A Conversation with Vinod Khosla

Introduction and Background

In my recent essay Vinod Khosla Debunked, I challenged Mr. Khosla to a written debate on his recent ethanol claims. Mr. Khosla e-mailed me shortly after that essay appeared, and offered to discuss the matter by phone. I wanted to first make sure he understood my objections, so we exchanged several e-mails in which I spelled them out.

Finally, he called and we spent about an hour and a half on the phone. There was very little small talk - no chit chat, jokes, or laughter (sorry Don). We got right down to business. I took a lot of notes, and I will try to reproduce the conversation. He encouraged me to report on what we talked about, and even offered to assist me in reproducing the details. He told me some things in confidence, and I think I have my notes flagged in each case so I don't reveal something he doesn't want revealed. I will attempt to report this as objectively as I can, and I will send him the link so he can let me know if I got any of the details wrong.

At my disposal, I had his presentation Biofuels: Think Outside the Barrel (10 meg PPT warning), a marked up version of his paper Is Ethanol Controversial?, and a list of talking points I had prepared so I wouldn't forget to cover any major areas. Here are the talking points I had prepared beforehand. These were merely to help my thought process as we talked, and I didn't necessarily cover them in this order.

1. Motivation?
  • Is your top priority making money?
  • Or helping society?

2. Energy balance for ethanol not better than gasoline
  • Think of energy consumed versus energy returned
  • Petroleum input is not consumed
  • Corn inputs are not counted
  • Comparing refinery efficiency versus an energy ratio

3. If the solution fails, what is the cost?
  • The white paper asked, but never answered this question
  • Wasted time and resources - Peak Oil looms
  • Public loss of credibility
  • Public disillusionment with alternative fuels
  • Lost opportunity - public was not encouraged to conserve
  • Status quo 10 years from now

4. Cost of ethanol versus gasoline
  • If ethanol is cheaper, why has rack price been higher for 25 years?
  • If ethanol is cheaper, margins are better, and so it should be able to grow quickly without legislation
  • Why do you accuse oil companies of gouging when ethanol has better margins?

5. Environmental issues with ethanol
  • Topsoil depletion; ramping up corn ethanol encourages this
  • Aquifer depletion
  • Corn growing pushed to marginal lands
  • Herbicide and pesticide runoff; ramping up ethanol will make this worse
  • How is this different than pollution caused by gasoline?

6. Over-promising technology
  • Nitrogen fixation - Holy Grail of crop science, but very complex problem
  • Cellulosic economics, yields, etc.
  • Can't bank on these breakthroughs; but should fund research

7. Subsidies
  • If ethanol is so cheap to make, it doesn't need subsidies
  • Many so-called oil subsidies don't benefit the oil companies at all; they benefit consumers

8. Food versus fuel
  • This is already driving up grain prices
  • Grain stocks being drawn down to record low levels
  • Exports will be reduced to produce ethanol

9. Potentially better solutions
  • Carbon tax
  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Biodiesel (esp. algal)
  • Butanol
  • Biomass to electricity
  • Storage system technologies allowing renewable electricity
  • Electric cars (Tesla Roadster as example of feasibility?)
  • Electric rail (Alan's proposal)
  • General move to electric transportation
  • Emphasize TOD thread

I didn't expect to be able to go through the entire list, as that would have taken quite a while. But surprisingly, I did get through most of the list. I mentioned TOD several times, and I called his attention to the Vinod Khosla - Give Him Your Ideas thread. I told him he would find a lot of ideas for addressing our energy problems, from people who have put a lot of thought into this very issue. I told him some of the ideas were very good. He said that he does not have a large staff, but he would look through the thread (I also e-mailed him the link). He said he is looking for ideas that are pragmatic.

The Conversation

Mr. Khosla dominated the early part of the conversation. He approached it in the style of his presentations, in which he argues that this is the right path to take, and that it is feasible. In the early part of the conversation, he said he does not favor biodiesel. We didn't get into the reasons, but my guess is that he doesn't think it is scalable, nor an ideal solution for the cars Americans are accustomed to driving (this was a consistent theme). We didn't discuss algal biodiesel, but from his tenor I believe he would have said it is worth funding, but still more of a research project compared to the current status of cellulosic ethanol.

The first thing I asked him was about his motivation: Money, helping society, or some combination? He said his primary motivation is to help society. He said he is very concerned about Global Warming, and thinks our dependence on foreign oil is great cause for concern. I told him that we are approaching this problem from different perspectives: I am approaching this from a Peak Oil perspective and that the clock is ticking. I don't believe we can afford to spend time and resources pursuing pie-in-the-sky solutions.

I said that I wanted to address some specific claims from his presentations. I started off on the energy balance of ethanol versus gasoline. We went back and forth on efficiency versus EROI, but he finally preempted my entire argument by saying he doesn't even care if the EROI is less than 1, because corn ethanol is merely priming the pump for cellulosic ethanol or butanol (which he favors). In fact, he acknowledged some of my arguments against corn ethanol, but said that corn ethanol is just a transitory solution. I told him that I disagreed with this; that corn ethanol would be around as long as the subsidies were there.

He went on to say that the ethanol plants he is building (I didn't clarify whether these were Pacific Ethanol's plants) would be similar to the E3 Biofuels closed-loop system. He said the capital costs are 2.5 times as high (because I specifically asked about that) but that the operating costs would be much lower. I told him that I agreed that this should be the model for building grain ethanol plants, but that we would have to see some in operation before we know if they live up to the claims.

I challenged the claim he made that Brazil displaced 40% of their petroleum with ethanol. He said he got that number from another presentation, and would be glad to change it if I can show him the data. He said he wants to be sure he has his facts correct. (I will be sending him the raw numbers on Brazil's energy supply).

I challenged him on the oil company bashing. I said that I work for an oil company, yet I care a great deal about the environment and sustainability. I said that when he bashes oil companies, he is bashing a lot of good people with the same broad brush. He said "On this, we will have to disagree." He went on to defend the bashing by saying it was political. He said he is trying to get the California Clean Alternative Energy Initiative passed, and Big Oil is spending a lot of money to fight him on it. So, he is bashing them in order to get support. Of course, I already knew all of this. I can live with a bashing, as long as it is factual. I told him that it is ludicrous to suggest that Big Oil is gouging when the profit margins on ethanol are even higher. He again said that it was just politics. I just don't agree that stirring up hatred toward a particular group is acceptable politics.

I brought up the "food versus fuel" issue, and he said he rejects that argument. He said that someone from Shell had come out and retracted an argument they made on this topic. I hadn't heard anything about this, and couldn't comment. But I did indicate that as we continue to ramp up corn ethanol, our corn exports will fall and people in 3rd world countries will go hungry. I told him the stories are already appearing in the media. He said that there is plenty of food in the world, and the problem is often ability to pay. I didn't gain any ground at all in this argument.

He said that he has come out against the ethanol subsidies currently in place, and would like to see those subsidies shifted to biomass subsidies. I told him that would be a tough political sell, and he agreed. He said he has spoken out on the tariff that is slapped on Brazilian ethanol. He thinks eliminating this tariff would lower ethanol prices in the U.S. He also said that he has heard that Brazil is considering taking this issue to the WTO.

I spoke of my concern that he is over-promising on cellulosic ethanol. I told him that my fear is that by making these rosy projections, the public will be lulled into complacency, and we don't have time for that. After all, they think we are going to transition right into cellulosic ethanol after hearing his projections. I told him that I don't believe his projections are realistic. He countered that they are realistic, and that he has seen a lot of research behind the scenes that is not yet publicly available. He said he has several cellulosic projects under way, and that he is in the business of making judgment calls. He also said there are about 50 projects (maybe it was proposals?) on cellulosic ethanol that are underway. Several times he compared his investments in cellulosic ethanol to his early investments in the Internet or other technologies that paid off despite the scoffers.

One of his consistent themes was that the solution has to be practical, and it had to fit today's engines or the auto makers wouldn't buy in. I told him that I considered this a problem; that the internal combustion engine was very inefficient. He agreed, but said a transition to electric would take time. He said it starts with hybrids, and then you improve the battery technology until the hybrid becomes more and more electric. He said he is investing in battery technology, and thinks this area has even more potential than ethanol. On this, I certainly agree.

Then we came to a matter of great disagreement. He said he believes cellulosic ethanol can displace petroleum because petroleum is expensive. But he didn't give renewable electricity much chance of displacing coal, because coal is too cheap. He said that solar is 3 times the cost of coal-generated electricity, and that we have "an infinite supply of coal." He said he is more interested in a liquid fuel replacement for petroleum. I, on the other hand, am more interested in moving our means of transport to renewable electric sources.

We discussed a carbon tax, and we were in agreement that this should be implemented. However, he feels like it will never be politically palatable. I just can't understand this, and told him so. I think this could be sold to the public. You explain the reason for the tax: That it is designed to reduce demand and prepare us for a future of declining petroleum supplies. You can avoid it being a regressive tax by lowering tax rates or increasing the deductions for low-income taxpayers. There is a way to work this. He replied that it would break down when everyone tried to get the best deal for their own constituents. I just think this is too important an idea not to aggressively pursue it. A carbon tax would begin paying immediate dividends. I told him that we should have done this long ago, and we should have encouraged adoption of diesels like they did in Europe. He replied "What we should have done, or should do, is less important than what we can do."

Areas of Agreement and Disagreement

We agreed on the following issues:

  1. Current energy policy needs a dramatic facelift
  2. A carbon tax is a good idea
  3. Brazil is much more efficient at making ethanol than the U.S., and the ethanol tariffs should be lifted
  4. Butanol may be a superior choice to ethanol
  5. Grain ethanol subsidies should be eliminated
  6. There is great potential in researching energy storage devices (e.g. batteries)

We disagreed on the following issues:

  1. The issues surrounding corn ethanol aren't significant since it will be a transitory solution
  2. The solution must fit in today's engines
  3. Bashing oil companies is acceptable to achieve a political goal
  4. Renewable electricity can't compete with coal
  5. Cellulosic is scalable within the next 5 years
  6. The consequences of failure to deliver can be very high
  7. Food versus fuel will be a serious issue going forward


I already had a pretty good understanding of where he was coming from, but I have tried to accurately relay his position so that others may understand. This is the least I owe him after he spent that much time talking with me. However, we still have some fundamental areas of disagreement, and my impression is that he is concerned about Peak Oil, but not in the way I am concerned. My worry is that over-promising on cellulosic ethanol will prevent us from getting very serious about taking the steps we need to take as a society toward powering down while we still have some choices. I think we need to fund cellulosic ethanol, but until there are a few pilot plants operating, we just don't know if it will be feasible on a commercial scale.

I did have difficulty convincing him that corn ethanol is a bad thing, because his position is that it is merely a jumping off point to something much bigger. He said he wouldn't be investing in cellulosic if we weren't producing several billion gallons of corn ethanol. He said that corn ethanol is "priming the pump", and has shown the feasibility of ethanol as fuel in the U.S.

I obviously have not captured the entire conversation, so if you have specific questions about a particular topic I will answer them. It was a worthwhile conversation from my point of view, because I think he understands that there are legitimate concerns from people other than special interests. We agreed to keep in touch as developments unfold.

Let's start with a "what if" analysis.
What if the USA goes big in the corn-ethanol direction?
Then we create a whole host of interest groups:
  1. Corn belt farmers
  2. Farm equipment companies that sell to them
  3. Transport industry built around hauling corn
  4. Ethanol plants all around the country
  5. Detroit making flex fuel cars instead of PHEV's
  6. Offshore gas drillers producing methane to make the fertilizer

Once all this gets going, how exactly does it become a "temporary" solution?
Solution, thy name is Path Dependence.
Prof G,

Re your question about growing TOD "better" rather than just bigger, I posted here. The RR versus VK debate is a good test case for seeing what angles of expertise can be brought to bear on the question so it is examined from many angles.

And.... Tainter smiles down on us Chillun of God all!
#5 is the most immediate concern. And for the record, I can report that based on conversations with many people here in the fashion industry, Yellow is not the new Green.
We already have an entrenched interest group with the decades old subsidy of corn and the direct subsidies for ethanol.  It has already become a juggernaut, especially in the corn states, so it may already be pretty hopeless.

But my question is, could these corn ethanol plants be readily converted to produce ethanol form cellulosic material?   Regardless, of course, we don't even know if cellulosic is even feasible on a large scale.  

Khosla's hold card seems to be a bunch of secret projects, which of course we are not privy to.  Sounds like a good strategy if you don't want people to know how fallacious your claims are.  We obviously need more transparency here. Taxpayers in California should be providing money without transparency.

One of the problems with industrial corn farming is its destruction of organic soil matter and top soil. To what extent will cellulosic ethanol become another way to destroy yet more soil and contribute to the release of carbon dioxide from same?  

Khosla argues that ability to pay, not supply is the grain problem. But isn't ability to pay related to supply which impacts prices?   When the prices go up in the supermarket, my ability to pay will obviously be impacted. This ability, or lack thereof, will start amongst the poor and work its way up to the middle classes.  Or does supply and demand somehow not operate here?

As Khosla says, coal will be cheaper than biofuels. So, therefore, isn't there a danger in encouraging the development of PHEV and EVs.  Based upon an analysis that looks at the grams of CO2 emitted per kwhr based upon the natural average mix of fossil fuel energy inputs, it appears that a Prius, for example, would emit less CO2 per mile in electric mode than a conventional Prius getting 50 miles per gallon. The advantage would be much greater in California which has a relatively low mix of coal.  However, if we ramp up coal per the plans of the utilities and the coal companies, we will cross over to the point where a PHEV or EV will not be an improvement over a conventional hybrid.

But my question is, what is Khosla's point here? Is his point that we should subsidize biofuels to prevent the introduction of coal?

Regardless of what path or paths we pursue, we cannot maintain the current average fuel economy and do what we need to do to combat global warming.  Most estimates I have seen say that we need to reduce co2 emissions by 70%. Just focusing on the fuel choice end of the equation will not cut it.

"But my question is, could these corn ethanol plants be readily converted to produce ethanol form cellulosic material?"

It really depends on the cellulosic production path chosen.  That said, it will likely make more sense to expand existing facilities with 2nd generation ethanol production paths or cogenerative technologies that improve overall yields and EROEI from renewable waste feedstocks.

"Khosla's hold card seems to be a bunch of secret projects, which of course we are not privy to."

That's hole cards.  And no, you won't you see either til the river.

"To what extent will cellulosic ethanol become another way to destroy yet more soil and contribute to the release of carbon dioxide from same?"

This is a non-issue if renewable waste feedstocks are used.  DECs -the eventual end game of cellulosic production- do not harm but rather, aid the environment in a multitude of ways.

"Regardless of what path or paths we pursue, we cannot maintain the current average fuel economy and do what we need to do to combat global warming.  Most estimates I have seen say that we need to reduce co2 emissions by 70%. Just focusing on the fuel choice end of the equation will not cut it."

Absolutely.  Conservation is key.  Ethanol is not a silver bullet.

Conservation is one thing that Khosla refuses to talk about.

Anyone who has run the numbers knows, beyond any doubt, that biofuels cannot replace the amount of petroleum we use now - let alone coal and gas.  That road leads to skyrocketing prices and massive bankruptcy.  It's as if they want the American public to go the wrong way until they collapse under debt and expenses.

The super-wealthy might have some scheme to benefit from this (like becoming a de jure as well as de facto ruling oligarchy?), but it scares me silly.

Anybody thinking about ethanol and other biofuels should read "The Old Man and the Oil." These are the experiences of Takeo Kurita, vice admiral of the former Imperial Japanese Navy.
321Energy has a pretty good article today that discusses some of the items you mention.
pretty good article?

There is no disagreement on the issue that the ethanol frenzy will lead to a clean, green alternative to oil and relieve the U.S. from the dependence on OPEC for oil,

It is one thing to argue that ethanol will relieve depenance on OPEC and another to announce there is no disagreemment over this.

About three years ago I had a discussion with a Senior USDA representative after a presentation on Biofuels, including Ethanol. I challenged the assumption that this would help replace fossil fuels due to the obvious EROI problems. He confided to me that they were aware of the problems but were "kick starting" the program on corn while betting on fischer trope solutions in the long term. I was aware of a pilot plant in Mississippi claiming to do about 180 gallons per ton with a gasification to catalytic conversion, so I accepted his claim as probably accurate. Unfortunately I don't think today we are beyond the pilot plant stage. But regardless, it tends to support Khosla's claim for the method in the madness behind  his efforts..
Biofuels can replace a significant amount of fossil fuel usage, however, in terms of cellulosic ethanol production via gasification, there is no one with a commercial scale facility in operation in North America if not the world.

