Thursday, December 18, 2008

Biofuels surge under Obama?

Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, apparently can't be faulted for his dedication to dealing with climate change. Praise for the nomination ranges from Greenpeace to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But in a cabinet filled with ethanol boosters, his coziness with corporate sponsors of biofuels research makes me wonder what solutions to the climate crisis will get top priority, and top dollar after January 20th. Chu's biggest "get" was half a billion dollars from BP for biofuels research at UC Berkeley. Is Steven Chu BFF With BP? in Mother Jones magazine recounts his story and raises questions:
"Chu's role in creating the Energy Biosciences Institute may inform his approach to governing the Department of Energy, a major governmental underwriter of research, and one that will face pressure to partner with corporations in pursuing technological solutions to climate change. As the incoming Obama administration prepares to spend liberally to develop cleaner sources of energy, the structure of corporate-government partnerships will determine how the profits of that research return to taxpayers, and how rigorously scientists evaluate the downsides of controversial technologies such as biofuels."
Corporate sponsors have an outsized influence on universities these days. UC has done lots of work on fuel cells because the auto makers came up with the dough. UC is doing consumer studies today that exclude battery electric cars but include hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Can you spell Toyota? Berkeley will do lots of biofuels research because BP came up with the money.

Bush threw one billion dollars at hydrogen and fuel cells. Industry and universities have been feeding at the trough, but actual contributions to reducing global warming or petroleum dependence have been less than negligible.

Just when it seemed the overhyped promise of biofuels was diminishing, it may prove to have a second life under Obama.

Plug-in advocates are going to have our work cut out for us.

4 comments:

Joe Lado said...

Marc, I don't think you have to worry so much about Steven Chu. He, like me, embraces a lot of alternatives. I discovered Dr. Chu while doing research on geothermal energy. Something I was looking into as a way to supplant coal, oil and natural gas to reduce our carbon footprint. Something that could provide clean electricity for the new wave of plug-ins we at Plug-in America are pushing so hard for. He has the best work in the field. Geothermal is a great resource for clean electric energy. The easy to get to part of it is 5 times our current consumption of electricity in the United States. With the advent of Enhanced Geothermal we could meet the entire U.S. need for energy, that is all energy even transportation energy for vehicles, 1250 time over. That is with just 1% of the energy below our feet to a depth of up to 6 miles. Another way of putting it is we could meet all our energy needs with just .0008% of the energy available to us using Enhanced Geothermal. On top of that there is new technology called Binary Cycle Geothermal that would make the number even smaller. Geothermal is a enormous carbon free resource that not even Repower America has taken seriously having given it only 3% of what they want to do with it. A big mistake I believe. Dr. Steven Chu stated in his research that we have more than we need just from one renewable resource, Geothermal. And geothermal doesn't produce bio-fuels but electricity. Dr. Chu to the IEEE is known as being a big advocate of plug-in hybrids. So Dr. Steven Chu is someone who I believe has connected the dots between clean rewables to plug-ins and electric cars.

So what can we make of his endorsement of bio-fuels? I believe he sees bio-fuels as being a transition fuel. Something that will get us off of petroleum NOW.

I agree with him. In my opinion we need something quick to stop the boom and bust cycle of petrolium. If oil companies can't store huge sums of money and then cut their prices below renewables sustaining themselves with those huge stores of money. Killing off the renewable competition by starving them of the money they need to stay alive, chances are clean, renewables will take hold. Electricity is the energy that big oil most fears. The cost of electricity at generation is below the extraction cost of oil. If cars were made to offer a choice of a plug, people would choose electricity more often than gasoline. If the price of gasoline would start to rise again, people would stop using gasoline all together keeping their trips to the range of the electricity in their plug-ins. If you want to see fear in an oil executives eyes, just talk about plug-ins. The expression on his face spells it out clearly. It spells the end of oil as a major influence on the planet, climate or otherwise.

jason said...

We are moving toward far more efficient transportation methodologies:

Liquid fuels:
1. cellulosic from biomass;
2. biodiesel from algae;
3. ethanol from bacteria (from carbon dioxide direct-feed);
4. methanol/ethanol from pyrolic biomass or coal;
5. synthetic gasoline from thermodepolymerization of garbage

Electricity:
1. wind;
2. solar -- distributed;
3. solar -- powerplant;
4. enhanced geothermal;
5. wave

There is nothing antithetical in simultaneously pursuing all the above. There are no perfect batteries even on the theoretical research horizon, let alone presently in the lab and certainly not anywhere near production, and therefore hybrids are perfectly fine for the foreseeable near future. To that end, high-density liquid fuels to complement (at least part-time) electric drive-trains is a fine way to go.

Geodesic said...

"There are no perfect batteries even on the theoretical research horizon, let alone presently in the lab and certainly not anywhere near production,"

What's wrong with the NiMH battery that powered the EV-1 which got 140 miles per charge?

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