Thursday, January 31, 2008

Local biofuels in the Valley: at beta version 0.6

Readers of this blog will know that we have an affinity for software industry metaphors (see, e.g., our "rough consensus and running code" and "open source biodiesel" posts). Here's another one I wanted to try.

First, a reminder of what we mean when we talk about local biofuels: our focus is on locally-produced biofuels, that are derived from local, non-food feedstocks, and used locally. The current corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel models -- where fuel is derived from food crops grown in distant locations, processed elsewhere, and shipped here -- is not consistent with our vison, although we recognize that generally this model is still much better than petroleum fuels.

Now for the software metaphor: my sense is that local biofuels in the Valley are in early beta, maybe at version 0.6. Early adopter homebrewers and co-ops are producing and using biodiesel, but are having to contend with significant bugs in the regulatory system. Commercial entities like AZ Biodiesel and Amereco are on the cusp of producing saleable fuel, but still have major production and distribution kinks to work out.

I think that version 1.0 of local biofuels in the valley is not far off, however: although it will take significant heavy lifting to get there, we can imagine a world where homebrewers and co-ops making WVO*-derived biodiesel have a supporting infratructure that enables compliance with tax and environmental regulations, and where local commercial producers are making high quality WVO-based biodiesel available to consumers on a routine basis.

If version 1.0 is in sight, then planning for version 2.0 should be underway. My sense is that version 2.0 will also be biodiesel-focused, but will replace or complement WVO as the key feedstock. Crops like jatropha seem promising as a alternative feedstock, one that need not displace food crops and that can be grown in a desert climate. We'd like to see the local agribusiness community begin exploring options for local biofuels version 2.0.

As for version 3.0, it's likely premature to guess at what this might look like. Algae feedstocks for biodiesel and/or ethanol show promise, as do technologies like cellulosic ethanol. We'd certainly love to see an embodiment of ethanol that was consistent with the local biofuels vision, given the inherent limitations of biodiesel (i.e., a limited number of diesel engines).

* WVO = waste vegetable oil, a.k.a. grease

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