Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Future of Biofuels?

Photo: Dodo Bird, Flickr

Ten years ago, ethanol was one of the hottest commodities on the market. Americans (especially those in Congress) had fallen in love with the idea that we could make a renewable, plant-based fuel to replace oil. You mean I can power my car with corn and sugarcane? That sounds like a great way to stay away from foreign oil and be (sort of) green.

Today, that picture is quite a bit different. Ethanol is no longer broadly viewed as a pro-American or particularly green fuel. In fact, Congress introduced legislation last month that would counteract 2005’s Renewable Fuel Standard, a policy that required incremental increases in the standard percentage of biofuels blended with gasoline (today it’s about 10 percent).

Why did ethanol fall out of favor? A big part of the change is probably due to the massive natural gas boom, which has gone a long way toward making the U.S. energy independent. But ethanol has had its own problems. The overwhelming majority of ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, but corn has plenty of other uses. And though anyone who has driven through Iowa would have trouble believing it, there actually isn’t enough corn to sustainably produce ethanol.

Corn ethanol is created from the plant’s sugars and starches (in other words, the good stuff) which means that those same corn kernels can also be used for corn oil, corn syrup, livestock feed and many other functions. These other customers create demand for the corn which ultimately makes ethanol too costly to produce on a large scale. The same is true for ethanol derived from sugarcane or other valuable crops.

But sugars and starches aren’t the only parts of a plant that can be used to create ethanol. It is also possible to use cellulose, an inedible component of almost every plant. Since the cellulose is found in the undesirable portion of a plant (i.e. corn stalks and husks rather than kernels), it makes for a widely available, cheap feedstock. That’s why many are calling cellulose the future of ethanol, and perhaps the future of biofuels in general.

There is a catch, however. Any bootlegger can turn corn kernels into alcohol, but creating ethanol from cellulose is much more difficult. Only a few companies, such as Massachusetts-based Mascoma, have figured it out. Using proprietary technology, Mascoma introduces bacteria to materials such as wood and agricultural waste to create cellulosic ethanol. The final product is identical to corn ethanol, but the method and feedstocks are much more sustainable and scalable.

How big will cellulosic ethanol’s impact on the renewable fuels industry be? The answer depends in part on Congress’s decision about the Renewable Fuel Standard, but a sea change has already begun.

Jake Navarro is a senior consultant for Greenough. Send him an email at jnavarro@greenough.biz

Cultivate the Next Generation of Clean Energy Futurists with Knowledge

The Massachusetts energy economy could be in good shape for the future if our aspiring engineers and technologists are getting a head start during field trips such as this one: Earlier this month a class of 5th graders from Shady Hill School visited New England’s largest privately-owned solar energy park. Although the Westford, Mass.-based facility is still under construction, it’s a good example of how Bay State companies, including Cathartes Private Investments, Nexamp, Inc. and National Grid, are not only banding together to develop real business solutions but also working to educate the next generation (as well as budding engineers, designers and scientists).

Field trips help reinforce knowledge in a practical, hands-on way, and I encourage all companies playing in the renewable energy industry to get involved. Does your company have a facility that demonstrates how your technology works and/or how it’s used to solve real life problems? I encourage you to reach out to your local school district (or those of surrounding towns) and volunteer your location as a “field-trip worthy” destination. Most kids love the outdoors, and fun ideas about sunshine (1336 Technologies, Applied Materials, Veeco Instruments), wind (Mass Megawatts Wind Power, Cape Wind) and even biogas/compost (Harvest Power) are relatively easy to bring to life.

You can also use kits and toys to pique interest and develop knowledge. The Boston Museum of Science’s gift shop, for instance, includes such products as Venture View’s renewable energy-themed kit (it allows kids to build six different solar-powered vehicles, and the solar panel in each one charges a rechargeable battery) and the National Geographic’s Sustainable Earth Lab, an environmental science kit for kids ages 8+.

