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Pig power: A messy problem becomes a fuel solution

You can thank Hernando de Soto for bacon and pork chops.

The Spanish explorer gets credit for introducing the pig to America, having brought 13 of them to Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1539. By the time of de Soto’s death, three years later, that passel of piggies had grown to more than 700. Yes, pigs grow quickly. They also poop, 24 hours a day, in great quantities.

That manure can be transformed into fuel for vehicles. So even though we’ve let all that pig poop — and cow poop, for that matter — go to waste all these centuries, more of it is being processed to extract methane, the principal component of natural gas.

All over the country, this renewable form of methane is being collected and fed into the nation’s natural-gas pipelines, and then transported to fueling stations to be used as compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The fuel is not only much cheaper than petroleum-based vehicle fuels, it burns cleaner: It contains about 23 percent less in greenhouse-gas emissions than diesel and 30 percent less than gasoline. Capturing all that methane instead of letting it float away from farms is also important, since the gas is more than 20 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide.

There are some 191 renewable-methane projects on farms in the United States. These farms use anaerobic digesters, which involve storing the manure in tanks or ponds. The fecal matter, as well as food scraps and other farm waste, is broken down into smaller molecules, and the material usually is covered, to help elevate the temperature inside. That allows anaerobic bacteria (which don’t take in oxygen) to go to work on them. Methane is made as a result, and machines vacuum off the gas, cleanse it of impurities (like CO2) and ship it off to be used as fuel.

pigs-Memphis2

A renewable-methane plant outside of Memphis run by Clean Energy Fuels.

 

Livestock is uniquely suited to be a renewable fuel source, because cows and pigs are prolific producers of manure. According to the USDA, dairy cows account for about 80 pounds per day (per 1,000 pounds of animal weight). The equivalent in hogs accounts for 63.1 pounds per day.

At Circle Four Farms near Milford, Utah (about halfway between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas), a million and a half hogs are raised and taken to market each year. It’s the largest pig farm in the western United States, and every day those hogs produce a million gallons of manure.

Three years ago, a Provo firm called Alpental Energy Partners, which finances alternative-energy projects, noticed the potential of the massive farm. (How could one not notice? The odor from the facility can be smelled for miles.) Alpental built anaerobic digesters that turn all that poop into electricity that powers more than 3,000 homes in a town hundreds of miles away.

Such a project could easily provide the same benefits, but for drivers of cars, trucks and SUVs that run on natural gas, which also happens to be a “feedstock” for alcohol fuels that can run in flex-fuel vehicles.

Paul Stephan, managing partner at Alpental, said various incentives, including carbon credits and investment tax credits, which enhanced the revenue stream from the pig project. But those were complicated to secure. “If we didn’t have one of those [revenue] attributes, it would probably be more profitable for us to sell it as transportation fuel,” he said. “I think if I was going to go look at doing another project in the United States off of pig manure and methane, I’d probably sell it as transportation fuel.”

Car buyers go shopping for better mileage

With the price of oil down from about $115 to $63 since last June, the impression has been created that the auto world is once again in the hands of the oil industry, and that the gasoline engine is here to stay.

But this week at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference, there was the distinct impression that alternatives to the gasoline engine are moving up so fast that within another five years we may see big changes. Bloomberg Business wrote that the result is “Future transport is likely to look a lot different than what the major oil companies are fueling now. Instead of biofuels such as ethanol and green diesel making the internal-combustion engine fit into a world with greenhouse gas limits, wholesale new solutions are coming fast.”

“Where we are is in an age of plenty,” Michael Liebreich, BNEF’s founder, told Bloomberg. “We have cheap oil, cheap gas, cheap renewables. You do have an abundance of supply in a way you haven’t had for decades. We also are in an age of competition.”