The state of Mississippi though is very much at the forefront of this promising 2nd generation ethanol production process - research is being conducted at both State and Southern.

I wish you had probed him on CTL since this is proven technology and in many areas could be combined with ethanol distillation to lower the overall C02 inputs. I'm just saying that if you want to talk proven technology today that's the way to go.

Also he seems very focused on figuring a way to save the car culture not address the real needs of a post peak world. It's a way to fleece the sheep for a bit longer but not sustainable or really that important.

I'm really becoming convinced that the wealthy people in America are unconsciencly but collectively working on how to ensure that 10% and maybe 20% of the American population can continue to live the good live no matter how bad it gets.
His answers even though he does not realize it just reinforces this view.

I've looked at cellulose its certainly a viable material for small scale steam or electricity production but the cost simply collecting the biomass to move it any large distance prevents its use as fuel. If technology suitable for conversion was available on a per farm basis I'd reverse my position but would you haul a load of empty plastic milk jugs 50 miles  to burn them ? That's basically what your doing hauling biomass any distance. I'm pretty convinced that any replacement for oil has to have very good scaling capabilities so we can achieve a reasonable yield from many small inputs. In fact that why Americans made whisky from there corn on the farm in the first place it was not cost effective to move the corn ! This equation has not changed.

Consider this if every building in America is outfitted with
a small wind turbine I don't think we would have a electric generation problem. Sure there not as efficient as there monster brethren but on the same hand its this type of distributed response that really will solve our problems we are fixated on the "big" factory solution.

I'm working on the solar equivalent of the windmill so that could be added. I hope we get solar energy conversion cheap enough that the motto of the the president that lifts us from the great post oil depression will be a windmill and solar concentrator on every rooftop in America.

"I'm really becoming convinced that the wealthy people in America are unconsciencly but collectively working on how to ensure that 10% and maybe 20% of the American population can continue to live the good live no matter how bad it gets."

Bingo!  Substitute World for america and you have the big picture.  The elite plan for the mid 21st century is for the whole world to look more like Brazil where there are 20 million cars for 190 million people.  (Actually it will be worse than that as the human/auto ratio worldwide is already 10:1, the ratio is going to go up, not down.  The USA ratio will over decades drift down to  the world ratio)  After the ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, and tractors are fueled, what liquid fuel remains will go to the rich/well connected/inner party members.  Is there any other way it could be?  If humans couldn't even share well during the 20th century cheap oil fiesta. there is no way they will be more altruistic on the downslope of Hubbert's peak.

ding ding ding! ding! DING! we have a winner! And some of you might still wonder why I want to "grow up" to be a bum.
 Ya don't need to grow up to be a bum.
Peter Pan Rat

Not that kind of bum...... but in the US one is considered a "bum" if they don't have a car, don't work themselves to death, I define "bum" as doing something like washing windows when money's needed, living in a little place, getting by with little enough income so as to be nontaxable, etc.
You need also to substract the consumption from the army (a big one) and for private jets.

Even if this is the plan A, CTL would be a much better pick for the elites. Especially after you consider the labour required for unit of output for coal vs ethanol. Something tells me that they will try to avoid labor-dependant solutions.

Once you reduce the equation down to massive unemployment and third world style cheap labor, labor is not longer a major problem for this type of solution.
Offshoring killed the labor movement in the U.S.
Once that option is removed, politics will changed quickly, labor unions will be back.  
nothing makes me laugh more than people who say once the pie starts to shrink we're gonna be forced to cooperate. Could you have a more flawed, disconnected from verfiable reality understanding of human nature?
It is correct, a shrinking pie forces cooperation. The intresting question is how large the cooperating to compete with others groups are going to be. I am afraid that the nation state will have a rebirth. My best scenario is a EU wide cooperation with nice but perhaps a little frosty diplomatic relations with USA, Russia, China and so on.
I disagree, a shrinking pie increases competition, competition might increase cooperation if there is a clear benefit to those involved in the cooperating party.  If however, an individual/group/country/alliance finds it more profitable to go it alone they will do so.  In the end the amount of cooperation is directly tied to the amount of benefit for a given size entity.

As for the EU, sorry but I think Europe is screwed.  If energy vs food becomes a concern, Europe's population density will cannibalize itself.  Next to China and India, Europe is the last place I want to be.  

Unfortunately, historically, when scarcity comes into play, humanity has shown to bring out the worst in ourselves more often than the best.

The EU has excess food production capacity. People are paid to dump their excess produce. People are paid not to produce.

The fact that people are more densely packed also means that it will take less energy to carry food and provide services. The fact that there is more rail and other forms of public transport also reduces the transportation problem.

Last but not least, consider France: 76% of their electrical production comes from nuclear, most of the rest from hydro, wind power is still mostly untapped, they are net electricity and food exporters. This is the country from where came the TGV and they have a wide electric railroad network.

If the rest of Europe follows their example, things could end reasonably ok.

The excess food production is the result of Oil and Gas based fertilizers, and pesticides.

Without those products to maintain the conventional farming system, the crop yields of an organic system are anywhere from 23 to 60 percent less over a 30 to 80 year period.  With that kind of attrition, do you think the EU would still have the food production capability to have excesses, or more importently even enough for its own population.  Furthermore those percentages, are generally in reference to grain production.  The attrition gets worse when we consider that food production is even worse for vegatable and fruit production which requires more land usage for fewer pounds of food.  The attrition REALLY begins to shine when you consider how much grain production is consumed to provide feed for beef, chicken or other meat products.

So sure if you think that a complete well rounded diet of grain only will sustain a healthy European populace I might cede to you, that pure grain production with organic production methods could stave off starvation for a time in Europe but I doubt it.  And eventually lack of nutrients from Vegatable, Fruit, and meat products will cause other issues besides famine.

All that nuclear and hydro energy is worth jack if you can't grow the food to move on those nice rail systems you talk about.  And to date, I have not heard of too many alternatives to providing affordable or sustainable sources of fertilizers and pesticides.

Literally, when a car is being driven, or a home is being heated with gas, we driving or heating our future meals away.

And before you think I'm way off base, consider Prof Goose's Energy Crisis Diet

Or even better do a search on Dr Pimentel, or the actual numbers on crop yields of Organic versus non-organic farming, most importantly look at those years over an extended maintained period.

Europe might be leading the way on Energy alternatives, and bravo for them, but they had best be able to secure a source for future fertilizers, and pesticides.

Pesticide feedstock can be secured by market price driven prioritaisation, from remaining oil and gas production or biomass. Nitrogen fertilizer can be manufactured with electricity as the main "raw material". The world is not ending but there is lots that needs to be built and done.
Not meaning to imply the end of the world, however, even with oil and gas prioritization driven by the market the effect on the price of food, and to farmers will hurt.  Cheap oil and gas equated to cheap and plentiful crop yields.

As for Nitrogen extraction via electricity, while viable, is still energy intensive.  If the whole point is to lower our energy consumption then that would fly in the face of that goal.

From what I understand (and I'm not claiming to be an expert) its pretty commonly agreed here and elsewhere that producing the amounts of energy we consume today in a post peak world is going to be a very tough objective to meet barring some pretty innovative technological breakthroughs.

The general method of attack that I've seen espoused here, and on other forums, is two fold, in that we replace as much non-renewable energy with renewable energy as possible (and many seem to think we can't do a 100% replacement) coupled with a conservation effort to reduce the total energy pool needed to operate a high tech society.  If both goals are attacked in tandem, then there is a chance we can maintain a technological society, albeit with a different lifestyle (note I say lifestyle, and not standard of living).

In my opinion the sooner we can ween ourselves off using oil and gas as the common purpose fuel and limit its use to specific enterprises such as cheaply produced fertilizers, pesticides, advanced materials (plastics,lubricants, etc), and advanced fuels for select projects such as space and underwater exploration the better off humanity will be and more importantly the longer the window will be open before an end of oil event.

Ultimately, I'm not a gloom and doomer, in fact I'm very hopeful in many respects.  I personally think this coming century will be a make or break period in human history.  If we can overcome the energy problem, I honestly think our next step will be a massive push for space.  Once we get a move into space we will for all practical purposes in the coming centuries have a limitless supply of quite a few types resources to fund a steadily increasing economic, and human growth trend.

Like my dad has told me since I was old enough to understand some of the advantages of space, "The universe is raining soup out there, we just need to figure out how to build a bowl big enough to go get it".

Some might call me a dreamer, and I would agree they are right, but when you read about things like a planet with rainstorms and lakes of hydrocarbons that once we figure out how to harvest could provide for us for who knows how long, then is it such a bad thing to be dreaming and yet also worried that our current path will preclude that dream?

If we can overcome the energy problem, I honestly think our next step will be a massive push for space.

Ha! Another (potential?) singularitarian here!
However you rightly notice :

producing the amounts of energy we consume today in a post peak world is going to be a very tough objective to meet barring some pretty innovative technological breakthroughs.

Yup, barring "some pretty innovative technological breakthroughs" then WHAT?
May be we should care too for some of the "less favorable" outcomes.

Anyway the casual use of the word "energy" all over these discussions is inappropriate an very misleading because energy cannot be "produced" it is negentropy that we are looking for.
This is not a pedantic minor point, it explains why you can be fooled in believing that :

a planet with rainstorms and lakes of hydrocarbons that once we figure out how to harvest could provide for us...

Because in order to take any advantage of "lakes of hydrocarbons" you have to burn them with oxygen and move the "energy" to the place where you need it (or move the hydrocarbons before the burning).

If those hydrocarbons are located in an "entropy well" with respect to this location of use there is NOTHING you can take advantage of.

Switching back to "lay terms" to explain this, it means that if you have to spend more "energy" to move and/or process the hydrocarbons to the point of use and to supply oxygen (conveniently forgotten because it is "all around in the air"), then you are doomed.
So, may be these "lakes of hydrocarbons" are only a mirage (dunno, I did not make the calculations) as there does not even seem to be any oxygen over there to burn them on site.

This is ABOUT THE SAME with biomass, ethanol, etc... and this is the very topic of all the discussions here.
The fact that some ressource "looks like" an energy source does not mean it is really usable because of too poor EROEI!

consider France: 76% of their electrical production comes from nuclear
Which is unsustainable.

Upon further reflection, you are correct. Take the war in Iraq as an example. The U.S. and U.K. cooperated quite well when it came time to steal Iraq's oil at the point of a gun.

Yes, they are "stealing" it just in a rather sophisticated way. Just google "Iraq" and "production sharing agreements." As Jay predicted in 1997 the money from Iraq's oil is now flowing to the friends of George Bush.

Re. shortage and cooperation.

A better question to think about might be: did social programs grow out of the US Depression experience?

(yes, elites in any system can skim the cream, but take too much and the masses get "active."  You get, for instance, a bonus army camped out in Washington.)

"The U.S. and U.K. cooperated quite well when it came time to steal Iraq's oil at the point of a gun."

This logic is worthy of the Downing Street Memo, as far as fitting inappropriate evidence to the desired ideology.

If you want to look at whether people, PEOPLE, will cooperate or infight during times of privation, than don't use two Imperially minded governments with plenty of assets as your example, even if Stealing MORE assets is their motive.

 You might look at Civil War Reconstruction, at Postwar Germany, The Depression or Dustbowl era reactions of communities, and where they pulled together to make it through, as opposed to where they fought, lynched people, and generally fell apart as communities.  Surely distressed populations will have examples of both sides, but after all these collapses, these societies did pull back together.  I don't believe this happened because of the conveniences of a petroleum or coal energy supply, but because we seem to end up realising every time that we are better able to survive when we keep our groups together and at peace, and to find peace Between neighboring groups.

In fact, I would love to know about how the people are struggling to work together in Iraq now, as many certainly must be doing, while scads of others are joining the ranks of the insurgency-  a fine example of countless people being divided and destroyed as a result of our inputs of vast amounts of misdirected energy..

I do agree with you completely about the 'arrangements' that have been taking place re: Iraq's future oil production.  Nothing like watching our Government set up yet another stick of dynamite to blow up in our faces..

Bob Fiske

We will either cooperate or suffer the consequences. I wouldn't be surprised if large numbers of people form co-ops, or communes in order to survive more comfortably. I have a friend who lives with 5 other couples on some land in Oregon. They all tend a large vegetable garden, have their own water supply, their own dwellings w/solar heated water, etc. They will probably be minimally impacted by peak oil (unless roving hords of starving people over-run their land).
Cooperation is why we are in this situation. More cooperation = more babies.
My fiance and I are moving to an Ecovillage of 30 families in western NY. There's no point in waiting for things to get hard before making the decision to work together. Might as well do it now so you're experienced in shared responsibility while no one is hungry
Amen.  When the pie isn't getting bigger, the only
way to get a bigger piece is to get a piece of
someone else's.  And I think I agree with AMPOD,
people will always try to get a bigger piece of
the pie.
I think it's all too easy to make these simplistic judgments about what will happen -- cooperation/conflict, nature/nurture, good/evil, blah, blah, blah. It's pretty obvious that humans and their societies are complex and not one-dimensional. Yes, under certain circumstances, they will tear each other apart. Under other circumstances, they will help each other. Living, as I do, in Vermont, on a smaller and more human scale, I find people are more inclined to lend a hand when it's needed. Then again, it all depends on just how desperate things are or at least how desperate people feel. In larger groups where people don't know each other, they are generally inclined to be more callous. There are plenty of other such factors determining these sorts of outcomes as well. So, while it can seem cool to be flip about it, I think it's just naive.
what liquid fuel remains will go to the rich/well connected/inner party members
I read this kind of prediction a lot but I can't help wondering how it could possibly come about. Who is going to produce and dispense all of these oil products to the fabulously wealthy? Maybe only the fabulously wealthy, themselves, will be employed in the oil industry, including the dispensing of gasoline.
Bad assumption - Xethanol is in fact planning on building efficient small-scale cellulosic ethanol plants right next door to the sources of waste in a community (typically wood industry sites like sawmills).

These people believe there is no particular reason why the ethanol plants have to be massive industrial sites like todays oil refineries.

Bad assumption - Xethanol is in fact planning on building efficient small-scale cellulosic ethanol plants right next door to the sources of waste in a community (typically wood industry sites like sawmills).

I think this is the idea first application of cellulosic ethanol. You need to have local biomass, and waste biomass would be ideal. I think it still comes down to enzyme costs, because I think capital costs for a Syntec-type process are going to be prohibitive.

They could carbonize the byproducts instead, and ferment the off-gas using something like BRI Energy's Clostridium process.  That would yield a storable solid fuel (charcoal) plus liquid fuel.

The benefit being that charcoal can be converted to electricity in DCFC's at 80% efficiency, compared to ethanol in cars at 15%.

Re: "I've looked at cellulose its certainly a viable material for small scale steam or electricity production but the cost simply collecting the biomass to move it any large distance prevents its use as fuel..."

I will posting on this shortly. If the real costs of using coal were imposed (eg. through a pricing mechanism like a carbon tax), large-scale electricity from cellulosic sources would become cost-effective in a hurry. Localized electricity generation would be part of the equation. Needless to say, the supply chain problem for cellulosic ethanol to make liquid transportation fuels would probably be worse cost-wise. But I hope this comes up again when I publish.

Thanks for this comment. I will have to insert some text to address it.

If the biomass is unthinned wood that has a high potential for fire, especially on our western US federal or state lands, then a state/fed subsidy could be justified economically.  We need a way of incorporating the economic potential for loss to wild fires in the value to have small operators remove thinnings and produce either cellulosic ethanol or electricity or other energy products.  If forests are lost to wildfire they put all their Carbon into the atmosphere anyway, so harvesting them under well understood forest management regimes could be very useful.
Memmel, I think you made a very important pair of points that are deeply related. Deep-pocket investors seem to favor the big-plant solutions so that they can "fleece the sheep" a little bit longer. After TSHTF, the richest 10% are going to regard the rest of America the same way America as a whole now regards Africa... It's just human nature. And anyone who cares to look can see it happening already. So yes, grain exports will be cut to favor fuels, and eventually grain for fuel will compete economically with grain for food. Which is bad news for people who don't have enough money to both drive and eat (meaning everyone except Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Ken Lay if he is not really dead, and of course all their party puppets, servants and security forces). After the sheep have no wool left, you know what happens next. On the other hand, this may be our last opportunity to really push for a solution that looks more like a national village and less like Pol Pot's Cambodia. I followed a link from this board to EnergyAmerica, and this group seems to have an impressive grassroots plan to achieve the "Wind Turbines and PV Arrays On Every Rooftop" vision over the longer term. The problem is going to be grabbing our federal representatives by the shoulders, getting their faces out of the feed trough, and pointing their noses at the future.

