Opinion: The Calif. drought equation stresses need for biofuels

By Peter Brown | March 26, 2014

Except for volume, biofuels and petroleum-derived products have reached parity in production efficiency and availability. What that means is that anything pulled from the earth can now be created from sources growing on the earth and remain endlessly renewable. The chemistry and physics of the processes are often very old and tested, such as transesterification, which transforms ordinary vegetable oils and fats into biodiesel and the fuels derived from these renewable sources are, by and large, less polluting to produce and to use, usually available locally and certainly provide more employment per gallon. In several cases, the production of the biofuels not only eliminate CO2 and greenhouse gases (GHG), but goes a long way towards using waste materials such as ammonia, methane, city waste and garbage, and increasing the efficiency of the systems they fuel.

So the convergence of biofuels, climate change, petroleum industry destruction and the rising cost of energy across the board is leading to the reshaping of how the world is approaching energy consumption, production and distribution. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency due to the drought. The world’s richest, most productive agricultural environment has been hit with the longest period of no rain since the Gold Rush. That means that farms, fields and cities are now faced with a simple problem—finding water. They know exactly where it is and when they will need to pay to get it, but it affects different regions, industries and sites in completely different ways.

California is a symptom and an example of a new phenomenon: the fact that climate change, GHG and massive ice melts, storms and droughts are worldwide events that only an international solution can address. We can no longer claim that China and India, because of their starring roles in dirty energy consumption, are uniquely responsible for climactic catastrophes. They share that load with California, Ghana, and every other remote or populated part of the globe. They not only contribute, share and suffer from the same conditions; they must also be part of the solution.

California, because it has done so little to address the issue, can play a starring role in reversing some of the damage. For example, there are 1.7 million dairy cows in California, each producing about 20 tons of manure a year. If all that manure was dumped into biodigesters they could produce about 4 billion cubic feet of natural gas. That gas running through simple systems, for example, could generate enough electricity to satisfy about 10 percent of California’s electrical needs. More than that, it would pull the methane out of the atmosphere before it adds its noxious effects to the GHG situation. Most scientists agree that methane is even more harmful than CO2 when pumped into the air, even though it has the easiest path to capture and conversion. If you only look at dairy farms, imagine the amount of energy and pollution that could be recuperated from the poultry farms, the pig farms and the human garbage that we heedlessly dump every day? Furthermore that real natural gas can offset some of the horror stories generated by the fracking industry that taps into and contaminates water tables. Fracked gas is not a renewable energy source, although there is a lot of it. On the contrary, that “natural” gas is probably the source of some of the most worrisome threats to our water supply, surpassing putting a tar sands pipeline through our major aquifers.

And yet, of the 1,700 dairies in California, there are only 220 biodigesters and most of them are used for local electricity conversion. The most often expressed reason the farming community provides for their lack of interest has to do with connecting to the grid; the second reason is the complex permitting issues. To compare what a serious effort really means, let’s look at how Germany is handling their natural resources. If, in California, we can count on less than 300 large scale digesters, Germany has built 6,800 digesters to not only capture methane gases but to create a number of industries like fertilizer production, diesel and gas conversions and other chemical processes. If PG&E will not allow connection to the grid by permitting and billing the farmer off their turf, you can add a converter that takes the methane and converts it to drop-in diesel. Unlike the utility that maintains a de facto monopoly, there are many places where the 10 barrels of diesel produced per day from these systems can be used, sold or traded. Even better, if your cows are constipated, you can plug your converter into the utility natural gas grid and make your own diesel.

Producing methane from manure is hundreds of years old. What is more complex and infinitely more satisfying is going after other waste streams and creating actual transportation fuels. There are biodiesel facilities springing up all over the world fed just on waste vegetable oils from restaurants and individual homes. Millions of gallons of former landfill oils are now powering buses, cars and yes, even airplanes in the latest biojet production systems for Lufthansa, Virgin, Aero Mexico and others. Again, California is leading from behind by not investing in biodiesel facilities. Again, back to Germany because their population and size are very roughly similar to California, they produce 800 million gallons of biodiesel to power their transportation fleets with clean burning, naturally and renewably produced fuel. In all of America we actually produced over a billion gallons of biodiesel. The government, obviously dismayed that we were poaching on the oil and gas industry, has dropped the annual renewable biodiesel requirements for 2014 and they are calling for scaled back production of biodiesel. California again resolutely leads from way back in the pack eking out a paltry 61 million gallons in 2013