The biggest piece of news is that gasoline consumption has leveled off over the last decade and now is lower than it was in 2006. This is a remarkable development that no one knows quite how to explain. Part of it may be the lingering recession. Fleet mileage improvement has definitely made a difference, improving from 24.5 in 2001 to 31.6 today, a dramatic surge of 29 percent in 13 years. The Age of the Hummer is over, and people are being more selective in shopping for better mileage, even as the vehicles improve.

But Bloomberg Energy sees alternatively fueled vehicles also making headway in a way that is just becoming visible. Electric car sales have quintupled over the last four years, although they did start at a very low base. But battery prices are coming down as rapidly as solar-panel prices, which means that they soon will be in a range where the average American can afford them. Tesla’s 2017 debut of the Model 3, priced in the $35,000 range, is going to be a real turning point, if everything goes right.

Also coming along rapidly is the hydrogen car, which the Japanese auto industry has chosen as its alternative to gasoline. Toyota and Honda are just beginning to market their models in Japan, and BNEF anticipates there will be 4,200 on the road in Japan by 2018. But California is another big potential market, and sales are scheduled to begin there sometime late this year. The California Legislature has responded by expanding the Hydrogen Highway initiated by former government Arnold Schwarzenegger, making it easier for drivers to refuel.

Of course, all these predictions are taking place on a world scale, and there the progress may be even more rapid than in the United States. One thing Tesla discovered in its relatively abortive attempt to crack the Chinese market is that China already has a thriving electric-car industry. The cars, moreover, are not scaled-down versions of powerful sports cars but slow-moving vehicles that have been designed from the ground up.

In an article in Forbes last week, Jack Perkowski outlined what he called “China’s other electric vehicle industry:”

While the global automotive giants struggle to find a winning formula for electric vehicles, approximately 100 manufacturers in China have already identified a large potential market undiscovered by the traditional players. The common problems faced by EV automakers — high cost, driving range, and the availability of charging stations — are not issues for these manufacturers because their target customers are satisfied with low-speed and limited range EVs, as long as they provide affordable transportation. In 2014, 400,000 so-called ‘low-speed’ EVs were sold in China, compared to only 84,000 conventional all electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

To get a glimpse of the size of China’s potential market, consider this: China is already the world’s largest vehicle market, accounting for 25 percent of all vehicles manufactured globally. Yet there is only 1 vehicle per 10 people in China, whereas in the United States there are 8 for every 10 – more than one vehicle for every person of driving age. China also has another huge market for other electric vehicles. It has sold 90 million motorcycles and 120 million electric bicycles.

Estimates are that China now has a million such low-speed EVs on the road now and might reach 3 million by 2020. These cars can do about 48 miles per hour and are used for short runs around town in smaller cities, so range is not a problem. They are doing wonders for air pollution. Manufacture only began in 2006, and already some provincial governments are starting to write requirements that they be preferred to the older gasoline types.
Surprisingly, the only government entity that has been slow to embrace the low-speed EVs is the national government in Beijing. The Central Government has not counted these EVs is their official automotive statistics and is only now starting to write regulations on how crash-worthy they must be and on what roads they will be allowed to travel.

Perkowski concludes: “Low-speed EVs may not fit the stereotype of today’s modern passenger car, but in China, where incomes remain low for a large part of the country’s population, affordability often trumps those values held dear in more developed countries.”

Could China’s low-speed EVs find a market in the United States? It’s certainly possible. In any case, the anti-gasoline revolution may be coming in ways we did not anticipate.

Making the case for sustainable energy

Bloomberg and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy are not at all discouraged by the big drop in oil prices. In fact, they say that the move toward non-carbon-based energy is so strong now that it’s taking on an air of inevitability.

That was the conclusion of the third annual Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, released by the council last week and researched and published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The press conference, held in conjunction with the report’s release, featured an all-star lineup of industry experts, including David McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association; Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association; and Mark Wagner, vice president for government relations at Johnson Controls.

“America is in the midst of a sweeping energy transformation,” the report began. “New technologies and concerns about energy security and the future of the world’s climate are together driving rapid change in the U.S. energy economy. … Traditional energy sources are declining while natural gas, renewable energy and energy conservation are playing a larger role.”

