Editor's Note

Power Generation: A Small, Critical Role for Biodiesel
By Tom Bryan | November 20, 2007
A new film about the planet's dwindling oil resources has been released, and although I haven't seen it, a recent article about the documentary, "A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash," impelled me to think about the role of biodiesel in the speculative context of peak-oil-induced global upheaval.

The 90-minute film tells the hypothetical story of how our civilization's addiction to oil has put the human race on a collision course with geology. The makers of the documentary ultimately come to the "startling, but logical" conclusion that "our industrial society, built on cheap and readily available oil, must be completely reimagined and overhauled." Their premise is that the world's viably retrievable oil supplies have peaked-or will soon-and the consequences will be cataclysmic. The film shows "stark images of rusting Texan and Venezuelan wells, and fuel riots in Asia and Africa," reports the U.K. news source Guardian Unlimited. "Such scenes will be repeated thousands of times around the planet in the near future, argue the film's makers, who say the world is facing changes 'more frightening than a horror movie.'"

The Guardian article says the film supposes that as oil prices soar and production falters, the world will hurtle into a future of intense battles over dwindling oil supplies. "All across Asia, particularly in India and Bangladesh, farmers use diesel generators to pump water in and out of their fields," said David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock, in the article. "If oil prices soar, they will not be able to afford to irrigate their crops. The result could be starvation and food riots."

That bleak future stands in contrast to one in which biodiesel plays an increasingly important role globally, not just as a transportation fuel but in important stationary power applications as critical as powering irrigation pumps or as discretionary as providing residual electricity at rock festivals. What's more, biodiesel can be used in distributed power and large-scale electricity generation applications. In fact, that will soon happen in Hawaii, a state that's almost totally reliant on imported oil for transportation fuels and electricity generation. Hawaiians, like some Indian farmers who depend on diesel for power, are weary from decades of utter petroleum dependency, and they're ready for change. In October, Hawaiian Electric Co., which along with its subsidiaries provides electricity to 95 percent of Hawaii's 1.2 million residents, filed an application with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission for approval of a biodiesel supply contract for its new 110-megawatt power plant. The plant will require 5 million to 12 million gallons of locally produced biodiesel per year-not enough to significantly impact the biodiesel industry, but a significant step toward helping Hawaii to reduce its dependence on petroleum and achieve a more sustainable and self-sufficient energy future.

These unheralded, incremental transitions from imported petroleum to domestic biofuels are precisely the sort of "overhauls" that the makers of "A Crude Awakening" say are necessary to prevent the outcome depicted in their film. While the threat is hypothetical, the solutions aren't. Again and again, biodiesel is part of the solution.

Tom Bryan
Editorial Director
[email protected]
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