I don't think the American public will willfully power down.
I think in a lot of ways that's why a depression is in the offing. Again not because of any deep conspiracy but because we won't change and the people with money are now focusing on taking care of themselves consolidating there financial wealth into real assets farmland for example. A depression is what needs to happen to cause America to split int a wealthy class the few with jobs. I would not be surprised to see this be almost exactly the amount of consumers we need to match the oil/bio abilities available. The deeper you look into the American economy today the more you question the financial policies of the last several years its obviously a house of cards timed to collapse within the next two years or basically when commodities shoot through the roof lead by oil prices. Why were insane housing markets allowed and encouraged along with loans that would have been criminal before ? A lot of things point towards a lot of people maneuvering for a position in a quite different America devoid of a middle class. And agian I'm not saying there is a conspiracy but my experience with wealthy people is except for a few exceptional people they are almost clones of each other in there outlooks and thoughts. The herd mentality is powerful at the top.

I don't see any real investment in infrastructure  happening to ensure a middle class albeit with a adjusted or sane standard of living. It may actually be too late now costs may have already spiraled out of control it would be interesting to see how many construction projects are experiencing massive cost overruns now. I now suspect its to late for electrification.

The masses want there cars and looks like they will be living in them soon.

The following quote expresses the widely held belief that this energy thing is merely a cabal of the rich, that having large sums of money will somehow insulate themselves from the new circumstances presented by petrocollapse:

"I'm really becoming convinced that the wealthy people in America are unconsciencly but collectively working on how to ensure that 10% and maybe 20% of the American population can continue to live the good live no matter how bad it gets."  

This is NOT what is going to happen.  Rich people merely "own" these energy resources. (I dismiss the entire "High Tech" economy as nonsense; where do we go after being able to download your favorite rock star as your ringtone?; Google is a file cabinet for chrissake!)  For some reason they have been allowed to claim ownership of the ancient solar energy that manifests itself as fossil fuels. The plutocracy in which we now live derives all of its power from control of energy resources.  (I'll stay away from the Cheney/Bush junta.  One needs only to observe the southwest Asia energy wars to be certain of this.)  They have NO idea how any of it really works.  They are forced to hire the people who actually build, operate and maintain the sources of their power.  And the people they are forced to hire are beginning to question why this system even exists. This is their achilles heel.

All of this will change suddenly when people begin to fully understand that money and energy are the same thing.  The American public is woefully ignorant about energy in general.  We live in a society where a gallon of Mountain Dew (until recently, at least) cost as much as a gallon of gasoline.  When one considers the "work" that these two equal volumes of liquid can do it is no wonder that our society is headed for such big trouble.  

Peak Oil is the ultimate feild leveller.  The skills necessary to confront the reality of PO have largely disappeared from our vernacular - sustainable farming, mechanical skills (and I'm not talking about decorating) like carpentry, electrical, sewing, weaving, canning.  The affluent have amassed their "wealth" through financial shenanigans.  Many people who have been able to enjoy the good life afforded by cheap and abundant energy supplies - bankers, lawyers, accountants, economists or anybody employed above county government (the list could go on for a while considering that 80% of the jobs in this country will disappear after petrocollapse)will find themselves in very difficult and, likely, insoluble situations  

Those of us who understand all of the nuances of sustainable energy technologies will be able to produce impressive quantities of liquid renewable fuel - the only interest I have in celulosic ethanol is as the alcohol used in the production of biodiesel - but only in the context of a truly sustainable society/economy.  Achieving sustainablity will happen in one of two ways: through cooperation or necessity.  I'm going with the latter.  

Which reminds me of the "Rules of Three", from the excellent CSI:  you can be without air for three mintues; without water for three days; without food for three weeks.  You do the math.  Personally, I'm ready for six months.


For some reason they have been allowed to claim ownership of the ancient solar energy that manifests itself as fossil fuels.

Well said.
You forgot to add:
For some reason they have been allowed to claim they "produce" the stuff when in fact they merely mine it.

When was the last time a gold miner called himself a "producer"? (--except of course for those guys in Hollywood who are mining for the next Oscar-winning flick. they are producers.)

Hello RR,

Big thxs to both you and Vinod for the willingness to make this a public conversation.  Glad to read that Vinod is Peakoil aware and has a social conscience.

Your Vinod quote: "He said he is trying to get the California Clean Alternative Energy Initiative passed, and Big Oil is spending a lot of money to fight him on it.

This is where a lot of political ground can be reclaimed--if Vinod and his supporters, the NOCs, and car companies can work cooperatively to come up with a single best plan instead of financing competing adversarial campaigns for the un-informed political hearts and minds of the voters.

Yes, the consequences of failure to deliver can be very high: these corporate and govt leaders would willingly build consensus if they truly realized how dire it will become postPeak.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hi Bob, Robert, et al..

  I agree with RR that it's not really helpful to Demonize the Oil Co's, but it's also fairly understandable that it's happening, too.  I do have to remind myself that these businesses are full of regular people, some on this side of the issue, like RR, and all of them 'Love their Children, too'.. to paraphrase Sting.  I am extremely frustrated with this powerful industry, especially when I hear that Exxon has 'Manipulated the Evidence against GW', etc, and holds such imbalanced sway at high levels in Washington..

  There is some positive movement in Maine that has cooperation growing between Lumber Companies and Environmental groups, where both have an interest in combating sprawl into our woodlands, in keeping as much contiguous forest intact as possible.  Hancock lumber, for one, has worked to improve the harvesting process to make a more sustainably-kept forest, and keeps the lands in trust, I believe, with the Eco-groups.

  I wonder what it would take to develop a more positive relationship between OilCo's and Social/Environmental Orgs. It might be much easier with Lumber, which is obviously dependent on a healthy Biosphere, Topsoil, WaterSupply to maintain their lumber supply.  Oil is hardly seen as a part of 'Nature', although it is just another naturally-occuring part of the world..

Haven't found the right links to this story, but these are related..

http://www.boston.com/news/local/maine/articles/2006/07/05/hancock_lumber_earns_stewardship_certific ation_for_lumber_yard/

Cooperation takes root in Australian forest

Bob Fiske

The problem is that Vinod, ADM, etc. can probably co-opt the movement and prevent it from successfully promoting measures for anything BUT ethanol.
First of all thank you Robert for your efforts.

This guy is either highly ignorant on energy or just lying brazenly. He doesn't seem to understand what EROEI is and what it means. He doesn't seem to understand depletion, with those comments about coal.

He said that there is plenty of food in the world, and the problem is often ability to pay.

Ridiculous. He doesn't understand much about economy either.

Robert I'd just like to ask what your feeling was. Is he just ignorant or has he some hidden agenda? Is he just pretending he's ignorant in order to put forward these bogus ideas?

My reaction to the "plenty of food" comment is "WHAT?"  

I guess that's one interpretation of less than a 60 day global stockpile of essential grains (according to the USDA statistics).  

Just imagine what those stockpiles would be if people could afford to pay and we were facing competing uses between corn for feed and corn for food.  It might bring a whole new relationship to "just in time" inventory control.  

Yep. When I can burn an entire year's supply of food with just one tankful of ethanol, an extremely unpleasant future awaits.....
If your tank takes 20 gallons (76 liters), it would require 1 ton of sugar cane or 100kgs of sugar to fill it with ethanol from sugar cane. This can be produced on 1/65th of a hectare in one year.

No one can live for a year on 100 kgs of sugar. The world is producing an awful lot of sugar and other non-essential agricultural products.

This planet can produce a lot biofuel without anyone starving by replacing non-productive agricultural uses. If I had the figures, I would counter your example above by saying how many poor people can't get to work every time some one eats a steak, drinks a coke, smokes a cigarette, drinks a beer... you get the point.


He doesn't seem to understand what EROEI is

Oh, I think he does - just prefers to see it as a short term inconvenience.

He said that there is plenty of food in the world, and the problem is often ability to pay.

I tend to agree with this; the starving Irish peasants couldn't afford the produce that was being exported to England... no lack of food.

RR: great work - thank you!

Where does that inability to pay comes from?

If there was "ability to pay", would there be food to sell?

Basic economics man: short supply, prices up, demand setting back.

Hi Lads, I am trying to get inside your head and figure out how you think.

Where does that inability to pay comes from?
Do you mean they are poor? They are lazy? They are expendable pawns in a heartless capitalist system? What do you mean?

If there was "ability to pay", would there be food to sell?
I think so, don't you? If those living on $1 or $2 a day suddenly had $10 a day, don't you think we'd find a way of selling food to them? Even if we had to be less obese and eat less meat?

Basic economics man: short supply, prices up, demand setting back.
I agree: it's a bidding war. And if you're really poor, you starve.

Where does that inability to pay comes from?

The answer to that is pretty obvious, they don't have money - they're poor. This happens in countries without natural resources or with inefficient political/social institutions.

If those living on $1 or $2 a day suddenly had $10 a day, don't you think we'd find a way of selling food to them? Even if we had to be less obese and eat less meat?

Obviously not. You are making the assumption that higher income boosts food production - that's the same as saying that higher oil prices will push peak oil away.

I think you are looking at this from the wrong point of view. If there's a constraint in supply, higher prices will not increase production, they'll happen in order to restrain demand accordingly.

Another thing you have to realize is that if someone gets higher income, someone else will get a lower income. Only economic growth allows for higher incomes without rebalancing. And as you know energy accounts for the bigger part of economic growth.

Does it make sense or not?

Only economic growth allows for higher incomes without rebalancing

I assume you mean here that any idea of income redistribution is a bad thing? I may be misreading you, however.

You are making the assumption that higher income boosts food production

I don't think so. I'm assuming a starving person with $10 a day will pay more for food than if they have $2 a day. And that the markets would respond to that demand, again allocating resources to the highest bidder (not necessarily by increasing globally available resources). If the rich can outbid the poor, then we need to make the poor richer. Or they starve.

That is why I believe promoting economic development is more important than promoting economic growth. More of the economic development should follow the micro-enterprise model of assisting the poor. "
Take care of the people and the dollars will take care of themselves."
E. F. Schumacher
This is a well known assertion in the realm of economics. Basically rich areas of the world like Europe/America over-produce - the "cheese mountains" of Europe are well known. This is made worse by the European farm subsidy program.

However these are not sold/given to 3rd world countries for various reasons. For instance they may not want it (undercuts local producers) or there may be restrictions on dumping via the WTO - or it may simply not be profitable to send the food out there. EG when you see starving children on the TV who wants to bet they're in the middle of a war zone ... it's usually not profitable to go in and set up supermarkets while there are armed militias running around.

Whether this belief is still true after several years of poor harvests I don't know. But that's where Vinod has got the idea from. It's hardly a new one.

Hi Mike, I think those days of farmers earthing their crops are quite gone now.

You touch the inn of the question when you say they don't have anything we need - and that's mainly energy!

By the way Chinese folk earn something like 15€/month and still they are the biggest importers of meat and grain. The difference from there to poor African countries is that they're trading food for clothes, toys, and everything else they mass produce.

Oh the other issue is often these starving people are in countries with worthless currencies. So they have no ability to pay for another reason - they have nothing we want.
Hi Robert,

Congratulations on your efforts to communicate so effectively on these complicated issues.

I like to come back on the political issues as I sense some frustration with that and I think these issues are very important:

  1. At TOD we all see serious issues going forward and we like to shout it from the rooftops and we are mad that others don't see the error of their ways.

  2. Politics however is a game of chess where positions are build up and you patiently try to move forward step by step until your opinion is shared with a majority. Off course this can go faster if the right sense of urgency is created, but then also the results need to come urgently.

It is clear from Vinod's comments that he understands how to play the politics game (e.g. you bash oil companies because it builds sympathy, you don't reference European style taxes because people think they are backward) and at TOD we also would have to learn it if our goal is to make a real difference or be a grassroots collective. However our goal can also be to be to just raise awareness and to function as a real good resource for suggesting, reviewing and disseminating idea's with the immense collective knowledge and drive that we share.

Measuring your results from either of these perspectives I think you have done excellent job and I applaud you for that. I hope Vinod will start to use TOD as a resource/reference.

My efforts in New Orleans may, or may not, play out elsewhere.

I have market tested the phrase, "I believe that we have seen just the first winds of the coming oil price storm" and gotten quite good results (SWAG 70% agreement, 5% disagreement, 25% "not sure").

Regardless, we want more streetcars in New Orleans !

Than you RR for fighting the good fight.
I am not fond of E3 biofuels use of methane from fermented manure to fire boilers to get distillation heat. Such methane is fairly easy to purifie to an exellent wehicle fuel. It would be better to use some low quality biomass, solar heating or even coal to not waste such good wehicle fuel.

There are a few thousand wehicles, most of them high milage such as busses and taxis running on such methane in Sweden. The technical risk is now very small.

The distribution system and wehicles are exactly the same as when you use natural gas as fuel. It would also be a good idea to insulate houses, add heat recovering ventilation equipment such as heat exchangers or heat pumps, install ground source heat pumps and wood pellet burners and use the saved natural gas as wehicle fuel. You can then get additional electricity fron building new nuclear powerplants, wind powerplants or even coal powerplants since this should be more effecient then coal-to-liquids.

And if you build small and medium sized condencing powerplants add district heating systems and condence the steam at a higher temperature while getting more use out of the fuel.

You guys mentioned butanol as a fuel.
Is this from fermentation or some wizzo chemical plant synthesis? If it's not simple to make, then why not just use propane which stores as liquid [so capacity is OK] and is off the shelf ready?
RR has actually discussed butanol previously. Apparently some microbes can be persuaded to make it instead of ethanol, so there are biological sources. It is easier to separate from a mix than ethanol, and is pretty much a drop-in replacement for gasoline.

Propane, OTOH, is just another petrochemical product. Its price and availability will fluctuate with NG and oil. Not that propane isn't a nice fuel (Henry Hill likes it), it's just that we're looking toward biologically generated fuels for a time when there is no more petroleum.

Our host for this thread has apparently done a bit of research on it.

You guys mentioned butanol as a fuel.
Is this from fermentation or some wizzo chemical plant synthesis?

The butanol claims are hard to sort out. Of course butanol is a common industrial chemical. I have described its manufacture here:


The current rash of interest, however, is over the bio-butanol process that I also describe in the above entry. I think it is too early to tell whether the claims will pan out, but the fact that major companies are investing is promising.

My understanding is that bio-fuels were first proposed by the environmental lobby as a means of moderating fossil CO2 emissions.  They are now being proposed as a wholesale alternative to petroleum - post peak.

I have just read Lovelock's new book "The revenge of Gaia".  Lovelock is clear in his analysis that replacement of the "forest belt" with mono-cultural agri-business represents as big a threat to our climate as does the burning of fossil fuels.  If Lovelock and other climate scientists are correct, then growing alcohol of any sort as fuel is destined to fail medium term as the agricultural lands will be transformed into deserts.

In terms of the balance between food and fuel it seems to be a simple calculation.  In the past, North America has produced vast food surpluses and has been pleased to sell these surpluses to the developing world.  Now that a home-based strategic use may be found for these surpluses, rather than feeding the world, the US and Canada will be more concerned about feeding a 50 mile commute and preserving what must be viewed as a totally idiotic life style.

Production of bio-fuels must be measured in terms of EROEI, soil impact and climate impact.  From what I understand they do not have a viable large-scale future.

Finally, bp is running network TV adverts promoting bio-fuels in the UK.  I am keen to learn whether this represents a genuine effort to get beyond petroleum or is simply deceptive, headline grabbing, green propaganda.

Finally, bp is running network TV adverts promoting bio-fuels in the UK.  I am keen to learn whether this represents a genuine effort to get beyond petroleum or is simply deceptive, headline grabbing, green propaganda.

