Biofuels score big, but can they cut oil imports?

Biofuels have stormed forward with a series of advances that could give the sometimes maligned alternative energy sector a major boost.

On the federal side, President Obama has allocated $510 million to produce the fuel for military jets and ships and commercial vehicles. And the Army has established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force, which is charged with figuring out how to meet a 25 percent renewable energy goal by 2025.

A national security issue

Much of the task force's efforts could be directed to biofuels. Oil dependence has long been considered a national security issue. A 2006 report by the Council on Foreign Relations said the United States must manage the consequences of unavoidable dependence on foreign oil. “The longer the delay, the greater will be the subsequent trauma,” the report said.

This week, Obama emphasized the importance of biofuels to energy security, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said, "America's long-term national security depends upon a commercially viable domestic biofuels market."

But it won't be easy. Obama's plan is to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, with 20 billion gallons coming from advanced biofuels, 15 billion gallons from corn ethanol and one billion gallons from biodiesel.

Biofuel targets by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2012 are about 9 percent greater than the previous year and show a modest but increasing role for non-corn biofuels. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that a percentage of fuel sold in the country contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel.

What exactly is biofuel?

Biofuel is a pretty broad category that includes ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, gas-tank-ready isobutanol and, depending on how it's classified, algae fuel. But biofuel manufacture requires energy and, like petroleum products and coal, burning it creates greenhouse gases. Similar to natural gas, those emissions aren't as bad, but the distinction marks its green credentials with an asterisk.

Ethanol, which remains a widely used gasoline additive, may have lost some of the momentum it had five years ago, especially that derived from corn. However, research and development appear undeterred.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a team of researchers at believe they have "pinpointed the exact, single gene that controls ethanol production capacity in a microorganism." The discovery, officials say, could prove the missing link in developing biomass crops that produce higher concentrations of ethanol at lower costs.

“This discovery is an important step in developing biomass crops that could increase yield of ethanol, lower production costs and help reduce our reliance on imported oil,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.

New biofuel discoveries

Further underlining my premise for acceleration in biofuel development  is yet another announcement from the DOE, this time about two promising biofuel production methods. Both are referred to as "drop-in" biofuels technologies because they can directly replace or be used in lieu of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel without alteration to engines.

The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, which received $35 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate biofuel development, selected the "technology pathways" for extra attention.

The consortium plans to develop the technologies to a "pilot-ready" stage over the next two years. One of the two methods focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be biologically and chemically converted into a renewable diesel and is dubbed FLS, for fermentation of lignocellulosic sugars. The second, catalysis of lignocellulosic sugars, or CLS, focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be chemically and catalytically converted into gasoline and diesel fuel.

Speed is important, partners needed

"Biofuels are an important part of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home," Obama said, adding that the job requires partnering with the private sector to speed development.

Officials said that to accelerate the production of bio-based jet and diesel fuel for military purposes, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of the Navy Mabus have developed a plan to jointly construct or retrofit several drop-in biofuel plants and refineries.

Oil remains the dominant player

The United States relies on imported oil for 49 percent of its fuel supply, but about half of that comes from the Western Hemisphere with Canada at the top with 25 percent, followed by Venezuela's 10 percent and Mexico's 9 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Some 12 percent of the nation's imports come from Saudi Arabia.

And while U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined since peaking in 2005, the cause can be traced to the recession, improvements in efficiency and various changes in consumer behavior, the EIA says. "At the same time, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), and strong gains in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas plant liquids expanded domestic supplies and reduced the need for imports," officials say.

Undoubtedly that biofuel percentage will rise. The next decade will be the test.

At the Advanced Biofuels Markets exhibition and seminars Nov. 8 to Nov. 11, 2011 in San Francisco, the topic will be "How are we going to get from 6.6 million gallons in 2011 to 20 BILLION gallons in 2022?" It will be a good place to learn more than you wanted to know.

Photo: Courtesy

Top 8 clean energy job sectors for Class of 2011

Listening to the graduation speeches made my mind wander.

In between a lot of "hopes," "follow your dreams" and reminisces that could have been read from an old Archies comic, I thought of the reality facing the class of 2011. It isn't pretty. High jobless rates, declining wages and an uncertain economy add up to a fast-food career. For all the pundits know, the United States is on track to follow Japan's 20 years of economic malaise.

Yeah, I'm a cynic. Twenty-four years of journalism can do that.

So I tried to imagine a better spin. Where are the bright spots?

For almost two years now, I've worked on the outskirts of clean energy and energy efficiency, consuming all the news I can find on the direction of this business. From what I can tell, it's about to take off on a number of fronts. But the rush just isn't there -- yet. And some technologies may go bust.

