Category Archives: Biofuel

Can the Electric Vehicle Replace Liquid Fuels?

Electric cars are making headlines all the time theses days.  Governments are promoting electric vehicles through tax credits, loan guarantees, and regulation.  For many it seems like the age of the electric car is finally coming upon us (especially with vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf on the market).  It seems to me that electric cars are getting disproportional amount of attention when you consider that there are other options for future transportation.  I believe that we cannot replace the vast majority of our liquid transportation fuel with electricity.

Why I Believe Liquid Fuel is Still in the Future of Transportation

With electric vehicles usually comes increased electrification of society. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all vehicles can use electricity as their main energy source. There are some major points that I think people overlook when considering electric vehicles:

  1. Large vehicles (like semi-trucks) will still need a liquid fuel to power combustion engines
  2. Electric vehicles take too long to charge, and do not offer long distances
  3. Electrical demand will require more power generation and eventual grid upgrade(s) (smart grid)

In order to power large engine driven equipment like dump trucks, front end loaders, boats, etc…, we will need a liquid fuel source because no technology exists to power these pieces of equipment using electricity (batteries).  Perhaps you’re wondering if these pieces of equipment be powered using batteries.  The answer is possibly in some cases, but it is unlikely that we will see batteries powering a large barge going to the other side of the world anytime soon.  These types of vehicles need to be able to refuel quickly and have the ability to run for a long duration, something that electric vehicles do not currently offer.  It is because of these types of heavy duty equipment that we must still use liquid fuels and combustion engines for the foreseeable future.  If we must continue to use liquid fuels for the above equipment, why not also use liquid fuel for average cars too?

Can you imagine trying to drive form Michigan to Florida with a Nissan Leaf?  With a maximum of roughly 100 miles, it would take a VERY long time to go such a distance (not that it doesn’t already).  In order to travel long distances you must have a vehicle that can obtain an energy source very quickly (like getting fuel at a gas station).  It is this type of situation that has made Chevy engineers put a combustion engine in their ‘electric vehicle’ (the Chevy Volt).  When a person needs to go somewhere, they usually cannot afford to wait around for several hours before traveling.  The convenience of electric vehicles is not quite there yet.  For many, the distance issue may not be a problem on a daily basis, but on some occasions a different form of transportation will be needed (train, plane, combustion based automobile).

If electric vehicles take off, the demand on the electrical grid to power these vehicles will also take off. If the electrical demand rises, the use of fossil fuels in the power generation sector will have to rise too.  I know many electric vehicle advocates promote renewable energy to generate power, but the simple fact is that without a smart grid it is more likely we will see a larger proportion of fossil fuels being used instead.  In order to minimize the power loss, and because the current grid doesn’t offer the control to distribute electricity efficiently enough, fossil fuels will continue to see high usage.  Fossil fuels have the luxury of being placed closer to high power demand locations than alternative energy installations.  The lack of a smart grid will equate to little renewable energy buildup in comparison to what we really need.  This is not to say that renewable energy generation won’t increase, but rather that large renewable energy sources will remain few (in comparison to what we need and expect in order to replace fossil fuels and keep up with demand).  For example, large wind installations have been delayed or even cancelled due to the lack of quality grid infrastructure (see previous posts, Advancing Wind Power and The Power Grid Unable to Meet Our Needs).  I believe that the use of electric vehicles will be fine with our current system for a while, but eventually the need to implement a smart grid system will become a necessity.

Conclusion

Electric vehicles offer only one possible benefit at this time, reducing the use of oil.  The likelihood of electric vehicles reducing the use of oil, or even fossil fuels, is pretty low at this point.  Electric vehicles use batteries which require the use of rare earth minerals, manufacturing, transportation, and proper disposal.  All of these requirements take energy that requires the use of oil and/or fossil fuels.  When you factor in the use of fossil fuels on our nations electric grid with the fact that batteries require a fair amount of energy to produce and dispose of, the benefits of these electric vehicles really comes into question.  It seems like fossil fuel usage is being moved from the transportation sector to other sectors like manufacturing or electricity generation.  With the invention of other storage techniques, increased usage of renewable energy via the smart grid, or a low energy method to produce and handle batteries, we might see more benefits to the electric vehicle.  Until these things happen I don’t see how going to buy a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt is going to help reduce fossil fuel usage, reduce oil consumption, or produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Note: The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the two mainstream vehicles currently available so I am using them as examples.

 

 

Transportation: Future Energy Source(s)

Oil is continually becoming more scarce and more expensive to acquire, because of this finding a substitute is very important.  Unfortunately, there has yet to be a feasible substitute for oil, so we are faced with a future that will probably involve several different alternative fuels.  T. Boone Pickens recently released a new video outlining his plan, and mentions that he sees a world with multiple energy types for transportation.  This made me think and as I thought about this it began to make more and more sense.

