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Energy Independence Day

| July 4, 2012

Today, in the United States the bands and bunting will be on display, because it is Independence Day.

But is freedom really sustainable, without energy independence too?

It would be a sweeter thing, political independence, if it were accompanied by more energy independence. For examples, choices at the pump that didn’t involve wealth transfers to people who oppose the principle of ballot boxes.

But before there is energy independence, there has to be more freedom from the entropy that afflicts the energy business, and especially the bioenergy business.

Hmm, entropy, er, what’s that again?

Well, there are millions of tons of gold in the oceans, so why aren’t fisherman all millionaires? That’s entropy, the tendency of everything to reduce from useful concentrations to a smooth distribution. In the case of gold in seawater, the concentrations are so low, in parts per million,  that the extraction cost exceeds the value of the metal.

The entropy problem in feedstocks

In bioenergy, it’s the chief reason, for example, that otherwise perfectly acceptable fruit waste from citrus harvest is a difficult feedstock for energy production. The process for cellulosic conversion was discovered in the 1990s – so what’s the hold up?  Just not enough fruit waste in a given target area, and the proposed stand-alone refineries are limited so far to an unprofitable 4 million gallons.

Think of what a different world it would be if certain residues were sufficiently concentrated. For example, there is 2 billion tons of MSW produced each year, according to a Columbia University estimate. Right there, you have the means to produce some 160 billion gallons of biofuels.

The entropy problem in capital

So, why is the world not awash in cellulosic biofuels from MSW? Well, capital is subject to its own entropy – it never seems to be in the right hands at the right time, never concentrated enough in the hands of those who can afford big risks. Instead, it is distributed across lots of smaller portfolios that, generally, take much smaller risks. Greenfield biorefineries are a tough sell in tough times. There’s entropy, again.

Which brings us to corn stover and cobs – these days, generally just left in the field.  POET Biomass estimates that you can acquire enough cellulosic feedstock, from the area serving a 100 million gallon corn ethanol plant, to add 25 million gallons in capacity. Right there, you have, in the form of corn ethanol biorefinery bolt ons, the capacity to add 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic capacity.

Now, that’s entropy at work, again – because about 22 percent of the US corn harvest goes to corn ethanol – meaning there’s an awful lot of cobs and stover lying around, that simply is not near enough to an existing corn ethanol plant. Applying the POET Biomass math, it’s a fair estimate that there is perhaps another 15 or 16 billion gallons in capacity available, by finding ways to aggregate cobs and stover.

Which brings us around to in-field pre-processing. It’s simply going to have to become a given, in combine harvesting, to pick up the cobs and stover in a one-pass system. Which makes it sad to see  small businesses, like the team behind the FARM MAX biomass harvesting technology, struggle for investor attention and support.

Piloting an integrated bioeconomy

Now, that’s something the Midwestern Governors Association, which has a task force on biorefining and biofuels, might usefully tackle. Instead of handing out incentives for plant construction, why not incentivize lower costs for biomass collection, and help put in the pumps. By concentrating demand and supply, you can open up markets – by fighting entropy.

It doesn’t have to be a big government hand-out. Hand-outs, as we have discovered, rarely solve market problems and create new perceptional ones. As if states were awash in money, anyway. It means using the organizational power of government, as opposed to the taxing power.  Organizing one, small area to become an exemplar to a wider world.  Car dealers, growers, processors, financiers and state government, all have a stake in a positive outcome, and could and should be counted on to bear some of the cost.

Not too long ago, Greensburg, Kansas embarked on a hugely ambitious experiment in green living – too ambitious, probably, though many good things have come of its commitment, which followed the devastation wrought by an F5 tornado. The principle of picking out one or two towns, or a small region, is a good one.

Why, towns might vie for such an honor, with a resulting local organization that produces the kind of cooperation and cost-sharing that we see in, say, cities that have organized an Olympics or a world’s fair. Doesn’t have to be a major metropolitan city, as in the case of an Olympics. Blair, Nebraska…Shenandoah, Iowa…well, a lot of small towns could work this kind of magic.

Of course, it’s not something restricted to the United States. Towns from Canada to Denmark, South Africa to China, India to Brazil could mount such an effort.

Been done before

Two hundred years ago, a similar approach – a pilot scheme, using a fledgling, underpopulated United States – worked wonders for the principles of freedom of opportunity and political independence. Whole swathes of the wide world are today organized along the principles established by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin et al, back in 1776. Democracy and freedom won a worldwide following, once it was proven that liberty, in fact, is a driver of happiness and prosperity.

We suspect a similar effort on energy independence might reap a similarly impressive harvest.  A new birth of energy freedom, my what a good outcome that would be. Especially for all those small towns that have borne such a heavy burden to establish those political freedoms that we enjoy today.

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