However, some clean energy sectors show promise for job growth. Here's a look at some that crossed my desk recently that may even give a philosophy major a chance at a job:

1. Electric cars -- The era of a fossil-fuel free automobile provides untold opportunity and likely a dump truck load of challenges for engineers, planners, mechanics and sales people. Here's a mode of transportation straight out of movie version of a Phillip K. Dick sci-fi novel. How it's really going to work nobody really knows. But many of us have high hopes. Planners will have to figure out how to install sufficient recharging stations. I foresee business owners getting into the picture. Imagine ads like this: "Low on power? Stop by the Sports Grill. Free charge with two draft beers. Micro brews extra." And tow truck drivers should be in an excellent position to retrieve vehicles with bone-dry batteries.

2. Energy storage -- Should renewable energy continue its expansion and even accelerate its development, a big push will be on finding ways to sequester that power for later use. Wind turbines generate energy when the wind blows and sit idle when it doesn't. Likewise, solar panels don't do a lick of good when the sun sets. With nuclear looking like a dim variable these days because of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster, utilities are scrambling not only with electrical grid upgrades but for a power source that can complement these down times. Ucilia Wang of Earth2tech reports on a promising development from General Electric that incorporates natural gas-fueled power plants with renewable energy. The natural gas kicks in when power generation from the other slows. "This hybrid power plant strategy could be even more effective in promoting renewable electricity generation than any plan to sell stand-alone solar or wind farm equipment," Wang writes. There you go. Other ideas like water storage for later generation need to be refined by engineers and the solutions marketed to cities and power companies across the nation. And here's one that boggles the mind: A pilot project for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority would use lithium-ion battery technology to store captured energy from rail cars "through a regenerative braking process and then utilize the energy for accelerating trains," according to a statement. This would supply "megawatt level energy storage" and potentially 32 more projects. Jobs would materialize in construction and across the board as projects of all sorts crank up.

3. Wind -- From offshore on the East Coast to farm fields in Eastern Washington, this sector is gaining speed. California's Sierra Mountains offer great promise of continued development. Construction has started on a 120-megawatt wind turbine project near Tehachapi started early in 2011, and the Tehachapi Wind Energy Storage Project was recommended by the California Energy Commission for $1 million in Public Interest Energy Research Program funds. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison has invested heavily in its Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, which will deliver the energy to market. Construction on the project is now under way. And that's just a sliver of what's going on. Jobs in construction and maintenance are just the obvious ones. Development and innovation will continue, employing scientists, engineers and support teams.

4. Energy efficiency -- Long considered the "low-hanging fruit" of conservation efforts, energy efficiency is also the most cost-effective and simple to do. In fact, many solar installers ask homeowners to also get an energy audit. Auditors identify areas in a house where energy conservation measures can complement a new solar system. This sector extends to municipal buildings, commercial buildings and anything that uses power, like street lights. At the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, we administer energy efficiency projects for 36 jurisdictions in two of our grants that will save 5.4 million kWh. Jobs in this sector aren't huge unless weatherization is factored in. I also expect a massive shift in design as lessons learned in the past few years are incorporated into future building plans. That will mean more jobs for those who can develop and market products that enhance energy efficiency. Insulation companies may expect to do a bang-up business, for instance.

5. Building information modeling -- This may be a sleeper. Building information systems are expected to become increasingly important and complex, enabling programmers to optimize environmental controls and save money. Cost savings in a building with such features can save a third or more over a conventional building in which each thermostat, light and utility system is operated by hand. While it sounds like something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," this management practice is all the rage in high-rise towers and smaller commercial buildings. Homes may not be too far behind. Jobs would be in computer technology, development, installation and operation and maintenance -- all relatively high-tech and well paid. Of course, nobody wants to hear the mainframe say something like HAL 9000 told spaceman Dave: "I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."

6. Climate change -- This one may be contentious, but the data, melting polar ice and weird weather give even the biggest doubter pause. Nation magazine columnist Alexander Cockburn rightly points out the flaws in the technical arguments (read his "Anthropogenic Global Warming is a Farce" article for an blatant example of what opponents cite.) However, even if we're just experiencing a temporary warming trend similar to the "highly inconvenient Medieval Warm Period, running from 800 to 1300 AD, with temperatures in excess of the highest we saw in the 20th century," it will still mess with Bangladesh, New Orleans and any other seaside concentration of humanity. There will be huge challenges, leading to all sorts of suffering and economic disaster and, of course, opportunity for the forward-thinking municipal planners and entrepreneurs. Likewise, the air isn't getting any better and won't until we figure out a way to slow or stop pumping millions of tons of pollutants into the skies every minute. Jobs include scientists, movers, engineers and every level of medical practitioner.

