since the alarms rang.

When the Twin Towers were hit many naive assumptions about the limits of zealot behavior were crushed. As they fell, worldwide compacts on human decency (the lives of the innocent) and cultural advancement (the growth of individual freedom and material currency) were shattered. The truth behind our renewed sense of vulnerability became uncomfortably clear - we aren't living in a balanced world.

The political and religious battles will rage on, financed in part by our payments to the region because of our over-dependence on fossil fuels. How do we reduce the intense, cross-cultural friction that exposed this tectonic shift in human relations? What can we do to convert the "feedstocks" of looming catastrophe into new energy and light?

Witness the rustling of positive change all over the world. Energy production is decentralizing, venture capitalists are marshalling their resources, political partisans are finding common cause, a visionary consortium is matching the dovetailing needs of under- and over-developed regions of the world, waste and pollution are being addressed with new biotechnology.

Here are September's stories that give us pause, hope, and direction:

General Topics--------------
Microdiesel: Bacteria engineered to produce biodiesel
Advancements in "BioConversion"
Developing Ethanol's Side-stream Chemicals
Decentralized Renewable Energy Builds Communities
9/11 Observance - Where do YOU stand?
Both Reds and Blues Go Green on Energy
Reducing Biofuel Risk through Feedstock Diversification
Khosla Revs All Cylinders to Back Ethanol
Energy Venture Capital Funding Jumps in 2006

Hybrids Plus claims 100+ MPG

Around the Nation--------------
CALIFORNIA: National Latino Congreso Endorses Conversion Technologies
CALIFORNIA: Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006
FLORIDA: County to Vaporize Trash
IOWA: Ethanol, today and tomorrow

Around the World-----------------
WORLDWIDE: The Poor as Producers

Please forward a link to this digest to anyone you know who would be interested 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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WORLDWIDE: The Poor as Producers

Who believes that the inbalance of have and have-not nations can be the basis for substantive change in the new millennium?

The BioPact unites EU citizens and African citizens who work towards a common bioenergy future, in which the EU couples part of its green energy policies to its humanitarian and development policies in Africa. We also monitor biofuels and bioenergy news coming from the developing world in general.

As the interdependence of continental ecologies throughout the world becomes more apparent, the importance of initiatives like BioPact's needs support. I remind readers of the great vision of this consortium by inviting them to read their recent article about the field of development economics and C.K. Prahalad's views as presented in his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Below is a mere fragment of the introduction.

The rural poor as energy producers - a critique of the "bottom of the pyramid" development discourse
from BioPact

At Biopact, our original interest in the bioenergy sector stems from professional engagements in the (poor parts of) emerging economies and from working in the field of development economics. Simply put, it quickly became apparent to us that the potential for the production of biofuels in the South offers a genuine way to tackle poverty. The simple reasoning is that:

(1) energy prices and GHG emissions costs worldwide are rising sharply (oil prices tripled in under 3 years time with no serious declines in sight for the long-term; carbon-markets are being introduced on a planetary scale)

(2) biofuels offer an immediate alternative to fossil fuels and there is an ever growing global demand for them; contrary to other renewables (like wind or solar), the energy and carbon-neutrality coming from bioenergy can be traded physically as a commodity as well as virtually in the form of carbon credits (this is important because it allows producers to play on two markets at the same time)

(3) poor farmers in the South have a competitive advantage (land, labor, climate) and can thus boost their incomes by becoming energy producers who can sell to us competitively. A simple proposition.

It is crucial that we stress this productive capacity of the poor and their ownership over it. Of the 3 billion people that live on less than two dollars a day, some 70% live in rural areas with more than half of them being farmers. With moderate capital interventions and basic knowledge and tech transfers, they can diversify into energy production over which they retain control.

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September 27, 2006

Microdiesel: Bacteria engineered to produce biodiesel

Add another word to your vocabulary - "microdiesel" - as in biodiesel fuel produced by using micro-organisms engineered for fuel production. Like enzymatic and bacterial catalysts mentioned elsewhere on this blog, this new process expands the range of feedstock that can be employed in biofuel production.

Thanks to Biopact for identifying the online reports on this technology. Use the links here for more details.

New Fuels from Bacteria
from Science Daily

A breakthrough in the production of biofuels has been developed by scientists in Germany. Research published in the September 2006 issue of Microbiology, a Society for General Microbiology journal, describes how specially engineered bacteria could be used to make fuel completely from food crops.

Microdiesel, as the scientists have named it, is different from other production methods because it not only uses the same plant oils, but can also use readily available bulk plant materials or even recycled waste paper if engineering of the production strain is more advanced.

Also, it does not rely on the addition of toxic methanol from fossil resources, like many other biodiesels. The bacteria developed for use in the Microdiesel process make their own ethanol instead. This could help to keep the costs of production down and means that the fuel is made from 100% renewable resources.

"Due to the much lower price of the raw materials used in this new process, as well as their great abundance, the Microdiesel process can result in a more widespread production of biofuel at a competitive price in the future", says Professor Steinb├╝chel.

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September 20, 2006

Hybrids Plus claims 100+ MPG

What is the most direct way to decrease our reliance on gasoline? Create vehicles that achieve very high mileage on little or no gasoline. One company, Hybrids Plus, is converting off-the-shelf Toyota Priuses into plug-in versions that demonstrate how close we are to greatly multiplying vehicle MPG.

James Fraser of The Energy Blog ran a story recently about the delivery of a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) to the Colorado Governor's Office of Energy Management.

Taking a stock HEV-2 Prius (see below) and converting to a PHEV-30 rated Hybrids Plus Prius broadens our concept of what can be accomplished with emerging car technology. If a normal Prius gets 50 MPG, a plug-in version of the same car gets over 100 MPG. It is my view that all cars should be made flex-fuel compatible, including PHEVs. If a PHEV-30 was operating as a FF/PHEV on E85, it could reach approximately 500 miles for each gallon of gasoline that it consumed (blended with 5 gallons of ethanol).

Typically it takes 40 months for a car to go from concept to release (the Pinto is an example of what happens if you try to rush that schedule). If it takes 3 years to realize these obvious benefits, let's start building demand for production of FF/PHEVs NOW!