On the possibilities of replacing gasoline — despite its cheaper price — the council was particularly optimistic about the future of electric cars. “Here’s why cheap oil won’t stop electric vehicles:”

“1. Since 2010 there’s been no relationship between gasoline price and electric vehicle sales, according to BNEF analyst Alejandro Zamorano Cadavid. Electric cars are still in the early-adopter phase, and someone paying $100,000 for a Tesla doesn’t care that gasoline costs a buck less per gallon.

“2. In Europe, gas taxes are so high that it makes the price of crude less important. If you’re in Norway, and gas drops from $10 a gallon to $9 a gallon, electric cars are still a deal.

“3. In China, the government is stepping up support for electric vehicles. Pollution has become a serious problem, and the Chinese are getting serious about fixing it. Plug-in sales are soaring.”

Of course, the council is taking a world perspective. The report mentions, for instance, that fossil-fuel subsidies outpace renewable-energy subsidies by 6 to 1. Most of those subsidies, however, are government edicts in developing nations that reduce the price of gasoline to consumers. In Venezuela, for example, gasoline is being sold at 2 cents per gallon. But this is left over from Hugo Chavez’s policies of using the country’s oil production to provide almost free gasoline to the people under the principle of “sharing the wealth.” This policy has proved disastrous, and the low price of world oil has practically bankrupted the country.

The same pattern has occurred in other countries, but low oil prices are proving to be a boon to governments. “First, a number of countries, including India and Indonesia, have used the price drop as cover to cut gasoline subsidies that were weighing town their budgets,” says the report. “Second, countries that include China have pocketed the savings from cheaper oil by increasing gasoline taxes to make up the difference.”

The pattern in the United States, where there is a freer market, has apparently been that cheaper gas prices are not cutting into the progress of plug-in cars and hybrids. They have risen to almost 2 percent of all car sales, after languishing well below 0.5 percent only three years ago. There may be a temporary drop now due to low gasoline prices, but the prices are not likely to stay down, and sales will probably bounce back. This is particularly true since both Tesla and GM are planning to introduce all-electrics to the mid-range market by 2017. Both companies are planning to market electrics in the $35,000 range, which will remove them from the “first-adopter” stage.

Of course, switching to electric doesn’t mean much if the electricity is producing the same old pollution, but there the Business Council says that the switch to cleaner natural gas — and particularly solar electricity — will make electric cars even more attractive. The council notes that oil plays very little role in the generation of electricity, and that electricity price are still going up, which makes solar electricity even more attractive. “Solar . . . will be the world’s biggest single source [of electricity] by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.”

Although the report doesn’t mention it, improvements in cellulosic ethanol will revolutionize that market as well. And there is always the possibility that we may take advantage of our abundant natural-gas resources to convert gas to methanol, another cheap and clean substitute for gasoline.

Altogether, it does not appear that the temporary drop in oil prices is going to slow the effort to produce cleaner, cheaper energy that moves us away from dependence on foreign oil sources. That’s good news all around.

Will renewables survive the oil downturn?

The seven-month-long plunge in oil prices appeared to be enough to re-establish gasoline as the default fuel for motorists, while stunting the progress of replacement fuels.

But attendees at last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit would have thought differently. Prominently displayed were various alternative vehicles that have been making headway and are just building momentum in the auto market, so they may be able to shrug off the precipitous fall in oil prices.

Also exhibited in Detroit was the first generation of hydrogen vehicles from Japan, which are challenging both the gasoline monopoly and the electric car, which is much more popular in America and Europe. The Honda FCV concept car boasts a driving range of about 300 miles and a refueling time of just three minutes, marking another step forward for the hydrogen fuel industry. California, where the cars are to be introduced later this year, is already preparing its “hydrogen highway,” which will make the cars feasible for drivers. Toyota’s fuel-cell offering, the Mirai — which also runs on hydrogen — is also scheduled to hit showrooms this year.

