Sunday, December 27, 2009

Smart People vs. smart grids, cities, homes, meters, etc.

At last count, there were smart cities, smart homes, smart meters, the smart grid, and probably a new smart thing being coined as we speak. What the world of green technology and energy really needs, however, are smart people. I love writing about the new technology and ideas more than anything I've ever written about in previous work, but the fact remains that smart people adhering to the time-worn tenet of environmentalism to reduce, reuse and recycle could do as much, and probably more, than all the green tech marvels for at least a few decades. Perhaps, after that, the science fiction of green tech in the present will become the science fact of green tech in the future, but until then, walking or bicycling to work will make a bigger dent than all the projected barrels of biofuels promised for the coming years. That's not to pick on biofuels. Conservation by humans, by the smart variety, would do more than all the windmills, solar panels, and geothermal projects can do at present to improve our rate of energy usage.

A recent study from the National Research Council confirms my belief in the value of smart people. According to the report, which received some of its funding from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, we could cut our energy use by 30% below 2030 projections simply by taking energy efficiency measures -- like caulking your house against drafts. In fact, a post on Green Inc. cites the study's finding that buildings "account for 41% of the energy used in the United States.” The transportation sector accounts for 28%.

Remember when Candidate Obama was ridiculed for pointing out that keeping your tires properly inflated by checking them with a tire gauge would save more oil than offshore (U.S.) drilling would produce. Offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 bbl. per day by 2030. Sounds like a lot of barrels, except when you consider that we use 20,000,000 bbl. per day now. That's just a 1% increase in production. Properly inflated tires could improve gas mileage by 3%, according to efficiency experts.

But that knee-jerk reaction to Obama's suggestion was just deja vu all over again. President Jimmy Carter was similarly ridiculed in the 1970s for wearing a cardigan in a nationally televised speech and suggesting we lower our thermostats by one degree to conserve energy.

So, all I’m saying is not to lose sight of what we can do with conservation and efficiency alone. Now, not in 2030. But let's not also forget that technology has brought us wonderful advances. A smart person would pursue both avenues of attack. Cut demand now; design for renewable supplies in the future.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Algae oil: a "what-if" niche scenario

In a backchannel email, Robert Rapier asked if I would add one more situation to my list in which algae could become a biofuel niche -- at least 10% of our current fossil fuel usage. The new scenario calls for the genetic manipulation and breeding of a strain of algae that would do more than produce high oil yields. Aurora Biofuels has been working on the first part -- screening for microalgae strains that outperform others in terms of oil yields. And, the company has “further bred its select select portfolio to maximize fuel-production performance and to be cost effective at scale,” according to its web site. The company’s site also predicts it will start commercial production (they use the open pond method) in 2012, with an eventual capacity of at least 10 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

That’s all fine and good, but, that’s only half of what Rapier was hypothesizing. The second part of his scenario would be to continue the genetic manipulation and breeding to create a strain that naturally secretes the oil (lipids) the algae produces. The oil would then be skimmed off the top of the water where the algae is growing, according to Rapier, at “a tiny fraction of the cost and energy input” of the present method of gathering and pressing the algae for its oil.

Farfetched? Well, Rapier says to consider the production of insulin from designer bacteria. Special strains of E. coli bacteria have been developed to produce human insulin after being bred to carry the genetic material that directs the production of insulin in a human's pancreas. With arrarys of tests and just a bit of luck, perhaps some biogeneticist will develop a strain of algae that has the DNA that causes a cell to "sweat" lipids. And, since oil and water don't mix, it would be relatively easy to siphon off the oil alone.

I have not read about anybody doing research in this area, but would be interested to hear if any reader has some information.