The city of Oakland, Calif., several years ago, decided to install a biodiesel facility near the Port and inside the Municipal Services yard to absorb the oils and greases going through their wastewater treatment center while culling additional feedstock from restaurants, hotels, schools and other places where animal fats and greases are produced and dumped. It seems that after more than five years of searching, the funds required to start up the project are just not available and, because of the peculiar mindset of the California venture capital and banking institutions, the $5 million needed to create a $20 million a year revenue stream is being spent in such vital industries as a website that provides bored teenagers with the ability to keep their peers updated instantly on their minute-by-minute activities.

It is not the city of Oakland that is at fault here, because similar projects were put together for Richmond, San Diego, Sacramento and the one success story in Stockton. So, West Oakland’s asthma remains an “LOL” for the connected gentry and the real “LMAO” on Facebook is because of the joke that is being played on us as the Northern California petroleum refinery complex cracks and fracks its way into our oblivion.

Meanwhile back on the ranch, where the deer and the antelope are dying of thirst and the fruit and vegetables for the rest of America and the world are dying on the vine, more power will need to be produced from whatever source can be created. Energy-hungry desalination plants are in the works, massive projects that will allow cities to reflow their projections for growth. Yet, here again, the peculiar gestalt of the state allows uninformed but organized groups to halt construction and discussion. Ultrasonic cavitation units require less energy than the large reverse osmosis and membrane facilities. But we strain to overcome the obstacles and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean we lament:

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. (If the Ancient Mariner had stuffed that Albatross into the nearest digester he would not have had to suffer so long.)

Our aquifers are already depleted, the subterranean water tables are low and water recycling is slowly getting traction because there is no choice at this point. Farming, already a shining hope for methane and biodiesel, will soon be boosted along with newer ethanol facilities. Advances in ethanol production are also moving ahead as we slowly wean ourselves from making it from corn and have enlisted the help of enzymes, cellulosic content in wood and other sources. But using the narrow vision of the car-driving public, ethanol is slowly being strangled because it provides less energy per gallon than gasoline does. Gasoline in California is a peculiar local blend that is more expensive than anywhere else in the U.S. Replacing that gas with ethanol would be environmentally sound, but it will probably not happen anytime soon because the number of flex-fuel cars in California is low, almost as low as the flex-fuel stations.

Luckily, the state, under the former governor, decided to spend billions of dollars on hydrogen stations for the hundred or so experimental hydrogen-powered cars cruising our highways and byways. The nice thing about hydrogen is that it is the fuel of the future in some way. Most transportation gurus predict that it will have a significant impact in 30 to 40 years, which is how long the latest drought may last according to some weather Cassandras.

How about those cars? There is hope that the electric car movement has taken such a healthy start with Tesla, GM Volt and all the others actually selling in significant numbers. So where are the solar panels over every parking lot feeding recharge stations? Few and far between, I’m afraid. In Germany they produced 32 million megawatts in 2012, in California with more sun than we can handle we produced 364 megawatts in 2012 and yet, with no biodiesel on tap, ridiculous amounts of solar power, ethanol doled out by the cupful, and so few biodigesters that they hardly register on our energy maps, how does California expect to meet the energy demands the drought will produce?

Maybe they don’t intend to react. Maybe by sticking our collective heads into the soon-to-be-abundant desert sands, we can come up with some sort of plan that will tie the complex knots required to hold it all together? Because the drought is a deal-breaker this time.

Unlike other droughts brought on by regional climate shifts, this one is tied to the worldwide climate change. It will require as massive shifts in energy utilization as the weather is creating shifts in climactic air mass movements. Falling water tables will need to be replenished by massive desalination and pumping stations to keep them from being permanently invaded by seawater. The air quality needs to improve for several reasons from massive asthma epidemics in highly polluted areas to providing cooler climes for weather ridges to move around the country. If China becomes so polluted that human life starts to be extinguished in certain areas, make no mistake that that is the fate of downtown Los Angeles and sections of the Bay Area.

