[1THING] Blog

[ Production Begins at Second U.S. Cellulosic Biofuel Facility ]

You don’t often hear Kansas and Spain mentioned in the same sentence. Yet today Spanish company Abengoa is bringing another big cellulosic biofuel facility online in Hugoton, a small community in the Southwest corner of the state. This is the second big plant starting up this year, showing that after some predictable yet highly scrutinized delays, the cellulosic fuel industry is truly beginning to establish itself and making critical contributions to oil savings and climate goals.

It wasn’t long ago that cellulosic biofuels were the punchline of a joke: a phantom fuel that could not be economically produced in large volumes. Fast forward to today, and we see headlines like “Advanced Ethanol Makers Are Trying to Give Big Oil a Run for Its Money.”

I wrote recently about the two cellulosic biofuels facilities we visited in Iowa, and about the use of landfill and dairy digester gas to power compressed natural gas and electric vehicles. The Abengoa plant will double the production capacity on line for cellulosic ethanol, and do it without consuming a kernel of corn. The Abengoa plant is also worth noting because it represents an investment in America’s clean energy future by a major international company, and it is by no means the only one.

Large Companies Making Big Investments

Major companies from all over the world have come to the U.S. to invest in cellulosic biofuel as the result of our smart people, our abundant biomass resources, and a policy environment committed to steady growth in clean fuels. Yet the U.S. is certainly not the only place that cellulosic biofuels are coming on line. There is also a major cellulosic biofuels facility in Italy, and a cellulosic biorefinery just started up in Brazil, which has a longstanding commitment to renewable fuels.

The cellulosic plant that opened in Iowa in August is a collaboration of Poet, a major US ethanol company, and Royal-DSM, a company from the Netherlands (they are not kidding about the royal part either, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands was there for the grand opening). Another major player in cellulosic biofuels is Danish firm Novozymes, which makes enzymes to power cellulosic biofuel production and has major facilities in Nebraska and North Carolina. (See related story: “‘Fantasy’ Fuel From Corn Waste Gets Big U.S. Test.”)

It is worth pointing out that major international companies, not just Royal-DSM and Novozymes but also Beta Renewables, which just started the cellulosic facility in Brazil, are investing both in Brazil and the U.S. And as the U.S. policy landscape has looked less attractive, investment is moving to Brazil. The question is no longer whether or not cellulosic biofuels will arrive; it’s how big a part in the industry our country will play.

Beta Renewables’ cellulosic ethanol facility in Crescentino, Italy opened in October of 2103, and makes ethanol from wheat straw and perennial grasses. (Photograph courtesy Novozymes)

Beta Renewables’ cellulosic ethanol facility in Crescentino, Italy opened in October of 2103, and makes ethanol from wheat straw and perennial grasses. (Photograph courtesy Novozymes)

Policy Instability = Lost Investment

Seven years ago, we set a course to cut oil use by improving the efficiency of our vehicles and cutting oil use by expanding the use of renewable fuels. The Renewable Fuel Standard, which calls for increasing biofuels production steadily over time, is central to that plan. Yet as opposition to the standard (driven largely by the oil industry) has increased, what was once a stable policy landscape has begun to shift.

I disagree with some biofuels supporters who suggest that any adjustments to the RFS will spell the end of investment in advanced biofuels. I have been arguing for a couple years that a more flexible approach to RFS is needed, and that EPA was right to make some adjustments. I am less concerned about exactly what production volume target EPA sets for 2014 or 2015 than with how they reset the policy in the timeframe 2016 to 2022 and beyond. Establishing policy stability over the next 5 to 10 years is what will support the next round of investment. And strong regional policies like the California Low Carbon Fuels Standard and related clean fuels policies in Oregon and Washington can accelerate the trend further, drawing investment in clean fuels technology from around the world to the US and to these states in particular.

