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The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Hawks Are Out Again: Mistakenly Casting Doubt on Ethanol

The Hawks are out again.  One of my favorite service organizations, the American Automobile Association (AAA), in conjunction with media outlets, has again attacked the use of ethanol in cars.  It’s quite sad.

I will still keep my membership card. The AAA is the Walmart, Costco or Nordstrom of the automobile industry when it comes to service at relatively low costs to its members.  If you get a flat tire on a sparsely traveled road when it’s raining or snowing, the AAA, following the Postal Service norm, “come rain or snow,” will get there reasonably quickly to help you.  Get stuck in your four story garage with a dead battery! Don’t fret or fear, your neighborhood AAA repair truck will be at your side within a relatively short time. It,generally, will “get you to your work on time.” Do I sound like Julie Andrews or the cast in “My Fair Lady?”

 

While I don’t lose sleep over the question (I only get two hours of sleep even without thinking about the AAA), I often wonder why the AAA appears to join with those, particularly in the oil industry, who seem to want to confuse flex fuel vehicle owners and owners of older cars able to convert their engines easily and cheaply, about the wisdom of using ethanol.

Conversion of older cars and extended use of already approved flex fuel cars as well as increased use of ethanol by both sets of vehicles  will result in many benefits, particularly when compared to gasoline.  For example, ethanol according to many, many independent studies by qualified researchers is a safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly fuel than gasoline.  While what is and what is not a fact often becomes a metaphysical question and 100% certainty becomes a question often for philosophers more than scientists, trust me — ethanol is a good but is not a perfect alternative fuel. It is better than gasoline.  Right now a perfect fuel does not exist! Remember that the enemy of the present good is often the distant perfect.

Despite AAA’s press releases, EPA studies involving more rigorous methodology, including strategic sampling of a range of cars, indicate that engine damage is almost a nonoccurrence when using E15.  E10 has been around for a long time with no discernable engine impact and E85, after extensive testing, has been approved for flex fuel cars.

Understandably, ethanol, given improvements in new car engines and tighter fuel standards, reflects fewer benefits than   shown in relatively recent studies concerning ghg emissions, and pollutants like SOx and NOx.  But ethanol still provides significantly more environmental benefits and less costs to the consumer now than gasoline.

The differences between ethanol and gasoline will become even more apparent if you assume that Americans use their God-given noggin and opt to convert their older cars to accept alternative fuels.  It’s cheap and safe and can be done with a kit, or with quick software or tuning fix for some cars.  Similarly, there are nearly 15,000,000 flex fuel cars in the U.S. Most owners do not know they have such a car. Look at the sticker in the back of the car or fuel cap.  You probably are the proud owner of a flex fuel vehicle and, once you recognize this fact, you can use ethanol without risk.  Using ethanol, both for flex fuel cars and converted older vehicles will likely lower your gasoline costs and will contribute to a healthier environment.  Tell your neighbors!  Tell your friends! Tell your significant other!  Tell your spouse!

Clearly, you will see the environmental benefits to your community, state and nation, if you abandon the conventional way of measuring emissions and pollutant reductions and use tons. The new graphic will portray a visible and important increase in the actual emissions and pollutants eliminated from the atmosphere.  It also will emphasize the importance of extending the number of vehicles that can use ethanol through conversion of older cars to flex fuel vehicles and the production of increased numbers of flex fuel vehicles.  If the owners of both sets of cars increasingly fuel their vehicles with mostly ethanol (an objective of a number of demonstrations and pilot programs in several states), the President’s desire to wean the nation off of gasoline will come closer to fruition.  The scale up will provide a transition approach to open fuel markets until competitive renewable fuels become ready for prime market time.

 

Outnumbered 100-to-1, Methanol Is Upbeat

“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”

That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week.  The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.

Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer.  “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.”  The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.

The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks.  “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400.  “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington.  You can’t just talk about production you need money.  If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.

Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million).  “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.

So was anyone discouraged?  Not at all.  The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution.  It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.

