What the Election Means for Climate, Energy & Cleantech

Update: Here's a link to C&EN's election story - including new House & Senate leaders in energy-related roles. It's been a quiet time in cleantech news lately, what with Sandy and the election happening in back-to-back weeks. But the election - and the superstorm - are likely to have meaningful long-term impacts on energy policy. I took a tour around the internets to see what analysts and cleantech-ers are saying in their reaction to the election results. Though it was past my usual bedtime, President Obama's victory speech caught my ear when he remarked "We want our children to live in an America . . . that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” With Congress still divided, most policy wonks suggest that any energy and environmental policy changes will have to be led by the White House. Things to watch include any movement to block the Keystone Pipeline or push forward with EPA regulations on smog that were delayed due to cost concerns. Environmentalists have signaled that they will be putting pressure on the President to use national policy to address climate change. Look for Bill McKibben, activist, author and co-founder of climate change group 350.org to be very vocal. He was quoted in three articles I read. Energy and cleantech activists are pressing for a national renewable portfolio standard that would require power generators to obtain 30% of electricity from renewables by 2030. Nearly 30 states and D.C. have such a standard, the most well-known and successful is California’s, which is headed to 33% by 2020. Wind energy backers will work to return the production tax credit. The Washington Post points out that Obama recently spoke about upgrading energy efficiency standards for buildings – codes are currently set by state and local governments. And renewables businesses will be looking for government action that might help them gain financing for facilities or adjust subsidies on competing oil and gas producers. On the other hand, Obama has been pursuing an “all of the above” energy strategy that is likely result in further development of domestic oil and gas (including hydrofracking) resources. Perhaps most fascinating to me, though also the most far-fetched, is discussion about whether the fiscal cliff, tax reform, and the deficit will drive Congress to think about introducing a carbon tax. Hmmmm… My favorite takes so far on the election and energy policy: From the Washington Post: Obama to continue efforts to curb greenhouse gases, push energy efficiency Politico: Obama’s green cred on the line in second term Marc Gunther: For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows? Huffington Post: Ron Pernick on Five Cleantech actions for President Obama...

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A123 Systems Files Chapter 11, Johnson Controls to Buy Assets
Oct16

A123 Systems Files Chapter 11, Johnson Controls to Buy Assets

It looks like it's pretty much all over for A123 Systems. The advanced battery company announced today that it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to reorganize its debts. Johnson Controls, which also makes large-format lithium ion batteries for the auto industry, will purchase facilities and other assets for $125 million. A123 was earlier mulling an offer to sell itself to Chinese auto part maker Wanxiang Group. A123 was one of a host of battery, battery materials, and electric drivetrain companies to receive government money as part of the Recovery Act. The goal was to set up a full manufacturing supply chain to for U.S.-made advanced batteries. Those batteries were intended to go into U.S.-made electric vehicles. A123 received $249 million in government grants. It also has shareholders, who will likely lose their investment in the re-org. Overall, Recovery Act funding for the advanced battery industry totalled $2 billion. A123 Systems stood out - and was most vulnerable to market forces - because it was a tech-driven, pure-play battery company. Unlike Dow Kokam, or Johnson Controls, it has no deep pocketed parent or additional technologies and markets to sell into. (A123 will license back techology for batteries used for stationary storage). And the market A123 sells into is the hyper-oversupplied market for electric car batteries. As we've mentioned recently in this blog, electric cars are selling very, very slowly. A recent article in MIT's Technology Review says battery production capacity in 2013 will greatly outpace demand with 3,900 MW hours of capacity to serve 330 MW of demand, based on estimates from Menahem Anderman at the consulting firm Advanced Automotive Batteries. Needless to say, many production lines are sitting idle at the moment. When A123 was still a young firm, it was selling batteries for power tools to Black & Decker. Indeed, when it went public its S1 filing was based on that partnership. The company certainly had its sights set on what was to be a huge automotive market. But one has to wonder, what would have happened if A123 hadn't received the "free" money? What if it hadn't been swept into the government's big plans to create a new advanced manufacturing industry from...

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Switchgrass Bait and Switch
Aug24

Switchgrass Bait and Switch

Sometimes when you dig a little on Google News you find fascinating nuggets in local news of the topics that we cover here at C&EN. A great example is in Knoxville's alternative newsweekly Metro Pulse.* Newshound Joe Sullivan digs into what ever became of $70 million that the state of Tennessee spent in the flush days of 2007 to start up a switchgrass and cellulosic ethanol industry in the state. The good news on the project is that the promised 250,000 gal per year cellulosic ethanol plant did open, in Vonore, Tennessee. The bad news is that it has not been using any of the switchgrass grown on 5,000 surrounding acres. The switchgrass part of the project involved the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The state figured switchgrass would grow great there. And it seems to have been correct. Sullivan reports that more than half of the $70 million project money went to build the pilot plant. But corporate partner DuPont (now DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol) has used the pilot plant to test and demonstrate its ability to make ethanol from corn stover. Corn stover is a feedstock that is available in huge quantities…. in Iowa. As it happens, DuPont’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant is in Nevada, Iowa, and is set to come online soon. C&EN has mentioned the Vonore plant a half dozen times (including in a previous post on this blog). The move away from switchgrass escaped our attention, but it is an important development for the UT folks and the farmers they have been working with. So what will happen to the 50,000 tons of switchgrass that were harvested by Vonore-area farmers? Read the story to find out. * Edited 8/28 to correct reference to Metro...