Granbio started up Brazil’s first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol facility in in Alagoas, where sugarcane straw and bagasse are made into ethanol and renewable electricity. (Photograph courtesy Granbio)

Granbio started up Brazil’s first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol facility in in Alagoas, where sugarcane straw and bagasse are made into ethanol and renewable electricity. (Photograph courtesy Granbio)

Steady Progress on Cutting Oil Use

Oil use has been steadily growing for about 100 years, so our half the oil plan was never going to be something we could execute overnight, but the progress to date is very encouraging: vehicle efficiency is improving and biofuel production has doubled since the RFS was signed in 2007.

The bulk of the oil savings so far have come from technology that was available and ready to scale up rapidly. But to make the deep reductions in oil use and carbon emissions we need to respond to climate change, we need to move on to more advanced technologies like electric vehicles and cleaner biofuels made from abundant and environmentally friendly sources of biomass.

The progress of the policies put in place in 2007 is encouraging, and also a reminder that it takes time to move technology from labs, to pilot plants to full scale production. The Abengoa plant opening is the latest evidence that these advanced technologies are making progress also.

[ New Gas Plant Venture Aims at Carbon Capture From a Different Angle ]

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is often promoted as a way for coal power to be made “clean”: Projects such as the in-progress Kemper power plant in Mississippi and the recently announced Petra Nova project in Texas aim to trap the carbon dioxide from burning coal and then store it into underground storage or into previously depleted wells to extract more oil. (See related story: “Clean Coal Test: Power Plants Prepare to Capture Carbon.”)

CCS is being applied to natural gas-fired electricity as well (just today a new effort in Scotland was announced), and a new project in the U.S. aims to produce fossil power with zero emissions and greater efficiency than other facilities have been able to achieve. A group of companies, including Chicago-based energy producer Exelon and Durham, N.C.-based technology purveyor NET Power, this week announced plans for the $140 million project, which will include technology development and the construction of a carbon-capture natural gas-fired plant in Texas.

The “first of its kind” demonstration plant is different because, instead of using steam as a component of electricity generation the way a typical plant would, it instead produces a pure stream of carbon dioxide from natural gas combustion and uses that to produce additional electricity more efficiently. The carbon dioxide that emerges from that high-pressure, oxygen-only combustion process needs no further processing to be injected underground, according to John Thompson, director of  the Fossil Transition Project for Clean Air Task Force, which monitors and promotes new clean energy technology.

The energy saved by not having to process the carbon dioxide further would address one of the pitfalls of CCS: capturing and storing the carbon from a conventional plant is typically so energy-intensive that taking a bite out of how much energy the plant can produce per unit of fuel. But Thompson said that the NET Power project, which is targeted for completion in 2017, would convert natural gas with the same or higher efficiency compared to a traditional gas plant, even when you factor in the carbon capture.

The NET Power project is “really focused on coming up with a much cheaper way of capturing carbon dioxide from natural gas emissions,” Thompson said.  The plant will have a modest 50-megawatt capacity, but the idea is to eventually scale the technology to produce power that is cleaner and has a lower capital cost; the project release said the cost of power from its CCS gas plant will be “highly competitive” with that of conventional plants. The project’s backers are also looking at ways to transfer the technology to coal plants, but it can only be applied at plants that gasify coal rather than burning it, Thompson said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has encouraged a transition to natural gas from coal as way for states to meet emissions reduction targets associated with its proposed Clean Power Plan. Gas emits about half as much as coal when burned, but the emphasis on natural gas for reducing emissions has been questioned by some who point out that it might hinder the scaling up of renewable energy, and that natural gas production sites are likely emitting much more methane than the government initially estimated. (See related stories: “Switch to Natural Gas Won’t Reduce Carbon Emissions Much, Study Finds” and “Methane Emissions Far Worse Than U.S. Estimates, But Study Concludes Natural Gas Still Better Than Coal.”)

Thompson said that CCS is needed for gas so that it can support renewable energy, serving as backup power without undercutting greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts. “Intermittent energy sources like wind and solar power work best when they have a low carbon backbone to work with,” Thompson said. With the transition from coal to natural gas currently under way, that backbone is getting clean in the United States, he said, but “has to get a lot cleaner.” (Vote and comment: Can Natural Gas Be a Bridge to Clean Energy?)