Chevrolet has had middling success with its electric-gasoline hybrid the Volt, but the maker has another generation planned with its concept car, the Bolt. The car will be made of extremely lightweight material and will have an all-glass roof and aluminum wheels for further weight reduction. Its lithium-ion battery will give the car a range of 200 miles and a recharging time of 40 minutes for an 80 percent charge. The price of $30,000 is likely to expand the market for electric cars.

Analysts note that oil is not used much for electricity anymore. The 1980s are the benchmark and generally remembered as the “Valley of Death” for renewables. Wind and solar were undercut by falling oil prices and lost their place in the generation of electricity. At the time, oil was providing 17 percent of our electricity. Now it provides barely 5 percent, and wind and solar energy have not felt any effect from oil prices.

Of course, natural gas has largely replaced oil, and a drop in gas prices could cut into the advance of renewables. Gas prices have traditionally been between one-sixth and one-twelfth of oil prices but have uncoupled themselves in recent years. This could work both ways, since gas prices have not fallen by the same degree that oil prices have.

Gas still holds its edge, however, and this means the attempt to use natural gas as an oil substitute may not slow. T. Boone Pickens has had some success in switching long-haul trucks to compressed natural gas, and this effort may be slowed only a little by gasoline’s new low price. However, if natural gas prices fall as well, then it may be able to keep pace with lower oil prices. The possibility that cheaper natural gas might encourage the conversion to methanol as a gasoline substitute would also be encouraged by falling natural gas prices.

That leaves the big question of whether ethanol can survive in the face of falling gasoline prices. In the first place, low gas prices are not likely to last forever. Some analysts are predicting crude oil prices will probably bounce back to $75 a barrel in the near future. Second, ethanol is protected by the federal mandate that says each gallon must contain 10 percent ethanol. If falling gas prices encourage the purchase of more gasoline – which it already has – then ethanol consumption must climb as well.

Ethanol has been under fire recently from studies that say it competes with food resources. The latest is a report from the World Resources Institute in Washington, which argues that “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.” But the rapid development of cellulosic ethanol severely reduces the possibility that ethanol will compete with food crops. And the possibility that natural-gas-based methanol might begin substituting for ethanol makes the threat of competing with food crops even less.

Altogether, it appears that renewable energy and alternate vehicles are going to survive the dramatic fall in oil prices. Alternative vehicles and other related technologies are now too far along to be crushed by falling oil prices the way they were in the 1980s.

(Photo: The Toyota Mirai at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Credit: Vision Automotriz, Flickr)

Pete Seeger And Building Consensus For Transitional Fuels

I have a love for folk music. I recently heard the cantor sing “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” at a service for the Jewish High Holidays. It brought back a lot of memories concerning the ‘60s: a period of hope, achievement and tragedy in America.

Excuse me if I take one line from the song by Pete Seeger, perhaps out of context, to explore the current intellectual and real politic difficulties we have in weaning the nation off of oil. Remember the continuous refrain in every stanza concerning the human costs of war, “Oh, when will [we] ever learn?”

I think we should ask the Seeger question now, in addition to thinking about war, about the issues involved in America’s transportation sector’s continued dependence on oil and the nation’s inability to come up with a coherent transition to a renewable fuel.

Look, I hope that we can make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable fuels as soon as federal policy, technology, design and costs make the renewables and cars competitive for most folks. The sooner the better! But even when the market penetration of non-fossil-fuel powered vehicles is double, triple or quadruple what it is now, the percentage of such cars on the road will be infinitesimal compared to the cars fueled by gasoline — a derivative of oil. Think about it! 254 million vehicles exist in America. Fewer than 100,000 renewable fuel powered cars, primarily electric and electric hybrids, were sold in 2013. Given the average life span of cars, it will take a long, long time before the fleet is predominantly gasoline free. Given these facts, establishing a national strategy that, through research and development, makes renewable fuel-powered vehicles cost efficient and marketable to most Americans as soon as possible, and that, simultaneously, encourages the use of transitional fuels in flex-fuel vehicles, while far from perfect, makes common sense. The dual-linked approach is better for the economy, the environment, the consumer and the country’s security. (Ain’t going to have go to war no more…or at least less war based on oil needs.)