Here is some background information - courtesy of the Hybrids Plus website:

All HEVs (Hybrid Electric Vehicles) presently produced are ultimately just gasoline cars. They do reduce emissions, and they may improve fuel efficiency (compared to an equivalent, non-hybrid car). However, they are fueled exclusively by gasoline.

A Plug-in Hybrid car, in contrast, can also be fueled by electricity from an electrical outlet. Initially, a PHEV uses less gas than an HEV, because it can draw energy longer, from its larger battery. For example, a Toyota Prius' 50 mpg efficiency can be improved to about 100 mpg when operated as a PHEV. Eventually, when that storage of electrical energy is depleted, a PHEV is no more efficient than an HEV.

EV distance
HEVs and PHEVs are rated by how far they can go just on electricity stored in their batteries. For example, a stock Toyota Prius is an HEV-2, meaning that its battery holds enough energy for about 2 miles. A Hybrids Plus Prius conversion is a PHEV-30, meaning that its battery holds enough energy for about 30 miles.

Note that a Prius PHEV must still use some gasoline because, by design, its gas engine must operate when going 35 mph or more.

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September 19, 2006

CALIFORNIA: National Latino Congreso Endorses Conversion Technologies

The deployment of community-based waste management technologies is not only a public sanitation and health issue, it is also an employment and an environmental justice issue. As Latinos are elected to strong leadership positions, they are devoting time and commitment to community action plans that will have a positive impact on the state's quality of life.

At the recent National Latino Congreso held in Los Angeles, many proposals were introduced and voted on pledging support for activities that will improve the health and environment of all Californian communities. One proposal that was passed demonstrates the group's awareness of the opportunities and benefits inherent in conversion technologies.


WHEREAS, the California Integrated Waste Management Board indicates that over 40 million tons of waste are landfilled every year just in California, despite a 50% recycling rate; and
WHEREAS, landfill space is at a premium, and disposal rates are estimated to increase; and
WHEREAS, the siting of landfills and solid waste disposal facilities is a major Environmental Justice issue, and eliminating the need for disposal reduces the impact on communities with nearby disposal facilities impacting their quality of life; and
WHEREAS, conversion technologies are processes capable of converting residual post-recycled solid waste and other organic feedstocks into useful products, alternative fuels, and clean, renewable energy, and offer strategic energy, economic, social and environmental benefits; and
WHEREAS, biofuels derived from solid waste and excess biomass via conversion technologies and can be a clean, renewable fuel source that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels; and
WHEREAS, the use of conversion technologies can contribute solutions to California’s critical waste disposal and environmental problems, and result in substantial environmental benefits for California, which include reducing the amount of waste disposed in landfills, production of renewable energy, and reduction air emissions including greenhouse gas emissions; and
WHEREAS, conversion technologies can create “green collar” jobs with good wages and benefits through increased private investment;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the 2006 National Latino Congress:

1. Support the enhancement and expansion of waste reduction and recycling programs nationwide, and the adoption of zero waste goals to eliminate the concept of waste;

2. Conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of hazardous materials in the waste stream by supporting and promoting preferable purchasing programs, product redesign, advanced disposal fees and other manufacturer responsibility measures as well as enhanced collection and recycling infrastructure;

3. Urge state and local communities throughout the country to invest in landfill alternatives, such as conversion technologies, which create “green collar” jobs and make use of abundant biomass and organic waste resources in an environmentally beneficial manner;

4. Lobby lawmakers at the State and Federal level to provide clear permitting pathways for the development of conversion technologies, and properly define and incentivize the development of these technologies based on sound science and their life-cycle environmental impacts and benefits in relation to other solid waste management options.

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September 17, 2006

Advancements in "BioConversion"

Is it unreasonable to expect that the next major advancements in fermentation will come from the use of biological agents (enzymes, micro-organisms, and bacteria) to perform the metamorphosis of cellulosic feedstock into biofuels? Will nanotechnology play a role?

The ever enlightening Biopact blog has two recent articles on bioconversion advancements that are noteworthy in this regard.

Interview about 'third generation' biofuels

'First generation' biofuels consist of unmodified sugar, starch or oil crops being used to make ethanol or biodiesel, by utilizing the easily fermentable parts of the crop (in the case of ethanol) or by transesterifying seed oil. 'Second generation' biofuels rely on advanced bioconversion techniques, such as the enzymatic breakdown of ligno-cellulose to make ethanol. That way, much more biomass is available as a feedstock.

In 'third generation' biofuels, the energy crops or the bioconversion agents (bacteria, micro-organisms) themselves have been bio-engineered in such a way that the bioconversion process becomes more efficient. For woody crops for example, the lignin structure may be altered so that it breaks down 'on command' and releases the sugars needed, much easier.

In its "Young Innovator" series, the MIT Technology Review has an interesting interview with Michael Raab, a 33 year old bioengineer who is working on such 'third generation' biofuels.

Michael Raab is putting enzymes into corn that will make it easier and cheaper to convert the entire plant--kernels, husk, stalk, and leaves--into ethanol. These proteins allow processors to break the complex carbohydrates that make up most of the corn plant into simple sugars that can be easily fermented into ethanol.

Read more here...

Micro-biorefineries: nanotechnology and bioenergy meet

...But there is another vision, one in which decentralisation, independence, localisation, '(re-)territorialisation' and dynamic, bottom-up decision making processes are the key concepts. Local communities become owners of their own energy infrastructure, resources and politics. It is within this paradigm that a consortium of British universities, supported by the University of Newcastle's spin-off Intensified Technologies Inc (ITI), is working towards the development of 'micro-biorefineries' that use locally produced biomass feedstocks and turn them into fuels, electricity, heat, and green specialty chemicals at a local scale, and fine-tuned to the ever changing needs of a particular community. The fascinating project combines nanotechnology with biotechnology to get there and promises to bring a highly dynamic, multi-purpose micro-factory to our neighborhoods.