[ Wilderness Society Honors Author Cheryl Strayed with Inspiration Award ]

Michael Reinemer

Strayed will receive the We Are the Wild Inspiration Award, which recognizes a person who embodies the spirit of wilderness and its transformative power.


[ The Wilderness Society honors “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed ]

At an Oct. 16 celebration of the 50-year milestone of the Wilderness Act, The Wilderness Society presented the We Are the Wild Inspiration Award to Cheryl Strayed. The award recognizes a person who embodies the spirit of wilderness and its transformative power.


[ Your Pants Might Charge Your Phone One Day, Suggests New Tiny-Generator Study ]

Billing the breakthrough as the “world’s smallest electric generator,” scientists have found a way to translate kinetic energy into power using a material no thicker than a layer of atoms.  Researchers imagine that the bendable, stretchable material could be woven into clothing that might power body sensors, medical devices, or a phone in your pocket. The research is detailed in a paper from Columbia Engineering and Georgia Institute of Technology published in Nature.

The development operates using the principle of piezoelectricity, or the production of energy from expanding or squeezing a substance. It’s a long-known effect that has been put to use in special flooring, for example, that converts foot traffic into electricity. (See related story: “Tiles May Help Shrink Carbon Footprint by Harnessing Pedestrian Power“)

The discovery announced Wednesday is the first time the piezoelectric effect has been observed in an atomically thin material, according to the researchers. The two-dimensional layer is made from molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), a compound currently used as a dry lubricant in engines, brakes, and even ski wax. (Vote and comment: What Energy Solution Should We Develop Next?)

“This adds another member to the family of piezoelectric materials for functional devices,” said Wenzhuo Wu, one of the study’s authors, in a news release. Other possible applications of the breakthrough, according to the release, include flexible electronics and robotics.

The paper is not the first iteration of the idea that, instead of carrying a charger for our portable devices, we might someday become the charger—or at least wear one. Previous innovations have imagined clothing that conducts electricity from a battery pack, wearable solar panels, flashlights powered by body heat, and pants with an embedded phone-charging plate.

What do you think? Are you ready to become a power source?


[ 12 parks and monuments filled with dinosaurs ]

The benefits of wilderness and other public lands for modern-day flora and fauna are well-known, but conservation of wild places helps preserve traces of bygone life too,


[ In the Push to Expand Energy Access, Companies Eye Loan Guarantees ]

Loan guarantees have been around since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government backed loans for homes, farms and businesses for World War II veterans. More recently, the U.S. government has used loan guarantee programs to support the development of clean energy. Projects including the large Ivanpah solar facility in California’s Mojave Desert, a large cellulosic ethanol plant opening this month in Kansas, and—infamously—the failed solar company Solyndra have all been beneficiaries of Department of Energy loan guarantees.

Now, loan guarantees are being considered for a different kind of application: energy access for the roughly 1.3 billion people worldwide who live in the dark. For companies that provide services to the energy-poor, the greatest challenge is not necessarily technology, but finance.

For the renewable energy industry, various financial strategies, including loan guarantees, are gaining momentum. A loan guarantee is an agreement where the guarantor such as a bank or a private investor assumes the debt for the borrower if that borrower defaults. The essential role for this strategy is to reduce risk in order to attract additional investors.

At the US-India Energy Partnership Summit in Washington DC earlier this month, several speakers pointed to the value of loan guarantees.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah explained that India does not need a large dose of aid assistance and that individual loan guarantees will be much more beneficial. Earlier this year, USAID provided a $2.5 million loan guarantee to clean energy service provider Orb Energy, which will allow them to reach 500 underserved communities in India. Shah noted that if done properly, loan guarantees could create $20 to $30 billion of investment activity in the next year, though this figure probably covers energy access in addition to larger scale clean energy projects.

Nonetheless, the calculated and targeted approach of loan guarantees can have a catalytic effect by leveraging efforts of multiple investors to bring clean and reliable energy to communities living off the grid.