“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton.  “The price of gas had become just too high.  Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation.  We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site.  The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”

Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take.  “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience.  “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here.  Now all that has changed.  Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs.  It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries.  China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”

Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat.  “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session.  “It’s another industrial revolution.  And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource.  In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”

But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive.  Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years.  “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar.  “He even wrote a book about it.”  (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.)  Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging.  “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said.  “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”

When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.

Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun.  “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences.  “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can New Catalysts Turn the Corner for Methanol?

The concept of converting our abundant natural gas supplies into liquid methanol in order to replace oil in our gas tanks has had trouble gaining traction for several reasons, all of which are about to face change.

The first reason is that most of the attention towards additives has been focused on ethanol made from corn. Driven by highly specific government mandates, corn ethanol — which now consumes 45 percent of the country’s corn crop — has taken up whatever role industrial methanol might have been chosen to play as a gasoline additive.

Secondly, there’s the problem of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not only has the EPA not approved methanol for gas tanks, the organization actually imposes huge fines on anyone who converts a gasoline engine to methanol without its permission.

The third, and less distinguishable explanation for methanol’s difficult implementation, is that the whole idea has never been very sexy. Methanol has little to do with the “Cutting Edge” or the “New Age Economy.” The manufacturing of methanol is a 60-year-old process practiced doggedly by dozens of industrial facilities around the world. They produce 33 billion gallons a year at the reasonable price of $1.50 per gallon; the energy equivalent of $2.35 gas. Meanwhile, Elon Musk seems to announce a new milestone for the Tesla, or some “breakthrough” in battery technology or cellulosic ethanol emerging from the university laboratories each week, making methanol appear rather plain-Jane and old fashioned. In effect, the solution to our gas tank woes has been hiding before us in plain sight.

Now an announcement from the Scripps Howard Research Institute and Brigham Young University may change everything. In a paper published last week in Science, a team led by Roy Periana of the Scripps Florida Center and Professor Daniel Ess of Brigham Young University say they have found catalysts made from the common elements of lead and thallium that facilitate the conversion of gaseous methane to liquid methanol, potentially making the process even cheaper and more accessible.

The hydrogen bonds in the alkanes (methane, ethane, propane, etc) are among the strongest in nature. To break them involves a heat-driven process invented in the 1940s that is conducted at 900 degrees Celsius. For more than two decades, the Scripps team has been looking for catalysts that would shorten this heat requirement. In the 1990s they came up with a series of catalysts employing platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold, but quickly realized that these elements were too rare and expensive for commercial application. So it was back to the drawing boards in search of something more useful.

Last week in Science they reported success:

The electrophilic main-group cations thallium and lead stoichiometrically oxidize methane, ethane, and propane, separately or as a one-pot mixture, to corresponding alcohol esters in trifluoroacetic acid solvent.
The process reduces the heat requirement to only 200 degrees Celsius, which introduces enormous potential for energy savings. That “one-pot” notation is also crucial. Methane, ethane and propane all come out of the Earth together in natural gas. Currently, they must be separated before the heat-driven process can begin, With the new catalysts, no separation will be necessary. This means that methanol could become significantly cheaper to harvest than it already is. More importantly, these findings signify that methanol conversion will be able to weather the inevitable price increases that will result as demand for natural gas supplies multiplies.

Periana says the process is three years from commercialization. Reports Chemical & Engineering News:
The team is in discussion with several companies and entrepreneurs and would ideally like to jointly develop the technology with a petrochemical company or spin off a startup.

Periana also claims that “Initial targets would be higher-value, lower-volume commodity chemicals such as propylene glycol or isopropyl alcohol directly from propane.” He told reporter Stephen Ritter:

The next target could be to develop lower-temperature processes for higher-volume chemicals, such as converting methane to methanol and ethane to ethanol or ethylene as inexpensive sources for fuels and plastics.