The big oil companies are all re-positioning themselves right now. Shell is also running TV adverts in the UK which talk in general terms about "creating great fuels" and conspicuously don't mention oil or petroleum. It's hard to tell whether they're about repositioning or just increasing brand awareness, but they're quite pretty adverts really.

Robert - "He said that solar is 3 times the cost of coal-generated electricity, and that we have "an infinite supply of coal.""

Did you point him to that excellent lecture on basic mathematics you had recently?

After watching this how could anyone possibly think that anything is infinite.

BTW that was one of the best things ever posted here.  Talk about making sense.

The chances of Khosla thinking "coal is infinite" is zero, that's far more likely to be a turn of phrase meaning "plentiful enough that we don't have to worry about it right now".

 "plentiful enough that we don't have to worry about it right now".

It's exactly that type of thinking that got us to this point now...

It's all about population!

Well, if Mr. Khosla is serious about global-warming he should be perhaps promoting electric traction instead. Electric drive is 2:1 more efficient (well-to-wheel) and at least 3:1 less polluting than ICE (internal combustion engine) based platform. This efficiency can be further boosted by ultra light yet safe car platform such as the german Loremo or VW 1l car where you are consuming in the former case only 70Wh/100km which is roughly 300mpg.
Such a low consumption is also possible to be recharged by affordable home appliance renewables be it small solar, wind, hydro, biomass.

Also, the beauty of electric drive is that you don't need expensive infrustructure since the best model is to recharge over night to utilize the off peak grid power on higher efficiency level. The range of contemporary battery technology in the consumer market (EV bellow 20k EUR) is cca 100-200km with battery operational cost around 0.04EUR/km incl. charging. The overall cost of operation&ownership is also lower or competetive with ICEs.

The technical aspects of electric propulsion are ready at least since mid 90s. You basically take a platform "glider" and install already perfected/manuf. electric propulsion components such as low/high voltage inverters, battery management system and battery pack, electric motor etc.

The only brake or make issue is price and comfort. From the PO perspective the price of gasoline/diesel will only rise. The comfort issue is mostly psychological one namely that you have "limited range" if you don't opportunity/fast charge during the day. Most of the commuters don't need more than 50-100mile daily..

Warning: this is very much disruptive technology since the traditional automanuf. can't make this turnaround without writing off giant sunken cost in their obsolete ICE based manuf. infrustructure. The japanese approach is to make a gradual transition via hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Both European and US auto industry are not and will be not be part of this model at least in the midterm. For instance by 2010 Toyota will produce 1.000.000 hybrids and VW no more than 10.000 copies yearly.

Efficiencywise the most sense makes only electric assisted bicycle which with modern battery technology can serve most of the year.

Also, don't forget the public transportation be it rail, light rail, trolley bus etc.

"This efficiency can be further boosted by ultra light yet safe car platform such as the german Loremo or VW 1l car where you are consuming in the former case only 70Wh/100km which is roughly 300mpg."

The Prius, which gets about 50mpg, if conveted to a PHEV, would get approximately 3.84 miles per kw in electric mode.  Feel free to challenge my figures, but I don't see how one could scale from that to what is effectively 885 miles per kw.  

Since you imply that the reference vehicle is 6 times as efficient as the Prius (300mpg/50mpg), that would further imply that it gets 23.04 miles(6*3.84) per kw.  What am I missing here?

If what you say is true, the implications for carbon reduction would be truly astounding.


Somebody must have dropped a zero (or two) somewhere.  Assuming the 100km takes an hour to use the 70WH, that's 70W, or about 1/10 of one HP.  The Loremo is claimed to use a 20-HP diesel engine and consume about 1.5 liters of fuel per 100km.  That is wonderful for a car, but very far from that 70WH claim.

Even my electrically-assisted bicycle does not get 100km for 70WH in direct electricity.  Not even close.  And that's not even counting the embedded energy in the $200 NiMH battery pack, nor in my sandwich.

?Yes, it was a typo easily seen from the other data..
It's obivously 70Wh/km:

The european combined driving cycle for Loremo is cca 5.5kWh/100km on the wheels at 90@km/h. This value will be due to efficiency losses in the electric drive train somewhere around 6.5-7kWh/100km in plug to wheel calculation.

Loremo has got cx=.2 and weight 450kg, low roll resistance tires. Another platform like any other ultra light and aerodynamic car such as kitcars might be close to this performance.

For comparison small (eurosized) car ICE to EV converison such as based on PSA (Peugot/Citroen) has plug to wheel efficiency around 170-200Wh/km.

Warning: this is very much disruptive technology since the traditional automanuf. can't make this turnaround without writing off giant sunken cost in their obsolete ICE based manuf. infrustructure.

Yeah, I told him that I thought a transition to electric transport made a lot of sense, but he said it isn't practical in the short term. One reason he said was expected resistance from auto makers.

Our 5th column.
Well, as explained the point is that you don't need traditional auto makers! The EV needs a platform "glider" which could be developed by a small team outside the big boys, think Loremo in Bavaria, Germany. And the electric drive components are from independent manufs too..

Perhaps this could be another thread, but why don't you think that methanol (George Olah's choice) is the best direction?

Check out my link to the Syntec process a few posts down. Once you have gone to the trouble of making syngas, I have no idea why you would want to make ethanol out of it. There are a lot better choices. Frankly, if I had a biomass to syngas process, I would turn that syngas into diesel via Fischer-Tropsch. But methanol isn't a bad choice either. Very good yields from making ethanol.
I've commented on this earlier but the main issues are:

Methanol pollutes the ground water whereas ethanol does not.

Methanol usage is not mandated like ethanol is and cellulosic ethanol has its own special section in the RFS.

The market price of a gallon of methanol currently sits about 3x less than a gallon of ethanol.

Your suggestion re: a FT production path is a very good one currently being considered at our lab.


Quotes from George Olah's book regarding methanol safety:

In the environment, methanol is readily degraded by photooxidation and biodegradation processes, under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, in fresh and salt water, groundwater, sediments and soils with no evidence of bioaccumulation. Methanol is of low toxicity to aquatic and terrestrial organisms. In fact, methanol is used for the denitrification of wastewater in sewage treatment plants. Methanol is this process accelerates the conversion of nitrates to harmless nitrogen gas. Currently, more than 100 wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. use methanol.

The accidental release of methanol into the environment...would cause much less damage than a corresponding crude oil or gasoline spill. A large accidental methanol spill into surface water would have some immediate impact on the ecosystem in close proximity to the spill. However, since the methanol is totally miscible with water it would rapily be diluted (10,000 tonnes in the open sea to 0.36% within one hour).

Methanol usage is not mandated like ethanol is and cellulosic ethanol has its own special section in the RFS.

Huh? Nuclear fusion isnt mandated either, but if it could be developed safely and scaled, it certainly would be. Mandate should be irrelevant except for those interested in transferring taxpayer money to their own coffers.

I think people confuse methanol with MTBE.  MTBE pollutes ground water, makes it taste bad, takes years to degrade, and may help transport gasoline carcinogens.  Methanol occurs naturally, doesn't taste bad, biodegrades in a couple weeks, and could replace gasoline. For humans, methanol is more toxic than ethanol, but I am sure many times more people are killed by ethanol than methanol.

The political lobby for ethanol is certainly powerful. I can't help but reflect on the most powerful mandate regarding ethanol, the 18th amendment, and how successful that was ;-)

So it seems we are subsidizing an expensive fuel instead of a cheaper one.  Well, it's only the tax payers money anyway...

I am not a chemist, but since methanol is a lighter molecule than ethanol, isn't it alot easier to synthesize from the synthesis gas?

Methanol usage is not mandated like ethanol is and cellulosic ethanol has its own special section in the RFS.

I think that really says it all. If methanol got the same subsidies/mandates, I think people would be all over it.

Your suggestion re: a FT production path is a very good one currently being considered at our lab.

Personally, I think that makes the most sense. I have a bit of experience with this, as I ran a GTL lab for a couple of years.

If you work for Syntec, I would like to ask you some questions. I presume you have some patents out there where this information is available. If you can't reveal some information, I understand.

  1. It appears to me that this is purely a chemical process (i.e., no microorganisms or biology). Is that correct?

  2. Have you experimented with methanol? My guess is that the yields are going to be much better.

  3. Does the biomass give you the correct H2/CO ratio, or do you have to adjust the ratio?

  4. Do you have to scrub the syngas before using it?

  5. Do you yield primarily ethanol, or do you get a lot of methanol, propanol, butanol, acetaldehyde, etc?

  6. Have you done estimates on capital costs of a plant?

Thanks in advance. I am merely curious about the process, and again understand if you can't answer some of those questions.
1 - Purely thermo-chemical.  Apparently bioreactor is used somewhere on our website.. will have to change that.

2/5 - The catalst produces ethanol, methanol and higher order alcohols.  The selectivity is enhanced for ethanol but we're not quite there yet.

3 -  It depends on the gasifier/feedstock process to a certain degree, however, the catalyst is designed to work with a varitey of H2/CO ratios.

4 - Yes.

6 - Yes.  

Bio-methanol production is a complimentary first step for us but as I've pointed out above, the market value of ethanol is greater than methanol by a margin of almost 3 to 1.

Very good yields from making ethanol.

Typo. Should have read "from making methanol".

Great job. I've been hearing more stories on the news about drought that is raising concerns about crops, including corn. If the corn harvest this year is especially low, some of the wind may come out of the the ethanol sails. Less corn means higher price, and a realization that although it's renewable, the supply isn't constant or guaranteed.
Help!  I eagerly awaited RR's report, only to find yet again that when I hit  "there's More", there wasn't.  Damn! Please tell me what to do.  I am looking at this thing on a power book G4, and it has worked fine before and I have not had one of my sons by recently to torque things around as is their wont.
Scroll up ;) You probably clicked on the comments part by accident which skips the remainder of the story. It's definitely there.
Doesn't work.  I tried everything.  I'm goin' out and eat worms.

Hey Vinod!   Want to make a couple more billions?  I've got an automatic bike transmission that really works.  Will work the fat off a hundred million obese americans in no time. Give 'em the bike free and charge only for the diet pill equivalents of their weight loss.  Or how about a tractor that works on any old biomass trash.  Why bother to turn it into ethanol?  Waste of brains and dollars.  Or even simpler, just take all the gas and oil used to heat bldgs and transfer it to cars, and heat the bldgs with wood pellets and better insulation.  And cool the bldgs in the summer with water from and back to big holes in the ground. Here at 40 north that water is 8C . Chilly! Why pay for AC? And don't forget to blow up the entire economic structure and replace it with motivations to do what we need and not do what we don't need and what ruins the world for us in the future.

You are getting all these  great ideas almost free! I will only ask for one cent on the first chess board square, two in the next, 4 on the next and so on.  Chicken feed!

That sounds like a weird problem. If you still can't see it, I have also hosted in on my blog:

A Conversation with Vinod Khosla

Thanks for all this good work, Robert. I found the rest of your interview on energybulletin.  Your fame has spread!
Less corn means higher price, and a realization that although it's renewable, the supply isn't constant or guaranteed.

The news is already reporting that because of drought andhigh energy prices that FOOD COSTS are going up and will soon impact everyone at the grocery stores..

We are living in interesting times..

some of the wind may come out of the ethanol sails

Report from corn country today:  It's 102 degrees, the wind is 23 mph, the sun is shining, the corn is drying up, water resources are being depleted trying to keep it alive, rainfall is five inches below normal so far this year, and the farmers are facing serious economic issues because of the price of fuel in addition to the drought.  Even the irrigators don't want to pay for the diesel to run their pumps.

If all of the resources being spent on ethanol could be used on wind generation, we'd be far ahead of where we are today.  It's free, clean, renewable, and nonpolluting.

One more reason that I can think of that I don't think has been mentioned concerning "why ethanol is wrong" is (and it sort of fits into the category of lost time) is this:  I feel one of our top priorities this country is faced with concerning PO is the need to restructure our farms.  Ethanol has taken us only farther down the road to nonpracticality, nonsustainability, corporate sized megafarms, and megasized farm equipment, and loss of ability to actually feed ourselves.

... the wind is 23 mph....
Hint, hint....
Just saying "cellulosic ethanol" is the answer ignores that the real issue is what type of feedstocks he thinks will work. If corn is just priming the pump, what will eventually fill it and why hasn't it already. When he actually gets farmers to start planting crop X for fuel instead of corn, I'll get more interested.
Excellent post RR.
It is disappointing to hear his comment about "infinite coal" and bashing of renewables. I'm no engineer, just a "lower-than-dirt programmer" (as someone else said), but I think that GW is the bigger problem and our only real hope of addressing it effectively is though a combination of renewable generation, storage technologies and major reduction of consumption. At least he is considering funding storage technologies, but that's one out of three. Or maybe its .75 out of three as there are other storage methods than batteries.....
Heh, well consider that corn ethanol is in theory a renewable closed loop system .... it only becomes non-renewable when you take into account the rest of our infrastructure which is of course based on non-renewables. But that isn't necessarily a flaw of corn ethanol per se, pretty much any alternative right now will not be entirely renewable for the same reasons.

I didn't read his answers as bashing renewables anyway. More a realisation that the technology just isn't there yet for us all to cruise around in electric cars powered by solar panels. Maybe with time, yes, but didn't Hirsch claim it'd take 20 years or more to replace the US vehicle fleet; and that's with a crash program! So there needs to be some reasonably drop-in solution for the interim period.

Corn ethanol is not a reasonable drop in solution.  Unless you force people to use it, they will forego it when they figure out its per mile costs.
Tn Granny
Can you breakdown TVA's power generation as a percentage of their total production for me?
Nuclear 20%
Hydro 20%
Fossil Fuels 59%
Solar 1%
Is that about right?
That is the breakdown as it was at the time I retired. However now(2005) since they have restarted BF1 it is more like
Nuclear 28%
Hydro   10% (multiple year drought)
Fossil Fuel 62%
Wind, solar,other renewables. < 1% (72.7 million kilowatt-hours out of 170 billion kilowatt-hours total)
The heat wave and drought are both serious considerations as not only nuclear plants are affected but fossil plants also. Out largest fossil plant, Paradise, is on a relatively small river and has a cooling tower just like the nukes. All power plants have heat discharge problems during times of high temperatures and reduced water flow.
TNGranny- Thank you very much for the info.
Thanks, RR.
I realize this is a little late for your purposes, but here goes:

Ethanol: Is it Viable
by Salman Anwar


Ethanol appears to be the new and exciting source of renewable energy, drawing considerable investor interest, as reflected by recent equity IPO's such as VeraSun Energy and Pacific Ethanol.

The use of ethanol is also politically expedient, as it is perceived to be an alternative to Middle Eastern oil.

Ethanol also benefits from growing concerns over the long-term supply of oil.

In the U.S., ethanol's environment-friendly role is growing due to legislation mandating a phasing out of other fuel sources with the toxic Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), in favor of ethanol.

Yet, there remains big questions about the projected long-term viability of ethanol as the major oil replacement fuel stock.


Many experts question the benefits of ethanol in the U.S. While ethanol is being produced domestically, the plants that produce ethanol require oil as the fuel, leaving its net contribution to reducing the use of oil questionable. According to the research of David Pimental, a top agricultural expert from Cornell University, it has been calculated that powering the average U.S. automobile for one year on ethanol (blended with gasoline) derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland, the same space needed to grow a year's supply of food for seven people. Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion into ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make one gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTUS. Thus, 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in it. Every time you make one gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs". Consequently, there is a loss of energy for ethanol as an alternative fuel source. Moreover, that does not include the trucks and the tankers involved with transport, which require oil as well. Despite the structural challenges facing ethanol, there remains a certain momentum to push this fuel as the alternative fuel to oil.


I am going to be buried at work today, but let me just jump in here and comment. Is he ignorant? No. I think he is incredibly optimistic, and needs to proceed with a much greater deal of caution. But he is a venture capitalist, and has made his way by taking risks. However, I don't think he appreciates the danger to all of society by getting behind a solution that is so incredibly risky. Should we fund it? Absolutely. Should we tell society that cellulosic is going to make us energy independent? Only at the risk of having them believe our energy crisis is not very serious.