We currently have no energy source that is adequate to replace oil, so we will have to use many different energy sources for particular uses.  This means, we could end up seeing electric vehicles for in-city driving or local commuting and hydrogen, fossil fuel, and/or alternative fuel vehicles for a multitude of uses.  Each energy type will play a role in our future, depending on geological location and vehicle usage.  Vehicles that are used for heavy loads may operate on diesel or natural gas, and vehicles that are used for every-day city driving may be electric, hybrids or alternative fuel powered.  Using multiple energy sources will complicate the consumers purchasing decisions, because consumers will need to choose vehicles based on energy type and predicted usage.

Our energy future must rely on sources of energy other than oil, and because of this we will see several different energy sources emerge.  Consumers will need to have a basic understanding of energy.  Energy will play a MAJOR role in the majority of our future decisions. In addition to alternative fuels, I also believe we will see an increase of rail-based transportation being used.  Rail transportation is generally energy efficient and relatively convenient.  Using energy without thought will become a thing of the past.

Here are my thoughts, i look forward to seeing some of your thoughts/comments below.

Helping Reduce Energy in the Industrial and Commercial Sectors

It is relatively difficult for you, as an individual, to have a large-direct effect on the energy usage in the commercial and industrial sectors.  These sectors consist largely of corporations and businesses that you have little control over.  This does seem like a large problem at first but, there are things that you can do to suggest increased energy efficiencies.

Commercial Sector

The commercial sector consists of things like: stores, restaurants and offices.  The commercial sector is mainly concerned about reducing operating costs.  As energy costs increase, the benefits of increasing energy efficiency also increases.  Some methods commonly used to improve energy efficiencies include:

  • Using Energy Star rated devices
  • Modern, automated HVAC systems
  • Efficient lighting
  • Occupancy and/or photosensors to dim or shut off lighting
  • Solar panels to generate electricity or to heat water

Most of the items listed seem small but when implementing several small changes, you can experience a larger overall change (I feel a reoccurring theme beginning).

Many companies in the commercial sector take suggestions from their employees.  If you are employed in the commercial sector, you can make a friendly suggestion to your superiors that include ways to improve energy and/or operating efficiencies.  This can help you by:

  • Being noticed by your superiors
  • By increasing your company’s profitability, therefore allowing you to keep your job.

So, if you have any ideas on how to improve energy efficiencies in your workplace, do it.

Industrial Sector

The industrial sector consists of things like: farming, manufacturing, mining, construction and water management.  Like the commercial sector, the industrial sector is largely concerned with maximizing profits and minimizing operating costs.  Reducing energy consumption accomplishes both.  The industrial sector can improve their energy efficiencies by using the same methods as the commercial sector, in addition to:

  • Using more efficient equipment for farming, construction and mining
  • Generating electricity from waste using methane gas
  • Improving manufacturing processes to use less energy

Several equipment companies like, John Deere and CAT, continue to improve the efficiencies of their products.  This in turn reduces amount of energy used for related industries, like forestry, construction and mining. Also, farmers who raise livestock are increasingly installing anaerobic biodigesters in order to generate electricity.  Any farmer that has livestock, has manure and will always have manure, so instead of piling it up, why not use it for something useful.  These systems can give farmers a way to use a pesky byproduct to generate:

  • Electricity
  • Bedding
  • Fertilizer
  • Heating fuel

Again, as with the commercial sector, many industrial companies accept efficiency suggests from their employees.  If you make a good suggestion, then this will reduce their energy usage and therefore make them more money.  Whenever you can benefit the company you are working for, it is a good thing.  It is not only good for you but, for your company as well.

Even though most of the efficiencies gained in both the commercial and industrial sectors will come from the companies and businesses making changes, due to increased costs, you as an employee can also help with your suggestions.  We need to remember, we need to work together to reduce energy usage EVERYWHERE in our society.

I tried to list several ideas and methods used to reduce energy consumption but, I could have easily missed something.  If you have any other methods that could be used to increase energy efficiencies in your workplace, leave a comment.

Next week, I will begin to discuss methods to reduce energy consumption within the transportation sector.

When will oil production peak?

When will peak oil happen?

One of the most common questions people ask when first learning about peak oil is when will “it” happen. People want to know “When will we run out of oil?” and later, “What is the date of Peak Oil?”

Unfortunately, these questions probably do not address what people really want to know. One of the most difficult things in educating people about peak oil is that you have to start off by telling them that their questions are incorrect. These questions stem from a lack of understanding about the world’s tiring oil production system and the extremely complex interaction between fossil fuel production and the economy.