In concluding, it is time to ask ourselves, what have we done? Here in the most advanced, most productive, most environmentally conscious state of the nation—what exactly have we done to damp down carbon production, improve water conservation and support cleaner energy solutions? More importantly ask yourselves individually and collectively, what can we do? How do we bring California to the level of Germany in renewable energy and in so doing drastically cut our polluting ways? They are not faced by a massive drought on the one hand, but they are not blessed by abundant sunlight.

The answers lie with you to get actions into deeds with the government, the corporations and the citizens of this state. The answer lies in not allowing large oil companies to dominate the energy discussions and buy out local, state and federal elections, car companies that refuse to bring on their diesel cars already available and used all over the world, not fighting large desalination projects and killing off water shuttling projects, new golf courses in the desert should be waterless and airplanes should use biojet fuels. The answer lies in an effort so vast and so powerful that we may start a revolution that will save the world along with the gardener next door.

Author: Peter Brown                                                                                                                     Co-founder, International Procurement Tools Inc.                           



3 Responses

  1. Drew Pannell



    Peter, speaking as a citizen of the California Republic, I give you my compliments on a well-written, wide-ranging and timely op-ed piece. By way of full disclosure, my "dog in the race" is high-blend biodiesel infrastructure and deployment, as Operations Manager of San Francisco's Dogpatch Biofuels. We are the city's only fueling station selling B99.9. All the fuel we sell is sourced from recycled feedstocks, and as a retailer, we have the unique position of being able to guarantee our customers the highest quality biodiesel on the market. This should by all regards be a boom time for us as more and more businesses and municipal agencies express a desire to "green up" their diesel fleets. Instead we face huge challenges. The challenges we face are on two main fronts. First of all, there is no problem whatsoever with lack of supply, but rather the lack of capital (either in the form of grants or investment) to make the necessary infrastructure upgrades to get the B99.9 out there. We know of many potential customers, but are unable to scale up the vital center link of biodiesel infrastructure quickly enough. I currently have multiple producers seeking to sell us fuel, and we have numerous fleets hungry for the fuel, but simply can't get the funds to move it fast enough to keep up with upstream supply. Give me a fuel truck and a terminal, and I'll give you a dozen medium-to-large-scale fleets running on biodiesel within a quarter. Second, we face serious obstructions from the regulatory level which dovetails into the matter of vehicle compatibility, as I will explain. Currently, CARB prohibits use of biodiesel in DPF/SCR emissions equipment at blend levels higher than that certified by the manufacturer. The manufacturers won't put money into expensive emissions testing and the CARB certification process for high-blend biodiesel, and thus won't incorporate high-blend biodiesel compatibility into their DPF/SCR engineering, since the fuel makes up only a small portion of the current stream. Because there is a dearth of engine/emissions testing, CARB is regulating based on outdated data, and purporting that B100 is a serious NOx emitter which will eventually require mitigation by use of an additive (remember MTBE?). More recent studies by NREL show B100 to be NOx neutral with modern emissions equipment, but that's NREL and they aren't setting regulations. You can see that what we have here is a bit of a vicious circle to say the least. There are glimmers of hope on the horizon with grant potential being identified in state-level commissions, but we need action yesterday, as the saying goes. Bold and immediate action is needed from investors, issuers of grants, and so on, to support infrastructure development and ensure a swift transition to a truly renewable fuel stream. High-blend biodiesel is a solution that can be deployed right away, with adequate support on the aforementioned points.