One thing he mentioned as some of the breakthroughs in cellulosic ethanol is the new Syntec process, discussed recently at Green Car Congress:

Syntec Biomass to Ethanol Process

This has also been mentioned a couple of times here. I will let you all give a guess as to what the issues will be surrounding that process. I will give you a hint. It is a BTL process. Why don't we have a number of BTL processes in existance today?

Off to work. I will check in at some point today, but won't have time for in-depth comments until much later.

Will "cellulosic" ethanol work?

We've been getting ethanol from all sorts of sources (including wood, "wood alcohol") for more than a hundred years. Of course ethanol can be obtained from switchgrass--that is not the issue. The issue is that some foresee much reduced costs from present levels while others, including RR, are skeptical that cost reduction will be major or quick.

My own position is in between. There is such a thing as the fallacy of excess skepticism. On the other hand, excess optimism is probably a good thing in an entrepreneur or venture capitalist, because if one fully weighed all risks, one would probably not even get out of bed in the morning. (This is known as "major depression.")

Thus perhaps we can best look at VK as a manic crap-shooter. These types of people have been the ones successfully to implement new technologies throughout history, the Wright brothers, not to mention Edison, Henry Ford, etc., etc.

Of course, he may be wrong. Indeed, looking strictly at the odds, he probably is (to some degree) wrong.

I would not bet against cellulisic ethanol as being our major liquid fuel of the future--and near future of twenty to fifty years, at that.

Wrights and Edison knew they were entering in an undiscovered and undeveloped field. They knew that if successful, the ratio of gains vs initial investments will be in the millions. For me this is a pretty justified risk.

What we have here is a suggestion to invest huge resources in a thing which may or may not work, and we can't even estimate what are the odds for it by now. Moreover, there are some facts of physics and biology indicating that PHEVs and BEVs for example are a much more perspective alternative to go for. IMO if we want to have whatever chance of success we should be allocating our portfolio according to the risks and the potential of each of the technologies we choose to invest.


But rationality does not rule investment decisions (contrary to what is written in most textbooks). As John Maynard Keynes stated, it is "animal spirits" that rule investment.

And note that Henry Ford was vilified and thought to be certifiably insane for paying his workers $5 per day instead of the $1 per day that had been standard for decades. BTW, Ford was a great ethanol booster, and Model Ts were "flex-fuel" vehicles that ran just as well on home-brewed ethanol as they did on gasoline. Ford was much concerned with the independence of farmers, and in addition to everything else was a huge booster of soybeans. Ford pushed soybean technology to the limits of 1930s chemistry, and made, for example, car upholstery from soy.

Ideas such as, "If I pay my workers enough to buy my product, then my market will be greatly expanded," are simple but brilliant. Also, Ford figured out that he could make more profit by lowering his prices on the Model T year after year after year--all the while improving the quality of his product gradually.

Ford had some not-so-good ideas too, as shown in his "Dearborn Independent" newspaper, but one thing that is shown by Wright brothers, Ford, etc. is that formal education and pure rationality have little to do with major breakthroughs.

BTW, the "smart money" said the atomic bomb could not work. Fortunately, much of this "smart money" was in Nazi Germany, where (contrary to the revisionist histories of some) the main reason there were almost no resources put into developing an atomic bomb is that it was based on "Jewish physics" and hence untouchable. Ironically, Goebbels kept hinting that Germany had or was about to develop a super weapon that had characteristics of the atomic bomb, and that claim had the Brits and Americans sweating bullets for years--but it was just one more Big lie.

Another important obstacle to the development of the atomic bomb in Germany was an erroneous measurement of the neutron cross-section of carbon (graphite) by a German scientist. Based on that false information, the Germans put a great deal of effort into acquiring heavy water as a moderator because they thought that graphite wouldn't work. Had they known the truth, it would have greatly aided their efforts in building a reactor (to study the nuclear fission process). However, I'm not aware of the "smart money" in Germany (or anywhere else) saying the atomic bomb would not work. Fission was understood to be possible at that point.
Yes, that's a gross misrepresentation. No-one who was aware of what was going on thought it was impossible, and most thought it would take more or less as long as it in fact did.
Also, the same physics was taught in Nazi Germany as in the rest of the world.
Oh, really?

Then why were all of Einstein's books burned in Germany?

Then why were profs afraid to assign any physics article by a Jewish author?

Without "Jewish physics" no atomic bomb.

It really is that simple.

Without all those Nazi technowizards no glorious Star Spangled Banner on the Moon.
Also, no Sputnik.
Wasn't there this female Jewish physicist who got the shaft despite her pioneering work in atomic physics simply because she was Jewish?

Element 109.

I think it was mainly because she was female.

Plenty of Jewish physicists have gotten Nobel Laureates; for a while it seemed as if you just about had to be circumsized to go to Stockholm if you wanted that prize.

Now the Chinese are doing well in physics.

The world turns.

In general, women are still not welcome at the highest level in physics--and this is a damn shame, because I know one supergenius female in physics who, although she has her own lab now and is well known, probably if she had been male would have made the cover of "Time."

More correctly, the graphite cross section was measured right by both US and Germany, and came out to be unacceptable.

However, Fermi had the insight to insist that the experimental result was "wrong" and believed his theory and physical intuition was correct.   It turned out that the process for manufacturing graphite left some impurities which radically changed the cross section.   Sufficiently pure graphite did work as predicted.  Manhattan project figured it out and Germans didn't.

Other considerations were more political/strategic.  Both US and Germans realized that the A-bomb would take a long time.

For the German command, that was bad, because they realized that if they hadn't won by a few years, they were toast, so they invested in shorter-term projects.

The US assumed the war would be long and so going until the endgame of a nuclear weapon was imperative.


Lessons for Peak Oil?

*) The decline from Peak Oil is going to last a long time.  It's not going to be a temporary shortage which will get back to normal.  We need to plan the short term, AND long term solutions, starting now.

This means that even if fuel efficiency goes up and we can manage a decline from 85 mbpd to 60 mpbd with rigorous conservation, then the next year production will STILL decline more.  What do you do when it is inching to 30 mbpd?   It will come faster than people are ready for it.

*) It is critical to get the physics right: ALL the physics right.

*) Differences in theoretical scientific analysis now can result in massive changes in future direction and capital spending.  Given the poverty which will be induced by Peak Oil, we may not get another chance if we choose wrong and spent our last wad of high-intensity physical puissance needed for technological civilization, fueled by remaining oil,on the wrong thing.  

The Mad Max scenario is not inevitable, but we may only get one swing at the pitch.   Strike one and we're out.

What does this say to me?

It is essential for the survival of civilization to do the things which we absolutely know will work, today, to prevent entropic meltdown, aka Dark Ages II  

This doesn't preclude pursuing other options as well, but investing plenty in the guaranteed-to-work-so-civilization-doesn't-collapse option is necessary.

What's that?  Nuclear plants.   Why?

We know we can make power from them at a large scale.  We know we can make vehicles, though quite inferior, which work on electricity.  We know the greenhouse emissions will be markedly reduced.   We know the waste problem, though not fully solved, will not be immediately catastrophic.  We know what the danger of radioactive leaks are, but we have little idea about the risks of global warming.   We know nukes will not cause people to starve as cash crops go to fuel rich people's cars.

There are of course significant problems, but compared to the alternative of risking the survival of civilization, I vote for the demon we know.


Nothing to add to this that I can think of.

Ok, so what do you say to Amory Lovins' argument that given x dollars today, he could get you more and safer watts faster by wind, solar, conservation, cogen and other simple moves than you could get by starting today with the  same x dollars and heading for nuclear? He says the market proves this hands down.

AND,  Lovins argues, those small simple  things are no temptation  to any terrorist with any wits at all if there are nuclear things around to go for.

BTW.  Do you remember Lovins-Bethe debate on this long ago?  Bethe graciously conceded.

I think that too many people  only think of big box generation as the only thing there is- here we have a nat gas 1000mw plant so we have to go get some other 1000mw thing to replace it, like fission or fusion.

Wowee! Just think of where we could be if we had put those fusion brains and bucks into energy efficiency- or solar-- or---.!

Wimbi, I agree, Lovins' ideas are worth a second look. I recommend Natural Capitalism in general and Small Is Profitable (particularly for distributed and micro-generation).

I also find it interesting that the best example that free-marketeers show for a nuclear country is France, where the utility is state-owned and therefore able to hide the real costs. The costs of nuclear (including safety, security, insurance and waste disposal) are non-viable in a free market economy. IMHO :)

Then you regard Sweden and Finland to not be sufficient free market countries? But were are high tax countries with parts of society run with a socialistic organization.

I dont know for sure about Finland but in Sweden is nuclear power is treated as a tax cow and also funds money for handling decomissioning and waste. I dont know about any hidden costs that are near what nuclear power pays in tax. Finland is a little ahead with choosing the commonly researched method for high level waste idefinite storage.

Magnus, thanks for your reply. I'm not sure what your saying here. Is it that the Swedish and Finnish nuclear industries are:
  • profitable
  • non-subsidized
  • carry their own insurance and decommissioning costs

FWIW, the UK taxpayer is being faced with decommissioning costs of over $130 Billion as our nukes reach their end-of-life.
Oops. Make that $300 Billion (yes, Billion).
Why not $3,000 billion? Any price you say I can justify, don't worry.

My home country - Bulgaria is decomissioning 2 reactors for euro 200 mln.each. Now I am certain that the british agencies appointed to do the job are capable of achieving prodigies of incompetence if enough money is poured in, but that they are so much ahead of the Bulgarian ones is the news of the day. Just think about it - they will spend more on decomissioning and nuclear waste than the whole world so far! That should go in the Guiness records you keep over there, shouldn't it?

The nuclear powerplants are very profitable.
They are not subsidized.
Finlands fifth 1600 MW nuclear powerplant is financed by mostly private Finlandian heavy industries and utilities that might be partly municipiality/govermnet owned and some heavy Swedish industries. Lobbying to get permission to build a sixth nuclear powerplant in Finland seems to have started.
The extensive life lenght extensions and upratings being done in the Swedish nuclear powerplants that in total cost and size is comparable to Finland 5 could more or less be paid in cash while being built but that would probably dip into the profit from their hydro powerplants.

The Swedish powerplants carry their own decomissioning cost, if the calculations are correct, if I rember right they are recalculated at a two year interval. Final low and medium waste facilities are running since manny years in Sweden. High level waste is stored in underground pools. There is a very extensive about 20 year old reserach program in final waste storage that have been paid from these funds. The design of a high level waste cannister is completed and a test series have been produced. A complete waste packaging plant is planned to be ready in 2018. And the waste repository 500 m down in bedrock will probably start building within 10 years. All of this will be done while the nuclear powerplants are running and providing cash flow.

The decommisioning fee is right now almost 0.01 swedish crown per kWh almost 0,1 cent. 20 billion crows have been spent on research and waste repositories, about 2,7 billion dollars. The fund now contains 30 billon crowns, about 4.1 billion dollars and the total cost is now estimated to be 70 billion crowns, about 9.6 billion dollars. This is roughly the cost for building 3 new nuclear powerplants.

The nuclear powerplants in Sweden have commercial insurance for external damages up to 3.3 billion crowns per accident, about 450 million dollars. The Oskarshamn three reactor plant pay 50 million crowns per year in property tax, 50 million per year in fees to monitoring authorities and 400 millions crowns in a special nuclear tax invented by our greens, this is for 16567 GWh during 2005. 400/16567 = 0.024 crowns per kWh, about 0.33 cent per kWh. This figure can be morally regarded as an isurance fee for the de facto government insurace for damages larger then 450 million dollars.

I guess UK have a problem with old graphite moderated reactors being harder to decomission then BWR:s and PWR:s.

Nuclear power has been subsidized in Sweden by getting good loans in the early days when our state economy were rock solid. And it were then internally "subsidized" by cash flow from the power companies hydro powerplants. We could probably not have built as much nuclear power in full and open competition with the already built hydro powerplants but now we got them and can keep them running for decades and I am realy happy about that.

Magnus, thanks for the work you put into your reply. It is still unclear to me if nuclear can stand on its own two feet without government intervention. I will do more research on this. I am in the process of reading a paper, The Economics of Nuclear Power, from the Uranium Information Centre - very pro-nuclear!
In the last 20 years renewable energy has received more attention and subsidies than nuclear. And this was happening in most developed countries - Germany, Japan, UK, USA, Denmark etc. etc. Wind has been around for 30 years and photovoltaics - for even more. No matter how perspective these two are claimed to be during these decades, they still have that minor problem that they do not work. By "don't work" I mean that currently we can not scale them enough to fit our existing societal and technical infrastructure.

The result from this expensive "renewable experiment" is now in place: 20 years of investments, subsidies etc.etc. are currently providing a marginal percentage of the world energy (much less than 1%). In contrast nuclear plants built for the same length of time (60-s to 80-s) are providing 8% of the world energy for almost half a century now.

Amory Lovins' argument that given x dollars today, he could get you more and safer watts faster by wind, solar, conservation, cogen and other simple moves than you could get by starting today with the  same x dollars and heading for nuclear? He says the market proves this hands down.

My argument is that whatever Lovins says as X, we need 2X dollars, or really 10X dollars because maxing out wind, conservation and the simple moves, though absolutely essential, is unlikely to be enough by a huge amount as we need to electrify transportation to replace oil as well as reduce the large amount of coal & natural gas used already for electricity, since these are better converted to transportation fuels.  Natural gas will soon be in depletion and coal is climate rape.

This implies a tremendous demand for new generating capacity and I am not confident at all that the non-nuclear above---while wonderful---is logistically sufficient.   Sometimes it seems that the goal of some is to figure out excuses to exclude nuclear rather than attack the total problem head-on.

As a straw man example, consider hydroelectric power.  Of course starting from virgin territory it's better and cleaner and likely cheaper in life-cycle to build a big hydroelectric dam than a nuclear power plant.  If we could snap our fingers and order up 2,000 Hoover dams we would.  But we can't because there just isn't any more place for them which will work.  We've hit Peak Hydroelectricity.

Eventually we may need to produce synthetic liquids via electricity which will radically increase electricity demand further.

And it's precisely because nuclear has long lead times and has some significant up-front capital expenses, we need to get started with it as soon as possible.

Nuclear plants compete with coal only really.

I think it's an AND, not an OR here:   Anything and everything which is not climate death.

I think wind is a fabulous idea---solar is not as good at the large scale but nice because it is something individuals can do on their own hence the financial  critical bottleneck for this is not as bad.

Going by dollars alone is not necessarily the best idea: I advocate higher cost nuclear plants over massive coal expansion, clearly the cheapest alternative, because climate change from CO2 of large scale coal-expansion would be horrible.

My fear is that people will do some wind and conservation, but when the crap really hits the fan as peak oil hits, and pluggable hybrids quickly come from Toyota (I'm optimistic about this), there will be a panic and the cheapest and easiest thing to do there is to slap together more dirty coal plants, as they are doing in China.

Since coal and nuclear are direct competitors in baseline power generation (and consider that plugabble hybrids will increase nighttime demand) I think it is essential to get the logistical and regulatory paths and financial cleared
for nuclear.

Wind is competitive in cost now, and solar isn't for significant power generation.   I think wind farms are a wonderful idea, and we ought to max them out too.

Getting back to my original point:  we aren't really sure what the hard logistical limitations of wind may be but they are there and they are significant; we have clearly already hit Peak Hydroelectric power.  Barring climate disruptions it won't go into permanent decline, but there is
no opportunity for a 4x or 5x or 10x expansion as could be necessary.

Getting back to my original point:  we may or may not hit hard limits on wind, but failing to have sufficient overall new energy production, in a sufficiently rapid amount of time could be the end of civilization or at least enlightened civilization.

The immutable constraints of the geophysical world have hit hydroelectric, will soon hit oil, are clearly present for wind (and which has unknown sensitivity to climate change presently), and are pretty weak for nuclear.  

Hence as risk management, not profit maximization, we must pursue that option to a sufficiently large extent and investment that we will squeak by if some future unknowns are on the bad side of the probability distribution (e.g. oil depletion rate, and wind power logistics).  

Not squeaking by is extinction-level catastrophe.

Sometimes it seems that the goal of some is to figure out excuses to exclude nuclear rather than attack the total problem head-on.

I am anti-nuclear because:

  • non-profitable (if Amory Lovins is right)
  • dangerous, radioactive, toxic
  • a distraction; renewables a better investment

I reached this position by reading Lovins' Small is Profitable. Have you read it?