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Making Markets for Bio-based Fuels and Chemicals

Minnesota has long been the heart of ethanol fuel consumption. With plenty of corn and corn ethanol facilites - and a lot of drivers in E85 vehicles - the state was an early and enthusiastic supporter of bio-based fuel. But times have caught up with the northern-Midwesterners. Now a new ethanol facility, owned by Gevo and being renovated to make isobutanol from corn, has run into an obstacle in state legislation that prevents the company from selling the alcohol to in-state fuel blenders. According to the Star Tribune, the state's laws only specify that ethanol can be blended with gasoline (at 10% biofuel). Gevo’s Lucerne, Minn. isobutanol plant will have to ship out of state to access the fuel market. Currently the site is being renovated to switch from making corn-based ethanol to isobutanol. Though the goal is to sell into the higher-margin chemicals market, fuels are usually a key destination to make the capacity/revenue equations work out. There’s still time to get that settled, though. Gevo won’t be in commercial production until June, and the state can update the regulation to include other bio-based fuels. The Star Tribune points out that the President of the state’s ethanol trade group, Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association, is also CEO of Highwater Ethanol, which is also considering making isobutanol. Highwater says it is in discussions with Butamax, a joint venture of BP and DuPont and competitor to Gevo. The two firms are been engaged in a major patent dispute. With Gevo poised to be the first in Minnesota to make isobutanol, I’m sure the firm would like to see the law changed sooner, rather than later. Meanwhile, back in Washington, there are efforts to greatly expand the products that carry the USDA BioPreferred label. The program is a labeling/economic development/domestic bio-based materials promotion vehicle. President Obama gave it a boost last week when he signed a presidential memo requiring government agency purchasers to increase the amount of BioPreferred products they purchase. He also asked USDA to double the number of categories and products that are designated BioPreferred over the next 12 months. In the Senate, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has introduced the Grow It Here, Make It Here Bio-based Manufacturing Act which would further invigorate the effort. I’ve been seeing a great deal of support Senator Stabenow’s bill in my in-box, from groups who expect to benefit from a higher profile for bio-based materials. DuPont, Novozymes, and the Biotechnology Industry Association trade group have publicized their support. From a DuPont press release this morning: “The President’s action and the Grow It Here Make It Here bill demonstrate that the administration and policymakers understand the value...

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Palm Oil Not Clean Enough for RFS, says EPA
Jan31

Palm Oil Not Clean Enough for RFS, says EPA

The eco-bonafides of palm oil have been long debated, especially in Europe, and it looks like that cat fight may now move to the U.S. The general charge against palm oil is that plantations devastate rainforests and other native habitats that suck up CO2. That problem seems particularly relevant when palm oil is used to make biofuel; land use changes may undermine any benefit in reducing use of fossil fuels. EPA has put out a notice that palm oil biofuels (diesel) do not meet the agency's standard for climate-change gas reduction in the Renewable Fuel Standard. At a minimum, a renewable fuel has to provide a 20% emissions savings, and biofuels from palm oil rate only as high as 17%. EPA points out that 90% of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and that's where it focused its analysis. In a note, EPA gives two examples of ways that palm oil production fails. "For example, palm oil production produces wastewater effluent that eventually decomposes, creating methane, a GHG with a high global warming potential. Another key factor is the expected expansion of palm plantations onto land with carbon-rich peat soils which would lead to significant releases of GHGs to the atmosphere." EPA has opened a comment period on this ruling, and palm oil producers in Malaysia and Indonesia are very likely to file protests. As reported in the  Business Times of Malaysia, that country is already threatening a trade war. The article also says that the EU has similar restrictions. Palm oil growers who would claim the EPA is biased in favor of trade protectionism would enjoy some company with Chinese solar panel producers who are fighting back against dumping charges from some U.S. solar manufacturers....

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A New Year for Biofuels

Fuel blenders are finding that the New Year is bringing a few changes to their business. Before Congress adjourned for the holidays, it opted not to renew the subsidies for putting corn ethanol into gasoline. Though the subsidy had become a fact of life - and added up to $6 billion last year - the fall of the corn regime was not unexpected. This morning, NPR tried to answer the question of whether anybody would notice the difference, and according to their expert, energy economist Bruce Babcock at Iowa State University, most likely no one will. You can review the segment on the NPR website. I don't yet have a number for 2011 production of corn ethanol, but 2010 was a record year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. U.S. refineries produced 13.23 billion gallons of the stuff. So bear that number in mind for my next item... Totally aside from and unrelated to the generous corn ethanol subsidy that no longer exists, the EPA still requires the blending in of biofuels in its Renewable Fuels Standard, now in its second edition (RFS2). For 2012, EPA says blenders must include 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel* in their fuel mix. That will be equivalent to .06% of all renewable fuel produced in 2012. RFS2 says blenders will need to use 9.23% of renewable fuels in their blends in 2012 - most of that will still be corn ethanol. EPA is tracking 6 cellulosic biofuel projects that are supposed to produce in 2012, and that is how it came up with the number. This is what EPA published at the end of December: KL Energy Corp. is the only facility in the United States currently generating cellulosic biofuel RINs. American Process Inc., Fiberight, and ZeaChem all anticipate completing construction on their production facilities in late 2011 or early 2012 and plan to begin producing biofuel soon after their facilities are complete. INEOS Bio and KiOR are targeting April 2012 and mid 2012 for the start-up of their respective cellulosic biofuel production facilities. The variation in these expected start-up times, along with the facility production capacities, company production plans, and a variety of other factors have all been taken into account in projecting the available volume of cellulosic biofuel from each these facilities. There are a couple of other projects in the works that are likely to be RFS2 candidates, but not this year. Poet has received a conditional USDA loan guarantee and is building a co-located plant (with corn ethanol) in Emmetsburg, Iowa - scheduled for completion in 2013. DuPont now has full ownership of what used to be DuPont Danisco's cellulosic project. No word...

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