Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Getting right-sized

Lyle Estill just published the text of his speech to the NBB folks at the 2008 Biodiesel Conference and Expo. As usual, I got a lot out of reading his stuff. I decided to submit a comment on his blog, but then got a little carried away. Before I pressed the "Submit" button I figured I had really written a blog entry for DBI. So here it is. It will make more sense if you read Lyle's blog entry first.

Disclaimer: I haven't been doing this for years and years, and don't claim any special insight. These are just some opinions based on my observations.

"Appropriate scale" is right on. In other words we need to stay "right-sized" to be sustainable. But that "right-sizing" also means some folks will have to make significant changes to be truly sustainable. Perhaps that is obvious, but the 4X4 off-road magazines are publishing full page ads for the "Fuel Meister II" biodiesel processor, which supposedly makes fuel for "only $0.70 a gallon".

Where does the "Fuel Meister II" fit into the "micro nodal form of fuel production"? Does the "Fuel Meister II" come with a big, bold-faced disclaimer about the inherent safety issues of using a plastic processing vessel? Does the "Fuel Meister II" include instructions for disposing of hundreds of gallons of wash water and scores of gallons glycerol? Is the "Fuel Meister II" a model of sustainability?

Sustainable would mean the manufacturer requires mandatory, not simply 'available', hands-on training to purchase one of those processors. Sustainable might require certification of the processor! Just as you don't just buy a helicopter and start flying, turning a novice loose with a PVC pipe, poly tank machine capable of hundreds of gallons of biodiesel production, with no hands-on training, is crazy. It's unsustainable.

Let's take that flying analogy a little further. There's a fundamental difference between me building an experimental helicopter and trying to fly it solo, and taking others up in the air with me. Or building a production helicopter and offering it for sale. Especially if I advertise how cheap, safe and easy it is to operate. I'm not advocating that everyone who wants to try to make biodiesel needs to be certified by some authority. But when companies are holding out to the general public products which require handling flammable and caustic substances, that will generate prodigious amounts of "sidestream" material that will need proper disposal, perhaps some oversight is in order.

I've made small batches of biodiesel using a tiny all metal appleseed processor, fuel that I've been confident enough with that I've actually put it in my common-rail diesel truck. That's me flying solo in my experimental helicopter.

For me to be fuel self-sufficient would require quite a bit more production. My current needs (not my wife and kids, just me) are about (1) 26 gal tank of fuel a week. If my math is close, that would mean processing a hundred gallons of oil, a half-barrel of methanol, and over 5 lbs. of KOH a month. My suburban neighbors are pretty cool folks, and even if they were okay with that (which I doubt) I bet the fire marshal and/or my insurance agent wouldn't be okay with it. If I add fuel for my wife and kids, all of a sudden I'm up to 150 or 200 gallons of oil, a barrel of methanol, etc.

Right-sized for me means staying with a 5 gal gas can of methanol for processing and running a small mix of "homebrew" and petrol diesel, when I can't get to the coop or downtown. As Brad and I learn more, we may find out even that's not okay in the garage. That would suck, and we'd try to change the rules so it would be okay. I like experimenting in my helicopter. But I don't take people for rides in my helicopter. And I've learned enough about biodiesel that I no longer think I'm going to fuel my whole family out of my suburban garage either.

The guys I know doing this stuff for free and for fun, because they think it's important to their families and the community, are working really hard to become right-sized. Small enough to be in control of their own little part of the world, but big enough to credibly engage the community over issues like zoning, permitting, safety and sidestreams. The folly of the industrial producers is pretending that bigger must be better; the folly of the grassroots is that we aren't big enough to hurt anybody, or the bigger lie, that we're only hurting ourselves if we screw up.

1 comment:

James said...

I can't wait until AZ Biodiesel opens and we have a commercial source of bio from recycled waste oil. To me that would be ideal. Obviously there isn't enough waste oil to even power a small fraction of diesels out there, but it's a step in the right direction. It'll be exciting to see what advancements can be made to make the bio industry sustainable and cleaner then the fossil fuel industry. All the recent news about biofuels being worse then fossil fuels is discouraging, but hopefully this will lead to better things in the future. Best to realize this when the industry is relatively small.