The Energy Crystal Ball

Gaze Into the Future of Alternative Energy and Energy Sources in Preparation for a World Without Oil

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

1 Down, 49 To Go (Governors, That Is)

You Don’t Need Oil To Make Fuel

By Governor Brian Schweitzer
November 7, 2005


Many things can be converted to fuel including crops, natural gas, waste, manure, and many other carbon-based substances. In Montana, we are encouraging the production of these kinds of alternative fuels in an effort to catalyze the energy future.

One of these alternatives is gasoline, though not the gasoline we all know. This gasoline comes from coal.

Though it sounds like alchemy, the means to turn coal into synthetic petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel has been around since 1913 and was used in America as early as 1928. Germany used “synfuel” to power most of its vehicles in World War II, and South Africa used the technology to overcome apartheid sanctions starting in the 1950s.

Today, South Africa still produces 150,000 barrels a day of gasoline and 50,000 of diesel each day without a drop of oil, the only mass production of liquid-coal fuels in the world. At the same time, facing the uncertain future of the world oil market, large nations such as China and India have begun investing seriously in synthetic fuel production.

While only one of many proven alternatives to oil-based fuels, synfuels can help America solve many problems. First, with our abundant coal, synfuel holds the promise of an American energy source, produced on American soil by American workers. In combination with other oil alternatives, synfuel could help us break our bonds with price-fixing dictators and give us a push down the road of energy independence.

This, in turn, would help us protect our soldiers and ourselves. The U.S. military is keenly interested in synfuel, and last year even put forward a proposal to buy every drop of it that can be produced in America. As the largest single consumer of foreign oil in the country, the Department of Defense is desperate for a secure, domestically produced fuel source, obtainable by some means other than purchasing it from Middle Eastern dictators who then use the proceeds to fund terror.

In addition, the military needs to comply with fast-approaching clean air and other environmental rules both here and abroad. Indeed, in the long term, the most attractive part of fuel made from coal is the environmental profile. Unlike conventional coal burning, the synfuel production process first turns coal into synthetic natural gas via a contained chemical reaction, rather than ignition. Sulfur, arsenic, ash, mercury and other environmental culprits in coal are removed from the gas, put into solid form, and can either be stored or sold off as commodities (rather than being spewed into the air, as they are from conventional coal-fired power plants). Meanwhile, greenhouse gases can also be extracted and stored underground.

The resulting “syngas” is then distilled into a synthetic form of any petroleum fuel desired, which burn remarkably cleaner than conventional fuels. Alternatively, the syngas can be used to generate electric power (with almost no emissions at all) or even hydrogen for the fuel cells of the future.

The environmental features of this technology have caused groups such as National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), usually (and justifiably) a staunch opponent of coal, to support coal-to-liquids technology.

The main obstacle in synfuel production has always been the cost of production, about $35 for a barrel of finished product. But given the current price of oil-based fuels, and with long-term buyers like the military, the timing is right. New loan guarantees and other incentives in the Energy Bill give coal-to-liquids a big boost, but a real federal investment—far less than what the oil industry now receives in the form of subsidies and tax breaks—would go a long way in further bringing down the cost of production.

Believe it or not, America once made these types of investments. The U.S. government was seriously involved in trying to perfect the coal-to-liquids process well before the Germans raced ahead of us. In the 1920s, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was making synfuel and studying ways to make it on a large scale. In the 1940s, with passage of the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act and an appropriation of almost $80 million for research and development, synfuel had a bright future. By 1953 a test plant in the town of Louisiana, Missouri was churning out several thousand barrels per day of synthetic, unleaded gasoline.

But when cheap oil was discovered in Arabia, the oil companies persuaded the government to abandon the research. During the 1970s oil crisis, the Carter administration flirted briefly with the synfuel concept, but it was again abandoned when the price of oil receded.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to avoid making the same mistake for a third time. We put a man on the moon 67 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. More time than that has elapsed since man first made fuel from coal, corn, soybeans, even hydrogen. Yet Americans are being forced to empty their bank accounts to buy gasoline from Middle Eastern dictators, while nations such as Brazil, having made an investment in their future, can now run their cars on any combination of ethanol and gasoline, allowing pure competition at the pump.