However, I too worry we will by default go massively to coal and hence fry the planet. I can see the attraction of nuclear in that context; I just believe we can have a very nice lifestyle AND be carbon-neutral, nuclear free.

I don't give a crap about "profitability".

Would the free market have paid for the Manhattan Project?

Of course not.  But the potential risk of not doing so was having the world ruled by a vile fascist dictatorship.

I don't think you understand my point really.  The size of the problem is much larger than almost everybody really realizes now.   Numbers matter.

The bottlenecks for, e.g. wind, and nuclear are not generally overlapping.  We need both, as much as possible.

Economic computations of "profitability" depend on a peculiar set of circumstances which can change very rapidly in the future.

"I just believe we can have a very nice lifestyle AND be carbon-neutral, nuclear free."

So far, the empirical evidence does not agree. Non-hydro renewable is still miniscule in size.  Historically, Nuclear plants scaled up to significant fractions of generating capacity, comparable to fossil fuels, in many fewer years since their introduction.   The reason is simple physics: energy density.   Wind has some chance here thanks to modern technology, but solar doesn't really.

I care about first, enough energy to avoid civilizational catastrophe, second greenhouse neutral, and every other consideration is far down the list.

The problem is not "where do I invest my incremental dollar", but  "we need to build N quads of generating power in the next 10 years".   Regardless of the marginal increased profitability of wind (starting with the first 0.001 quad), it is impossible to solve the problem without nuclear.

It is possible to solve it with huge coal, and I really want to avoid that.

Lovins is a great example of "making excuses to exclude nuclear instead of solving the overall problem".

What you say sounds ok but assumes (I think) that demand is going up and up.  Lovins says demand does not have to go up, since we are enormously wasteful as is and we can conserve without any real loss.

Reason I agree with Lovins on that is simple- even tho I live  low on the energy hog (relatively speaking only -about 1/3 the US average energy use)  I can look around and easily see how to further reduce my total energy use by simple moves like more closely planning trips to town with my friends, growing even higher fraction of food, putting in movement sensitive light switches and so on.

And, I think we all have to recognize more solidly the essential fact WE CANNOT SOLVE ANYTHING UNLESS OUR POPULATION GOES DOWN, NOT UP. there's where we REALLY have to put our energy. That is the one essential thing.

I agree that lots more can be done with conservation.

But imagining changing the habits of a few billion people really radically is even more on the side of "magic pixie dust technology" than believing that solar cells in the future will have efficiency gains the way that microprocessors did.

The problem is that with Peak Oil, we are going to put on much larger electricity demand, and even with household electricity consumption being more efficient, we will need much more.

Sure, I've already replaced my regular bulbs with CFL's, don't have air conditioning, etc, and lowered my electric bill quite low.

But what would happen to energy consumption if I had a  plug-in hybrid car with a substantial battery?   The electricity consumption of charging it is very substantial, many thousands of watts for hours upon hours.

Imagine after you converted your home to be a "high-efficiency" home, you then put on 5 hair dryers @ 1000 watts each, and ran them all night (like leaving on fifty 100W incandescents)  Every day of the week.

Are you going to be able to further conserve enough from regular household use to make up for that?  

No way.

Total elecricity demand will go up with plug-in hybrids far beyond what any reasonably thrifty person can conserve today, and the use of plug-ins is inevitable because oil prices are going to the moon.

I already use a plug-in vehicle for short-distance personal transportation (www.egovehicles.com).

I think wind and conservation is great and absolutely imperative, but will not be enough.   This isn't an incremental cost argument, but a total capacity argument.

Economic considerations are transitory; the laws of physics are eternal.

Nuclear makes sense, especially as it's our only high-output option that is carbon neutral.

But I worry about the feasibity and the timing. I'm guessing that it would take a decade, all going pretty well, to build a single new nuclear plant in the West. There's a critical shortage of nuclear engineers, and the college programs to train new ones. This probably means a limit to the number of new plants we can design, build and operate for the next few years.

Then there is the question of fuel: the new plants now under construction aren't sure where they will get it, and uranium production needs to be ramped up.

So, even if you want nuclear, I think there is a limit to how much we can get on a timely basis. And we need timely.

It need not take 10 years to build a nuclear power plant.  If there is enough motivation (society jolted by realization that the lights could go out), then environmental assessments and permits could be done in a fraction of the time, which can currently take YEARS of wrangling.  Standardization of scalable reactor designs, mass production of modular elements, standardized systems for waste recycling and disposal, and regulatory pre-approval of such systems would dramatically reduce the cost and time-to-build of nuclear facilities.  
You and I are on the same page.  Got a blog?
The interesting thing is that VK is making a transition from a VC (his investor's money) to a political operative (all our money).  Different domain, different (IMO) standards apply.
What are the problems with BTL?  Catalyst consumption?  It should have most of the same issues CTL would have.  I don't understand why you'd make ethanol instead of diesel if you've got the syngas though.

I agree with him that liquids are key to our future; all you need to contain 130MJ of energy is a gallon can versus an expensive battery setup for EVs.  It seems to me that with the  increase in resource prices batteries will become more expensive rather than less as time goes on too.  High efficiency could be acheived by running a vehicle via fuel cells from methanol/ethanol.

What are the problems with BTL?

The capital costs per barrel were estimated in the EIA's 2006 Annual Energy Outlook as follows:

Conventional refinery < $20 M/bbl
Ethanol $20-30 M/bbl
GTL $35-42 M/bbl
CTL $55-65 M/bbl
BTL $105-145 M/bbl

That's what's wrong with BTL.


What are the key factors that send the cost of BTL through the roof?

The handling of the biomass, and getting it into the POX reactors. For natural gas or a liquid fuel, it's easy. For coal or biomass, it's a tough problem. The POX reactor itself is also a high-dollar piece of equipment.
Part of the problem may be the low energy density of biomass before drying. Investment in drying equipment could explain some of the capital cost.
Looking forward to reading the responses.

BTW: I should probably point out that the Syntec process is not limited to biomass feedstocks.

RR -

I just read that short blurb about the Syntec biomass-to-ethanol process, and I am a bit confused.

I am quite familiar with biomass gasification, so that part I understand, and I am familiar with the process of making methanol from syngas via various high-pressure catalytic reactions.

But while the simplified flow diagram shows compressed syngas going into some sort of reactor, the text uses the word, 'bio reactor', but does not discuss any biological processes.  I suspect this is just an error by the person who wrote the text. (???)

If this is some sort of non-biological process using a pressurized catalytic reaction, then what is that phase-separation step shown, and why is there a distillation step?  The only thing I can thing of is that the reaction takes place in an aqueous (or other liquid) medium from which the ethanol needs to be separated. If that is indeed the case, then the Syntec process still has the highly energy-intensive distillation step as the ethanol-from-corn process. Also, if the reaction is run at high pressure, compressing all that syngas will also consume a not-insignificant amount of energy. So what is it's advantage as far as energy input is concerned?  (they do claim a higher ethanol yield per pound of biomass, though.)

Furthermore, I would think there needs to be a pretty good gas-cleaning step after the gasification step. As I'm sure you know, when you gasify wood or other biomass, you get a variety of oily crap and other impurities along with the desired CO and H2.  Biomass also contains small amounts of sulfur, and I know that some catalysts are adversely affected by sulfur.

I really curious how this thing works and what its really advantages are.  This also begs the question: if you have syngas, why not just make methanol, as that is a well-established process?

Bioreactor, if not a typo, would likely refer to certain anaerobic bacteria that consume syngas.  Here's a reference to such a process from GCC:
...process utilizes a culture of anaerobic acetogenic bacteria (Clostridium ljungdahlii) that ingests syngas and emits ethanol at a yield of some 75 gallons or more per dry ton of biomass. From used tires or hydrocarbons it can yield approximately 150 gallons or more per ton.

Steve001 -

Thanks for the clarification.

If it's indeed biological, then it needs to be an aqueous-phase reaction. That then explains the phase separation step and the need for a distillation column.

What also threw me off was mention of a metal catalyst.  As far as I know, such is not normally used in biological fermentation processes. I wonder what its function is.

This is very intersting, and I will check out that reference.

Steve001 -

After reading the link you provided, it is now evident that what you are describing as a biological ethanol-from-syngas process is the BRI process, not the Syntec  process described in the earlier Robert Rapier link.

After looking at it again, and the fact that the Syntec process uses a metal catalyst, I question whether the Syntec process is also biological.   (?)

My understanding is that the Syntec process is not biological. I am a bit familiar with the BRI process, as my research advisor collaborated a bit with Professor Gaddy, the inventor of that process when I was in grad school. I could never understand why you would take perfectly good syngas and react it to form ethanol in water, so that now you have to input all of that energy to get the water back out. Just burn the syngas to make electricity, or make methanol or diesel directly out of it.
It is interesting that he seems to have already abandoned the feasability of corn-based ethanol and is really betting on cellulosic ethanol.  That is quite fascinating since it is what Greenspan and Bernanke also want to see developed.  It seems like the powers that be have thought about our predicament and everyone has come to the conclusion that the whole ball of wax is riding on cellulosic working, and a desperate humanity awaits the answer.  I wonder what the "behind the scenes" things he saw were?
Yes, it IS interesting.  Why should Khosla be willing to risk his fortune on scaling up synthetic biology technology from benchtop to massive factories (even he doesn't have enough money) but allow Detroit to do nothing more inovative than install a $70 sensor?  Is it too much to expect carmakers to build an electric car?
I'm not sure Mr. Khosla will be betting his fortune:

He co-founded Sun Microsystems right and was one of the big cheerleaders for the tech boom?

Here's a link showing how the stock price shot out of the roof with a bunch of splits from 1995 to 2000 during the dot.bomb bubble.  


Did Mr. Khosla lose any money on the deal?  See this link:


I'll pull out the most important paragraphs:

The drop, which would wipe out trillions of dollars in market value, caught nearly everyone off guard -- investors, executives, analysts and the media included.

But there was at least one person in Silicon Valley who saw it coming.

Several months before the crash, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla told a roomful of journalists that most Internet stocks would lose more than half their value in the succeeding 12 months.

The prediction was startling coming from Khosla, whose own widely-respected firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, had done its own share of dotcom investing.

Among those investments was the wildly successful one in Netscape Communications, made by Khosla colleague John Doerr, which kicked off the Internet stock mania.

Khosla, who had been the founding chief executive of Sun Microsystems and the first investor in Juniper Networks, knew the difference between a good business plan and a shoddy one.

But for Khosla, the excesses of the time were less about "flimsy ideas" and more about the psychology of investors -- especially those who were paid to manage other people's money.

After companies like Amazon (AMZN), Yahoo (YHOO), Netscape and eBay (EBAY) had monster stock offerings, professional investors who felt that they had "missed the Internet" sought to catch up, Khosla said then.

"The market has always oscillated between greed and fear, and that started the greed cycle," Khosla added.

As valuations became unsustainable, the greed would eventually give way to fear, according to Khosla. Once the selling began, the fear would begin to feed on itself and where it would stop was anyone's guess.

Does Mr. Khosla own any stock in the company today?


I'm not saying he's dishonest or doesn't care about the energy problems, I'm just saying have to take it all with a skeptical eye.

My bet is he has a great gut feel that society is about to become 'greedy' on alternative energy, and is thinking in business as usual terms - as RR points out, I dont think he understands we the threat of Peak Oil to our system. I think he sees higher energy prices as an economic boom bust trend and not as a Joseph Tainter once in a civilization event.
I agree.  The thing that really makes me skeptical is the whole "secret studies" thing.  I am a patent attorney with a mechanical engineering background and I understand the growth of technology from the lab to the commercialization in industry.  

In this case, where you would be patenting a step-by-step process for producing ethanol using cellulose you would perform studies and see if they work.  If they did, immediately you would want to get your patent application on file so nobody would try to claim first inventor before you leaving you with a big legal boondoggel that would burn up funds.  

If you really had awesome results in the lab you would get an application on the process on file as soon as possible and afterwards you would want to show everyone and his brother how awesome it really--like with public demonstrations and solid numbers and results--to drum up investment funds and gain grass roots support.  Once you have the application on file nobody can "steal" your idea and therefore there is no longer any reason to keep it secret.

If these studies DO work and they have actually been proven in the lab then I'm sure someone as savvy as Kholsa would have them wrapped up in a patent so his company can exploit the state granted monopoly for a while.  

Myself, I am writing a patent on an improved wind turbine.  If I ever get the time to finish it, as soon as I've tested it and seen if it works (big IF) and filed the application I'll be posting it here on TOD for everyone to see.  I'll send copies to GE Wind Energy, Vestas, whomever who could back me.  

"Secret" is very suspect

"It seems like the powers that be have thought about our predicament and everyone has come to the conclusion that the whole ball of wax is riding on cellulosic working, and a desperate humanity awaits the answer."

I wouldn't jump to that conclusion without much more specific evidence.  I think it's far more likely that the "powers that be" have done a rational analysis and concluded that cellulosic ethanol will be a superior technology to starch ethanol, for reasons everyone here could list.  Assigning cellulosic ethanol the role of silver bullet is an unwarranted stretch, in my opinion.

I've also concluded that the primary benefit of starch based ethanol is building the infrastructure and educating the public about it to make wider use of cellulosic ethanol easier.  You need a rolling stock of vehicles that can burn it, gas stations that sell it, and public acceptance and willingness to use it.  I'm not suggesting for a second that the years and years of ethanol subsidies were done with this transition in mind; we got lucky, and technology came along that gives starch ethanol a good outcome, one in which it helps create the conditions for its own abandonment in favor of a better approach.  Just as, in time, we'll use less motor fuel via PHEV's and eventually abandon celluslosic ethanol, petroleum, etc. for EV's.

I'm convinced that there will be many cellulosic ethanol plants popping up very quickly, like the 50 million gallon/year one that will go into production in 2007 near Augusta, Georgia.  We're right at the knee in the curve.

The big difference I see between VK's worldview and that of most people here is that he understands at the DNA level how incredibly dynamic modern economies are.  (Yes, it's an economist thing; we're trained to think in terms of constant change seeking an equilibrium point.)  At some level this understanding morphs into a form of faith, but until I see evidence to the contrary, I'm stickin' with it.

The big difference I see between VK's worldview and that of most people here is that he understands at the DNA level how incredibly dynamic modern economies are.  (Yes, it's an economist thing; we're trained to think in terms of constant change seeking an equilibrium point.)  At some level this understanding morphs into a form of faith, but until I see evidence to the contrary, I'm stickin' with it.

Well, I think the 70's and 80's Artificial Intelligence push (and Japanese 5th Generation Computer Program) is a disproof that you can name a goal and simply spend your way to it.

It's not like Babe Ruth pointing at the far fence.  If you read the original 5 year AI plans offerred, they still read like science fiction.

FWIW, I have huge faith in human innovation, but little faith in human prediction.  This combines to mean that the future will have "neat stuff," but not the "neat stuff" any of us can name(!!!!).

Well, I think the 70's and 80's Artificial Intelligence push (and Japanese 5th Generation Computer Program) is a disproof that you can name a goal and simply spend your way to it.

That is it exactly. Not every technology grows like the Internet did. There are some real challenges to be solved before cellulosic is viable on a large scale.

Amusingly, Robert Metcalf (one of the Ethernet inventors) made a prediction in 1996 that the Internet would soon crash (in 1997?), and that the underlying methods could not support the global growth in usage.

Even the people inventing these things have a fuzzy image of the future.

I think the Internet is a success of largely "undirected" growth.  It's been contrasted to TV (and HDTV) in that standards were not drafted far in advance (or mandated) but instead were allowed to evolve, battle, and be selected from the mess of proposed solutions.

I wouldn't jump to that conclusion without much more specific evidence.  I think it's far more likely that the "powers that be" have done a rational analysis and concluded that cellulosic ethanol will be a superior technology to starch ethanol, for reasons everyone here could list.  Assigning cellulosic ethanol the role of silver bullet is an unwarranted stretch, in my opinion.

You might be right but it seems like only 2 years ago when "hydrogen economy" was the buzz word, fuel cells were "soon to be at the knee of the curve", and hydrogen was anointed the "silver bullet". Now all the talk is about ethanol and the only reason you'd consider it is because of the possibility of economically scalable cellulosic. It isn't surprising that hydrogen has fallen off the radar, and it wont surprise me if cellulosic is off the radar in a few years (even though it is a far better idea than hydrogen ever was).

