Archive for the ‘biodiesel’ Category

Diesel used to be cheaper than gas (petrol) in the U.S., but now it’s more expensive. Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times analyzes and explains why diesel’s price is rising in the article “So You Think Gas Costs A Lot?“. Basically, it comes down to demand, and the demand for diesel is rising fast, but there are many other complicating factors for diesel, and Wald reports several interesting aspects of this complexity, including

  • the increased production of ethanol was also pushing up diesel prices by offsetting some of the need for gasoline, because as refiners make less gasoline they produce less diesel
  • Terry Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, said the problem was that the oil industry, despite record profits, had not invested enough in refining capacity for diesel fuel. “There’s really no excuse why we’ve got this shortage of capacity, which in turn is driving prices far higher than for gasoline,” he said.

So, we learn of yet another way that ethanol production harms the US and global consumer. However, if you factor in the better gas mileage of modern diesel engines vs. gasoline engines, diesel is still a better deal according to Jim Henry of BusinessWeek Online. Furthermore, according to Wald,

Shifting to diesel engines had been promoted as one way to save oil and meet coming fuel economy standards; because diesel engines operate at higher cylinder pressures, they deliver more power for each B.T.U. of energy they use (and each gallon has more B.T.U.’s than gasoline).

Unfortunately, the advantages of diesel are shrinking as the cost of diesel fuel increases, making recent advances in diesel efficiency even more important. It is also relatively recent that high mpg diesel cars have been able to meet emissions standards in all 50 US states, though more such cars are on the way (see here for 60 mpg). In order to provide sufficient power, many modern diesel cars use a turbo engine design. Some diesel cars are reported to reach over 100 mpg, though these tend not to be production models and may not meet the toughest U.S. emission standards.

A comparison of the design and convenience of diesel and gas car engines is given by Simon Byholm in “Diesel Or Gas – Loud Smoking Dinosaur Or Fuel Gulping Monster“. In spite of the impressive efficiency of diesel engines and their improved emissions, a few environmental concerns remain. Diesel is still a carbon-based fuel, for one, so CO2 emissions still occur when diesel fuel is burned. There is another emission to be concerned about with diesel fuel, however: small particulates. You’ll recognize the particulates, and how real an issue they are, from the black smoke that is a familiar sight in the wake of diesel-powered cars and trucks.

So, we can be excited about the advent of high mpg, relatively low-priced turbodiesel cars for the US market like the upcoming JettaBlue from VW, but I wonder about the severity of health problems from diesel smoke and the relative cost of diesel and gas in the future. Certainly, improved fuel efficiency is something to celebrate while we wait for even greener options, like plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, to show up in US dealerships.

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James K. Bashkin © 2008

“Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies.”

Note that free registration at the NYT may be necessary to see this article at the “read more” link. Nevertheless, this New York Times article needs to be read! This is true even though the article sounds more like it was written by a politician than I would have expected, giving ample space what I would call the self-serving justifications offered by Congressmen and Federal officials. The tone of the NYT article contrasts with the stronger conclusions reached in the Chicago Tribune about the growing price of eggs, where the blame is laid squarely on high corn prices (you may have to register for a free account to see this article, also). I have been writing about the topic of the unfortunate conflict between food and fuel since approximately September (not that the idea was original to me, there was plenty of documentation available!).

I don’t condemn all biofuels, and I support biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil, fish oil or other waste products as a reasonable approach, if one must have a liquid, carbon-based fuel. It is certainly clear that liquid fuels will not be disappearing overnight. However, I do not support placing food crops in competition with energy needs. In my opinion, the time of electric cars should be and is approaching, as hybrids become more popular, plug-in hybrids are near to reaching mainstream showrooms, and battery technology continues to improve, making already-available, purely electric cars even more affordable. We should be making investments in these technologies and related clean energy programs (solar, wind, geothermal), not pouring tax dollars down the drain with ethanol subsidies that have no effect whatsoever on oil and gas prices (this much is obvious, regardless of your opinion how corn ethanol and other biofuels affect food prices). The Economist was also firm in its criticism of corn ethanol programs, as reported here earlier.

Please see my recent post about the discoveries of improved Lithium ion batteries from Argonne National Labs and my post about electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Many other related articles are published here as well.

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© James K. Bashkin, 2008

CTSI, the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization, is organizing CTSI Policy Day in Washington D.C. on March 5, 2008. CTSI is a non-profit organization that acts in support of sustainable technologies and “reduced footprint” technologies, including a wide range of topics.