Energy that can be summoned up at man’s command is his wealth in the physical world, and fossil fuel currently provides the vast majority of this wealth. At any given time, the net energy available for use by industrial man is given by the formula:

Eg – Ep = En

Where:

Eg is the gross energy extracted.

Ep is the Energy that has been consumed in the production of energy.

En is the net Energy that is available to power the industrial economy.

The net energy that is derived from fossil fuel production sets the possible wealth that our economy can potentially create. How much fossil fuel is produced over a given period of time is determined by a great many factors.

One of the most interesting and poorly studied factors in fossil fuel production is how the economy is affected by the decreasing availability of high quality oil reserves. While the U.S. Department of Energy and IEA show that gross oil production has been approximately flat over the last few years, this data does not take into account the increased amount of energy consumed in the extraction of decreasing quality reserves. Nor does it take into account the large amount of diesel fuel energy that has been converted into less desirable Ethanol or that the increase in the world’s population has decreased the quantity of oil energy available per person.

As the quality of a fossil fuel resource declines, the net energy available from its production decreases and the strain on the economy increases. Eventually, the economy will reach a point that it cannot afford to increase production, and thus will be resized for lower energy consumption. For a time, the price of oil may decline. This decline in price will actually further reduce the supply of oil because the new, more expensive production and recovery projects will be canceled or scaled back. And while the decreased oil prices from the economic downsizing may encourage the economy to grow again, this growth will quickly be stopped by the limited supply of high net energy resources.

Consider how the long-term, global trends of increasing energy consumption in oil extraction have affected the U.S.

In 1965 when the oil industry was just starting to experience declining results from increased efforts in oil production, the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation, and the wealth of the U.S was growing each year. In 1970, U.S oil production peaked and began to decline in spite of the greater amounts of energy expended in attempts to increase production.

Move to the fall of 2008, with the U.S as the world’s largest debtor nation and its wealth declining each year. Not even global oil prices in the $100 range and above for several months could raise oil production substantially above the level that it was in 2005 when oil prices were in the $45 range. Now in the winter of 2008, the economy has given in and oil consumption and oil prices have crashed. This cycle can be expected to continue unless proper management is implemented.

Without correct management of the economy, it is possible that the economy can be stimulated enough to get a short economic up cycle with oil prices and production higher than ever before. However, this becomes increasingly unlikely with each cycle.

I am convinced that no one understands all of the things that would be necessary to predict when global oil production will be at the highest level. There are just too many factors, including some that are completely unpredictable like the weather and politics.

I think that the question “When will oil production peak” is more accurately addressed by the following two questions:

1. When will increasing energy intensity of fossil fuel production begin to limit the wealth that can be created with the U.S. economy?

That already occurred in approximately 1965.

2. When will the increasing energy intensity of fossil fuel production really show up as a serious problem to the global economy?

That too has already happened, in the fall of 2008.

As for when the all-time peak of oil production will occur, each month that passes with the economy in decline increases the likelihood that the peak is now past. The reason is that high net energy reserves are being depleted, and low net energy reserves are not being developed. This makes it unlikely that any economic up cycle can last long enough and allow oil prices to be high enough to ever increase production above levels that were seen in the summer of 2005 – fall of 2008. But we will have to wait for the history books to be written for the best answer.