Commercial banks are often slow to enter the fray with companies that provide energy access because of the perceived risk. This may soon change. With the renewable energy market in a growth cycle, there is substantial investment potential, as demonstrated by $45 million in aggregate investment earlier this year. Innovative companies such as M-KOPA, d.light, Off-Grid Electric, Little Sun and BBOXX benefited from investments. Today’s market for solar portable lighting alone is $200 million, and by some accounts, with long-term potential approaching $50 billion.

Of course this is just part of the picture. Access to capital in and of itself is not sufficient to move the industry forward. Entrepreneurs need proper training in order for their companies to become investment-ready.

GVEP (Global Village Energy Partnership) International does exactly this by mentoring micro-entrepreneurs to improve their business acumen, so that they will have a better chance of repaying small loans. In East Africa, GVEP created loan guarantee agreements with 13 financial institutions. So far, less than five percent of money GVEP allocated toward lending has ended in default. Mentorship is key to this achievement.

Another critical issue is subsidies—not so much to support burgeoning clean energy businesses, but cutting back fossil-fuel payments that hold clean energy businesses back.  Speakers at the summit confirmed that government subsidies in India for kerosene deflate the market for alternative solutions for off-grid lighting, such as solar products. The International Institute for Sustainable Development found that India’s subsidies reduced the price for kerosene by two-thirds, making it harder for clean energy providers to compete.

Proper incentives can unlock a wealth of opportunity. India, which successfully landed a rover on Mars, still has the world’s largest population without accessible energy. Loan guarantees will be a key instrument of choice to change that.

[ Does the EPA’s Carbon Plan Short-Change Renewables? New Report Suggests Yes ]

Detractors have called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on power plant emissions onerous and unachievable, but the Union of Concerned Scientists is out with a report that does more than fend off those claims. The group says the Clean Power Plan could go much further than it does in cutting carbon, simply by properly accounting for the demonstrated growth potential of renewable energy.

UCS says “states have the technological and economic potential to raise their renewable energy use to much higher levels than what the EPA is proposing in the Clean Power Plan.” As a result, a 40 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels – instead of the targeted 30 percent – is well within reach, UCS says.

In an eight-page “policy brief,” UCS notes that despite the hue and cry over the proposed rule – hundreds of thousands of comments flooded into the agency within weeks of its unveiling – the plan actually makes modest assumptions about the nation’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In 2013, non-hydropower renewables were responsible for about 6 percent of U.S. electricity generation, according to the government; under the EPA’s targets, that proportion would rise to just 7 percent by 2020, and then 12 percent by 2030.

In a blog post that accompanied release of the report, UCS President Ken Kimmell called the EPA’s expectations for renewables “bearish” and recommended a modified proposal that was “both more ambitious and more realistic.”

In the EPA plan, renewable energy is one of four “building blocks” – along with demand-side efficiency, plant efficiency improvements, and more use of nuclear power and natural gas instead of coal – which states can use to formulate a plan to meet their emissions reductions targets. “Assumptions made by the EPA about the emissions reduction potential of each building block in a state directly affect its overall target,” UCS says, and the group sees all kinds of problems with the EPA’s assumptions on renewable energy.

The EPA doesn’t even begin to expect increases in renewable energy use until 2017, UCS says, and from there it assumes a growth rate of 0.65 percent per year, well below the 1-plus percent growth rate of the past five years.

“In seven states, actual renewable energy generation levels in 2013 exceed the EPA’s renewable energy targets in 2030,” the report says. It notes, too, that 17 of 29 states with renewable electricity standards (RES) “have lower targets under the EPA approach than what is already required under their respective state laws.”

Among its modifications, UCS recommends: using recent growth rates to dictate future growth projections; assuming states will meet their renewable standards; and acknowledging growth that will occur between 2013 and 2017. Do this, and renewable energy’s share of electrical generation would rise to 23 percent in 2030, instead of the EPA’s 12 percent.

“By increasing state renewable energy targets to these levels, UCS analysis shows that total CO2 reductions achieved by the Clean Power Plan could increase from 30 percent below 2005 levels to nearly 40 percent, assuming that the additional renewable energy generation displaced mostly natural gas,” the group says. “If more coal were displaced, total emissions reductions could increase above these levels.”

[ Magazine story: Aldo Leopold’s early home an example of his land ethic ]

That’s the take-away from the architectural magazine Ameri


[ Report Lays Out Five Ways the U.S. Can Cut Emissions While Boosting the Economy ]

Cutting the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that stoke climate change could save billions in energy costs and boost revenue for the natural gas industry, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute, a research organization that advocates for environmental sustainability.

The report, Seeing Is Believing, focuses on five areas that account for 55 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “In each case, we found that reducing emissions can yield significant economic benefits even before you factor in the advantages of avoiding drought, sea level rise, and other climate change impacts,” the report’s authors wrote in a blog post introducing the study.

The five actions WRI recommends are:

Lowering the carbon intensity of electric power. Cutting emissions from the nation’s power sector is the chief aim of proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, announced in June. The EPA wants to reduce emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels in the next 15 years. Opponents of the rules claim they will raise electric bills and kill jobs. The WRI report points out that natural gas-fired generation is cheaper and cleaner than coal, and that costs for solar are dropping, making it possible to produce more clean energy for less. But it acknowledges via its recommendations that renewable energy still faces policy and grid hurdles. Aside from supporting the EPA rules, the report argues for more long-term utility contracts for clean energy and a more stable tax-credit system.

Saving more electricity. Energy efficiency would seem to be a no-brainer that has bipartisan support, but other energy battles in Congress have sidelined efforts to get a federal efficiency bill passed. Still, other measures are already paying off, says WRI, noting that from 2009 through 2030, federal standards for appliances such as air conditioners and heat pumps  will save consumers an estimated $450 billion on electric bills. The report argues for strengthening and expanding those standards, along with bolstering measures at the state level.

Boosting cleaner, more efficient vehicles. Just this week, the EPA touted all-time highs in fuel economy for American cars. Even as conventional cars get more miles for the gallon than ever before, adoption of hybrid and all-electric vehicles is growing too. And now automakers including Toyota and Hyundai are readying the rollout of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. But electric and hybrid cars still make up less than 5 percent of all passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. The WRI report argues for an expansion of alternative fueling infrastructure and more federal and state incentives to promote sales.

Improving the natural gas industry. The fracking boom and ensuing abundance of natural gas has contributed to a move away from coal in the power sector, a trend likely to continue when the EPA’s power plant rules, which explicitly encourage the transition to natural gas, go into effect. While some researchers have questioned the long-term emissions benefit of increased natural gas use, it seems undeniable that it makes sense from an emissions standpoint to address methane leaks that are occurring at existing production and transmission facilities. We don’t know exactly how much methane is leaking: the EPA “estimates that the natural gas system’s methane leakage rate was about 1.2 percent in 2012,” the report says, “but many recent studies suggest that it may be much greater, perhaps in the range of 3 percent to as high as 10 percent.” Plugging those leaks could boost revenues for producers, WRI argues, and boost the emissions benefit that natural gas can offer over coal.

Cut down on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration are a small but very potent component of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, capable of trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide, according to WRI. Last month ahead of Climate Week in New York, the Obama administration announced that it had secured commitments from companies including Coca-Cola, Target, and Honeywell to reduce their use of HFCs, along with new executive actions aimed at promoting alternatives to HFCs and reducing their use in federal buildings. The WRI report says such efforts should continue, and that the U.S. can achieve a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 without raising costs.

The U.S. has already lowered its emissions by 10 percent between 2005 and 2013 while growing its gross domestic product by 11 percent, the WRI report said. But U.S. emissions actually went up slightly between 2012 and 2013, and there are now just about five years left for the United States to get the rest of the way toward its international commitment of a 17 percent reduction by 2020. What do you think: Will the U.S. hit the target? How important will these actions be in getting there?