Not every technology supported by CTSI is one that would be on my personal list of favorites. However, the CTSI platform doesn’t leave out any technologies that I place great importance on.

What is CTSI?

The Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization (CTSI) is a not-for-profit membership organization with offices in Cambridge Massachusetts, San Francisco California, Detroit Michigan, Geneva Switzerland and Washington DC.

Mission Statement of CTSI:

The CTSI’s core purpose is to provide a cross industry community to promote clean technology development, profitable commercialization and global integration of sustainable industry practices, enabling the transformation of businesses, governments and society towards a more sustainable global economy. The CTSI develops programs and advocacy towards:

  • Public funded research advocacy
  • Private funded grand challenges
  • Education & media programs
  • Technology publication and dissemination
  • Industry & Policy Leadership programs
  • Community development and networking
  • IP and early stage company matching with investment & corporate partners

From the CTSI website about March 5th, 2008:

Why Should You Attend?

The voice of Clean Technology must be clearly heard in Congress. As campaign platforms are launched and appropriations are made, it is critical that our elected representatives understand the economic impact of clean & sustainable technologies and how federal policy affects your business!

Come share your stories, your needs, and give support to the clean technology policy agenda which includes:

  • Increasing funding for clean and sustainable technology applied research and deployment.
  • Providing for long-term renewable energy tax incentives and implementation policies.
  • Developing tax incentives/capital depreciation mechanisms that encourage investment in efficiency upgrades, clean technology implementations, and life-cycle product management.
  • Encouraging clean & green federal procurement policies.
  • Supporting efforts to remove barriers to public market capital.

Who Should Attend?

Congress wants to hear from the companies and organizations that are changing the energy, water, and environmental landscapes through innovative technologies, processes, or just straight-forward implementation! If you are a senior-level executive at a clean technology company, a clean or sustainable expert or director at a Fortune 1000 company, an investor or financing agent, or another member of the clean technology community that wants to have a seat at the policy table, please contact us for an invitation.
Note: There is NO CHARGE to attend this event, but SPACE IS LIMITED!

The kind of activism shown by CTSI is truly needed to make it possible for clean and sustainable technology to be taken beyond the research stage and into the market place where it can have real impact.

Conventional or traditional technologies have long benefited from Federal support for research, development and commercialization. Often this support starts with grants to academic researcher groups, and the support can progress through a variety of mechanisms, from peer-reviewed grants to both small businesses and small business/university collaborations, to government contracts and other means. While these mechanisms are available for clean technologies and are being used to support considerable research, energy policy and environmental technologies need to be considered matters of national security and treated with appropriate seriousness. Serious commitment includes significantly increased budgets, tax incentives and other support.

Germany has recently made a big push towards solar energy, for example, and this is showing returns today. The US need to follow suit, with major financing and planning by Federal and State governments. As a nation, the US wouldn’t have to borrow l;arge sums of money to pay for oil every day if we could get these new technologies up and running!

Thanks to Steve B., Sam Carana and Rich for helpful discussions and information used in this post.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Steven Chen has started a discussion on that encourages people with environmental blogs to write in and describe their sites. I recommend that you take a look at the wide variety of blogs represented.  My blog roll also has a list of relevant sites, but it isn’t comprehensive. OneWorldUS is well worth a look, too!

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As reported in the New York Times on Feb 8, 2008 and discussed by Douglas Schiller at, two studies have reached the conclusion given in the title. US demand for biofuels from food sources is driving up food prices throughout the world.

A key distinction here is “from food”. We may still have the option of using waste cooking vegetable oil and other waste products to produce biofuels (for example, to make biodiesel) without harming food prices or the environment. Solutions to the problems that do not require liquid fuels, including electric cars, are looking like the best answer over the long term, however.

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For another (better) overview of the reports that were released yesterday from a number of Universities and The Nature Conservancy, see here.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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As reported by Robert Booth of The Guardian:

“Groups who attempt to raise money for charity by climbing the highest mountains in England, Wales, and Scotland in one day are blamed for causing environmental havoc … on the three peaks.”

