Friday, February 29, 2008

CTO Forum on Green Technology

I had a chance to attend the CTO Forum on Green Technology yesterday, a 150-attendee event hosted by Intel Corp. There was an impressive array of participants: the CEO and CTO of Intel, senior VPs from Dell, Sun, Cisco, Cadence, Fujitsu; a member of the California Energy Commission, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley Labs and other institutions, one of Al Gore's Nobel Prize co-laureates. Some quick, non-comprehensive, biofuels-related observations:

o Stephen Schneider from IPCC, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, is a former biofuels enthusiast now turned skeptic (judging only from comments he made as an aside during his very compelling global warming talk). He seemed to not be groking the "not all biofuels are created equal" point that Eric makes in this post. I worry that this is a sign that local biofuels proponents have a significant uphill battle to distinguish our vision from the "big agriculture" model.

o Bernardo Lopez, head of BMW Research, gave an interesting presentation in a "clean transportation" breakout session that I participated in. The good news was that BMW had some incredibly cool diesel hybrids on the way -- I got very excited about the idea of a hybrid running biodiesel. The bad news was that BMW is much more focused on what, in my view, is a pie-in-the-sky hydrogen vision for alternative fuel, and seems skeptical about and at best only mildly supportive of biofuels. I had a good discussion with Bernardo and his colleagues, though, and I hope to have more dialogue with them about this.

o Generally the folks at the conference with whom I had a chance to discuss the DBI project were quite supportive and interested. I noted that the overall level of knowledge about biofuels was fairly low, however, even among this 'green tech'-savvy crowd.

o One of the giveaways at the forum was a book by Pernick and Wilder called The Clean Tech Revolution. It has a good chapter on biofuels. The chapter notes several "breakthrough opportunities," one of which is "go local":

A number of biofuel pioneers are taking a contrarian approach to the way we process fossil fuels. Rather than ship raw feedstock thousands of miles to refineries, and then ship processed fuels hundreds or thousands of miles to end users, why not make the entire process more local? In this new energy model, you grow your crops regionally and process or refine the oil or feedstock near the point of use. ... [W]e do believe there are opportunities for farmers, local agriculture groups, universities, lawyers, policy makers and of course entrepreneurs to play a role in helping to establish regional production of biofuels. It's happening in places as diverse as Seattle and Pune, India--and will become a growing movement in years to come.

Radio interview with Dan Rees, AZ Biodiesel

Dan Rees, President of AZ Biodiesel was interviewed by KFNN 1610 AM on Tuesday; listen here. We're big AZ Biodiesel fans, as they embody the local biofuels model that we champion.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Biofuels are the problem... NOT!

Wow! It's getting hot and heavy out there, and I'm not talking about global warming:

It seems like a lot of the criticism above is based on the assumption that food crops on newly cleared virgin lands are required to create biofuel. But what we are trying to do in the Valley, at least initially, is turn waste into fuel. As Brad pointed out in his post about DBI versions: "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 vision".

The environmental analyses that contend biofuels are actually more harmful to the environment than petroleum products start with the assumption that corn, soy and sugarcane are the feedstocks for biofuels. True, but incomplete. And by leaving out the compelling benefits of non-food feedstocks leaves the impression that biofuels themselves are bad.

"Studies Call Biofuels a Greenhouse Threat". Wow! There's a headline that gets some attention! But is that an accurate statement? The article reports the "destruction of natural ecosystems" to "support biofuel development". Okay, but where does WVO-based biodiesel fit into that picture? What about jatropha (a perennial non-food shrub) planted in the desert? What about algae? What about cellulosic ethanol? What about land fill waste? The problem is not so much with the facts, but with the way they are being reported. By painting all biofuels with the same broad brushstrokes, we stand to lose a lot of help from local folks who otherwise would have been enthusiastic supporters.

When we started this project one of our operating principles was that we would put stuff out as we went along, knowing that much of it would seem naive to more experienced participants. I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunities to post updates and corrections as we go along. But it's amazing to see that we've learned enough in just a few months to find major flaws in internationally reported news stories.

The most balanced headline of the bunch: Some Biofuels Are Worse Environmentally Than Fossil Fuels. Agreed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pending biofuels legislation

This topic deserves (and will get) some deeper analysis, but here's a quick summary of the biofuels-related bills that are pending in the Arizona legislature this session:

1. HB 2766, the "Omnibus Energy Act of 2008," which (among many other things) calls for a B2 biodiesel mandate after regional production in AZ, NV, CA, UT, and NM reaches 5 million gallons per year of biodiesel, then steps the mandate up to B5 after 15 million gallons regional production is reached.

2. HB 2620, the "Biofuels Conversion Program," which "establishes the Arizona Biofuels Conversion Program in the Department of Commerce (DOC) to encourage the use of biofuel."

3. HB 2621, "Biofuel Standards," which "establishes standards for biofuel relating to labeling, product transfer documents, registration and reporting requirements."

4. HB 2363, called "Weights and Measures; Biofuels Rules," which we have discussed before, and which may have been subsumed by HB 2621 (they cover similar ground).