Another example: solar photovoltaics where supposed (in the 70's) to be on a path to beating fossil fuel on price.  The jury is still out on whether we can spend our way to that one ... but we certainly did not call the timeframe.
I've been hearing competitive solar photovotaic is around the corner for so long its beginning to sound like nuclear fusion.
These stories bare repeating as people "choose" the next great energy technology.
I made an intemperate remark about PV a couple of days ago and got  properly slammed for it.  Thus chastized, I went to a guy I know and got some facts.  Here they are.

Disclaimer- I am a stirling engine nut and think of PV as the undeservedly rich  guy competing with me, poor but honest, for the fair maiden (the customer).

My friend bought 3150 peak watts of PV in a grid tie system  for his house and its total system installed cost was $22K  (no batteries).  He ran the system for a year and got 2881 kw-hrs of actual delivered power from it.  That adds up to 329 real watts averaged over the year. So that is $67 SYSTEM cost  per  time averaged DELIVERED  WATT!  And remember a watt is not a kilowatt.

What you hear over and over is maybe $6-7 system cost per instantaneous PEAK watt.  The installer, also a friend, and honest, told us that the time averaged output  of his systems could be estimated for his area  as 1/10 the rated peak watt.  He was nearly exactly right.

In comparison, everybody knows that windmills are said to be about 67 times cheaper than that.  So what is the truth about all these power sources?  Do they also have factors of 10 hidden here and there in cost estimates?  And how does that influence our decisions?

Geez louise.
On the other hand, people spend more than that upgrading a bathroom ... with zero energy returned.
Right, and think of the return on investment of a big gas guzzler, a surgeon to cut off the belly fat, a fancy funeral, and so on.  The whole place is nuts.

And here we are quibbling about cost of nuclear vs wind and so on.  What the hell is going on here?  Isn't there an honest solid peer-reviewed study of relative REAL costs of energy sources?  And if not, why not? When I was in school, I knew a lot of really smart people, smart and wise and far thinking and very well educated.  Where are they and their works?

Personally, I think Lovins comes somewhat close, even tho he has some strange blind spots. But what do I know?

I don't go as far as those who think the outcome is predetermined, but there is no question that it is interesting to see human nature play against (broadly speaking) environmental constraints.
... and think of the return on investment [$ROI] of a big gas guzzler, a surgeon to cut off the belly fat, a fancy funeral, and so on.  The whole place is nuts.

No disrespect here, but it seems you are confusing economics with physics.

On the day the fossil fuels stop, your friend with the measely few watts of PV power will be king of the hill, since relatively speaking, his energy source will be better than the "competition".

Until that day comes and as long as oil and NG are "the competition", there is no way that one day's-worth of collection of renewable energy (solar) can compete with millions of years of unpaid-for collection performed by Mother Nature.

The oil extractionists do not pay for Mother Nature's time spent building up the reserves. They just come, take, and move on. It's not fair. You are comparing apples to orangatans.

4 Out Of 5 New Home Buyers Want Solar Power

I don't think that's because they expect the fossil fuels to "stop" anytime soon.  I think it's just that those orangatans see the advantage in those specitic apples (social, economic, etc.)

The next question is whether 4 out of 4 are willing to collaborate in a distributed DC grid so that each house can draw 4 times its own peak by drawing on unsused power from 3 neighbors?
I suppose you have to convince 4 out of 4 of them that that's a requirement.
I was making an (obviously failed) attempt at poetic allusion- the care and expense we ("what fools these mortals be") lavish on trivia at the same time that we argue an iota of cost here and there on truly earth threatening decisions.

Lovins needs no defense by me.  he is more than capable of supporting his positions with explicit, verifiable numbers, the like of which must be used in any refutation of merit. See rmi.org.

I thank you all for your kind attention.  I shall now return to recreational R&D- cooling house by way of chilly well water.

And home PV (along with personal power down) is something productive an individual or family can do, for themselves, without waiting on "others" (government, free market, energy companies, etc) to come along and bail them out with another nuclear plant, coal strip mine, refinery, oil derrick, or giant windmill farm.
This conversation strikes me as a typical collision between a critically thinking technical type of person and an optimistic managerial talking head.

R.R. But ethanol has a poor EROEI...
V.K. I don't care about EROEI.
(And what do you care about, Mr.Khoshla? I thought you said you cared about the society - EROEI is exactly the measure we should use to see how good is ethanol for the society)
R.R. Ethanol will compete with food for areable land...
V.K. I reject this argument. Somebody told me some reasons why we shouldn't worry about it.
(Don't bother me with details, I have people I pay to tell me what I want to hear!)
R.R. Cellulosic ethanol may never really work...
V.K. It will work.
(Why? Because I want so.)
and so on and so on

I don't want to be too harsh on V.K. - after all he favoured carbon tax, which my number one on the list, but this guy seems hardly susceptible to any rational argumentation. He simply believes what he wants to and that's it. Even for the carbon tax the cynic in me says that he favors it because it will benefit ethanol, not because of anything else. Luckily R.R. did not spoil the magic by guiding him to the simple fact that with EROEI of 1.2:1 every percent of carbon tax would also result in 0.85% rise of the ethanol price...

Growing up I remember fuel for farmers being tax free would this new tax hit them?  That would be political suicide for a party unless both parties endorsed it (never happen) Lots of electoral votes in corn country.

Excellent post, thanks for conveying the positions.

My assessment is that the biggest mistake Mr. Khosla's argument is trying to prop up the car culture with a different liquid fuel.

I think the mistake in your position is that nothing can replace the energy supplied by fossil fuels in the near run.

All people involved with alternative energy and peak oil need to be thinking about making suignificant changes to the infrastructure that reduces liquid fuels and works well with alternatives.

Two nearly mutually exclusive premises need to be held in our heads simultaneously.

  1.  Liquid fuels will always be needed on the earth to do work.
  2.  We need to drastically reduce and try to eliminate our need for liquid fuels while maintaining a civilized and technologically capable society.

I don't see this as a power down so much a a redistribution of all energy available to humans. That energy can not rely on easily bartered fossil fuels as a source.  Powerdown will be result of this not a goal in itself.  I have never heard anyone associated with oil say "We will no longer sell petroleum if it is destined for cars and truck, too wasteful a use for such a scarce and unique energy source".  Just the opposite, "Use all you want we will make more", is what is conveyed.  

Energy has to be carefully husbanded and spent wisely.  We do neither with a car culture and culture of waste underpinned by fossil fuel companies.  These points were mostly missing from both of your positions.  No common ground to work from.  Or too much common ground to imagine a truly different energy society.

I am greedy, I would prefer a local power up in electricity. Lets make all we can out of our local district heating, hydro and nuclear reasources and so on. I dont know how much the rest of humanity can scrambe but they will get export products from Sweden.
Every policy decision from here on needs to consider what impact actions have on the need for the private vehicle and, more broadly, the need for mobility.  The most relevant decisions have to do with land use.

For example. What impact does this development have on the need for mobility, not just the need for a car. How close is this development to work areas, shopping areas, and all the infrastructure that the person needs today.  What facilities should be built in conjunction with this development that will lessen the need for mobility. What facilities are in walking distance or can be built to be within walking distance. Should this development be allowed at all if it is not within walking distance of mass transit.

When addressing the needs to enhanced mobility, the last option should always be the new highway or the expanded highway or road. Think in terms of 50 years,not five years.

One important thing I didn't see RR mention was the scalability issue of ethanol, whether it be corn or cellulosic.  Not only is our arable land mass inadequate to provide both food and fuel, but the available arable land is shrinking daily. This will be further exacerbated by continued global warming, drowth, and aquifier depletion, not to mention soil depletion.

The fact that maintaining our current and projected demand for fuel is hopeless is a cause for concern, but not alarm or despair. It is an opportunity if we see it through the correct lens. If we frame the problem in such a way that we continually seek ways to reduce the need for mobility and then we just deal with the reduced needs for mobility, then the solution begins to present itself. But as long as the love affair is with the car, SUV, or truck per se, then the problem is insoluble.

When I was 16, the car seemed like magic, a gateway to promised joy, pleasure, thrills, happiness, and freedom.  Unfortunately, it would seem, most of us still believe that. And therein lies a big part of the problem.

You see things as I do.

The fact that maintaining our current and projected demand for fuel is hopeless is a cause for concern, but not alarm or despair. It is an opportunity if we see it through the correct lens.

But I disagree with the mobility part to some extent.  I still want to take a vacation once in awhile to interesting places.  The options should be to get on a train or maybe use a personal vehicle (rented maybe), but only for that vacation trip.  The car has stopped being a luxury mode of transportation and has usurped all other forms, including walking, for moving people daily.  That has to change ASAP.

It is not about freedom to move about.  It is about consumption of resources to maintain an inherently wasteful system.

I don't have a problem with mobility per se, I just think that all our plannning and relevant policy decisions needs to reduce the need for it.  Further, in the future, I would hope that most of our long distance trips would be done in mass transit mode.  This is really just going back to the future.  Even in my life time (I am 59), my childhood long distance trips were done by train.  Sure, we had cars and plenty of them, but the train option was much more available that it is now. Besides, I loved the train, especially the pullman and dining car.
I think the mistake in your position is that nothing can replace the energy supplied by fossil fuels in the near run.

Nothing can replace them in anything like the quantities we use today. There are replacements presuming a massive powerdown.

It appears that ethanol is gradually getting the spot it deserves as a partial solution to the problem of Peak Oil.  It will never be to the total solution, but all we need now is a filler as the oil supply drops and other solutions are perfected.

IMO cellulosic ethanol will have a very difficult time.  Look at the resistance to corn ethanol!  Not only will there be many like here on TOD, but farmers will have to be convinced (without subsidies) to switch from corn to cellulose feedstock.  This will be very difficult as the infrastructure to handle corn is already in place and well developed.  The machinery to handle billions of bushels already exists along with thousands of grain semi's and storage bins.  This will all have to be replaced to handle cellulosic feed stock which will be very bulky and hard to automate in handling and storage.  IMO cellulosic ethanol advocates don't have a clue as what is required in infrastructure.  Cellulosic ethanol is a pipe dream and a joke.

Why would cellulosic ethanol be impossible since there are large sunk investments in corn?

You can get cellulose feedstock in large quantities from forest biomass with small additions to the old forestry infrastructure.  When (if) that works well free market competition will displace other crops.

Development of cellulosic ethanol and massive production of cellolosic ethanol do not need the corn farmers or the corn fields.

To which I would add that at some point in the future, the planting of DECs between crop rotations for 2nd generation ethanol production facilites, will either be economically viable or required by law and maybe even both.

Sweden may in fact prove to be the world's first testing ground of this strategy.

Corn cobs, stalks, and leaves can be used as BTL feedstock while the kernels are used as food.
Mr. Khosla comes across as disingenuous in your report.

Based on his public statements and your report, his game plan is to create a bandwagon for ethanol leading to legislation.  Since he acknowledges that corn ethanol will prove inadequate and he appears to be betting big on cellulose ethanol, his public support of the alternative fuels act is self-interested. Of course, we all are.

As I've stated before, VCs have little play in energy.  Khosla is getting so big in the pants that he thinks he can create a big win by jockeying public opinion into MANDATING consumption of his product.  "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

"Just politics" is no excuse. There are good political behaviors and there are bad ones.  Mr. Khosla is practicing bad ones. Thank you for making that clear.  I will probably oppose the California initiative he supports (I will read it first!)

See here if you were wondering why a post of mine relating to using Biomass for generating electricity appeared and disappeared.

Tricycles are the answer to the world's energy problems.

Well, and bikes with trailers.

They have pedals.

They take less resources to make and operate, involve putting little pollution into the planet, and many parts are recycle-able.  (Not "Many parts are edible!"  That was pine trees, I think.)

I do believe that the best pathway involves changing the way we think and live, and that this will happen voluntarily or will be rather made to happen as our habitat limitations force the issue.

Most efforts need to be about changing our human settlement patterns and re-educating ourselves to grow more food, use less energy (especially fossil fuels) and to learn to harvest energy in sutainable ways.

I think it is swell to do research on all kinds of high-tech things as well, but ultimately that "path dependency" thing gets in the way.  We can use huge amounts of resource to create resource-depleting paths, or we can use smaller amounts of resources to create resource-restoring paths.

It is not going to be easy, but it is going to be.

Ethanol or no ethanol.

Just my thoughts, straight up, undiluted.

In the end, yes, pedals.

GM and Ford won't like it. State Farm will hate it. The pharmaceutical industry will probably self destruct (sales for Lipitor, etc. will disappear).

Of course, we may not figure it out until the Greenland ice fields slip into the North Atlantic. But we will get there. (no doomerism here <g>)

What's lacking in these threads is true respect for the remaining oil and coal resources. Nah... We'll just build better cars. Expecting a human being to actually use his or her legs is like... retarded or something.

No, worse, expecting a person to use their legs is.... UN-AMERICAN.

And remember our "culture" is such an effective cancer that everyone wants to be us.

Heck, we've been very effective at destroying the cultures of everyone who doesn't want to be us anyway.

You are 100% correct.

At about age eighteen months I introduce my granddaugters to the "enchanted chariot," which is a two-child bike trailer. They love it! Sometimes I carry a few weeks worth of wash (say eighty pounds or so) to the laundromat in the bike trailer.

I know some "homeless" people who live out of their bike trailers.

There are much worse ways to live;-)

And of course for grocery shopping, why not use an adult tricycle or bicycle plus "enchanted chariot"?


The combination of bikes, trikes, and trailers is almost endless.  Bikes at work (in Ames, Iowa, I believe)make a variety of trailers suitable for carrying such items as loads of lumber -- 4x8 sheets of plywood or 10' 2x4's -- no problem.


And little kids "get it" right away.

just a heads up: when I go to http://www.theoildrum.com nothing is coming up. so I went to the old blogspot page, got redirected and am here.

don't know if it's just me or a wider problem.

yeah, we got slashdotted.  all seems to be better now.  

welcome slashdotters!

Very good discussion. I thought you were very accommodating to Vinod considering your starting position.

Ethanol is but one of several technologies that need to be developed to significantly reduce our dependence on oil. I don't believe any one can be the answer. Coal liquefaction, biofuels, and higher mileage vehicles (obtained by some combination of aerodynamics, light weight construction, diesels, plug-in vehicles, electric vehicles, and perhaps higher mileage standards) will all play a role. Additional electrical generation capacity will also be needed but that is a another story. Two recent reports addressed the subject of what energy mix we needed and are reported here and here. One report said biofuels could do the whole job when combined with conservation, and one combines biomass, coal liquefaction, EOR, oil shale and conservation. I believe that conservation leading to a fleet mileage of 50 mpg, combined with biofuels and coal liquefaction are the core technologies needed. To the extent that EOR and shale oil can contribute, thats fine, but they can proceed on their own. The question here is how biomass should be utilized-ethanol, biobutanol or BTL? (I don't consider biodiesel as a significant contributor (because of land requirements)and would drop all subsidies immediately to free up land for ethanol crops. When and if FT diesel becomes economical that can come into the picture.

Being generally on the pro-ethanol side of the argument I tend to agree with his position that corn ethanol is a transitory solution, up to a point. A cap has to be placed on the use of corn for ethanol, at a point that it does not interfere with food supplies, which translates to supplying somewhere around 10% of liquid fuel. This is a difficult point to determine, since there is farmland that is not in use, the matter of land allocated between corn and other crops and if we are speaking of the US, should we grow corn for export. Prices for corn should be allowed to increase somewhat, to the point that farmers can grow corn without any subsidies. I don't think that subsidies for ethanol should be eliminated in a single step, but dropped over a period of perhaps four years, which about coincides with my guess as to when cellulosic ethanol production will be ready to begin significant growth.

Assuming no increase in vehicle efficiency and a continued growth in driving, the U.S. is on a path to consume 290 billion gallons of gasoline in our cars and trucks by 2050. By increasing vehicle efficiencies to 50 mpg or better and reducing our driving some, we could reduce consumption to 108 billion gallons by 2050. Based on DOE projections of 12.4 dry tons of biomass per acre, the total land required to grow switchgrass to meet this need is 114 million acres; that is to produce 165 billion gallons of ethanol, which is equivalent to 108 billion gallons of gasoline. This amount of land is available without using any of our land currently used for grains. A considerable portion of the cellulosic material would come from forest and paper mill wastes.