I think we can do better. Synfuel, ethanol, biodiesel, wind power, solar power, hydrogen, conservation – there is a range of energy alternatives that we can simply no longer afford to ignore. Washington needs to act on them. If we simply wait around for the price of oil to go down (if it ever does), the momentum for these alternatives will once again be lost. Let’s not let that happen.


Brian Schweitzer is the 23rd Governor of Montana

Article created by the Center for American Progress

Now We're Cookin'

Researchers Convert Chicken Fat to Fuel

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Fuel is the thing with feathers. Hoping to find an efficient way to help power automobiles and trucks, researchers at the University of Arkansas say they have developed a way to convert chicken fat to a biodiesel fuel.

"We're trying to expand the petroleum base," said Brian Mattingly, a graduate student in chemical engineering. "Five to 20 percent blending of biodiesel into petroleum-based diesel significantly reduces our dependence on foreign oil."

Mattingly's research allows biodiesel producers to assess different materials to see what works best. Producers will be able to choose the best way to convert different grades of chicken fat into fuels.

R.E. Babcock, a professor of chemical engineering, said chicken-fat fuels are better for the environment and the machines.

"They burn better, create less particulate matter and actually lubricate and clean things like cylinders, pistons and fuel lines," Babcock said.

Traditionally, biodiesel producers have used refined products like soybean oil because they are easier to convert to fuels. However, the refining process makes soybean oil more expensive — and fuel producers must compete with grocers for the oil supply.

Chicken fat can be a less-expensive substitute because it is available at a low cost. However, fatty acids in raw chicken fat can lead to the creation of soap during the various chemical processes.

In his studies, Mattingly used high-quality fat (less than 2 percent fatty acid content) and low-quality, feed-grade fat (6 percent fatty acid content) obtained from Tyson Foods Inc. plants in Clarksville and Scranton. The high-quality fat is more expensive than the feed-grade fat, but both are less expensive than soybean oil.

It took different steps to refine the different fats, but it could be done, Mattingly said.

"The project demonstrated that there is a very fine line between facilitating an adequate reaction and generating so much soap that the biodiesel yield is diminished," Mattingly said. "Basically, deciding which method to use comes down to economics."

Michael Popp, an associate professor of agricultural economics, said it is too early to tell if making biodiesel fuel from chicken fat is economically feasible.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Another 3rd World Country Beating The U.S. to Oil Independence

Giant windmills energize northern Philippines

BANGUI, Philippines (AFP) - When enormous windmills began appearing on a desolate stretch of the northern Philippines coast, locals were overjoyed rather than alarmed. The steel contraptions, standing 23 storeys high, were unlike anything impoverished families from Bangui Bay had ever seen. But they were enthusiastic nevertheless.

The 15 "giant electric fans" were bringing electricity to their homes for the first time. "It was a joy to watch them being built," said 72 year-old Rosita Ridun, whose family earns less than two dollars a day collecting pebbles on Bangui beach for sale to construction companies. "My grandchildren described them as giant electric fans."

Standing in an arc in wind-lashed scrubland, the windmills, which started supplying electricity to 40 per cent of Ilocos Norte province in May, are the first source of clean energy introduced in the Phillipines, a nation with 84 million people reliant on oil and gas. Costing more than 48 million dollars, the windmills, built by a private company with interest-free loans from the Danish government, can harness winds the strength of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the US Gulf Coast last month. And as crude oil prices spikes above 70 dollars, interest in the windmills is growing. President Gloria Arroyo has ordered a reduction in fuel consumption and an investigation into possible alternative energy sources. Consequently, government and state-owned power company officials are requesting the head of the Bangui Bay project, a Danish engineer, try and help them replicate these windmills throughout the country. "Everybody wants to be a wind developer now," said engineer Niels Jacobsen, president and chief executive of the Northwind Power Development Corp.

Jacobsen started work on the 24.75-megawatt project in 1999 after meeting Ilocos Norte provincial governor Ferdinand Marcos Junior, who was intent on fixing the patchy and low-voltage power supply to his region which lies on the northern tip of the country's electricity grid. Marcos was well aware of the potential of wind because his father and former president, also Ferdinand Marcos, ordered a study into alternative energy in the 1970s amid the first global oil crisis.

