Monday, July 18, 2005

Bio Future or Boondoggle?

There is unlimited energy bombarding earth from the Sun. It's just a matter of how we capture it and put it to use - hydroelectric from water running down; growing wood; solarvoltaic are available immediately. Coal, oil and natural gas take longer. We won't run out of energy until the Sun burns out in about 9 billion years. But we have to find new ways of converting that energy so we can use it. Seattle Biodiesel is a leader at making diesel fuel from plant oils, the Seattle Times reports. They sell to several wholesalers and the retailer Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks in Ballard (Seattle). SB produces 4,000 gallons per day and sells out every day.
Customers find it very "self-empowering" to reduce the impact on global warming and that "they don't have to support foreign oil," Freeman said. He claimed Seattle has more biodiesel customers per capita than any other city in the United States.
And the new owner software entrepreneur Martin Tobias says he is an addict.
"We have to deal with corrupt and horrible countries because of this heroin dependency on fuel that we have," he said. "Here we are a drug addict."
Does it make economic sense? It takes 7.3 pounds of soy beans to make one gallon of biodiesel. The soy costs 20 cents per pound, which makes it $1.46 of soy for one gallon. Diesel is now selling for $2.59. The costs of production and distribution make it unprofitable with the current economics. There is a federal subsidy as well. Tobias intends to bring costs down by scaling up.
"You can't do it on an economic basis without a government subsidy," said Bruce Finlayson, a chemical-engineering professor at the University of Washington. "That needs to be there if we're going to have biodiesel."
As well as reducing production costs Tobais hope to develop better plants - the ones that grow - that produce more oil for a better price. I hope he will succeed. Without the subsidies.


Shane said...

Hi Ron-

It may take $1.46 in soybeans to make a gallon of oil, but soybeans are only ~20% oil, and the other 80% is soy meal, which is used as a protein booster/feed. Soy is a popular crop because it's so high in protein, not because it's a great source of oil. I'm suspicious that the current high-protein diet trend will turn out to be a fad, but human consumption of soymeal (in protein powder and power bars) only accounts for a few percent of use. It's primarily a valuable feed for livestock and trades for ~10 cents per pound. Doesn't this make production costs for biodiesel more reasonable?

Many crops include oil, protein, and carbohydrate components. Alcohol production uses carbs, biodiesel production uses oil, and the leftovers are mostly protein. Theoretically (I have no idea if this is being done now or not), soy could be used for all 3, though I haven't specifically heard of any instances of soy-based alcohol production.

As you mention, other crops also have promise, like rapeseed (aka canola). Canola has a higher oil content than soy, is easier to grow in the Northwest, and, as with soy, the "leftovers" are a high-protein meal.

Ron said...


Yes. The byproducts make it more economically feasible. I want biodiesel to succeed. But to succeed on its own - including through the hard work and ingenuity of Tobias and others - but to succeed on its own. Not the artificial success of getting favor with the politicians.

OK. Tax incentives can help good programs get started. But just to get started, then stop them.

And let's look for other ways of making the Sun's energy accessible.