Editor's Note

My 2 cents on decentralized production
By Tom Bryan | November 01, 2005
After writing this month's Profile feature, "Thinking Small, Globally," page 36, I started thinking about the contrasting models of centralized and decentralized energy production. The issue is taken up in the article because Vallejo, Calif.-based Greenline Industries intends to become a world leader in producing small- and medium-scale biodiesel processing units. At the same time, the company's cofounder and president Jacques Sinoncelli, is a strong advocate of decentralized energy production. That is, Sinoncelli makes a compelling argument that global biodiesel production would be optimal-and ultimately more sustainable and effective-if relatively small processing units were stationed where locally produced renewable feedstocks are abundant and affordable. Ideally, decentralized production would include local use of the fuel, too, essentially tightening the Btu loop, so to speak, by producing and consuming energy locally, or at least regionally. In theory, this model works as effectively in remote villages of the world's least developed countries as it does on college campuses right here in the United States.

But just what separates centralized and decentralized production? After all, even large biodiesel plants are built in places where raw materials are abundant and affordable, and where markets for the fuel are strong. For example, Archer Daniels Midland Co. recently announced its intentions to build a 50 MMgy biodiesel plant in North Dakota (see Industry News, page 8). The plant will use canola oil as a feedstock, as will another large biodiesel plant already under construction in the state. I won't try to argue that ADM's proposed plant is an example of true decentralized production-I suppose it's not-but compared to the world's truly centralized fossil-fuel-based energy system, even the largest U.S. biodiesel and ethanol plants are, well, pretty darn small and diversified.

The World Alliance for Decentralized Energy was formed by energy professionals from all over the world who believe the ruling central power generation paradigm is no longer optimal, and that moving to a decentralized model will improve standards of living and reduce the environmental impact of energy production. In addition, proponents of decentralized energy models typically encourage the use of a variety of raw materials for production, as to discourage complete reliance on a single energy feedstock.

Given all that, it sounds like the world's biofuels industries are on the right path. Despite the fact that America's 50 MMgy biodiesel plants and 100 MMgy ethanol plants are not widely thought of as small- or medium-scale, decentralized energy production facilities, the fact that these plants are utilizing locally available feedstocks, revitalizing rural economies and offsetting the world's dependence on fossil fuels in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way, might give us reason to think otherwise.
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