An enormous portion of the world’s energy consumption is still tethered to oil, particularly the transportation sector, where oil constitutes 80 percent of consumption. As oil becomes more and more difficult to find, natural gas use is escalating. In addition, 25 percent of the world’s gas is still flared off because it has been uneconomical to capture. All this could change rapidly if a low-cost conversion to methanol becomes a reality. Reuters grasped the implications of this development when it reported that the new catalytic processes “could lead to natural gas products displacing oil products in the future.”

Batteries, EV, Charging, EV Charging Sign, Plug-in

Are We Entering the Age of Batteries?

Last week in Houston, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz told CERA Conference attendees that storage batteries may be the next big energy breakthrough.  “It’s pretty dramatic,” he said.  “The research is moving very, very fast.”

Indeed, if you’re looking for “energy breakthroughs” on the Internet these days, most of the hits are likely to turn up something new about “flow batteries,” “ten times the storage capacity,” or some new cathode material that dramatically improves the performance of lithium-ion batteries.

So where do we stand in this energy revolution now, and what are the possibilities that any of these breakthroughs are likely to lead to real improvements in our attempts to wean ourselves off traditional energy resources like fossil fuels?

A good place to start is “Next Generation Electrical Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion Batteries,” a panel put together for last February’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.  Three experts – Haresh Kamath; of the Electric Power Research Institute, Mark Mathias; of General Motors, and Jeff Chamberlain; of Argonne National Laboratory – discussed the latest developments in the industry.

All three panelists agreed that battery research is progressing along two separate tracks:

1) lithium-ion batteries that power most consumer electronic devices are now being scaled up for electric vehicles; and

2) larger and more durable conventional batteries for the storage of grid-scale electricity.

Despite whatever hopes Elon Musk may have that his new “Gigafactory” will be able to address both of these markets at the same time, that does not seem likely.  “Lithium-ion just doesn’t have the durability that we’re looking for in the utility industry,” Kamath of EPRI told the audience.  He continued:

I was doing cable research one time and we had a model for a product that would last 40 years.  The utilities looked at it and said, `Could you try for 60 or 80?’  The utilities are looking for things that last a long, long time.’ said Kamath.

“There’s a lot of experimenting going on,” Kamath added, “but everything that is on the grid right now is a demonstration.  No one has yet come up with a sustainable business model.”

With electric cars, on the other hand, the challenge will be in equipping batteries with enough energy density so that their weight does not load down the vehicle to the point of being counterproductive.  “The standard measure is that you need 100 kilowatt-hours of power to drive a mid-sized vehicle 300 miles,” said Mathias, who works at GM’s electrical storage research and development project.  He explained.

If you get up in the density range of 350 Watt-hours per kilogram, you can make it.  But current batteries are operating at around 150 Wh/kg, which gives them a range of 125 miles.  The best we can project is that they can achieve 225 Watt-hours per liter, which still leaves them short. (Mathias).

“Fuel cells operating on hydrogen actually do a much better job at this point,” he added.  “They can now get us up in the 300-mile range.  We regard them as electric vehicles as well.  It’s just that you generate the electricity on board.”

Then there’s the matter of cost.  Capital costs for lithium-ion batteries quickly rise into the $20,000 range.  Fuel cells cost only $6,000 and gas-electric hybrids, $4,000.  “The good news for EVs is that fuel costs are only about one-third that of gasoline,” said Mathias. “Over a span of 100,000 miles, a gasoline engine will cost you $10,000 in fuel.  A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will cost only $6,000 and a pure EV, $3,333.”  Still, that’s a long time to wait and a long way from complete cost recovery.

Refueling time is also a bit of a problem.  “When you pump gasoline into your car, you’re actually adding range at a rate of 150 miles per minute,” said Mathias.  He went on to say:

With hydrogen fuel, it’s 100 miles-per-minute, which is acceptable. But even with the new 120-kW superchargers, you can only add mileage to an EV at a rate of 6 miles per minute.  If you take a long- distance trip, you’re going to spend 20 percent of your time       recharging. (Mathias)

Overall, Mathias was not overly optimistic about further improvements.  “There’s not much on the horizon,” he concluded.  He was more optimistic about hydrogen cars.

