It seems like every day there’s a new think piece out there decrying the subsidies that renewable energy, alternative fuels, and the vehicles that can run them receive. Yet when it comes to the substantial government assistance for oil companies, those same critics are conspicuously silent.
A couple of Google engineers shocked the world last week by announcing that after working on the RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal) Initiative for four years, they had concluded that renewable energy is never going to solve our carbon emissions problem.
In a widely read article in IEEE Spectrum, the prestigious journal published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Ross Koningstein and David Fork announced that after working at improving renewables on the Google project, they had decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing. Google actually closed down RE<C in 2011, but the authors are just getting around to explaining why.
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope.
Google’s abandonment of renewable energy raises the immediate question: What about the effort to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles? And here the news is much better.
Although everyone concentrates on coal and power plants, they regularly forget that half our carbon emissions come from vehicles. It’s typical that Google’s RE<C effort didn’t address what to do about our cars. It’s too complicated to try to control the emissions from 200 million point sources.
But what’s never discussed is the fuel that goes into these vehicles. It’s well known that ethanol and methanol cut carbon emissions compared with gasoline. That’s a good chunk of the battle right there. But it doesn’t even take into account the possibility of making both fuels from non-fossil-fuel resources, so that both would be all pluses on our carbon budget.
Ethanol, as currently produced in this country, is synthesized entirely from corn, so there is no fossil-fuel element involved. Ethanol currently takes up 10 percent of all the gasoline sold is this country, but it is currently marketed at 85 percent ethanol in the Midwest, with only a 15 percent element to guarantee starting on cold days.
Methanol is generally synthesized from natural gas, so there is still a fossil-fuel element there, but there is always the possibility of making methanol from non-fossil sources. Municipal waste could easily be converted directly to methanol.
And of course there is always the possibility of synthesizing ethanol and methanol using renewable energy. People always talk about storing wind or solar energy as hydrogen, but methanol would be easier to store than hydrogen since it is a liquid to begin with and not subject to leakage and escape. Methanol can be easily stored in our current infrastructure.
The Chinese are currently building six methanol plants in Texas and Louisiana to take advantage of all the natural gas being produced there. All this methanol is slated to be shipped by tankers back to China, where it will be used to boost China’s own methanol industry — and to run some of the 1 million methanol cars the Chinese have on the road.
Yes, the Chinese are far ahead of us when it comes to using methanol a substitute for oil. But there’s a scenario that will introduce methanol in the American auto industry. With all this methanol on hand in Texas and Louisiana, someone will install a pump on one of the premises for dispensing methanol. Cars at the site will use it. Then someone will say, “Hey, why don’t I use this in my car at home? It’s cheaper.” Before you know it, there will be a contingency to have the EPA decide that methanol can be used in automobile engines the same as ethanol is currently used. And in the end, we will have large quantities of methanol substituting for foreign oil.
Is it a dream? No more unrealistic than the dreams that kept the Google scientists occupied for four years.
“When it comes to protecting the environment and addressing climate change, America has a lot of work ahead of it,” former President Jimmy Carter said in Aspen on Tuesday.
Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at EnergyTrendsInsider.com.
And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.
In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.
“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”
Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.
Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”
Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.
But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”
(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)
Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:
For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.
Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”
At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.