The project itself was a logistical and engineering feat. Each of the three rotor blades and its base, called a nacelle, weighs 104 tonnes with a diameter wider than the wingspan of an Airbus. Three piers were built to land these structures and the tapered towers of steel measuring 4.2 meters thick (4.6 yards) at their base, which were shipped direct to Bangui Bay from Europe. Piles were driven 12 meters (13.12 yards) into the leased land to support a 17-meter (18.6-yard) diameter base plate made up of 300 cubic meters (10,593 cubic inches) of concrete on which each tower stands.

A substation and 57 kilometers (35.3 miles) of transmission lines were also built to deliver the electricity to the province's local power cooperative. The cooperative buys this electricty at a discounted rate rather than sourcing more expensive electricity from a state-owned company.

But it's not just the cooperative and locals who have benefited from the windmills. Northwind earnt carbon credits from the project - and will sell 1.5 million dollars worth of them over 10 years to the World Bank which manages a carbon credit fund as part of the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gases.

"We only sold a portion because, upon the advice of the World Bank, those carbon credits that we are still entitled to may be sold at a higher price later," said Ferdinand Dumlao, Northwind board chairman and treasurer. Dumlao said the project cost translated to two million dollars per megawatt of power generated, which is more than double the start-up cost of a normal power plant running on coal, oil, or other conventional fuel. Without the interest-free loans from the Danish International Development Agency (Danida), the project would have been unviable.
Danida provided 30 million dollars in loans, payable over 10 years, and more than 10 million dollars in grants, with the rest of the project cost coming from shareholders' equity, including loans provided by the windmill and other equipment manufacturers.

"It's not really going to make anyone rich," said governor Marcos, adding that Northwind investors would need between 20 and 25 years to earn money. "Frankly, if there's money to be made the province would have involved itself." However Marcos does think the windmills will have other spinoffs, such as perhaps becoming a permanent drawcard for tourists.

"Ilocos Norte is not really the spot where you would expect to see a high-tech operation like the windmill, so the people can hardly believe it. I can barely believe it myself," Marcos said. "You even have tourists visiting the site which is great. It would make people more conscious about the availability of alternative power sources."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Venezuela to Prove Wind Can Bring Independence From Oil

Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA aims to boost fuel oil exports by about 100,000 barrels a month through the increased use of wind for electric power generation, Nervis Villalobos, the president of state-owned electricity firm Cadafe and deputy energy and oil minister, told BNamericas.

PDVSA and Cadafe want to take advantage of high international oil prices and at the same time develop an environmentally friendly source of power generation, Villalobos said.

"For PDVSA and for the country, there is an enormous attraction in being able to free up these liquid fuels and export them," Villalobos said.

A barrel of fuel oil "is worth US$4 in the domestic market, while abroad it sells for US$40," Villalobos said.

PDVSA is currently involved in two projects that would use wind to generate electricity, Villalobos said.

The first project was announced by PDVSA president and energy and oil minister Rafael Ramírez in April in the wake of an electricity mishap that left PDVSA's Amuay refinery - part of the CRP refining complex - without power for several days.

This US$50mn venture at Los Taques, a wind-swept stretch of beach (the Not in My Backyard crowd in the US would kill it) in Falcón state near PDVSA's CRP complex, would generate up to 100MW, including 40MW during its first stage.

PDVSA and the Spanish-Venezuelan consortium that designed the project, VER, are currently deciding on how to finance it, Villalobos said. Cadafe would buy 100% of the power generated by the plant.

The project should be up and running "by mid 2007, if it's approved this year," since construction is expected to take at least 18 months, Villalobos said.

The second wind project in the northern part of Sucre state is still in a very early stage, Villalobos said.

Villalobos reiterated Cadafe's estimate of a 9% jump in power demand for Venezuela this year, up from 7% in 2004. If these wind projects are not put in place, more fuel oil will have to be devoted to thermoelectric generation rather than exported, he said.