Chamberlain, of Argonne National Laboratory, is part of a $120 million program funded by the Department of Energy that is aimed at developing batteries with five times the current energy density at 1/5th the cost within five years.  “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he told the audience, “but we feel that’s what’s needed to transform the transportation sector.”  A long chain of national and university laboratories are involved in the project.  Of course, government goals and mandates are just that – projections that may or may not come true.  Steve Jobs was good at inspiring his cast to pursue seemingly impossible goals but the federal government does not always have the same success.

So far, the research has involved searching the periodic table for more candidates.  “We’re not sure what we’re going to come up with,” said Chamberlain, elaborating:

We’ve decided that capacitors will never help us reach our goal.  The charge dissipates too quickly.  So we’re exploring other materials.  It may involve a metallic anode and a suspended-particle cathode.  If you move to magnesium or aluminum, you’re releasing two electrons  instead of one.  But zinc-air and lithium-air doesn’t get you there               because they simply don’t have the power.”  (Chamberlain)

Chamberlain said that a lot is already known about lithium-ion.  “We may be able to get two times what we have now.”  He had to agree with Mathias that no other significant developments are on the horizon right now.

Mathias warned against new reports that are constantly announcing progress at the material level.  “We often realize right away that they’re not going to work,” he said.  “It’s not worth the manufacturing dollars.

Overall, the takeaway from the panel was that Tesla has its work cut out for it.  Progress on electric vehicles will be tough.  The panelists agreed that natural gas vehicles make a lot of sense.  “The problem is you don’t really solve the CO2 problem,” said Mathias.  He did express confidence that battery research would eventually pay off in the end.  “All this progress will eventually be harvested at the hybrid level,” he said.  “It may not lead to pure electric level, but there is going to be a lot of improvement in hybrids.”

Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Putin , Ukraine and Oil

How many of you have ever been to Russia? It is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people. While in Russia facilitating an Aspen Global Forum of U.S. and Russian leaders,  I visited Nikita Khrushchev’s grave. He lies under six feet of earth — probably  banging his shoe and confessing that he still wishes he could have incrementally changed Russia.  He was not Gorbachev, but neither was he Rasputin.

On top of his grave was a very attractive gravestone. One half was white, the other half black. I asked the workmen what it meant.They explained the contrast by indicating that Khrushchev was part evil doer of black deeds, but also in part a good man who wanted to change Russia.

The gravestone seems to fit the current situation in Russia. It is a place of great thinkers, great writers, great dancers, great scientists and decent people, but it is also the land of Putin whose modus operandi is often dark and destructive. Putin is no Gorbachev!

In the present Ukrainian situation, the dark and dangerous side of Russian leadership is visible. Currently proposed Western sanctions are not persuasive. Paraphrasing, we won’t come to the G8 meeting in Sochi  and we won’t have any more relationships with your military are not earth shattering.Trade limits or sanctions, if announced, may hurt, but Russia’s ability to cut off natural gas to Europe and the Ukraine as a counter measure will marginalize any effort to develop meaningful  responses. Obama and his colleagues do not want to engage in military sanctions in order to counter Putin’s new version of our own Monroe Doctrine.

Speaking of energy, oil, and natural gas, most energy related U.S and Russian executives have not been told to slow down or avoid searching for new businesses in Russia. As a recent CNBC report indicated, “ the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation and Russia is now the biggest oil producer.” U.S. firms are seeking an increased stake in  Russian oil, which is light and good for gasoline.  U.S. companies are even building the rigs for Russian drillers. While the U.S. imports relatively little oil from Russia, this could change depending on price. Russia is still among the top five importers of oil to the U.S.  In light of the Russian actions in Crimea, the price of gas at the pump is expected to head up again. The stakes are high, and at the present time, no government leader in either nation has seriously suggested interfering with the export and import trade network between U.S. and Russia.