7. Solar -- We came across a list of 93 solar projects representing 64,000 acres of panels planned for the San Joaquin Valley. These are the projects that have no problem passing state wildlife review. That's huge, and the scenario is likely being repeated elsewhere across the country where sunny days outnumber cloudy ones. I believe that once those Valley projects are built, others will follow. Analysts and people in the business agree that solar power will reach cost parity with fossil fuels in five years or less. That means solar will go nuts. Expect every rooftop in the Valley to have solar. At least owners will be scheduling installation or thinking about it after receiving the AC bill.

8. Biofuels -- This is one of my favorites. Advances in algae fuel are bringing the concept of farming pond scum for your car closer to reality. Isobutanol and cellulosic ethanol offer very real returns. And biodiesel from various crops shows increasing promise as crude oil prices creep up and show every indication of remaining high. Jobs? Who the heck knows? This is a big variable that could rattle the entire industry, shake up the Middle East and provide national energy security or go the way of cold fusion. I'm hoping for the former.

So there's hope. Jobs won't look like they did. But will evolve.

I often wonder what will become of journalism now that my beloved newsprint sector has dwindled to near extinction. Maybe the electronic newsroom will experience a resurgence and drag old veterans like myself back for another shot at daily news glory. Maybe not.

Whatever happens, I just hope clean energy offers our graduates opportunity. And decent pay.

Photo: My wife Peggy and son Calvin at Clovis High School graduation. That's me in the background with my granddaughter on my shoulders.

Cool new fuel: Scientist leads innovation that could spur biofuel revolution

James Liao may be one of the most important people in the nation's energy sector.

And while his name may be unfamiliar to just about everybody not intimately involved with biofuel innovation, that could quickly change.

He leads a team that has developed a microbe capable of turning cellulosic material, or grassy and woody matter, into isobutanol, a fuel with huge potential. Just how huge, we'll likely find out in coming months. But suffice to say it's important, especially with gas prices pushing $4 per gallon.

This fuel is a far bigger deal than ethanol, which is made in this country from corn. Liao's team's feat is the first time isobutanol has been coaxed directly from cellulose.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline," Liao said in a statement from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification."

The last sentence is a big one. It certainly captured my attention.

Liao's statement implies that should this process reach commercialization at a cost consumers will accept, the United States has a shot at providing an alternative fuel at a reasonable price to compete with foreign oil. Don't expect panacea, or cure-all, but an alternative fuel that could substitute for refined petroleum would no doubt exert economic pressure on retail fuel prices.

The conflict in Libya between Gadhafi and separatist forces shut off the oil production spigot in that country and illustrates what eliminating a small percentage of the world's crude can mean to prices. At this writing, the price remained above $100 per barrel, according to, but showed a decline. And the one year forecast dropped by about $10.

Injecting an alternative source, cellulosic isobutanol for instance, likewise could push prices lower -- perhaps far lower.

But, as energy seer Paul Johnson just told me, it's hard to tell initially future junk bonds from the next Microsoft. And that may be the case here. But I hope not.

Paul is executive director of the nonprofit I work for, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization and just returned to Seattle after attending REXPO, the recycling exposition in Stockton, Calif. put on by Frank Ferral with the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce.

Paul said clean energy opportunities abounded at the event and noted "very positive energies given the fact of the economic gloom and doom."

Liao wasn't at REXPO, but he is one of clean energy's bright spots. He serves as chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California Los Angeles Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The isobutanol work was conducted at the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The team's findings were published online in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the advance "yet another sign of the rapid progress we are making in developing the next generation of biofuels that can help reduce our oil dependence."

Chu said the technology promises the potential of a new industry that can convert wheat and rice straw, corn stover, lumber wastes and specialty plants into fuel.

DOE has given extra attention to the biomass sector of late, offering a series of webinars on the subject that even included algae, another of my cool fuel picks. The agency is coordinating peer review meetings of advancements on various processes that will continue through June 2011. DOE plans to use the information as it considers future funding decisions.

Expect Liao to continue making news in the cellulose sector. Last year, he was awarded the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The award, according to a story for the UCLA Engineering Department by Wileen Wong Kromhout, promotes research on and development of less-hazardous alternative technologies that reduce or eliminate waste.

In the story, Liao sounds committed to providing an alternative to fossil fuels. "It is essential to develop a renewable source to replace petroleum as the major chemical and energy source," he says.

I know a bunch of guys on my street in Clovis, Calif. who would maybe turn their noses up at the concept of plant fuel. But if it enables them to keep their mondo lift Chevy trucks on the road, they'd be big supporters.