The cellulosic ethanol industry, although still in development, is not quite in as much infancy as some of you may believe. I have identified 16 companies involved in some aspect of building cellulosic ethanol plants. Abengoa Energy and Colusa Biomass have cellulosic ethanol plants under construction which they expect to start up later this year. In addition Xethanol, Bluefire Ethanol, Iogen, and Sunoptra have announced they are building plants scheduled for start up within the next two years.

Biobutanol is the bright new star on the liquid fuel block and by 2010 we may be able to make the decision as to whether butanol or ethanol is the better choice. Biobutanol has superior properties to ethanol, fits into our infrastructure better than ethanol and is being developed by DuPont and BP which makes a pretty strong case for it.

BTL processes have been around for a while but have just not taken off--probably for the same reasons that coal liquefaction hasn't been used up to know. Bioengineering Resources, Inc (BRI) and Netco Investments (who bought out Syntec) are the two companies that have gasification processes. Neither of them use the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process, BRI converts syngas to liquid with a fermentation process and Syntec converts syngas to ethanol over a catalyst. Choren (Germany) in conjunction with Shell is developing a gasification-FT process. One of the technical problems with gasification-FT processes is that a lot of tars can be formed in the gasification step which interfere with the operation of the FT step. Choren supposedly has a three step gasifier that overcomes this problem. The last I heard, they hoped to start construction of a plant in 2007. Asw it is between coal liquefication and biofuels, I suspect that the answer lies in some combination of the three biofuel technologies.

Canadian company SunOpta, Inc. will finish building a 1.3 million gallon per year wheat straw to ethanol facility THIS FALL for Abengoa Bioenergy in Salamanca, Spain and already has a DOE-funded Pilot Plant operational in York, Nebraska.

SunOpta recently signed a contract with China Resources Alcohol Corporation for the first cellulosic ethanol plant in China, and has licensed a C5-fermenting yeast from the Dutch company Nedalco for conversion of the hemicellulose fraction of biomass to ethanol, an important step in efficiently utilizing available biomass.

SunOpta has also been quoted saying they can produce cellulosic ethanol now for as little as $1.40 per gallon at the commercial demonstration plant in Spain.

So what are we waiting for? It would seem cellulosic ethanol is a viable alternative now, with no need for further "transitional" ethanol from corn starch.  

I have attributed the SunOptra plants, both in Spain and in Nebraska to Abengoa Bioenergy, who is the prime contractor. As I understand it SunOptra only furnished the pretreatment systems for these plants, which is a very crucial step. I do not think the plant in Nebraska is in operation yet. They are now taking a more leading role with the Chinese project, but this again is a small pilot plant. I have seen their price for ethanol and it is very encouraging if it includes all costs.

I forgot to mention in my previous comment that I did not consider biodiesel from algae as a very developed technology, although there are now three companies in the US involved in its development. If it could be developed it would be a fantastic resource. Hemp would also do well if it only could be grown in the US.

It's "SunOpta" not "SunOptra": www.sunopta.com.

Given your interest in butanol, you might be interested to know that SunOpta built a cellulosic butanol plant in Soustons, France back in 1985 for Institut Français du Pétrole:


The process used in this plant worked well but was uneconomic due to inefficient conversion of C5 sugars. Apparently, this is no longer a problem.

A real cynic might note that ethanol producers are going to have sweet profit margins as oil production falls, and no other replacement is on-line.

Shorter: you gon't need to keep all the cars running to make big buck$

Food vs fuel is a really serious issue.

'I told him the stories are already appearing in the media. He said that there is plenty of food in the world, and the problem is often ability to pay. '

the guy clearly doesn't understand economics. If they can't afford to pay, they are priced out the market ! It really worries me that this years harvest is probably going to be poor, just like the 6 previous years. And worries me that we are using more food than we are growing. And at the same time USA has mandated the use of ethanol as a replacement for MTBE. Something has got to give and it will probably be food for all those people in poor countries, while americans drive around in SUVs .. burning up years worth of food for other people

And worries me that we are using more food than we are growing.

IIRC, in the USA you are still a net exporter; here in the UK we import 70% of our food! Not a problem if you can afford the imports.

the guy clearly doesn't understand economics
Oh, I think he does - we still have plenty of food for everyone - but we are not sharing the wealth in a way that everyone can afford to eat. That is the problem.

On the topic of corn starch ethanol as a "transitory solution", this Ethanol Producer Magazine article gives a good idea of one way in which current plants can be used to launch a cellulosic ethanol industry.

For good or ill, corn is now recognized as a viable feedstock for ethanol and funding for such plants is now easy to obtain. However, we know that corn feedstocks have a limited economic and ethical viability for replacement of fossil-fuels, perhaps less than 5%. The EPM article argues that the next phase involves "Clip-on" cellulosic ethanol technology that can be added to existing starch to ethanol facilities, such as at the SunOpta/Abengoa facility in Spain. By adding technology that can convert lignocellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars at the front end of the process (pre-treatment and enzymatic hydrolysis), production of cellulosic ethanol can share downstream process steps such as fermentation and distillation. This allows a gradual phasing-in of cellulosic ethanol production with just marginal cost increases over existing production and without the problem of raising capital for an "unproven" technology to be utilized in a stand-alone cellulosic plant.

It seems the front end of emerging biofuel processes will be thermochemical. Whether the finishing step is thermo or microbial seems to be awaiting developments. Also there may be two solutions to the bulk handling problem
1) localisation, without billion dollar FT plants
2)'rendering' such as pyrolysis oil for centralised treatment

Biofuels are 'hot'. A neighbour talked about driving 100km past new canola fields where sheep used to be. The garbage truck driver wondered if there was enough waste oil to run the truck.  This niche seems headed to fill quickly.

There are three comments, if accurately reported, which convince me that Khosla has done little research into the background, only into how to make money from ethanol.

"there is plenty of food in the world", showing a complete lack of understanding of fossil fuel inputs into food production. If he has such an understanding then he believes that fossil fuel inputs can be replaced by food inputs!!!

"an infinite supply of coal." I don't think he believes in a literally infinite supply but he has clearly been willingly conned into thinking that coal will last hundreds of years, the line usually trotted out by those who don't think (to coin an Albert Bartlett phrase).

"he doesn't even care if the EROI is less than 1," which speaks volumes. What is the point of expending more energy than is recovered? Why not use the original energy to transition? That would be far better.

I don't like the idea of carbon tax. Wouldn't a ration be better and be guaranteed to reduce consumption, with less complexity?


What is the point of expending more energy than is recovered?

We do this all the time, in terms of strict BTUs, turning coal to electricity, and combining numerous energy intensive ingredients into a flashlight.  What matters is energy quality and the value (economic or otherwise) that society puts on a product.
But as a whole, what we need to be concerned with is the declining net energy in the liquid fuel area. (without liquid fuels, even if we had a 100-1 EROI alternative like wind, etc, society would grind to a halt).  Alternatives need to be compared to our current societal EROI, relative, not absolute.  (A post on net energy is in the works)

What matters is energy quality and the value (economic or otherwise) that society puts on a product.
That's true, but just what type of energy will be converted to ethanol, in Vinod's plants? Isn't most of the energy in, in the EROEI calculations on corn ethanol, in the form of fossil fuels, that would be better used directly (i.e. natural gas, coal - for electricity, and oil)?
Hi RR,
      Thanks very much for a very informative discussion. I'm interested to hear why you leave Nuclear Fission off potentially better solutions? Or is that a topic that is left for another day?
Personally, I favor nuclear fission as a short-term solution. I believe we will turn to it in increasing numbers going forward. But the focus of my discussion with Khosla was on renewables.

Maybe one of us needs to write something up on nuclear. It will generate a lot of heated debate.

you did not just say that it would "generate a heated debate" did you?
Robert & Vinod,

First, hat's off to both for engaging in a most serious topic in the public eye.

My overall impression is one of confirmation.  Confirmation that capitalism in its current form is not going to go away meekly.  And confirmation that the true power brokers in our world are fully aware of the approaching watershed.  The very silence of the debate in conventional media channels is worrisome.  And when public discussion is unavoidable, we will burn through every scrap of coal, shale, sand, wood, algae, kudzu, and repo-ed McMansion that we can lay our mitts on.

The inertia of our current trajectory had better not be as overwhelming as it seems now to be.  Or we could really be in as big a pile of doo-doo as our more doomer brethren believe us to be.

A few comments on specific ideas that I cherry picked from the various threads, and maybe a wrap-up at the bottom.

>> If the solution fails, what is the cost?

Of your talking points this is the biggest issue to me.  The Hirsch report makes a compelling case that mitigation must begin sooner rather than later.  Sadly, big-name C2H5OH initiatives will lull a large number of people into believing that 'they' actually do have a plan to keep the current paradigm rolling along.  As a liquid fuel replacement, ethanol will not support the number of people who will believe the rosy predictions. The picture in my mind is an ever-swelling number of people trying to crowd onto a cantilever beam that is receding into the wall.

>> but he finally preempted my entire argument by...

Variations on this theme are to be expected from many quarters on a wide range of topics as we go forward.  Solid thermodynamic calculations will consistently be preempted by clever words and pretty charts.  Until the piper is due his money, of course.

>> "food versus fuel" issue ... he rejects that argument.

On what earthly basis?  If grain ethanol is going to keep pace with moderate depletion rates (not to mention further increases in demand), where the devil are the BTU's going to come from?  I seem to recall that 100% of our corn production could theoretically only cover (roughly) 15% of our current consumption rates.  How can we remove 6+ x US-Corn-Productions from the supermarket and simply reject food vs. fuel as a valid argument?

>> You need also to substract the consumption from the army..

This is a big issue.  And I don't see a way to slice it that's good.  If the elite are really scheming a golden parachute, they'll have a hard time keeping the chute open without some good cover fire.  From all enemies, foreign and domestic.

In many intriguing and scary parallels to our non-negotiable Way Of Life, the military is dreadfully exposed to a curtailment of joules.  I am a military officer, and I know how much our overwhelming superiority is predicated upon plentiful fuel (we don't care about cost, that's SEP).  It's all about leverage, and lots o' go-juice gives you a great big lever arm.

>> It is clear from Vinod's comments that he understands how to play the politics game.

I sure hope that he and other big players are not just squabbling over how to re-arrange the deck chairs.  I'm not convinced by this conversation that the big dogs are preparing for some really fundamental changes.

>> Even the irrigators don't want to pay for the diesel to run their pumps.

I'll believe that ethanol will keep the happy motorin' lifestyle going when the entire ethanol infrastructure....fertilizer, logistics, irrigation, cultivation, production, refining, and transportation is all energetically 'paid for' by the resulting ethanol.

I guess one takeaway is that ethanol is one of the silver BB's that we will need going forward.  But presenting it as a wholesale replacement to petroleum liquid fuels is to perpetrate a cruel hoax.  So my final thought?  Take away all subsidies.  Let ethanol win or lose on its own merits to its full potential, whatever size that is.

Thanks again Robert and Vinod.


Of your talking points this is the biggest issue to me.  The Hirsch report makes a compelling case that mitigation must begin sooner rather than later.  Sadly, big-name C2H5OH initiatives will lull a large number of people into believing that 'they' actually do have a plan to keep the current paradigm rolling along.

Likewise. When people say "What's the risk?", I always think "There is an enormous risk." We aren't talking about losing some investors' money. We are talking about failing to make preparations for an upcoming emergency. It would be like the leaders of a big city telling the citizens that they have a plan to deal with the next hurricane, so you really needn't worry. But, what's the risk if they are wrong?

Because of the timing and infrastructure costs, its like saying we have a plan to deal with the next dozen hurricanes.

Can it get much worse than this:


I suppose there's always "worse," but I have begun to wonder if the horses aren't out of the proverbial barn in many respects with climate change.

Hello Eskribage,

Big thxs for posting this--absolutely terrifying if this comes to pass.  This could be worse than just the horses out of the barn-->more like burning down the barn with the horses kept inside. Yikes!

Here are some recent interesting Antarctica GW links: first one in troposphere, second in stratosphere.


This is an interesting link on melting glaciers called "On The Roof Of Peru, Omens In The Melting Ice":


Another melting glacier link:


Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. There was a big news story on this a while ago on the main BBC evening news and I was wondering, at the back of my mind, what this year would be like. Your link has shown that. The Amazon was supposed to dry out by the end of the century, not this decade.
But he didn't give renewable electricity much chance of displacing coal, because coal is too cheap. He said that solar is 3 times the cost of coal-generated electricity, and that we have "an infinite supply of coal."

I do not like this line of thinking. Solar and wind generated electricity could be used in the manufacture of ethanol. If we just assume that everyone will turn to coal because it is cheap and abundant than this assumes environmental concerns have no place in the debate. Is not quality of life worth monetary consideration? Some of the large scale solar plants produce electricity with a 40% efficiency at peak performance. Wind turbines can churn out huge amounts of clean power when conditions are right. Efficient power storage systems and safe clean nuclear technology would be a step in the right direction. We need to produce ethanol by employing pure renewable power in the manufacturing process or else it should be a self contained self generating process. Whenever I hear people talk about cost analysis in dealing with energy solutions I lose all hope. I just know they will give it a half-a$$ shot and say it didn't work out, oh well, now we have an emergency and must turn to coal with a vengeance, global warming be damned, full speed ahead. I'm hope I'm not around to see the mess that they'll make out of the earth within the next thirty years. Mark my words, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Robert - What happend to your interview summary? I started to read it this morning but by evening it is all gone except your summary



It looks to me like it is still there. Like I told Wimbi, if you are having trouble seeing it for some reason, it is also hosted at my blog:


Robert.  I went to my wife's brand new whiz bang bells and whistles computer and it wouldn't give me the "there's more" either.   so the problem was not in my ancient set.

Then the next morning, behold! It was on again.  The Gestapo must have become aware that we were getting wise to them, and flipped their switch.  Watch out for those guys.

A very good discussion on ethanol, but I think many people examine only the material inputs in the production process, not the energy inputs of the process.  One way to make any bio to liquid process more efficient is to use waste heat for the fermentation and distilling process.  This waste heat could come from any power plant (coal, nat gas, or nuclear).  The typical coal fired plant is 40% efficient in converting BTU's in coal to electrical energy.  Most of the balance of the energy goes up the stack in hot exhaust gases and out the cooling tower or in the river as hot air or water.  
Suppose this waste heat were used to provide heat for the ethanol production process?  A system of heat transfer similar to an air conditioner or heat pump could extract the waste heat from the power plant then supply it to the ethanol or methanol production process.  These plants could have a higher ERORI and have lower operating costs, especially with nat. gas prices increasing (20% rise in the last month).  
In Council Bluffs, Iowa (USA) a railroad track serves a coal fired power plant and several miles away serves an ethanol plant.  If these two had been built next to each other this transfer of waste energy would be possible.  What amazes me is the lack of planning for much higher nat gas prices by the ethanol producers and lack of coordination with power plants that could supply free heat.
you seem to be using so many cheap/personal shots in your debates/arguments that it's hard to understand if you are doing this as a science debate or personal issue.
Well, I'll tell ya.  I for one come to the ethanol debate with a bit of baggage, but I think that baggage includes some good hard-edged engineering questions.  When those questions are side-stepped with a "promise" that cellulosic ethanol will be different, it sort of becomes a personal issue.

What do I think about this person and his promise?

Is this what we used to call "handwaving" in the engineering shop, something to get us past the hard-edged questions, or is it real.

If you ask me to trust someone, you are making it personal.

Really? You are the first to suggest this. A number of people have e-mailed and commented on my civility. But I would be glad to address your objections. Please list the cheap/personal shots. Yours would be suggesting that I am doing this as a "personal issue". That would fall into the ad hominem category.


Racingdude posted the same comment in several threads within moments of each other:
Classic troll.
I am astonished and saddened that anybody would question your good faith or good manners. Though we do not see eye to eye on every issue, I give you nothing but A+ for civility.

While I'm at it, I'm turning in for you an A++ grade with extra credit too for the efforts you have made in communicating constructively with VK. I hope you have a series of dialogues to your mutual benefit.

From what you have said of him, he sounds as if he is a man who can listen as well as talk.