I suspect that the U.S. and Russia will eventually agree to a deal on some sort of a pullback in Crimea and the possibility of a monitored arrangement concerning Russians living in both Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. I could be wrong. Russia could insist on remaining in or even annexing the Crimea and it could invade part of Eastern Ukraine.  I pray neither happens!

Would we react militarily in some form or manner, as we have at times in the Middle East in order to secure oil and gas supplies for the Ukraine and other needy western nations? I think not!  Such a provocation would lead to war and is  beyond the pale  for even ardent proponents of “getting tough” with Russia.  Indeed, because Russia’s military is strong, the U.S. and the West will most likely avoid any significant direct military response to possible Russian occupation/annexation of of the Crimea and even eastern Ukraine.

Possible high impact economic sanctions — different from the ‘I won’t come to your meetings and you cannot come to ours’ brand — would not be favored by most Western European countries or even the Ukraine, as they are dependent on Russia’s natural gas.  At the present time, the real options we have to counter Russia’s nefarious activities are not the best ones. While we could fulfill some of our allies’needs by exporting natural gas and oil, the decision to do so deserves (and I suspect is getting) hard analysis, especially in light of domestic U.S economic, political and security concerns about supply as well as demand and a fear of environmental problems, as well as increased consumer costs at the pump here at home. If shipping overseas passes muster, moving natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine could work both in providing needed gas and in possibly negatively affecting the price of Russian gas. Despite acknowledging the theoretical goal of oil independence, the world, including the U.S., is oil and gas dependent. We are lucky to have natural gas in ample supply, and if sane environmental regulations are applied, we can limit related methane and GHG emissions as well as other pollutants. Finally, we have an evolving and growing alternative fuel sector testing and developing renewable fuels.  Opening up U.S. fuel markets and fuel stations to increasingly available flex fuel vehicles and alternative fuels for consumers, including natural gas based ethanol and methanol, as well as electricity, can make us less dependent.

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Tesla Takes It to the Next Level

This will be a week for watching Tesla, not only because the company’s stock had soared to new heights but because Elon Musk seems poised to take it to the next level – manufacturing batteries.

Musk has scheduled a conference call this week and gives every indication is he will be announcing plans for a new “Giga factory” where the Silicon Valley auto company will manufacture its own batteries. “Very shortly, we will be ready to share more information about the Tesla Giga-factory,” Musk told shareholders in his 4th quarter letter last week. This will allow us to achieve a major reduction in the cost of our battery packs and accelerate the pace of battery innovation.”

In a way the company has little choice. If Tesla is to move down-market from its current luxury niche – which has always been the plan – it is will need to buy the equivalent of the world’s entire current output of lithium-ion. The easiest thing to do is to go into manufacturing itself.

As usual, Musk will be doing things with a flair. Rumor is that he will be combining with SolarCity, which is run by his cousin Lyndon Rive, to produce a facility running largely on solar power. This will take us way beyond fossil fuels into the kind of world environmentalists imagine, where intermittent solar and wind power are stored to provide the kind of “high-9’s” reliability required by an industrial, digital society. And the key to that will be the same thing that Musk is working on now – batteries.

This kind of convergence is the reason for the number-two rumor of the week – that Tesla and Apple have engaged for a possible collaboration, even a merger. Last week San Francisco Chronicle reporters Thomas Lee and David Baker revealed that Apple’s M&A specialist Adrian Perica met with Musk last spring. What did they talk about?  Obviously a joint venture is in the air. Remarkably, only last October German stock analyst Adnaan Ahmad wrote an open letter to Apple saying it should consider entering the auto business by buying Tesla. The reasoning is as follows:

  • Despite its reputation for cutting-edge products, Apple’s traditional market for personalized devices seems to be reaching its limits. Sales of smart phones and tablets are maturing. Apple’s Next Big Thing is supposed to be a smart watch. A watch?  Is that an appropriate ambition for the world’s most innovative company?  As Steve Jobs did so many times, Apple need to enter an entirely new business and turn it upside down.
  • Apple is sitting on $160 billion in cash. It could literally buy almost any company in the world. Even with a market capitalization that is inflated by high expectations, Tesla is only worth $24 billion. The whole thing is doable.
  • Tesla needs an infusion of cash if it is to break out of its luxury niche and provide a car for the masses. The company’s proposed Gen III would sell for $35,000 and compete with the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus. But more than half of that cost is in the battery. If Tesla can achieve vertical integration and come up with some new innovations, it may be able to turn a profit. But Apple is in the battery business as well, since most of what’s under the hood in an iPad or iPhone is lithium-ion. There is a convergence taking shape.