The idea is to integrate different bioconversion processes, and to scale them down radically ('Process Intensification and Miniaturisation'). Three conversion steps are integrated, each using the residues of the precedent step:
• a first conversion and pretreatment of the base biomass through bacterial breakdown into a 'bio-sludge' with a high energy density
• conversion of the biomass residues that result from this process into ethanol through fermentation
• gasification of the residues that remain from this fermentation process into a synthesis gas, which has to be purified

Prison cells for bacteria
Key to the integration of the steps is the control of the behavior of bacteria, which play a role both in the breakdown and pretreatment of the initial biomass, as well as in the fermentation and purification steps. In order to control bacteria in a way that does not rely on manipulating their genetic properties, the consortium is developing porous nano-structures designed on a molecular scale. A new production process based on micro-waves allows the porous materials to be made in a matter of seconds, whereas a few years ago this took days. These structures are either made from polymer, metal or ceramic materials and form a kind of 'prison with cells' for the bacteria.

Read more here...

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September 15, 2006

CALIFORNIA: Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006

On September 15th The Sacramento Bee published a commentary titled The greening of California about the recently passed California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The author, Wayne Madsen, is "a contributing writer for the liberal Online Journal."

He enthusiasticallly believes that California is implementing "the nation's first sweeping carbon curbs law." He first tells the reader that "far from hurting California's huge economy -- will provide a boost to its burgeoning "green business" sector. Other states should consider following suit." He goes on to assure businesses that they will not be hurt by the new measures, rather a new "green industrial" base will develop. For the most part, we agree.

But then, in an all too familiar anti-establishment screed, he lambastes the very businesses and municipal governments that will be charged with complying with the legislation:

"New ideas on eco-friendly energy initiatives are not popular with many obstinate oil industry and chamber of commerce leaders -- individuals, who, under the Bush-Cheney administration, all too often have become pampered fat cats. The tide is finally turning against the corporate naysayers who've repeatedly sabotage the drive to produce a cleaner, healthier planet. California -- always a global trendsetter -- now has found one trend that transcends surfboards and Barbie dolls and just may eventually save Mother Earth."

Below is my response to Madsen's commentary...

Give innovators a chance.

Blaming industry and municipal leaders as obstructionists is simplistic myopia. There are literally billions of investment dollars impatiently waiting for the California legislature to enact regulatory reform that will enable entrepreneurs and developers to deploy the kind of technologies that this law is meant to foster.

Case in point - L.A.'s RENEW L.A. plan. This visionary waste management plan will use clean, safe conversion technologies to reduce dependence on shrinking landfills, lower greenhouse gases, produce green electricity and biofuels, and support environmental justice while providing thousands of new "green collar" jobs for Californians. But because of the inertia of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, outdated regulations and permitting hurdles have and will continue to hold up implementation for years.

Who is intimidating the politicians? To a surprising extent it is groups like Californians Against Waste and their unquestioning followers who self-righteously purport to represent recycling and environmental interests - but whose agenda is as turf-protecting and self-serving as the businesses, utilities, and municipal governments they unjustly decry. Because of the multiplying dangers of the status quo, many in the green movement are starting to recognize the urgent need to be more open-minded about alternative energy technologies.

Since California is going to hold companies responsible for meeting new emissions guidelines, legislators MUST give them the tools and authorization to plan and deploy clean replacement technologies. Progress results from an evolutionary process of planning, research and practical application.

The mantra "Environmentalism" is a "golden calf" to the masses who ignorantly allow the status quo to continue to fester into mounting disasters. We need to write new laws that give innovators a chance to reduce greenhouse gases.

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September 13, 2006

Developing Ethanol's Side-stream Chemicals

Who will be the George Washington Carver of the developing ethanol industry? Carver is best known as the inventor of over 300 uses for peanuts during the late 19th century - but that is probably the least of his accomplishments. This slave orphan broke racial barriers to persevere as a student, scientist, and Tuskegee Institute educator for all Southerners who struggled to survive the post-Civil War era. He developed crop rotation techniques for investing depleted soil with soil-enriching crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans and then extended their marketability by inventing new recipes for their use.

The current ethanol challenges? New agronomy techniques will have to be developed to reduce the use petroleum-based fertilizers while improving the soil sustainability and cultivation of ethanol feedstocks. To make biorefineries more self-sufficient, there is a great need for the industry to implement developing pre-processing techniques for sorting feedstock and making new side-stream chemicals. As the industry grows, new products will come from ethanol itself and the purges that are the byproducts of each feedstock's processing.

In an press release posted on the Georgia Tech Research News website, Professor Charles Eckert provides insight into efforts being made to make the ethanol industry more viable. He describes coordinated and cross-discipline approaches being pursued by him and his colleagues.

Leveling the Playing Field: High-Value Chemicals Produced from Ethanol Feedstocks Could Boost Biorefinery Economics

Biorefineries developed to produce ethanol from cellulose sources such as trees and fast-growing plants could get a significant economic boost from the sale of high-value chemicals – such as vanillin flavoring – that could be generated from the same feedstock. Revenue from these “side stream” chemicals could help make ethanol produced by biorefineries cost competitive with traditional fossil fuels.

“It seems unlikely that fuel from a biorefinery – at least in the beginning – is going to be as cost-effective as fuel from traditional fossil sources,” said Charles Eckert, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “To make the biorefinery sustainable, we must therefore do everything we can to help the economics. If we can take a chemical stream worth only cents per pound and turn it into chemicals worth many dollars per pound, this could help make the biorefinery cost effective.”

To help make that happen, Eckert and collaborators Charles Liotta, Arthur Ragauskas, Jason Hallett, Christopher Kitchens, Elizabeth Hill and Laura Draucker are exploring the use of three environmentally-friendly solvent and separation systems – gas-expanded liquids, supercritical fluids and near-critical water – to produce specialty chemicals, pharmaceutical precursors and flavorings from a small portion of the ethanol feedstock. The green processes could produce chemicals worth up to $25 per pound.

“These are novel feedstocks for chemical production,” Eckert noted. “They are very different from what we’ve dealt with before. This gives us different challenges, and provides a rich area for interdisciplinary research.”