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Two wrongs don’t make “a right”, and neither do 200. This is an unfortunate story, but it helps illustrate that it is not enough to care about the environment- one must be able to make informed and sensible choices in order to help solve environmental problems. Becoming informed is no easy task, however, given the misinformation and confusing messages that are often provided, especially by Federal, State and corporate sources in the US and elsewhere (on, for example, the subject of biofuels such as ethanol from corn). In striking contrast to the more typical messages we hear, the city of Portland, Oregon has developed a rational sustainability plan that includes a critical assessment (and sometimes rejection) of different sources of biofuels. Similar ideas are expressed in the recent draft legislation proposed by the European Union for governing the source of biofuels.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Concluding that some biofuels are worse for the environment than traditional fuels, the EU has listed acceptable and unacceptable biofuels based on how they are made or what the are made from.

As reported by Jeremy Elton Jacquot of Los Angeles:

Amidst renewed fears over the impact of biofuels on the environment, which a recent Royal Society report warned could “do more harm than good,” the European Union has issued a draft law that would propose a ban on the imports of biofuels derived from crops grown on certain types of land — such as forests, wetlands and grasslands. It would also require them to deliver a — as yet undetermined — “minimum level of greenhouse gas savings.”

Palm oil is cited by many as a particularly insidious source of biofuel because of the unaccpetable environmental and societal costs it incurs.

The ban would particularly target environmentally harmful crops like palm oil, which Europe imports from Southeast Asia; it could also affect a few crops grown in Latin America, including soy, wheat and sugar beets. The decision to enforce a ban comes in the wake of a rash of studies that have downplayed or thoroughly discredited some of the more bullish claims made by biofuel producers.

We simply can’t embrace concepts that people claim are green, we have to be sure of the details in each case. The EU has made an important advance by using available reports like the Royal Society’s document to sort and judge the different sources of biofuels.

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© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Generated By Technorati Tag Generator is an excellent site for environmental issues. In this case, the Treehugger article gives a good introduction to ethanol as fuel, and discusses the differences between corn ethanol (US) and ethanol derived from sugar cane (as in Brazil). Note that the best form of ethanol production IMHO, from cellulose and other biomass, is not quite ready for prime time and needs more R&D (the money being use to subsidize corn ethanol would be a great place to get the R&D funds).

The Treehugger article is not polarizing (somewhat surprisingly) and will help most people get a good sense of what the basic ideas and issues are. It is, however, “soft” on corn ethanol and also on Brazilian ethanol from sugarcane (which is far superior to corn for producing ethanol, but that conclusion ignores the terrible exploitation of people and the environment that is going on in Brazil).

The comments to the Treehugger article offer valuable additional information- please read them also. Then you can see more detailed analysis here by searching for ethanol to find discussion and references to both scientific and popular articles on problems with corn ethanol, health problems from using any ethanol as fuel at HighlightHealth, problems with biofuels obtained from rain forests, and the effect of biofuel “mining” on local food supplies (the latter two points being extremely important according to many, including Jane Goodall).

Additional links to stories on corn ethanol as fuel (including several different viewpoints that I disagree with, but which you should read and decide for yourself):

Note, this article may not be available to everyone (the policies seem to change almost daily with commercial science journals. I realize that is an exaggeration, but if you can’t read the article, which is a PDF, any library or University will have access). Here is a key quote:

“Biofuels need new technology, new agronomy and new politics if they are not to do more harm than good… The common complaints about biofuels — and they seem to become more common by the day — are that they are expensive and ineffective at reducing fossil-fuel consumption, that they intensify farming needlessly, that they dress up discredited farm subsidies in new green clothes, and that they push up the price of food. All these things are true to some extent of corn-based ethanol, America’s biofuel of choice, and many are also true of Europe’s favoured biodiesel plans.”


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© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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If you follow green, environmental and sustainable news, Best Green Blogs (BGB) provides a useful meta page where the latest postings from the green blogosphere show up on one page. Originally found by Greendigit and posted here as well to help spread the word.

This site has a very large collection of blogs on nearly all aspects of environmental concerns and action.

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Please read the story that my previous post links to on cities that are taking various approaches to sustainability. I applaud these cities on their effort, risk, expenditure and cooperation…

but I’d like to hear what people think about the cities’ actual solutions!

Since I can barely find people who agree on anything regarding alternative fuel, or at best we seem to have warring camps, did these cities choose plans that will help or hurt the environment? How did they know what to do when so few others agree? The best presentation at a City Council meeting may reflect marketing skills rather than content.

So, let’s bring it on in a discussion, pro or con, but civil please. Thanks!

What do you think?

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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