Archive | May, 2008

Parting the Tide of Oil

31 May

Waiting for the Sunset, which can break down the cellulosic bonds in switchgrass and wood, might just be a wedge that exploits , in Daniel Yergin’s terms, caused by the continuing rise in petroleum prices.

Current chemical solvents generate waste and can take 48 hours to separate the cellulose. Unlike ionic liquids, they cannot be reused, so refineries must continually repurchase them. They also result in ethanol containing water that must be removed, according to Matthias Maase, manager of business development at BASF. The new method works faster, doesn’t generate toxic waste and produces a purer ethanol with less water, he said.

"What we have observed about ionic liquids is that they grab the water and release the ethanol, which results in a purer ethanol, an estimated 20 percent gain in purity," Maase said. He estimated that if a biofuel refinery produces 10,000 gallons of ethanol a day they could increase capacity to 12,500 gallons with this new technology.

But not everyone believes that ionic liquids will be the answer to most ethanol producers needs. At the moment, they are more expensive to purchase than the chemicals already used to dissolve cellulose, and they cannot replace other costly chemicals needed in the biofuel refining process.

As the price of petroleum rises, though, the incentive to overcome the "roadblocks" in the development process, as Geoffrey Styles points out.

The commentary by Mr. Yergin, the Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates articulated a shift that has become increasingly apparent to careful observers of the industry. His conclusion that oil will "share the transport market with other sources as never before" is almost certainly correct, even if oil prices were to revert to $60 per barrel next week. There is an important corollary to Mr. Yergin’s analysis that he didn’t explore in his FT op-ed: At the same time that gasoline and diesel will have to share the market with other fuels, the primary sources of transportation energy will also become much more diverse, as well. That has important implications for both national energy policy and corporate strategies.

Consider the supply chain for petroleum products. Oil is extracted from underground reservoirs and transported to refineries that separate it into its familiar product categories, while transforming low value portions of the barrel into high-quality fuels and removing sulfur and other impurities along the way. A modern refinery is a complex, expensive set of hardware, but its functions would still be recognizable to an oilman from the 1930s. Even ethanol has retained this model, with corn going in one end of an ethanol plant and ethanol and its byproducts coming out the other end. The new transportation energy market that Mr. Yergin hints at will shatter this model. Oil and its products–and corn and its fuel products–will play an important role for decades to come, but they will compete with synthetic diesel and jet fuel from natural gas, coal and biomass; biodiesel, ethanol and other alcohols from a wide variety of feedstocks and technologies; and electricity and hydrogen from a multitude of conventional and renewable sources, both centralized and distributed.

This new model will break three effective monopolies: of spark-ignition and compression-ignition internal combustion engines, of gasoline and diesel fuel as the dominant energy carriers for delivering transportation energy–and note that ethanol has so far only piggy-backed on gasoline’s monopoly, rather than breaking it–and of petroleum as the source of primary energy for most forms of transportation. While the market shares of all three of these monopolies are in the high 90%’s today, the signposts of change are all around us. Biotechnology promises to break down the cellulosic material that gives plants their rigid structure and turn it into ethanol and other fuels, but it could eventually give us plants that excrete market-ready fuels. Better batteries will give consumers the choice between plugging in and filling up, but they could also facilitate the much wider adoption of renewable electricity from intermittent sources such as wind and solar power. And fuel cells running on hydrogen might yet provide a practical and more efficient way to turn chemical energy into useful work onboard the vehicle, powering electric motors that will become increasingly ubiquitous on all ground vehicles.

A decade ago, this scenario was just that, one possible future outcome of a number of competing trends and uncertainties. Now, thanks to the combination of concerns about climate change and energy security, and the practical problems of $130 oil, some version of it seems more plausible than the unchallenged continuation of those three "natural monopolies" for another generation.

Somehow, in all the doom and gloom, and amid the realism, I would prefer this tempered skepticism and hope to an apocalyptic Mad Max scenario.

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Every Indian Vote Is a Good Vote

29 May

It’s the level of engagement from Obama – a senator from a state with no federally recognized tribes, a city guy with a limited legislative record on Native issues – that has surprised some in the community. On this in Native American history, the spectacle of Senator Barack Obama standing and has a poignant ring.

The rarely-publicized meetings are one piece of what Indian Country leaders describe as an unprecedented effort this year by the presidential field to pay heed to this small and historically overlooked voting bloc. In the last two weeks alone, Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned on Indian reservations across South Dakota and Montana as Sen. John McCain met with tribal leaders in New Mexico.

Comprising less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and concentrated mostly outside key primary states in past election years, Native Americans are seeing an uptick in prominence because of political and geographic realities.

The prolonged primary season has pushed the contest into states with larger Native communities—states that typically voted too late to attract much attention from presidential candidates. With the emergence of the Mountain West as the newest general election battleground, the Native vote is more highly sought-after than ever since it has proven to be mobilized and instrumental in recent statewide races.

And, what will Native Americans get for voting for Senator Obama?

He hosted a conference call with 100 tribal leaders, where he pledged adequate funding in his administration for healthcare, education and other programs. “Honoring sovereignty means maintaining an open door relationship. I want all of your tribes to have a voice in developing my policies,” Obama said, according to the Seminole Tribune.

He released a platform that went a step further than Clinton by promising to appoint an American Indian policy advisor to his senior White House staff.

What about some of that casino money in Obama’s clean campaign coffers?

Democracy Promotion Redux

29 May

CFR‘s William Mensch Evans is , only this time "better".

Instead of focusing on top-down advocacy through pressure on repressive governments, we must work within societies that lack democratic traditions. From the bottom up, we can help create the conditions for a societal agreement.

The next administration’s democracy promotion strategy should reflect this in four ways:

First, it must publicly repudiate Iraq as the model for promoting liberal democracy, which cannot develop in the inevitable chaos that follows military intervention.

Second, Washington has to strengthen its capacity to build a basic democratic framework in places that lack it through global educational initiatives that like checks and balances and protection of minority rights. Building democracy where it does not yet exist requires an understanding of what the system is and how it works.

Third, we must learn to recognize when societies are ripe for change but are held back by authoritarian governments. As the world’s superpower, the US has a responsibility to use non-military influence to ease such governments aside.

Finally, we must understand that, given the choice, not all societies interpret democracy as we do in the West. For example, as John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed note in "Who Speaks for Islam?" liberal democrats in the Muslim world do not "require a separation of church and state."

Benjamin Barber argued that "Democrats need to seek out indigenous democratic impulses."

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