Using near-critical water and gas-expanded liquids, Eckert and his colleagues have already demonstrated the production of vanillin, syringol and syringaldehyde from a paper mill black liquor side stream. They have also proposed a process that would generate levulinic acid, glucaric acid and other chemicals from the pre-pulping of wood chips. That process would use an alcohol-carbon dioxide mixture, followed by depolymerization and dehydration in near-critical water.

Research aimed at producing high-value products from cellulose feedstocks is being done through the “AtlantIC Alliance for BioPower, BioFuels and Biomaterials,” a coalition of three research institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom. The alliance, which includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Imperial College and Georgia Tech, seeks to solve the complex issues involved in economically producing ethanol fuel from cellulose materials such as wood chips, sawgrass, corn stovers – and even municipal waste.

“The feedstock would likely be different in different geographic locations, depending on what was readily available,” Eckert noted. “In the Southeast, we have abundant forest resources. In the West, sources would include sawgrass, corn stovers and similar plant materials. In the United Kingdom, there is strong interest in producing fuels from municipal wastes.”

The Alliance is taking a comprehensive approach to the biorefinery, conducting studies of how to maximize plant growth through genetic engineering, developing new microbial techniques for digesting cellulose, and applying environmentally-friendly chemical processes for reactions and separations. The organizers decided to pursue only non-food sources as their feedstock.

Using tunable solvent systems in the biorefinery would avoid the generation of wastes associated with processes that depend on strong acids – which must be neutralized at the end of the reaction.

For instance, near-critical water – familiar H2O but at 250 to 300 degrees Celsius under pressure – separates into acid and base components that can be used to dissolve both organic and inorganic chemicals. When the pressure is removed, the water returns to its normal properties.

Gas-expanded liquids, such as carbon dioxide in methanol, provide a flexible solvent whose properties can be adjusted by changing the pressure. When the reaction is over, the pressure is released, allowing the carbon dioxide to separate from the methanol.

Supercritical fluids, such as carbon dioxide under high pressure, simplify separation processes. Separation of the carbon dioxide from chemicals dissolved in it requires only that the pressure be reduced, allowing the CO2 to return to its gaseous state.

Though many challenges remain before biorefineries can be designed and built, Eckert says it is important to invest now in this renewable source of energy and chemicals.

“To make the biorefinery work will require a major effort that must be well coordinated among everybody working on it,” he said. “The biorefinery is one of several answers that we need to pursue as part of a national energy strategy. Our future economic well-being requires us to deal with the energy issue.”

Eckert described the green processes Sept. 10 at the 232nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society. The presentation was part of a session “Green Chemistry for Fuel Synthesis and Processing.”

In 2004, Eckert and Liotta received a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for their development and promotion of benign tunable solvents that couple reaction and separation processes.

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Decentralized Renewable Energy Builds Communities

As a wide variety of bioenergy systems are being planned to supplement and/or eventually replace the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, the added benefits of decentralization are being anticipated. Imagine - customizable solutions based on the local ecology of the host community. Biofuels fermented from local crops or waste. Electricity harvested from installed solar panels and windmills. Smaller-scale commercial generators and fuel cells strategically located near industrial parks. Many of the components of community based systems are described in Barry Hanson's excellent book Energy Power Shift.

In an article written by Cindy Zimmerman of Domestic Fuel titled Locally-Owned Plants Better For Local Economies she reports on a study released by the National Corn Growers Association that contends that "ethanol plants owned by local farmers provide more economic benefits for communities than those owned by absentee investors."

“Since a farmer-owned cooperative ethanol plant is literally a member of the community, the full contribution to the local economy is likely to be as much as 56 percent larger than the impact of an absentee-owned corporate plant.”

Two main reasons are given for that conclusion:

1. The share of expenditures for operations of a farmer-owned plant derived in the local community is likely to be larger than that of an absentee-owned plant.

2. Farmer-owners of a cooperative or limited liability corporation (LLC) ethanol plant will participate in the profits through dividends.

On September 11th, Renewable Energy Access carried a similar story that focused on other benefits for investors, the workforce, and building more community cohesion - "a healthier society." Here are mere excerpts - the article is so good I recommend going to the source.

Community Renewable Energy Is Just Around the Corner
by Ted Bernhard

Although the shift toward large-scale renewable energy has already begun to make a positive difference, today the U.S. finds itself on the verge of another new wave of thinking that incorporates the lessons of the past, but goes beyond merely addressing cost and environmental concerns and seeking maximum output. This new model, which is gradually and quietly rolling into communities across the country, is the distributed "community renewables" model, in which new power projects are smaller and tightly integrated with local communities and local resources in a way that the economics become more favorable and communities are able to participate directly in some of the benefits.

There are three characteristics that distinguish distributed community renewables from the "cheaper at any cost" and the "mega-renewable deployment" mindsets.

1. Increased Community Participation. Unlike a project developed, financed and controlled exclusively by an external developer, community energy projects actively seek to involve local communities as much as realistically possible. This can be done by using fuel from local feedstocks or natural resources; hiring local contractors for construction, administration, management and maintenance roles; giving the local community members an opportunity to invest and share directly in the project's financial benefits (particularly on the back end); creating additional tax revenue for the local governments, and even, in some cases, selling the power produced to local individuals and businesses.

2. Smaller-Scale Projects. Project size is driven primarily by federal, state, and local tax incentives; the proximity and availability of natural resources; and the ability to transmit power to customers... Some developers are also beginning to explore innovative ways to sell their projects' power to the local communities themselves or on the open market.

3. Additional Societal Benefits. Finally, community renewables projects create a wide range of social benefits that transcend the economics of a particular project. These include decreased dependence on foreign natural gas and oil, a power infrastructure that is far less subject to large-scale disruption or terrorism because of its distributed and diverse nature, local control of generation facilities, creation of much needed high-quality jobs in rural areas, and a supplemental revenue stream for agricultural community members that allows them to maintain their rural lifestyle. Additionally, this approach has demonstrated an uncanny ability to bring together people from very different backgrounds -- Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural residents, businesses and environmentalists -- for a common cause.