Of course there are many things working against this vision. Both Tesla and Apple may deal in lithium-ion batteries but designs aren’t the same and the chemistry is different. Also, when it comes to storing huge amounts of electricity at the factory, lead-acid remains the preferred technology. It’s cheaper in a way that lithium-ion will find if very difficult to duplicate.

Still, there seem to be breakthroughs coming in battery research almost every week. Only two weeks ago, researchers at Harvard announced the invention of a “flow battery” that stores a charge in organic liquids rather than metals. At the University of Limerick, researchers announced the development of a new germanium nanowire-based anode that greatly expands the capacity and lifetime of lithium-ion batteries. And researchers at Stanford said they had developed a silicon anode based on the design of a pomegranate seed that improves lithium-ion storage capacity by a factor of 10. All this is within the space of the last two weeks.

Batteries are hot and Elon Musk will be walking right into the middle of it. He has proved Tesla’s charging system has legs. The first Model S just made the 3,464-mile journey from Los Angeles to New York in 76 hours using Tesla’s new network of supercharger stations. Recharging has been reduced to just over an hour. Model S sales hit 22,500 for 2013, exceeding expectations. With all this success under its belt, the company is preparing to move down-market, where it can really have an impact on our fossil fuel dependence.

Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Musk is obsessed with space travel. He says he wants to be buried on Mars – “and not on impact.” With Steve Jobs gone, Musk may be the man to take Silicon Valley’s venture into alternative automobile propulsion to the next level.

 

Can Butanol Be the New Ethanol?

Even as the ethanol industry is wobbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate in 2014, a new candidate has emerged as an additive to gasoline – butanol.

Virgin Airways founder and CEO Richard Branson has announced that his Virgin Green Fund will be cosponsoring a groundbreaking butanol manufacturing plant in Luverne, Minnesota.  “Butanol is the future of renewable fuel,” said Branson, who is already using renewable jet fuel for his airline.  “It’s hugely versatile and can be used to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, and plastics, which gives us scope to enter a range of markets,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol now dominates the $26 billion gasoline additive market, drawing the glucose content out of 45 percent of the nation’s corn crop (the protein is fed to animals).  Branson’s butanol would use a similar feedstock – corn, sugar cane or cellulosic biomass – but would produce a fuel that has 84 percent of gasoline’s fuel density compared to ethanol’s 66 percent, although ethanol has a higher octane rating.  The implication is that butanol could be mixed at higher blends, giving it almost the same range as gasoline.

Both butanol and ethanol are made through a process that employs yeasts to ferments the glucose from organic material into alcohols.  Methanol, the simplest alcohol, has one carbon joined to a hydroxyl ion while ethanol has two carbons and butanol has four.  Octane, the principal ingredient in gasoline, has eight carbons without the hydroxyl ion.

As far a butanol is concerned, it’s not as if people haven’t tried this before.  Both BP and Royals Dutch Shell have experimented with producing butanol from organic material but have found the process harder than they anticipated.  “There is certainly a potential, but there have been quite considerable problems with the technology,” Clare Wenner, of the London-based Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg.  “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

Gevo’s plant in Minnesota, for instance, has been running at only two-thirds of its 18 million gallon-a-year capacity because of a contamination in its yeast fermenting facility in September 2012.  Similar instabilities in the microbial-based process have dogged the efforts to break down cellulose into simple molecules.  There operations can often be performed in the laboratory but become much more difficult when moved up to a commercial scale.