Big hat tip to Jim Lombard of Roadrunner Biodiesel and the AZ Biodiesel Board for his work in tracking these bills.

Who's who post #11: Sam West

We are thrilled to announce that Sam West, currently in his final year of law school at ASU, will be joining the Desert Biofuels Initiative team during at least the Spring semester, working on a project to assess the federal, state and local legal and regulatory environment for biodiesel producers and distributors. Sam brings a wealth of experience and education to the table with him: he has a civil and environmental engineering degree, an MBA, energy-related experience as a Naval officer, restaurant industry engineering experience, and his legal background. Sam can be contacted at

Sam comes to us via ASU's Technology Ventures Clinic. Our deep thanks to Eric Menkhus and team for their support.

Who's who post #10: Francine Hardaway

Francine Hardaway lives in Phoenix and is a board member of the American Biofuels Council, which describes its mission as "to conduct research, development, education and promote the accelerated use of sustainable biofuels and, to advise decision makers on how these goals are best accomplished." Francine is a principal at Stealthmode Partners, and is well-known and highly-regarded in the Phoenix-area business, technical and political communities. She has been a good friend to the Desert Biofuels Initiative. Francine writes an entertaining blog, online here.

Who's who post #9: Arizona Alternative Fuels Alliance

The Arizona Alternative Fuels Alliance is a 501(c)(3) with a mission of educating the public on alternative fuels, accepting and distributing charity to like-minded organizations, and to support legislation that is favorable to alternative fuels. To date, their efforts have largely focused on creating the infrastructure that will support their mission (corporate entity formation, etc.) and on compiling a useful set of online resources, including various alternative fuel locator tools. Key principals with AzAFA are James Towner (left) and Drew Bierlien (right) [I'm beginning to make an effort to collect photos of our "who's who" entrants.]

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.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Who's who post #8: Arizona Biodiesel

While individual producers and co-ops play a role in the "local biofuels" vision, to have a significant environmental and economic impact local commercial producers are absolutely critical. Dan Rees and the team at Arizona Biodiesel (formerly known as Arizona Performance Biodiesel) are leading the charge on the commercial side. They have a sophisticated operation in Chandler that is on the cusp of producing saleable fuel, and have a goal of shipping a million gallons of WVO-derived biodiesel this year. As pioneers in this space they've worked through difficult regulatory, technical and business challenges, and we're hopeful that they can get over some final hurdles and get fuel shipping this month (it remains unclear whether they or Amereco will be the first commercial biodiesel producer in the Valley to ship fuel).

Also, AZ Biodiesel is supporting an initiative called Arizona Green Dining that, among other things, showcases restaurants that are dedicating their WVO for conversion to biodiesel and encourages consumers to support those restaurants. Please check out the Arizona Green Dining website, let others know about it, and support restuarants that are supporting the local biofuels vision in the Valley.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Got back home yesterday from a great coffee meeting with Brad, Dave, Gene, Jay, Mike, and Stuart Shellenberger of Fusion Biodiesel ("Who's who" post coming soon!) at Unlimited Coffee in north Phoenix to find this in my local-b100-biz folder:

EPA Enforcement Action to Protect Streams in Missouri

Release date: 01/28/2008

Contact Information: Kris Lancaster, (913) 551-7557,

Environmental News


(Kansas City, Kan., Jan. 28, 2008) - EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the Missouri Department of Conservation conducted a joint investigation of an illegal discharge of pollutants in Hermondale, Mo., leading to criminal charges against James Raulerson and James Raulerson Farms for violating the Clean Water Act.

The investigation began October 2007, when an anonymous call was received by the Missouri Department of Conservation stating that a tanker truck was observed backed up and discharging its contents into Belle Fountain Ditch in Hermondale, Mo. Upon arrival, state and federal emergency responders found that an undetermined amount of decomposing glycerin that was generated from Natural Biodiesel Plant LLC was released into the Belle Fountain Ditch. Approximately 100,000 fish and other aquatic life were killed.

A federal indictment, filed January 9, 2008, alleges that James Raulerson and James Raulerson Farms knowingly discharged or caused to be discharged pollutants, namely glycerin, methanol and oil into the Belle Fountain Ditch, a water of the United States.

EPA Region 7 Administrator John B. Askew said, "EPA supports the growth of the renewable fuels industry, however, workers need to be environmentally responsible. EPA will take whatever steps are needed to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act."

EPA hopes these actions will result in greater compliance and improved water quality by sending a clear message about the importance of protecting our nation's waters. The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.!OpenDocument

It should be evident from all our postings that this type of behavior is clearly NOT part of our vision for biofuels in the Valley, or anywhere else. It does, however, bring up rather dramatically that environmental compliance issues could be a potential deal-breaker for any producer -- homebrewer, coop, or commercial -- that is unwilling or unable to deal with ALL the products that come from a biofuels plant.

Having a way to responsibly deal with safety and sidestream issues is critically important if biofuels are to make any significant impact here in the Valley. We hope that the connections we're making, with backyarders, coops, commercial producers, educational institutions, legislators, will enable us to act as a trusted third-party to help facilitate common-sense solutions to the very real issues that surround biofuel production and distribution.