Biodiesel as a Biofuel

In my previous posting I talked about ethanol. I know there are other promising ways of producing ethanol but lets be honest, nothing from the ethanol camp, as of yet, has as much promise as some of the biodiesel production methods. Currently the major source used to produce biodiesel is soybeans. Soybeans unfortunately do not have a very good EROI(Energy Return Of Investment), much like corn does not. EROI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EROEI). Basically, energy return on investment is the measure of the amount of energy needed to create biofuel (for example) and then the amount of usable energy you have from the biofuel. If the amount of energy needed to create a biofuel is not significantly less than the amount of useful energy contained in the biofuel then the energy source becomes less and less useful, much like soybeans or corn. Soybeans, at this point, are a major biodiesel fuel source used for mass production. Soybeans have worked as a beginning biodiesel producer but the effects on our water table and environment won’t allow them to be a viable mass production source into the future. Rapeseed and canola are better options when comparing them to soybeans but you still have to use farmland to grow a crop, to make a fuel and to power society. This requires the use of farmland, farm equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, and water. Though canola and rapeseed both produce more oil per acre, which requires less farmland, neither of these crops are solutions to the problem. Now I am not against using crops like canola or rapeseed to produce biodiesel in small quantities, but to do so at a scale that would even come close to meeting the diesel demand would be detrimental. We need to stop using food products and valuable farmland to produce fuels, we need to use food products for food and farmland to grow food.
There is one biofuel source that has great promise to alleviate many of the common drawbacks to biofuels, algae. Algae is just now starting to get some of the attention it deserves. Algae can be grown in open ponds and closed systems. Open pond systems have been studied for quite some time but one of the biggest challenges with an open pond system is controlling the type of algae growing in the pond. Naturally open pond systems are susceptible to contamination from outside sources, this is where closed systems excel. An example of a closed system is a bioreactor. A bioreactor is a closed system that pumps water though a network of tubing, the algae is then harvested from the water (http://img.alibaba.com/photo/100453709/Jeruz_Algaelink_Photo_Bio_Reactor.jpg) for biofuel production. Though some closed systems like bioreactors can use more energy than an open pond system and are more complex, the control over the type of algae growing in the system is very beneficial. Companies like GreenFuel Technologies have a bioreactor design that use CO2 from coal power plants to grow the algae within the system, this gives the bioreactor a steady flow of “food” for the algae. Valcent Products has one of the most interesting and promising closed systems that I have seen so far. It uses plastic bags hung vertically, these plastic bags have channels in them to direct the water through a series of paths to maximize the amount of sun the algae is exposed to for photosynthesis. This method is relatively simple in comparison to many other methods used to create biofuels. Valcent thinks their company can create a algae system that can create “…about 100,000 gallons of algae oil a year per acre, compared to about 30 gallons per acre from corn; 50 gallons from soybeans.” (http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/04/01/algae.oil/index.html). If you research oil production from algae you will find the estimated amount of oil per acre to have varying numbers. I am somewhat skeptical that 100,000 gallons of algae oil a year per acre is possible but even if that number is significantly less, like 15,000 or even more conservatively around 1800 like some estimate, it is still a much more viable option than any other biofuel source at this point.
Each biofuel source can and probably will play a role in replacing crude oil with a renewable energy source; but we need to stop giving the majority of the research and funding to sources that will not benefit society. Algae is by far the most promising of all biofuel sources but ethanol may also play a role in the future. Anytime an energy source is considered we must not forget the law of thermodynamics and energy return on investment, these two things will give you the true benefits and negatives of a biofuel.

The Future of Ethanol as a Biofuel

Now it seems only natural to start my biofuel posts with corn because corn is probably the most talked about biofuel right now. With the government and many corporations trying to declare how promising of a future ethanol is going to have, it is almost impossible to not think about corn when mentioning biofuel. At this point corn is the only method that we have in place to mass produce ethanol. Trash, municipal waste and cellulosic sources are some additional sources being discussed as viable methods to create ethanol. If you look at the table “How Green Are Biofuels” (from gas2.org’s site) you will see some major road blocks with using corn as fuel production. Looking at some of the other ethanol fuel sources you see that there are better options than corn. Still the strain on our food supply, crop land and the large amounts of water used to produce ethanol from some of the alternative sources are still very high.
Even if technological improvements can be made to some of the proposed processes and sources ethanol would still have some serious pitfalls, distribution and energy content. Because of ethanol’s characteristics it has a high tendency to attract water(gasoline does not), even relatively small traces of water which can be decremental to vehicle engines. Small amounts of water can be found in the current gasoline distribution pipelines, because of this, ethanol can not be distributed using the current pipeline distribution system, it basically needs to be trucked everywhere. How is trucking a fuel every where it needs to go efficient? The amount of energy and diesel fuel needed to distribute this fuel is greater than our current transportation fuel, not to mention ethanol contains a third less energy than conventional gasoline.
Ethanol, which is supposed to be the “fuel of the future” has so many drawbacks that it is hard to even imagine how any one who understands the law of thermodynamics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics ) could even suggest this as a fuel. When factoring in all of the energy used to produce and distribute ethanol the energy return is roughly 1:1.3 (http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/NRRethanol.2005.pdf ), at best when using corn. Most studies find ethanol gives a negative return, meaning it takes more energy to produce ethanol than what you get out of it. How then can society survive on a fuel that takes more energy to produce it than what you get out of it? Even if you get a 1:1.3 energy return life would be drastically different than it is today. Ethanol is getting all of the attention, with the government requiring ethanol production to increase until it reaches roughly 36 billion gallons by 2020(http://money.cnn.com/2008/03/05/news/bush_ethanol/index.htm), other superior alternatives seem to get ignored. If ethanol production continues to increase until it reaches the 36 billion gallon goal, we will see a strain on our environment and economy. We will begin to look into some of these other alternatives in future posts.

Biofuel the future?

Whenever energy is discussed it is hard to not also discuss the topic of biofuels. Biofuels are seen as the only alternative to crude oil based gasoline or diesel. Now I am not here to say that biofuels have no future but I am here to state that when discussing biofuels it is important to understand what our options are and what we can expect from the various different biofuel sources. This post is the beginning of several that will cover some biofuels and what we might expect from them. Until I get into further detail take a look at a pretty informative chart found on gas2.org’s site: