BD agrees- EISA targets were realistic, but timelines were crazy

DuPont's Nevada IA plant.  This project is under construction and scheduled to reach mechanical completion at the end of the year; it was not one of the original 2007 DoE-supported projects.

DuPont’s 30 MGY Nevada, IA plant is scheduled to reach mechanical completion by the end of the year; it was not one of the original 2007 DoE-supported projects.

In the wake of one commercial-scale facility (POET-DSM Project Liberty) having come on line, and just days before the grand opening of the next one (Abengoa’s Hugoton facility) Biofuels Digest has posted the first part of a two-part review of the nascent industry:

My hobby horse lately has been that we’re finally seeing the exponential growth of cellulosic biofuel production capacity called for in the 2007 EISA legislation, only 5ish years behind the initial schedule.  Having tens of millions of gallons per year worth of production capacity being put in the ground is a HUGE policy achievement considering where the industry was just a few years ago, but the downside inherent in the math of the exponential growth called for in EISA is that we’ll still be playing catch-up to those original targets for the foreseeable future.  The BD review is also pretty harsh on the structure and initial targets of EISA, pointing out that:

  • The way the cellulosic ‘mandate’ was written – a highly-ambitious target timeline with a mechanism for annual re-adjustment based on projected industry capacity – was a perfect recipe for obstructionism from the policy’s opponents
  • The original cellulosic roll out timeline assumed that all planned projects would be financed fully and technologically successful, and did not recognize the time required to go from groundbreaking to mechanical completion to commissioning to full production -

The absence of a proven demonstration at scale of the technologies would prove to be, in some cases — fatal to projects which proceeding to jump to scale prematurely — and a delaying factor in financing for the rest.

- Biofuels Digest editors

Despite these challenges, and despite the intervening 2009 financial crisis, the article points out that 3 of the 6 original biorefinery projects supported by DoE in 2007 have actually been constructed (Abengoa/Hugoton KS, INEOS/Vero Beach FL, and POET/Emmetsburg IA), though often with changes in facility size, location, and ownership along the way.  In addition, the industry has produced another commercial-scale facility in the US beyond the original DoE program, as well as others in Canada, Italy, and Brazil.  So while EISA’s flaws have given the industry’s detractors ammunition for years to come, it has in fact succeeded in the goal of propelling the step up from pilot-scale projects to commercial-scale facilities.

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3.5 M new cellulosic RINs in August?!? Or did EPA just sink the 2nd-gen biofuel market?

"I'm happy to be making a contribution to US bioenergy goals."

“I’m happy to be making a contribution to US bioenergy goals.”

What drove the registration of 3.5 million new cellulosic RINs in August, after less than 5,000 the month before??  Looks like EPA recently changed the rules in a huge way:

Now, bio-methane produced from all sorts of sources (wastewater treatment plants, landfill gas, anaerobic digestion of animal waste, etc.) is eligible for cellulosic RINs if bottled up and used as compressed natural gas (CNG) in vehicles that can use that fuel, which in the US is mostly buses, fleet vehicles, and the occasional odd CNG Civic from California.  The credits apparently still stand if the methane is used to generate electricity to power electric cars.

While the move probably takes some of the political pressure off the Renewable Fuel Standard in the short term and improves the economic viability of bio-methane projects in the face of the fracking boom, I’m worried that it might pull the rug out from under the nascent cellulosic ethanol industry at a critical time.  If the cellulosic RIN market gets flooded with cheap gas, it seems like the incentive to invest in cellulosic biofuels, the original goal of the EISA legislation, evaporates overnight.

On the plus side, in addition to this huge influx of biogas-derived RINs, the latest EPA numbers show that the production of actual cellulosic biofuels has re-bounded from its summer lull, with ~77,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol and drop-in fuels produced in August.  I’ve updated the Cellulosic RINs page to differentiate between biogas RINs and biofuel RINs, and will keep doing so as long as detailed data is available.

In related news, now that Italy has apparently already beaten the US to commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production with their Beta Renewable’s Crescentino facility, is GranBio’s Bioflex 1 plant in Brazil poised to do the same?  These folks are apparently licensing Beta’s pretreatment technology (which according to their website is accomplished through a high-temperatures and pressures, without acid) to process sugarcane straw and baggasse into ethanol and electricity at 21 MGY scale – very similar to the Italian plant, and the Poet/Dupont/Abengoa trio in the US.

It’s a very exciting time to be studying bioenergy…

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faulty cement well casings cause of fracking related contamination

A new study finds that the well casing – the cement that seals the drill holes – to be the cause of fracking related water contamination.  It has been a little unclear if the well casings were the cause of the issues, or whether the fracking fluids were leaking through layers of earth to contaminate water.  This is good news for increased use of fracking techniques, because if wells are sealed with more care, it could prevent most contamination issues.  It remains to be seen whether this should be accomplished via stricter regulations, or if industry can do a better job on their own – since they probably realize they have a big public relations problem.

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New cellulosic RINs – torch passing from KiOR to POET?

Anyone keeping an eye on our Cellulosic RIN Volumes page will have noticed that it hasn’t been updated in a while.  That’s not just laziness on our part- the glimmers of US cellulosic biofuel production that emerged this past winter tanked in the spring, and for three months in a row there was little or no generation of new cellulosic RINs.  From what I can tell, most of the initial production last winter was coming from the KiOR facility in Mississippi, and that company’s subsequent financial issues seem to have taken them out of the picture for now. 


However, there was finally some additional cellulosic RIN (~4000 gal worth) generation in July.  I can’t help but wonder if that has something to do with this announcement:

The Emmetsburg, IA facility is the first of a group of three biorefineries in the 20 MGY range expected to come on line this year or early next, as described here previously, and the fact that royalty came out for the plant dedication underscores what a big deal this is.  Different from KiOR, all three of these new facilities are based on biochemical conversion (pretreatment of lignocellulosic biomass to make the cellulose more accessible, followed by saccharification and fermentation to alcohol), and all use corn stover or other agricultural residues as feedstocks, rather than dedicated bioenergy crops or woody biomass.  This is the first time this technology has been deployed at this scale in the US (and I think only the second time ever, after a similar facility in Italy last year), and the logistics are challenging- the facility has been stockpiling biomass for several years, and now has enough for ~5 months operation stored up.  An additional general overview of the Project Liberty technology and facility is available here:  Poet-DSM Project Liberty marks an energy milestone.

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Climate change from an investor’s perspective

Useful angle to think about climate change from an investor’s perspective. Investors are always balancing risk and maybe this is a great way to think about climate change.

As this article demonstrates, when you look at global temperature means as you would look at the stock market, you can see the overall trends are obvious, despite short term fluctuations. So now that any doubts about the reality of climate change have been dispelled, as an investor, how would you manage and minimize risks from climate change?

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Energy planning needs to include the “human component”

Nice post on the importance of the social aspect of energy use – hopefully not behind a paywall?

Reminds me of my very first post on this site, just over 3 years ago!

Posted in energy, policy, research, sociology | 1 Comment

Does an interdisciplinary focus distort a journal’s IF?

An interesting read about the trajectory of the impact factor (IF) of PLoS ONE:

There has been a lot of criticism towards the over-reliance on IF as a quantitative metric for researcher evaluation purposes.  This article touches on a related point that I hadn’t heard before –  to the extent that the distribution of journal impact factors is not uniform across disciplines (some subjects like molecular biology tend to have journals with high IF, while other subjects like crop science tend to have much lower average journal IF), the resulting impact factor of an interdisciplinary journal is potentially distorted, becoming more representative of the range of subjects covered rather than the actual quality of the articles within each of those subjects.  This is a potential boon for researchers in low-IF fields: the publication of collaborative work in a broadly-scoped journal might land you a higher-than-average IF to show off on your CV. 


Network analysis diagram showing average impact factors and citation trends across journals from different academic disciplines, from Althouse et al. 2009

For an in-depth analysis of what drives IF trends, check out

Althouse BM, West JD, Bergstrom CT, Bergstrom T (2009) Differences in impact factor across fields and over time. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 60, 27–34.

Those authors conclude that the IF metric becomes inflated over time as the number of citations included in the average journal article grows, and that much of the discrepancy between fields can be attributed to the rate at which researchers publish in indexed journals as opposed to non-indexed journals or alternate venues such as working papers, conference proceedings, books, etc.

To the extent that many young researchers will one day be evaluated based on their citation rates and the IF of the journals in which they publish, it behooves us to better understand the IF ranking system, flaws and all.  

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