By Carlos CamachoBNamericas.com

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Cool Bike... Brilliant Concept Will be the ENV of the World

World's First Purpose-Built Hydrogen Fuel Cell Motorbike Makes North American Debut

"Intelligent Energy, a British energy-solutions company that is relocating to Los Angeles, unveiled the world's first purpose-built fuel cell motorbike, ENV (Emissions Neutral Vehicle), at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, Calif. This sleek-looking, hydrogen-powered motorbike is the first designed specifically with fuel cell technology in mind. The result is an innovative motorbike that emits only water vapors, making it an almost silent and completely nonpolluting vehicle.

ENV, pronounced "envy," was engineered and purpose-built from the ground up, utilizing Intelligent Energy's world-renowned CORE, a radically compact and efficient fuel cell, in order to demonstrate the everyday applicability of fuel cell technology. The CORE is detachable from the bike and is capable of powering anything from an ATV or a personal watercraft, to a small home." Read it here

Check out their site for the ENV bike.

Friday, June 17, 2005

An Observation About China

I just read about a new One Gigawatt Wind Power Plant being built in China, being the largest in China (obviously then, it is not the first). Couple that article with the recent completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and its power generation of 18 gigawatts of electricity providing about one-ninth of the country's electrical needs.

A thought occurred to me as I pondered these two projects... Could it be that the lack of politics on a national level in China mean that a realistic approach to future energy needs can be consistently undertaken? Or is it maybe the lack of political lobbies and their 'cash' influence on policies in China which has caused this outcome? Of course China is still trying to secure oil for its needs, most recently from Venezuela.

Read my friend's analysis on the world's oil situation at maxrates blog... maybe China is trying to increase the slope so that the world will reach the peak sooner, and at the same time they are providing for their future energy needs through renewable resources??? Critics will say that renewable sources will not sufficiently provide energy to all of the billions of Chinese... probably not... think their leaders care? As long as Beijing has lights, what do they care?

Friday, June 03, 2005

They Have an Amazing Grasp on the Obvious

Today I have read articles stating what I think everyone will agree is obvious, "Conventional methods for energy production are cheaper than alternative methods." According to this article the German government felt the need to study this and report it officially anyway (makes me feel a little better about US government waste on such studies, but not much).

Changing from diesel to gasoline in your car would be an expensive venture relative to the original cost of the car. Couple that with the fact that diesel fuel is not found at every fuel station on every corner as gasoline is, and it really becomes a headache to make such a change. BUT, generally speaking, diesel engines last much longer than gasoline engines so in the long run you may be better off.

In the same way, the world has been using fossil fuels for most of the industrial age, so changing to any alternative will be costly. The sad thing is, one day we will not have the choice to continue with oil and natural gas (see ASPO, Peak Oil News, or Energy Bulletin).

The other issue we have to deal with is the time involved in converting to alternative sources. It takes 10 to 15 years to design, permit and build a nuclear power plant. If we wait until everyone finally agrees that we are out of natural gas and oil, our children and we will spend some amount of time using candles, vegetable or animal oil lamps for light and coal for heat while we have it. We need to start converting to renewable energy sources now to - 1) extend the life of available fossil fuels, 2) allow for a substantial amount of energy production when oil is gone and 3) reduce the amount of fossil fuel related pollution.

Just one person's rant....Comments?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Turning Manure Into Gold

Another ingenius idea to reduce greenhouse gases and provide an energy source is using the methane emmissions of bacteria feeding on animal fecal matter from farming and from local waste-water treatment plants. The idea is not new, but recent advances have given us the ability to produce more methane from a source and do it in a shorter time frame.

This article explains it much better than I can.

Pure Genius

What if you had an idea for reducing greenhouse emissions from manufacturing plants that had the side benefit of providing a fuel to run vehicles? Wouldn't you agree with me that that would be Pure Genius?

Green Fuel Technologies Corporation has a plan to do just that. Growing algae in glass tubes, their process recycles up to 86% of NOx and 40% of CO2 from smokestack emissions. The algae is harvested from the tubes and processed into Biodiesel, which can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel in cars or trucks.

See the story Start-up drills for oil in algae