What is it that makes many America’s leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sector unable to act even semi-rationally concerning alternative fuels? Sure, Washington is dysfunctional and partisanship as well as special interests have prevented the development of consensus around fuel policy, but to some extent, we as citizens have not become “energized” to advocate for change. Push alternative fuels, including those derived from renewables, and the oil industry demurs with shrill “earth is flat” type lobbyists; advocate for flex-fuel automobiles, and you get both the oil industry and some in the auto industry leveraging their often negative weight in Congress and in state capitals. Try building strong bipartisan coalitions around development of choice at the pump and you are seen as a dreamer, and subject to the often challengeable absolute wisdoms shouted by different interest groups and their leaders.

Sit back and take it all in! The dialogue, or what purports to be the dialogue, concerning fuel choice often reminds me, at least, of the religious arguments about whose God is better. I don’t think anyone has recently had a direct line to God! The tolls are too expensive. Federal regulations in light of separation of church and state prevent it. Similarly, I do not know any respected analyst who finds complete truth in his or her numbers supporting one fuel over another. We hope for perfectibility, not perfection, in analytical theology.

But repeating the dysfunctional “woe is us” analysis over and over again becomes boring and seems to be an excuse for political inertia or failed leadership in all sectors — public, private and nonprofit. Paraphrasing the Pogo comic strip, we have met the enemy and he is us.

So, “when will we ever learn?” that making love is better than making war with respect to building an agreement on alternative fuel strategies? The oil industry, according to recent analyses, has reason to want to think about the future before it continuously tries to restrain our choices at the pump. Prices per barrel may soon reach the level where drilling for tight oil may be too expensive and alternative fuels may be worthy of investment. (Nothing like the profit motive to bring folks to the table!) The auto industry recently has been increasing production of flex-fuel vehicles and CAFE standards, combined with a successful push for open fuel standards and lower cost fuels, could induce even higher production levels of flex-fuel vehicles. Many environmental groups, some of whom already support a dual strategy leading to expanded transitional fuel choices and support for a faster path to renewables, seem willing to discuss a road less traveled, that is, continued use of fossil-based transitional fuels until renewables are ready for prime time. Maybe all we need now is a leader or leaders supported by informed constituencies who will bring relevant groups and individuals together around a consensus building learning table.

Thank you, Pete Seeger!

What the world needs now is land (and honesty) to get to replacement fuels

I had the good fortune to meet and work a bit with Dr. Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. We were both on an informal poverty task force created by President Kennedy. I always admired Land. Throughout his life, his comments were always thought-provoking. His suggestion that “politeness is the poison of collaboration” really challenged, and continues to challenge, many of the facilitation and leadership gurus and practitioners who sometimes seem to have invented linguistic anti-depressants. Translated: don’t get angry, hold your tongue, mind your manners, mute some of your views or make them sound less critical, try to be nice and likeable, move toward a win-win situation, compromise and, if you get intense, take a break and go out for a while. Have a beer?

Times have changed, but only a bit, since Land died in the early nineties. Many participants still go into a collaborative and/or facilitative policy process with squeamishness about being direct and honest about their concerns. Because of this fact, it takes many sessions, rather than a few, to get real, difficult issues on the table and achieve a real meaningful and honest dialogue. Bonding and game playing (real and surreal) are often seen as more important than advocacy as well as early substantive dialogue. There is often little chance to compromise because the people at the table compromise their own views before they speak. They want to be polite. We don’t really know what they really think. Building collaboration in the hands of a facilitherapist (my own word), is regrettably, at times, using everyone’s favorite term, an existential threat. It makes collaborative victories, frequently short-term ones, in light of the fact that underlying disputes and tension were not given an airing.

With this as context, let’s look at key policy and behavioral issues now confronting the nation, concerning the harmful link between gasoline, the economy and social welfare, and the environment, particularly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants. As relevant, let’s also think about why it’s been so tough to move toward replacement fuels for gasoline, even though such options would benefit consumers and the nation.

Gasoline now fuels approximately 250,000,000 vehicles in the U.S. While GHG emissions from gasoline are down because of improved technology in vehicles, gas still generally spews more GHG than alternative fuels such as ethanol, methanol, electricity or fuel cells. Gasoline also fails health and well- being tests when measured against a range of other pollutants, including NOx and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Gasoline prices, while seemingly low (only) compared to the recent past, in some cases remain higher than alternative fuels, by a significant amount, whether based on renewables or fossil fuel. In this context, most of you reading this column are neither poor nor near poor. Imagine though, that you are, and in order to work, you need find housing at a reasonable cost relatively close to your job, see a doctor or take your family to see an aunt or uncle. But if you secure these and other basics, you have fewer choices since you have to spend from between 10-15 percent of your meager income on fuel. This is a verity now for most low- and moderate-income households. Indeed, based on EIA projections of gas prices and conservative as well as liberal economists conclusions concerning job growth and income, the percentages, likely, will increase in the future. If you were a person of very limited means, what would you limit first: travel to and from work, decent housing, health care or food, etc.?

Now, none of the replacement fuels are perfect. Most, including those based on or derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas, do emit some measurable GHG and other pollutants. This includes electric cars, particularly those that do secure their power from coal-fired electric utilities. But all are better than gasoline on environmental, economic and social welfare indices.

Why then is there not a clear movement toward transitional replacement fuels? Sure, electric car sales and CNG sales are up and hydro fuels will soon be on the market. Hopefully, they all will succeed in attracting consumers. But right now, all three together constitute from 1.5 to 3 percent of sales of new cars.

Why? Well, electric cars, CNG and hydrogen fuel cars are expensive and out of reach for many American households. For some, particularly those who purchase lower-end electric cars, the miles per charge often create road fear on the part of drivers. “What if I get stuck on the L.A. freeway?” Fuel stations are few and often far between for both electric, CNG and hydrogen fuel.

New electric, CNG or hydrogen fueled cars, at least for the near future, will illustrate for us all the comparative purchasing power of the haves, the have nots and the almost haves. Hopefully someday soon, most Americans will be able to compete — price, technology and design wise — for larger shares of the automobile market. But even if they become competitive, they will not be able to generate a major dent in the number of existing vehicles that rely on the internal combustion engine for a long time. Look at the data yourselves! Given their predicted annual sales, how many years would it take before the fleet of privately owned vehicles contained a very large percentage of electric, CNG, or hydrogen fueled vehicles (perhaps as much as 50 to 75 percent or more)? I have seen figures ranging up to almost several decades from respected analysts . Clearly, if sales of hybrid and plug-in vehicles are counted in the totals, the amount of time, it takes will be lower. However, achievement of a proportionately large share of the total number of cars will still extend out a many many years.

What can we do to achieve legitimate important national objectives concerning the environment, the economy and consumer costs for vehicles and fuel almost immediately? We can move to expand the number of FFVs (flex-fuel vehicles) in the country, first, by encouraging Detroit to build more each year and second, by asking public, nonprofit and private sectors to work together with the EPA to certify more conversion kits as well as existing in-use cars for conversion to FFV status. The net results would be vehicles able to use much higher percentages of ethanol (E85) derived from natural gas or from corn cobs, husks and stalks as well as other biofuels.

The proposed strategy is a transitional one. Clearly, electric, CNG and hydro fueled cars, when able to meet market tests concerning consumer needs, should join the mix of choices at the pump. I am optimistic. For example, twenty two states led by Colorado and Oklahoma have agreed to use CNG fueled cars to replace older cars retired from their state’s fleets. Detroit with the pool of CNG cars purchased by the states has agreed make best efforts to develop a lower cost CNG vehicle. Electric cars are coming down in costs. Hydro fueled cars will likely be produced in larger numbers soon and technology over time will reduce vehicle prices.

Now back to Edwin Land. I believe his comments about politeness, perhaps a bit too absolute, reflect his and my own views that the ground rules for collaborative efforts and consensus building may impede honesty concerning discussions of difficult topics. Being polite sometimes circumscribes and weakens important strategic dialogue. Involved participants fear being direct and sometimes avoid linking their intense feelings to their commentary. They try to avoid criticism or be seen as breaking the mythology of togetherness concerning long-term objectives and initiatives. Indeed, both objectives and initiatives are often so long term, that they are vague and don’t really matter to folks at the table. So why not go along? Individuals either avoid saying things that might lead to even temporary policy, program or behavior conflict and debate.

Politeness, certainly, is generally a virtue in most circumstances. Perhaps Land went too far in his choice of words. But the term, if used to guide collaborative efforts, often serves to mask real disagreements and necessarily blunt conversation. I have done lots of facilitative sessions on policy issues between senior officials of different nations and the U.S., as well as between community leaders on education, growth, environmental, race and poverty issues. Maybe the difference is miniscule, but I like the term being “civil” rather than being “polite;” the former presumes disagreement and allows for willingness to entertain tough dialogue and the possibility that the dialogue might step, at times, on intellectual toes; the latter, when translated into behavior, often suggests a willingness to skirt conflicts regarding ideas, if it temporarily reduces the ambience at the table.

Leaders from all sectors need to help build a collaborative “coalition of the willing” among environmental, public interest, government, private sector, nonprofit and academic leaders to push for flex fuel cars and replacement fuels. The criteria for coalition selection should be relevance to the policy and political issues related to gaining the public’s access to multiple fuel choices at the pump and to secure a much larger number of new FFVs as well as existing vehicles converted to FFV status. Identification and selection should not be limited to leaders who think exactly like us. But both should be limited to individuals who care about the environment, the economic and job growth of this nation, the well-being of consumers, particularly low- and moderate-income consumers and, although not discussed above, the security of this nation and the world. Claims of absolute wisdom should be a non starter for membership.

I suspect if the leadership group is diverse enough and if reasonable ground rules concerning structure and processes are set at the outset (ones that encourage substantive dialogue and debate ), disagreements can be bridged based on the data and agreements reached on transitional replacement fuel strategies that would influence public and private sector decision makers. A good facilitator would be needed, one weaned on policy and strategy more than psychology. A nationally respected foundation, or possibly even EPA, could either support or indeed facilitate the proposed serious exercise in collaboration and democracy. Civility, not politeness, should be a principle governing the dialogue.

2014 BMW i3 REx Vs Chevy Volt: Range-Extended Electric Cars Compared

[Blog] Until recently, the Chevy Volt was the only range-extended electric car available in the U.S. I’ve driven a Volt for almost three years now, and it’s been a splendid car–quiet, smooth, peppy, and amazingly economical

Bio-processing of Gas-to-Liquids: A Report Card

If finding microbes that can convert cellulose plant material into ethanol is of the holy grails of biofuels, an equally elusive goal is using microbes to make liquid fuels out of natural gas.

Almost everyone agrees that the best way to apply our now-abundant natural gas resources to transportation would be to convert it into a “drop-in” liquid fuel that would fit easily into our current gas-station infrastructure. T. Boone Pickens’ CleanFuels Corp. and others are trying to supply compressed natural gas to diesel trucks, but the effort has obvious impediments and will require a whole new infrastructure.

Much easier would be the direct conversion of natural gas to methanol, the simplest alcohol, which is now produced at a rate of 33 billion gallons per year for industrial purposes. But methanol still suffers from its Prohibition-Era reputation as poisonous “wood alcohol” (although gasoline is equally poisonous) and has run into stiff EPA regulations on converting contemporary engines to burn alternative fuels. (See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol”) And so the vision has arisen that a golden gas-to-liquids pathway can be carved by the nation’s laboratories working with nature’s existing microbial stock.

A year ago, ARPA-E, the fast-track research funding agency modeled on the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, announced a new initiative: REMOTE – the Reduced Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy.  Methanotrophic organisms are microbes that feast on methane, the simplest carbohydrate, and can convert it into more complex molecules such as butane or formaldehyde, which can in turn be synthesized by other microbes into butanol, methanol or other liquids that can be cleanly burned as fuels.  As the agency wrote in its Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA):

The benefits of converting natural gas to liquid fuels for use in transportation have long been recognized. First, the existing transportation infrastructure is based on liquids, and such fuels can be conveniently “dropped in” without substantial changes in vehicles. Second, liquid fuels from methane have lower emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Liquid fuel produced from methane decreases emissions by up to 50%, compared to unconventional petroleum, and decreases particulate matter by up to 40%, compared to combustion of conventional diesel. Further, methane is responsible for 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (on a CO2 equivalent basis), in part because its global-warming potential is 20 times greater than that of CO2 over a 100-year period. Technologies capable of capture and conversion of methane will help mitigate the global-warming potential of these emissions.

There are several interesting things going on here. First, ARPA-E has chosen the goal of reducing emissions rather than reducing dependence on foreign oil as the motivating force of the project. Alcohols do burn cleaner than gasoline. In fact, the whole California effort that put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s was aimed at reducing air pollution, not replacing oil imports. This may satisfy environmentalists, who tend to see natural gas as just another fossil fuel and would prefer to pursue cellulosic ethanol in order to remain “carbon neutral.”

Second, although the chemical synthesis of methanol, butanol and other potential fuels is already economical, employing biotechnology gives the whole plan a “green” tinge. Chemical processes are regarded as “old economy” and unlikely to attract investment from Silicon Valley and other centers of venture capital, whereas biotechnology has a New Age sheen to it. Already ARPA-E has handed out $20 million to small startups and others have been forthcoming.

Finally, by latching onto natural gas flaring, ARPA-E is addressing a problem that is gaining more and more attention, particularly the publication of a paper in Science last week claiming that will be no climate benefits in switching from diesel and other crude-oil-based fuels to natural gas derivatives. Indeed, flaring is now said to consume the equivalent of one-third of America’s consumption of crude oil. Obviously, anything that addresses this will get attention.

So how are thing going?  Last week Robert J. Conrado and Ramon Gonzalez, two researchers in the Department of Energy, issued a progress report in Science. Basically, the news is that while there’s still lots of optimism about the idea, nothing much has been accomplished yet.

Conrado and Gonzalez note that the process of biological conversion involves three steps:   1) the “activation” of the stable methane molecule so it becomes chemically receptive; 2) the conversion of methane to formaldehyde and other intermediates; and 3) the synthesis of these intermediates into alcohols and other fuels through bioreactors. All three steps need improvement. “To access small-scale and time-varying resources [i.e., flared gas at remote wells], process intensification leading to an order-of-magnitude increase in volumetric productivities is needed and will require technological breakthroughs in [all] three areas.”

One institution that is working on the problem is the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Blake Simmons, manager of the lab’s biofuels and biomaterial science group, says the challenges are daunting but he remains optimistic. “There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and multiply off natural gas,” he said in an interview with Phys.org. “The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do. People have been trying to express this class of enzymes for a couple of decades, so this won’t be a slam dunk. But we have the collective experience and capabilities at Sandia to figure it out.”

And so the search for a clean, green conversion of methane to a liquid fuel goes on. In the meantime, however, it might be worth opening the door to methanol and other chemically synthesized products just as a placeholder.