  2. Dave



    Native NorCal, working in biofuels & feedstocks. I am sorry I cannot give specifics, but I have read of several biodiesel plants receiving grants or other state provided funding for developing renewable fuels in the state, in fact we have signed off on feedstock provision support agreements for more than one plant in the last couple years, which was required for them to receive their grant. Seems there are funds out there, I have read several articles indicating quite a few California biodiesel plants have received some type of funding. I find in curious in the lambasting of California and lacking this and that and leading from behind, and "what have we done to damp down carbon production" there is no mention of California's LCFS program (LOW CARBON FUELS STANDARD) which is far more advanced and aggressive than anything else in the country, and is currently being considered for adoption in Oregon, WA and BC Canada, with potential to create an entire west coast LCFS region that will do a great deal to reduce carbon transportation fuel emissions. Also, as far as I know California has the most stringent air quality standards of any state or country I know of, which paradoxically makes it hard to develop these alternative and renewable solutions because the damn CARB doesn't really understand or know as much as they think and they do in fact throw up a bunch of barriers, hurdles and licensing issues which discourage innovation and development. But that is government for you, people doing a job they wouldn't be hired to do in the private sector, right? But back to the LCFS and California air quality, air quality is much, much better here than any other state or country I have been to. Have you actually been to Mexico, Asia, or Europe and see the exhaust coming out of these vehicles, much less the factories? So while the comparison to Germany is interesting, and certainly valuable to point out areas California is lacking or could do better, you kind of cherry picked one bright examples in the world because I don't feel California is doing so poorly as this article portrays. California is certainly ahead of the rest of the USA. So leading from behind, yeah the USA may be way behind of a few limited other countries, but California is leading the USA, and overall the USA is quite ahead of many, many other countries when it comes to these matters. Sadly the issue in the US boils down to money. Those that have it don't want change because they are making a lot of money doing things the way they do. Since our government is easily bought by special interests who are openly trying to preserve their way of life no matter the cost; they don't really care about these things, they just want to keep the money coming in. That is why big oil works so hard to kill renewables, and PG&E makes it so hard to develop and tie in solar, and why government is so slow to take initiative. Because they are paid not to; profit is key, everything else is secondary. If someone really think there is money to be made with renewables, with methane to drop in diesel, or cow fart compressors, or any other fantastic idea like printable flexible solar panels, then build a business model, prove it works on a small scale and find an investor to take it big, that is how these things work. In California, on a daily basis, I see a great deal of solar and biomass, and methane power. Every house in our community has solar, the high school across the street entire parking lot is covered with solar, where we get our car washed (which uses recycled water) they are covered by solar over their lot. Sierra Nevada brewery about an hour north, whole place is run on solar. Everywhere I look is solar. There is a large biomass plant down the road from me, they are creating electricity from the biomass coming into the county dump, and next to that is a methane plant converting methane from the dump to energy. Seems there are some people here making it happen. One last comment I would make regarding the gripe about California biodiesel production levels- as a trading company working with biodiesel, renewables and feedstock, just what exactly do you expect California to make all its biodiesel from? The only feedstocks really available are used cooking oil and animal fats, and believe me as a company that moves up to 300K gallons of UCO a month, it is very, very difficult to find reliable, quality streams of a significant volume of this product. On top of that, there is a lot of competition for UCO aside from biofuels. Anything other than UCO or animal fats has to be imported from across the country and is either a competing human food oil, or competing with animal feed. So give this some thought when blasting the California biodiesel scene- there aren't exactly a lot of feedstock options available out here, especially since we are in a drought and we predominantly grow food in our croplands.

  3. Peter Brown



    Dave, there is a lot of Sturm und Drang in California about producing sound bites for renewables. On the ground there is actually very little going forward. For EBMUD it has taken the shape of resolutely sticking their heads in the sand, for venture people it seems that $19 billion to allow kids to instantly say Wazzzup is more important than the eco-system. We make choices, as you know, and some are good and far reaching and others are kinda sad in a way. What can you make biodiesel out of, well to start with every water treatment plant, all the wasted camelina weeds, animal orts and scraps. We need to examine the processors and opt for modern equipment that converts pure FFA into biodiesel. We can liquefy every ounce of methane into more expensive fuels using modern systems. There is a clear path to do it but no one listens when I present these units or push that utility. Digesters should be mandatory in every dairy with more than 200 cows, but they are not. Why stop at biofuels, take out the ammonia from the dairy effluent and make solid fertilizers, we have the technology, as Drew pointed out, we lack both the vision and the cash. I spent 30 years in high tech marketing and PR and was always amazed at how easy you can stampede a herd of VC into a Dot.Com, a new chip, a communicating bauble and be totally incapable of moving one cow in the herd to provide renewable energy systems. FYI, we may disagree, but your letter was thought provoking and well received and I thank you for it.


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