Branson is confident these obstacles can be overcome.  He’s already got Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla on board in Gevo and Total, the French oil company, has also taken a stake.  Together they have enlisted big ethanol producers such as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol to commit to switching their manufacturing process to butanol.  Butamax Advanced Biofuel, another Minnesota refiner funded by Dupont and BP, is also in the process of retrofitting its ethanol plant to butanol.  Taken together, these facilities would be able replace 1 billion of the 14 billion gallons of ethanol now being produced every year.

Whether this would be enough to make a bigger dent in America’s oil import budget remains to be seen.  The 14 billion gallons of ethanol currently substitutes for 10 percent of our gasoline and about 6 percent of our total oil consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency has limited ethanol additives to 15 percent of the blend, mainly to protect older cars.  (In Iowa, newer cars are running on an 85 percent blend.)  Now the reduction in the 2014 mandate is making the ethanol industry nervous about overcapacity.  Butanol is less corrosive of engines and the 16 percent blend could give it an edge.

On another front, T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it may turn a profit for the first time since its founding in 1997.  Clean Fuels is concentrating on supplying compressed natural gas for trucks, signing major contracts with Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service and Ryder.  It is also attempting to set up a series of filling stations on the Interstate Highway System.  The use of CNG requires an entirely new infrastructure, however, rather than the easy substitution of liquid and butanol.

The dark horse here is methanol, which is liquid and fits easily into our present infrastructure but would be synthesized from natural gas.  Somehow, methanol has not attracted the attention of Branson’s biofuels and Pickens’ CNG.     All of these efforts hold promise, however, and would make a huge dent in our annual $350 billion bill for oil imports, which constitutes the bulk of our $450 billion trade deficit.  So good luck to all and may the best fuel win – or all of them, for that matter.

Altruism Aside, Is Ethanol A Competitive Alternative Fuel?

I was a bit under the weather this past weekend. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some reading; something assumedly simple- the relatively recent literature concerning the ability of ethanol, particularly E85, to compete with gasoline and the capacity of consumers to make rational decisions in their choice of alternative fuels.

By Sunday night, apart from watching the Denver Broncos happily beat New England on TV, and the amusing dialogue and extensive media time generated by Seattle’s cornerback, Richard Sherman, concerning his athletic and his academic prowess; I spent about 10 hours reviewing several well cited pieces concerning the price relationship between ethanol and gasoline. I also read the intense, often seemingly less than civil debate in papers authored by two professors at Iowa State (Dermot Hayes and Xiadong Du)  and two at MIT (Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith) concerning methodology associated with defining the relationship between ethanol and gasoline prices. (The Iowa and MIT faculty vigorously attacked each other, sometimes personally, over mistaken attribution of research funding sources. More important, the Iowa folks generally argued that their data suggested a link between ethanol production and the price of gasoline. They indicated that, as ethanol production increased the price of gasoline decreased relative to the price of crude oil.

The MIT folks poo poo’d their distant colleagues’ findings. They indicated that their empirically based models illustrate only a statistically insignificant set of relationships concerning ethanol, gasoline and crude oil prices. They also opined that the Iowa writers misapplied the crack ratio –the relationship of gasoline to crude oil prices- and did not use or mistakenly used the crack spread ratio (the weighted average of the gasoline and distillate products produced by a barrel of crude oil minus the cost of crude). Put in another way, what the Iowa writers recorded was correlation not causation. (I know the etymology but we need to help the economists among us find a better set of terms than crack spread and crack ratio. For a minute, I thought that the texts described a line up at a police station or FBI statistics about drug use.)

What can we learn from recent literature about the effect of ethanol production and gasoline prices at the pump?