Utilities and large-scale commercial developers also are beginning to recognize the wisdom of this approach as complementary to their own efforts, because it often helps familiarize local communities with the benefits of renewable projects and ends up making it easier to get their larger projects sited in the future. Some even like the model so much that they are considering building some of these types of projects themselves as a way to replace aging facilities in difficult-to-reach rural areas.

One thing is for sure: when done right, investment in community renewables can be highly profitable for investors. This is because they offer:

-- Higher risk-adjusted return than virtually any other investment...
-- Sustainable long-term business models..
-- Increased operational efficiencies..

The community renewables projects breaking ground today are just the beginning. As the full value of carbon emissions savings become a tradable commodity, and as new storage and interconnection technologies become available, the distributed community renewables energy model has the opportunity to become an increasingly significant piece of broader efforts moving us toward clean energy and a healthier society.

Ted Bernhard's firm is sponsoring a conference called Investing for Clean Energy in the Pacific Northwest on October 4, 2006 in Seattle, which is designed to explore investor-related renewable energy issues with some of the nation's most active and successful clean energy investors.

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September 11, 2006

9/11 Observance - Where do YOU stand?

Today marks five years since the Twin Towers travesty. I wanted to mark the occasion somehow. At the very least, I think we owe it to the victims of 9/11 to display our flag on this important anniversary, just as we were moved to do when it happened.

Now is a good time for each of us to take a personal reading of our values, political beliefs and party affiliation.

Where do YOU fit?

I ran across a short but interesting survey called Where Do You Fit? put together by the Pew Research Institute. They used it for their 2005 typological survey report called Beyond Red vs. Blue but you can use it to measure your own attitudes on a variety of social and political issues.

Don't worry, your answers to these questions are totally anonymous. Wouldn't you like to know which category the institute has defined to describe people that share your opinions? Below is a sample question:

Try taking the survey. I think you'll find it as interesting as I did.

I’ll save the suspense of what those categories are except to say one thing - don’t be one of the 10% of the adult population the institute considers:
"Bystanders" - These Americans choose not to participate in or pay attention to politics, or are not eligible to do so (non-citizens).”

Be sure to Vote!

Our young people serving in the Middle East deserve our support - so please weigh the issues and get out and vote each November. If you really want to vote in a meaningful way, support more fuel choices at the pump. Freedom at the pump allows us to vote with our pocketbooks - what could be more American than that!?!

See a related story entitled Both Reds and Blues Go Green on Energy about Pew's analysis of bipartisan support for environmental and energy legislation.

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September 10, 2006

FLORIDA: County to Vaporize Trash

Using an approach that sounds a little like "Flash Gordon meets Waste Management", a company in Georgia is using "high heat" (10,000°F.) to vaporize municipal solid waste (MSW). Sounds great as far as it goes but I have four technical questions:
1. How much energy does it use?
2. What will be the source of the plasma arc energy?
3. What does the energy source emit?
4. Is the high heat of the plasma-arc being captured and utilized?
5. How are they going to combust the syngas to keep the emissions low?

If you visit the Geoplasma website, you can hear the company principals explain the application of a D.O.D.-financed technology being applied to solve a societal need - the reduction of landfill waste.

Expect to be challenged

In the article below, it sounds like the combustion of syngas is not a closed loop system. While the emissions may indeed be "cleaner than burning coal or natural gas" that is not very reassuring. Emissions tests of other pilot plant processes for harnessing syngas (see Results of Independent Study of Emissions) prove that they emit small fractions of the allowable emissions of dioxins, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter permissable for modern generating facilities. That is the new standard and, by comparison, the Geoplasma plan is brute techology in need of refinement.

I also question the assertion by Hilburn Hillestad, president of Geoplasma that "This is sustainability in its truest and finest form." As the full system is described, the company would face considerable outrage and resistance by environmentalists over the misuse of the term "sustainability." First, they will complain that material natural resources will be pulverized out of their original state and we will lose their material reusability.

Secondly, there is nothing inherently natural or close-looped about a system that atomizes trash and combusts the syngas. Something productive has to come from the carbon and even then, it needs to be "sunk" - otherwise the greenhouse gases produced by the process will contribute to global warming.

Don't get me wrong - this system and many others should be deployed in commercial-scale so that institutions like Georgia Tech can improve system deficiencies. But the second problem they will have to solve from a marketing standpoint is reducing combustion emissions. The first one is their simplistic use of hyperbole.

County to Vaporize Trash - Poof!
Wired News

FORT PIERCE, Florida -- A Florida county has grand plans to ditch its dump, generate electricity and help build roads -- all by vaporizing garbage at temperatures hotter than parts of the sun.

The $425 million facility expected to be built in St. Lucie County will use lightning-like plasma arcs to turn trash into gas and rock-like material. It will be the first such plant in the nation operating on such a massive scale and the largest in the world.

Supporters say the process is cleaner than traditional trash incineration, though skeptics question whether the technology can meet the lofty expectations.

The 100,000-square-foot plant, slated to be operational in two years, is expected to vaporize 3,000 tons of garbage a day. County officials estimate their entire landfill -- 4.3 million tons of trash collected since 1978 -- will be gone in 18 years.

No byproduct will go unused, according to Geoplasma, the Atlanta-based company building and paying for the plant.

"This is sustainability in its truest and finest form," said Hilburn Hillestad, president of Geoplasma, a subsidiary of Jacoby Development.

For years, some waste-management facilities have been converting methane -- created by rotting trash in landfills -- to power. Others also burn trash to produce electricity.

But experts say population growth will limit space available for future landfills.

"We've only got the size of the planet," said Richard Tedder, program administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's solid waste division. "Because of all of the pressures of development, people don't want landfills. It's going to be harder and harder to site new landfills, and it's going to be harder for existing landfills to continue to expand."

The plasma-arc gasification facility in St. Lucie County, on central Florida's Atlantic Coast, aims to solve that problem by eliminating the need for a landfill. Only two similar facilities are operating in the world -- both in Japan -- but are gasifying garbage on a much smaller scale.

Up to eight plasma arc-equipped cupolas will vaporize trash year-round, nonstop. Garbage will be brought in on conveyor belts and dumped into the cylindrical cupolas where it falls into a zone of heat more than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We didn't want to do it like everybody else," said Leo Cordeiro, the county's solid waste director. "We knew there were better ways."