Why not contact the Museum of Science (MOS) and design a kit or toy in collaboration? Or work hand-in-hand with the MOS to sponsor an exhibit or provide the props for hands-on demonstrations? (FYI, the MOS is usually filled with visiting school kids during the work week.)

My point is two-fold: Massachusetts renewable energy companies need to follow the lead of companies like Nexamp and begin serving as destinations for elementary and middle school field trips. At the same time, why not design a toy or kit in collaboration with the MOS, an organization such as the National Geographic Society or a forward-thinking toy manufacturer?

Renewable energy is here to stay, and exposing our kids to the growing industry is critical—especially in Massachusetts, where great ideas are hatching (and growing) every day.  Knowledge is power, and remember you may be planting seeds for our next generation of green energy and clean tech futurists.

Barbara Call is director of content for Greenough.

Mass. Senate Passes Key Upgrades to Green Communities Act

On April 5 the Massachusetts State Senate unanimously passed key energy legislation that advances the state’s efforts to lead the nation in the clean energy sector, as detailed by Janet Gail Besser’s blog for the New England Clean Energy Council. I agree with Besser’s assertions that by acting overwhelmingly on S2214, An Act Relative to Competitively Priced Electricity in the Commonwealth, Bay State legislators have demonstrated their shared belief that the innovation economy is a critical tool for the region’s economic development and for the state’s job-creation efforts.

Passage by the Senate sends the bill to the State House of Representatives, where members will likely take up legislative debate in the coming weeks.

S2214 strengthens important tenets of the landmark Green Communities Act (GCA), which Governor Patrick signed into law in 2008 as nation-leading energy efficiency and clean technology legislation.

To date the GCA has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of net benefits to electric and gas ratepayers in Massachusetts, primarily through smart investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. These investments have helped reduce energy waste and have lowered reliance on imported fossil fuels while promoting clean technology jobs.

Among the key provisions outlined in Besser’s blog, S2214 achieves the following:

  • Preserves a framework for Massachusetts to enhance its nation-leading energy efficiency policy;
  • Expands net metering opportunities, providing energy users with an incentive to install renewable generation and the ability to save on their energy costs;
  • Opens net metering to anaerobic digestion, a renewable technology that reduces organic waste going to landfills, provides local economic development and reduces greenhouse gases;
  • Extends and expands long-term contracting for renewable energy, reducing financing costs to developers and thereby reducing costs to energy customers; and
  • Resolves property tax issues for solar projects, facilitating residential, commercial and industrial deployment of a technology whose costs are coming down.

I believe strongly that the Senate’s passage of S2214 is an important next step for our state. Do you agree?

Jay Staunton is Vice President, Account Services, at Greenough.

The Consumerization of Clean Energy

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Have you noticed that really cool (and occasionally humorous) applications for renewable energy—designed with you, the consumer, in mind—are popping up all over?

This is great for the renewable energy industry, and my reasoning is simple.  The greater the number of cool or laugh-out-loud energy-related products being developed and marketed, the better the chance that “renewable energy” (or some other, consumer-friendly version of that catch phrase) will become a common household term. And you know as well as I do that once a concept enters the mainstream conscience, the better the potential for the concept to take off.  When that happens, many companies in the field of renewable energy, from solar to biogas, wind and more, should prosper. But let’s get back to the hip and funny stuff.  You may have already seen these inventions, but I thought all of them were pretty cool:

  • A company called Green Revolution has built a stationary bike that converts the energy produced during spin class into electricity. The bikes are hooked up to generators that are ultimately connected to an electrical panel. Green Revolution estimates a rider can produce 70 to 130 watts of renewable energy during a typical class. Now the only question is when can I buy that bike for my own use?
  • I recently discovered Nate Garvis’ blog, Naked Civics. (No, it’s not that kind of naked. Read on.) Garvis recently wrote about what could be the perfect marriage of fashion and science: Clothes that reduce the gasses in the air that contribute to climate change. Yes, that’s right—this line of clothing is “catalysed, or coated with particles that purify the air,” Garvis writes. And while you might not wear this dress to work anytime soon, you’ve got to admit the style is pretty cool.
  • Garvis also blogged about Power Felt, a cool (or should I say hot?) concept designed by students at Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials. Power Felt turns the heat generated by human touch into electricity. “…imagine an electric car that is powered by your derrière and Power Felt. Now that puts a whole new meaning to being in the hot seat, doesn’t it?” Garvis writes.
  • Cruising around Coolest Gadgets, I discovered two gems—one with very real life-changing application and one that is kind of trivial, but both pretty interesting in their own ways. The We Care Solar Suitcase, produced by We Care Solar, is a solar-based, portable power unit that delivers lighting and power for cell phones, computers or medical devices to health workers in locations without reliable electricity.  Think remote areas of the world—and here’s an innovation that can help people stay healthy (and probably save lives). It might seem silly to mention innovative medical equipment in the same breath as the Jubilee Solar Queen, but this purple lady demonstrates that solar panels can also power campy dashboard ornaments. The miniature solar panels that power the Queen’s waving hand are tucked, out of sight, in her handbag. I love it!

As I stated earlier, I think the “cool” (or funny) factor can play a role in bringing renewable energy, in whatever form it takes, to the forefront of people’s minds. From there the logic is simple: The more familiar the technology, the sooner it’ll become second nature. The sooner it becomes second nature, the more the renewable energy industry will grow—and take off. What cool gadgets and applications have you seen lately?

Barbara Call is Director of Content for Greenough. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraCall1

Tech Entrepreneurs to Beacon Hill: Clean Energy Means JOBS

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When executives from leading Massachusetts clean technology companies gathered on Beacon Hill March 13 for the New England Clean Energy Council’s (NECEC’s) inaugural Clean Energy Day, their message to legislators emphasized three key points: Jobs, Jobs and Jobs. The business leaders and entrepreneurs that make up NECEC—including companies like Aircuity, Nexamp, Boston Power, Konarka, Ambient and A123 Systems, among many others—are betting on Massachusetts as the place to capture the next big economic opportunity. To do that, they need business-friendly state leadership and strong clean energy policies.

Clean energy companies in Massachusetts already employ 64,000 people, and that number is growing. The industry added more than 4,000 jobs in 2010, a growth rate of almost 7 percent, and that rate will likely double in 2011. Whether providing holistic home energy services or pushing disruptive technologies for electric vehicle batteries, solar thermal, smart grid or wind, clean energy firms are growing and expanding in Massachusetts every day.

Need more convincing? Just ask the professional investment community. Massachusetts has attracted the second-largest concentration of clean energy venture capital in the country. These are not players driven by emotion – these are sophisticated financial analysts who are laser-focused on results. They’re betting big sums on Massachusetts companies because we offer smart business models paired with cutting-edge technology. This combination often results in job creation and raises the standard of living for the entire region.

To their credit, Massachusetts state officials have shown leadership in this area. Bipartisan passage of the Green Communities Act in 2008 positioned Massachusetts to improve our economy (and the environment) by increasing the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy. This has saved Massachusetts families and businesses billions of dollars, lowered electric bills in our state and spurred innovation and investment in new energy technologies. The resulting jobs have also been a boon for the state: Today the estimated median annual wage in Massachusetts’ clean economy is more than $1,000 higher than it is for all other jobs across the state.

Despite the huge opportunities in the clean energy economy, opponents remain. They will try to stave off clean energy development with unfounded claims about the Green Communities Act and related costs while ignoring the value of clean energy investment and its robust return. In a time when subsidies for fossil fuels are 10 times those for renewables, it's time to embrace the truth that savings from efficiency and renewables adoption far exceed the cost of business as usual. Are you bullish or bearish? Please weigh in.

Jay Staunton is Vice President, Account Services, at Greenough.