1. Most independent experts, not affiliated with advocacy groups, seem willing to support as fact that increased ethanol use, at times, will lower the price of gasoline or slow the increase in the price of gasoline. But the caveat is “somewhat.” They disagree on how much on either side of zero. The recent conventional wisdom, stimulated by the Iowa study that ethanol has and likely will reduce the wholesale price by $.89 cents to $1.09 per gallon seems wrong. It appears to reflect an overstatement based on analyses and models that do not accommodate the many complex variables affecting price and costs (e.g. costs of refining, rapid changes in the costs of corn, the costs of distribution, the lack of infrastructure, the unanticipated increases or decreases in costs of crude oil based on investor speculation, escalation or de-escalation of tension in Middle East, uncertain federal policy, etc.). If I were a betting person, I would place my bet on Knittel and Smith’s conclusions that, over time, the price impact of ethanol at the pump on gasoline prices is likely marginal at best.

2. However, to be fair, some scholars and practitioners in the energy business believe that if gasoline is blended with a larger proportion of ethanol (e.g. E85), the price of a gallon of fuel could well drop, given the idiosyncrasies of the present market.  If this occurs and the reduction appears to consumers as beneficial, a number of observers think that owners of flex fuel vehicles (new or converted) could be enticed to switch to E85. What they generally don’t know, is the cross over point where alternative fuels like E85 become a viable option to drivers because the prices seem to be a good deal. A smart and astute participant in a recent forum on alternative fuels indicated that “people drive to COSTCO or Wal-Mart to save 5-8 cents a gallon on gasoline. Why wouldn’t they switch to E85 blends, if they reflected similar or indeed larger savings and fuel stations were accessible?”

Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t! If the price is low enough, many drivers will likely engage in personal opportunity costing. But what is low enough? Getting gas at Wal-Mart and Costco is different from getting E85. Gas is a familiar product to most drivers. Consumers of E85 will have to surmount doubts over product safety, stimulated, I believe erroneously, by groups such as the AAA. Further, because E85 will get fewer miles per gallon, drivers will probably think about perceived price savings in the context of miles per gallon and extra trips to the fuel station (If they forget to do the personal math, they will be reminded to do so by oil companies).

3. Uncertainty exists concerning how much consumers will pay for ethanol based on personal preferences or commitments to societal well-being, what I call the altruism thing.

As one author put it, “ …the demand for ethanol (E85) as a substitute (E10) is sensitive to relative fuel prices: a  $.10 per gallon increase in ethanol’s price relative to gasoline leads to a 12-16% decrease in quantity of ethanol demanded. Price responses are considerably smaller, however, than they would be if households had identical willingness to pay for ethanol as a gasoline substitute and… results imply that some households are willing to pay a premium for ethanol.”

Why? Maybe to improve the environment, provide support for farmers, to express concern over national security, etc. A recent report from Brazil indicates that some Brazilians are willing to pay more for alternative fuels because of what seem to be altruistic reasons. Before we say hallelujah, I should note that we don’t really know the numbers seeking salvation. They are not your average household but rather as one economist notes they are likely “marginal” households in terms of numbers. Further, several respected survey firms in the U.S. doubt that goals related to the larger community or nation, even if consumers articulate them in their living rooms, will overcome large differences between the price of E85 and gasoline, if they occur.

Similarly, altruism or civic values will not overcome fear of engine damage or the need for relatively long trips to fuel stations to secure alternative fuels. The pews, at least until we know more, probably will remain filled with a proportionately large share of guilty drivers on Saturday or Sunday.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation is involved in three state pilot projects aimed at converting existing cars to flex fuel cars; cars that will permit their owners to use natural gas based fuel such as ethanol and, when it is legal, methanol. Hopefully the pilot projects, combined with strategic federal, state, foundation and private sector supported research, will expand knowledge concerning consumer decisions and variables such as the importance of price differentials, altruism, distance, access, etc.

A study supported by Fuel Freedom Foundation recently completed by the respected independent Resources for the Future optimistically noted that “…we see alternative pathways for bring a lower-cost E85 to the pump. If and when ethanol produced by the newly patented, NG-driven Celanese process becomes available, owners of FFVs could realize substantial cost savings, up to $0.83/gge in 2015. If and when cellulosic ethanol becomes available at projected cost for full-scale productions, owners of FFFs could realize similar cost savings.”

Sleep easy! Good Times are coming for the nation and the consumer.