No emissions are released during the closed-loop gasification, Geoplasma says. The only emissions will come from the synthetic gas-powered turbines that create electricity. Even that will be cleaner than burning coal or natural gas, experts say.

Few other toxins will be generated, if any at all, Geoplasma says.

Louis Circeo, director of Georgia Tech's plasma research division, said that as energy prices soar and landfill fees increase, plasma-arc technology will become more affordable.

"Municipal solid waste is perhaps the largest renewable energy resource that is available to us," Circeo said, adding that the process "could not only solve the garbage and landfill problems in the United States and elsewhere, but it could significantly alleviate the current energy crisis."

He said that if large plasma facilities were put to use nationwide to vaporize trash, they could theoretically generate electricity equivalent to about 25 nuclear power plants.

Americans generated 236 million tons of garbage in 2003, about 4.5 pounds per person, per day, according to the latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. Roughly 130 million tons went to landfills -- enough to cover a football field 703 miles high with garbage.

"It addresses two of the world's largest problems -- how to deal with solid waste and the energy needs of our communities," Craft said. "This is the end of the rainbow. It will change the world."

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September 9, 2006

Both Reds and Blues Go Green on Energy

Good news - a recent Pew Report shows that there is growing bipartisan consensus on energy and environmental issues. However, this same report shows that internal disagreement within the Republican and Democratic parties is likely to frustrate initiatives to support these issues.

In an article written for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Michael Dimock provides research data and a brief analysis showing examples where the intraparty dissension shows up between typologies.

By the way, invest a few minutes to answer the Pew Research typology questionnaire online, Where Do You Fit?, and find out which political typology group you fit into. I discovered I'm an Upbeat.


But Parties Split Internally on Environmental

by Michael Dimock
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
February 28, 2006

With high fuel prices and instability in the Middle East, Americans are increasingly concerned about the nation's energy situation. In January, 58% rated "dealing with the nation's energy problem" a top priority, up from just 47% a year ago and 40% in January of 2003.

And while finding new energy and protecting the environment are often seen as conflicting goals, the public makes no such distinction. In concert with rising energy worries, Americans are becoming increasingly anxious about the environment. In January, 57% rated "protecting the environment" a top priority, up from 49% a year ago and just 39% in 2003.

The outgrowth of this concern about both energy and the environment is that the public expresses almost universal support for solutions that address both problems at the same time. Fully 86% favor the government requiring better fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and SUVs, and 82% favor increased federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen energy.

Even more striking in today's politicized environment, is the level of bipartisan consensus behind these proposals. Republicans back higher fuel efficiency standards as uniformly as Democrats, and, if anything, are even stronger backers of federal research programs on alternative energy sources. Even expanding government spending on mass transportation, supported by two-in-three Americans overall, is backed equally by both Democrats and Republicans.

The extent to which constituencies within each party differ starkly over environmental priorities was highlighted by the Pew Research Center's 2005 Political Typology*. That survey, which classified segments of the U.S. electorate in terms of their underlying values, found that Americans take an overwhelmingly pro-environmental position on one of the survey's core questions. More than three-quarters of the public (77%) say that the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment. Just 18% take the opposing position, that the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.

But a critical subgroup within the Republican coalition disagrees with this overall assessment. Enterprisers - Republicans who take a strong pro-business and small government position on most issues - are of the view that the country has already gone too far on the environment. Social Conservatives and Pro-Government Conservatives, on the other hand, are as firmly behind environmental protection as most Democratic and centrist groups.

And when the potential impact of environmental regulations on jobs and the economy are raised, significant divisions within the Democratic base also emerge. Many of those who are financially struggling and skeptical of both government and business - a group we refer to as Disadvantaged Democrats - say that environmental regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. Other Democrats are far more likely to believe that environmental regulations are worth these costs. On the right, Enterprisers continue to diverge from the views of other GOP groups in their criticism of environmental efforts.

Concrete actions that both protect the environment and address the nation's energy needs are unlikely as long as these issues divide the parties internally at least as much as they divide Republicans from Democrats. While there is broad public backing for such government actions, advancing these policies may require an unusual coalition that energizes segments of both parties' bases.

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September 8, 2006

Reducing Biofuel Risk through Feedstock Diversification

Following a theme of this blog, as long as ethanol production is constrained to a single feedstock source - corn or sugarcane - the longterm risks and volatility of feedstock prices will become untenable. Either competitive demand for feedstock will raise prices too high or agricultural soil sustainability will be compromised. And, clearly, there isn't enough corn available to satisfy a significant percentage of gasoline consumption. If we are lucky, we will replace the growth in demand for fuel, leaving existing consumption untouched.

However, by converting a wide array of feedstock into ethanol and other biofuels, we not only embrace a greater volume of biomass, but also reduce the risk of unbalanced supply. This will lead to global decentralization of production - important to defusing friction from competitive demand.

GS AgriFuels has the right bioconversion idea. By using gasifiers to process cellulosic feedstock into syngas, they will be able to creatively address local supply procurement and delivery issues. As their website explains...

We use a proprietary new biomass gasifier that is designed to standardize variable biomass feeds and optimize high yields of high-quality syngas in real-time with greatly increased capital and operating cost efficiencies at smaller scales as compared to traditional gasification technologies.

The syngas output of our gasifier can either be used to generate heat and power with standard generation equipment or catalyzed into liquid fuels such as ethanol, methanol and synthetic diesel with the Fischer-Tropsch process.

Looks like they have the front end down. However their reliance on F-T process makes it appear that they may need to look for a more efficient process for converting the syngas into biofuels. Here is their press release as published on Business Wire...

GS AgriFuels to Build Integrated Multi-Feedstock, Multi-Fuels Production Facility in Memphis, Tennessee

NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Sept. 6, 2006--GS AgriFuels Corporation (OTC Bulletin Board: GSGF) today announced its plans to build an integrated multi-feedstock, multi-fuels production facility in Memphis, Tennessee.

GS AgriFuels has executed several of the agreements necessary to develop its Memphis site and expects to commence construction of the Memphis facility later this year.

"We strongly believe in the potential of renewable fuels, but our view is that the domestic clean fuels industry faces significant challenges over the coming years," said Kevin Kreisler, GS AgriFuels' chairman and chief executive officer. "Among other challenges, the biodiesel sector faces high concentrations of risk in the soy markets and the corn-derived ethanol sector is facing both increasing corn prices and decreasing distillers dried grains prices. Our belief is that these risks can be mitigated with feedstock diversification and with the use of proprietary new technologies and production improvements. Our business model incorporates elements of each."

GS AgriFuels intends to use standard fuel production technologies and a number of proprietary technologies, including innovative pre-treatment, process intensification, gasification, catalytic, and carbon capture technologies, synergistically at small-scales to enable the refining of many forms of biomass into clean fuels, including biodiesel and ethanol.

"Our development plans are based on the premise that feedstock diversification and integrated multi-fuel production capability at relatively small-scales will allow us to hedge risk and proactively manage fluctuating market conditions in opportunistic ways," added Kreisler. "We are designing our facilities around this philosophy."

GS AgriFuels is currently developing several sites for the construction of its planned integrated multi-fuel production facilities. GS AgriFuels' planned Memphis facility will have an initial nameplate capacity of 10 million gallons of biodiesel and 5 million gallons of ethanol, methanol and/or biomass-derived synthetic diesel and will commence production in 2007.

GS AgriFuels' expects to scale its Memphis, Tennessee facility to in excess of 45 million gallons of annual fuel production given that facility's location in a major distribution hub. Additional information on GS AgriFuels' development plans is available online at

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September 4, 2006

Khosla Revs All Cylinders to Back Ethanol

Vinod Khosla has been all over the media and world lately debating all comers on The Oil Drum, co-sponsoring of California Prop. 87, distributing his 23-page defense of ethanol (distilled here), and accelerating the march of Khosla Ventures to invest in a dizzying array of ethanol start-ups (like recently announced Cilion below). While I don't agree with all his moves, it is clear he is putting his money where his vision is. Now if he could just throw a few bucks in support of Sen. David Roberti's BioEnergy Producers Association which is fighting the good regulatory fight in Sacramento I would be happy...

Is Ethanol Controversial? Should it be?
by Vinod Khosla

The message of this paper is (1) corn ethanol is not perfect but it is the best alternative among our realistic options (2) corn ethanol primes the pump for better options, be it cellulosic ethanol from enzymes or gasification, butanol, or other “biohols” from the same feedstocks and similar technologies, (3) even corn ethanol, though it will never meet all our gasoline replacement needs, is not your father’s ethanol – it can be and has been improved substantially in many ways and made properly can be environmentally almost as good as cellulosic ethanol, (4) corn ethanol properly managed can result in lower prices for gasoline (reduces gasoline use as E85) and a much lower prices fuel for basically today’s automobile engines without the need to revolutionize the automobile industry.

A Hierarchy of goals!
We have a hierarchy of goals for the USA when it comes to transportation fuels and oil. First, on energy and economic goals, we want a lower cost of transportation fuels, we want lower level of imports to improve our trade balance, we want to be less dependent on foreign oil and we want to have more energy security and independence, and if possible create more farm incomes and US jobs.

When we reach beyond these goals to our environmental goals, we need to worry about energy balance, land use, monoculture crops, health effects, and a host of other issues. It fortunately turns out that the many of the factors that drive economics will also benefit the environment. Even corn ethanol today has better energy balance than gasoline with about a 20% reduction in greenhouse gases and it is getting better everyday.

Not your father’s ethanol anymore or the “Energy Balance” Debate: The energy required to produce corn ethanol is declining every year. Corn yields are increasing and fertilizer intensity is decreasing, improving its energy balance.

Once ethanol becomes a substantial market, all parts of the production process, crops & feedstocks, manufacturing, chemistries, transportation, and more will be the subject of intensive attention and innovation. The world does not stay still when large scale economics are involved.

Corn ethanol leads us down a progressive path towards improving technologies. Some technologies are more amenable to improvement and among the current set of options corn ethanol is definitely the most promising from a pragmatic point of view. There is no question that corn ethanol will be later dominated by cellulosic or other forms of ethanol or ethanol, like solar and wind, will become a minority of our fuel supply in its category. Even that is a good thing. But corn ethanol is invaluable in getting us started towards a potentially dominating alternative to gasoline.

Myth: Ethanol will give lower mileage
Though a 25% mileage reduction per gallon of ethanol compared to gasoline is the reality today, it can be immaterially small over time as engines are optimized for a flex-fuel world.... The fact is that the 25% mileage penalty is only true if you run a gasoline optimized engine with E85 and no special features to adopt it for ethanol use.

So how far away is cellulosic ethanol? The DOE has a request for proposal as to set up a cellulosic ethanol plant due in August of 2006. The best way to evaluate the timeframe for the technology is to judge how many technologies, in the view of knowledgeable private investors, are ready for large $50+ million investments. We expect the DOE request which calls for a $75 million or so in private investment in every proposal will receive a dozen submissions or more. Atleast half a dozen are expected to be very credible. We at Khosla Ventures know of atleast five serious attempts that are ready for pilot deployment.

Let the technology explosion happen!
Most importantly our choice today should start a progression to increasingly “better” technologies that has far more room to improve technologically on feedstocks, on development process, on ethanol and ethanol like fuels that are compatible with the existing infrastructure.

Western Milling and Khosla Ventures Join Forces to Form Cilion
Cilion to Produce Environmentally-Friendly Corn Ethanol

California's largest grain milling company, and Khosla Ventures, a venture assistance and venture capital firm, today announced the formation of Cilion. Cilion will operate modular, standardized 55 million gallons per year ethanol plants. Using a variety of innovations these plants will be cheaper and greener than standard corn-to-ethanol plants, substantially reducing the need for fossil fuels in ethanol production. Cilion plans to have 8 plant units in production by 2008 for a total of 440 million gallons per year capacity. The first three plants are expected to be in California. The ethanol production, grain handling, logistics and feed expertise of Western Milling combined with the company building and financial expertise of Khosla Ventures will provide Cilion with a unique advantage.

According to Western Milling President Kevin Kruse, "Our technology and years of experience will allow our plants to have an energy balance advantage that is 2X that of gasoline. In addition we expect a greater than 90% reduction in petroleum use. The bottom line is that Cilion will be able to produce environmentally friendlier ethanol in California at a lower cost than ethanol produced in the traditional Midwest corn ethanol plants and delivered to California." Added Kruse, "When fully operational, ethanol produced by Cilion is expected to be price competitive per mile driven with gasoline even if oil prices drop to $40 per barrel, assuming normal gasoline distribution margins."

"Cilion will be able to single-handedly produce all of the ethanol that the Governor has ordered for 2010, based on current consumption," according to Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures. "Governor Schwarzenegger wants twenty percent of all ethanol consumed in California to be homegrown, and we are confident that Cilion can achieve that goal in its first three California plants, comprising four 55 million gallons per year units, that will be operational by early 2008."

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Energy Venture Capital Funding Jumps in 2006

If real estate was "the long hair of the 70's", and dot-coms the 90's, then investment in alternative energy must be the dot-coms of the new millennium. And the way things are shaping up, this trend has legs.

Here are some of the ruminations published in the Boston Globe over last weekend...

Money flowing to new ideas in energy
Venture funding spikes to $445.1m

With rising energy prices stoking demand for new technologies, venture capital firms are showering attention, and hundreds of millions of dollars, on a field investors have long ignored: alternative energy.

Start-ups working with solar, battery, hydrogen, wind, and fuel cell technologies raised $445.1 million in venture funds nationally in the first six months of this year, 56.1 percent more than the $285.2 million raised by such companies in all of 2005, according to figures newly compiled by the National Venture Capital Association trade group.

At today's higher energy prices, "a lot of the things that didn't look economical in the past are starting to look more economical," said Jeff Andrews , a partner at Atlas Venture in Waltham who's been prowling for alternative energy investments.

At least some of the fervor for funding energy start-ups can be attributed to the souring of interest in other sectors of the economy.

"Venture capitalists have gone through a dry spell finding attractive investments in telecommunications and software," said Howard R. Berke , founder and chief executive of Konarka Technologies Inc., a Lowell company developing flexible plastic solar cells for use in everything from building materials to mobile phones. "They see clean energy as a new focus area."

Another factor driving alternative energy demand, and heightening investor appetite, is the subsidies and incentives offered by governments in the United States, the European Union, Russia, Japan, and China. ``It's happening on a global basis," Berke said, ``and venture capitalists recognize that when they fund a company in the renewable energy space, they're funding companies that will have a global market."

Venture capital is the perfect funding model for such companies, because venture firms are willing to make riskier longer-term investments and lose money or break even on some as long as they realize big returns on others, said Travis Bradford , founder and president of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, a research firm in Cambridge and author of the book `"Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry."

A lot of venture capital is flowing into companies in this space, and not all of them are going to make money," Bradford said. "But these are major new sources of energy. If a new generation of technology can bring their cost down further and gain rapid acceptance, these companies are going to be very valuable assets."

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September 3, 2006

IOWA: Ethanol, today and tomorrow

I think it is time to remind ourselves that we are at the bleeding edge of the renewable liquid energy paradigm shift. Chapter one is gasoline blended with ethanol from sugar fermentation. Chapter two will be gasoline blended with cellulosic ethanol. Chapter three will be the global deployment of cellulosic ethanol conversion technologies using a incredibly wide variety of feedstocks.

We don't need to replace oil - we just need to knock down our dependence on it - the principal and the interest. Our independence cannot happen alone. Because of the rapidly rising global demand for oil, we need other countries to reduce their dependence on oil as well. The new paradigm must include decentralized proliferation of renewable fuel production.

As pointed out by Cindy Zimmerman of the Domestic Fuel blog, the Des Moines Register recently ran a story and an opinion piece about the grand arc of ethanol evolution that Iowa is likely to see over the next few decades.

Ethanol is Just the Beginning
Next generation of ethanol, other fuels pose dazzling possibilities.

Can America realistically look to its forests and farms to provide the fuels of the future? Can Iowa become to biofuels what Texas is to petroleum?

The answers are not entirely clear, but Iowans need to think about the questions. Iowa is the national leader in ethanol now, but the state won't be the leader in whatever comes after grain-based ethanol unless we're open to other possibilities.

Indeed, there are reasonable doubts about ethanol's long-term future.

The rap on ethanol used to be that it was a net-energy loser. That objection has been overcome. The new worry about ethanol is that there simply isn't enough corn to make enough ethanol to significantly reduce the nation's reliance on petroleum.

That appears to be true. If 100 percent of the corn crop were devoted to ethanol production, it would displace only about 13 percent of gasoline consumption, and there would be no corn left to feed hogs and poultry. That's not likely to happen, of course.

An upper limit on ethanol production from corn will be reached somewhere short of using the entire crop but not even remotely close to ending reliance on petroleum.

Longer term, the expectation is that the feedstock for ethanol will expand far beyond corn.

Cellulosic ethanol made from perennial crops such as switchgrass, from trees and wood chips, from crop residue including corn stover, will have a better net-energy balance than today's ethanol and will be more plentiful.

Plus, there is the potential for constructing biorefineries that, like petroleum refineries, would be capable of producing a wide range of products, such as plastics, adhesives, solvents, packaging materials and lubricants in addition to motor fuels. The implications for Iowa's economy are dazzling.

In a related opinion piece, Professor Robert C. Brown of Iowa State University placed the growth of ethanol in a rosier light...

The 1.3 billion tons of biomass identified in the DOE-USDA study could displace as much as 66 percent of our current gasoline demand.

There is room for additional optimism: Retooling our spark-ignition engines to take advantage of the high octane number of ethanol could move us very close to substituting ethanol for all of our current gasoline demand. Alternatively (or additionally), we could demand higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for our automobiles, which could close the remaining gap. Of course, we need to quickly perfect ways to turn plant fibers into fuels if this vision is to be met for the next generation.

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