The Reluctant Hero of Biofuels….


Developing sugar cane for biofuels. Climate change, increased hunger for energy by emerging markets, along with increased population will drive the increased global demand for biofuels. Photo Source: http://www.bp.com/sectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=9030041&contentId=7055175

Recently, I had written a written an article for Cleantechnica about United Kingdom oil giant, British Petroleum developing two new types of biofuels, in the hopes of them being developed commercially by 2014.

After when the post was released, there was some healthy debate about the role of oil & gas companies playing in the role of biofuel. So far, there has been six comments, including myself.

The comments range from oil companies should not be developing renewable fuels, including this example:

“I’m very skeptical/cynical about any oil, petroleum & gas corporation getting in on biofuels. At the end of the day, even if they say its just their way of helping the planet, we all know it’s about the money.

Can’t wait for most homes to be totally energy self-sufficient. Solar panels on roofs charging their cars in their garages. No need for an electricity company or oil company anymore.”

Other comments on the post took a more nuanced and realistic position of the relationship between biofuels and large oil and gas companies.

“My number one desire is to get us off fossil fuels before we really ruin the climate. If the Koch brothers and big oil are the ones to make it happen, I can live with that.

Whatever replaces coal, oil and natural gas will, in turn, become massively large corporations.  The people who head them will, most likely, be more about corporate profit than common good.  The problem of corporations is something separate from moving to renewable energy, IMO.

Furthermore, I don’t think we’ll get rid of electricity companies.  At least with the technology we have.  Running a backup system is more than most people will be willing to deal with. 

The only practical “self-sufficient” generation tech is solar panels.  It would take a very large amount of storage to be 100% solar in most parts of the world.  And a significant portion of the population does not have the rooftop for solar.

A unified grid with an assortment of generation spread over large areas and operated by trained people makes the most sense to me.  And, at least for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need some liquid fuel. “

Which brings this to where I stand on the whole idea between the marriage (or inconvenient if you like) between the fossil fuel industry developing biofuels along with big agribusiness.

I don’t like the fossil fuel industry. Naw, make that I REALLY DO NOT LIKE THE FOSSIL FUEL Industry. From the British Petroleum US Gulf oil spill in 2010, to the ever infamous Exxon Valdez spill 21 years earlier in 1989, big crude has been more tied to being a big dumb doofus.

Tie that to the onslaught of environmental damage these companies have done in the Alberta oil sands, with the ever hungry appetite to turn land into one big gigantic creator and you wonder if there is one thing to be redeemed about the oil and gas sector at all?

Well, folks, there may be some room to salvage something from both the fossil fuel industry and large agribusiness.

And you ask, how can you say that Adam, do you not hate these creeps? How dare you even say this?

Well, again, I said earlier, I am not a fan of both industries. However, I take a more pragmatic stance here in its relationship regarding renewable fuels.

Both the fossil fuel industry and large agribusiness can have a role to play (albeit reluctant) in at least mitigating climate change through the development of biofuels.

As grudgingly, I will say this folks, oil and gas knows about energy! They know about liquid fuels and how to produce. They have the infrastructure to boost biofuels.

Oil & gas have a lot of capital to develop biofuels necessary to fuel a globalized world.  Case in point, British Petroleum has invested millions in renewable energy, including solar, wind, and especially biofuels.

Other oil & gas companies have some investment in renewable energy also, including Suncor, and Enbridge. Both have got some money in wind and solar.

Meanwhile, big agribusiness not only has a lot of capital, but agribusiness understands something very important that oil and gas does not…. IT knows Farming. Farming is the lifeblood of biofuels. Without agriculture, biofuels would not be as commercially viable. agribusiness know what crops are good, and what crops are bad for biofuels. They know what is efficient and what is not. They know how crops need to be grown, how to convert those crops into fuel, and how to get the most out of any waste that comes from those crops. Farmers know the land. They know how to plant crops. They know how the land can work. You can look at Cargill, Archer Daniel Midlands as classic examples. They have put  money into renewable fuels.

Am I now a cheerleader for the fossil fuel and large agribusiness industry? Of course not! In fact, I think quite frankly we pump too many subsidies into the non-renewable energy. Governments should be looking towards subsidies (if any) towards at furthering renewable energy.  Heck even better a price on carbon would do the trick! Governments need to look at (here is the kicker folks) start-ups and new business. Just like the information revolution twenty or so years ago, the alternative energy revolution will need to be lead by small businesses and brave entrepreneurs. We need to do more to make sure in the long run, smaller renewable companies have a chance at making it big, especially biofuels.

However, in the short run, with climate change, and energy security needed in an ever increasingly populated global world, and growing energy appetite by emerging markets, biofuels may be the best transitional fuel we have until the price of electric vehicles and infrastructure fall. In order to get there,  we will have to rely on the expertise of oil and gas, and big agribusiness to bring biofuels at a commercially viable level for the market, in the short-term.

But hey, in the long run, I look forward to the day by 2035 when BP, Shell, and Exxon are long in their graves. RIP.

Solar Energy Is Just Begginning. But If You Read This Weekend’s Globe and Mail….. It’s On Semi Life Support


The Globe and Mail ‘s Report On Business front page from July 14, 2012. A feature article discussed the “mess” of the solar energy industry. Well is it? or is it just going through growing pains?

Despite some downward pressure on solar prices, thanks to declining production costs in China , the solar industry is in a better state than fifteen to twenty years ago. If someone told me back in 1992 or 1997 there would be a competitive commercialized solar industry in 2012, I would have said, “You have been watching too many science fiction movies”.  But thanks to not only decreased costs in producing solar panels (dropping to US$3.47/watt) , and improved technology, solar energy is at least given a serious look in the energy market. It’s not some granola munching hippy’s fantasy. It’s the real deal.  The global solar photovoltaic market has dramatically increased from US$2.5 billion in 2000 to US$91.6 billion in 2011, according to Clean Edge. Not only that, but solar installations could grow up to 21% this year.

But if you picked up the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (ROB) weekend edition, it would have seemed like the solar industry would need a little bit of CPR.

“The solar business was once hailed as the future of clean energy, but a spectacular spiral has left a trail of failed companies and an industry in peril. Why are the remaining players believe the brightest days are still ahead,?” (P.B1)

Ok, as the article starts, it discusses about how a  tepid global economy and previously mentioned declining costs affecting the growth of solar energy. Then, Richard Blackwell goes further….

“The sector’s problems extend far beyond Ontario. Globally, the solar power industry is a mess.

Just two years ago, solar energy was basking in exponential growth and surging investment, as it promised to be the future of energy. Now it’s picking up the pieces of a colossal bust.

The spectacular downward spiral at solar product manufacturers has left a trail of destruction. Many companies have failed outright, and those that have survived have seen their stock prices plummet as much as 90 per cent.”

I will give the author his due. I believe Mr. Blackwell, put in some effort in making a somewhat balanced article. I will also give credit he does mention that part of the concerns relating to the solar industry now pertain to uncertainty in the global economy, and lowering costs, he gets that right. He also at least tries to give some upside, pointing to a few examples when he talks to some industry insiders.  Take for example, when he talks to Ian MacLellan, a former executive with the recently bankrupt Arise Technologies in Waterloo, Ontario.   He said in the article the solar industry will likely go through a consolidation period and see a few large players.

However, Ian MacLellan here gives us the most important part of why the solar industry will thrive, not die in the future.

“In the next few years, he (MacLellan) predicts, the manufacturing portion of the industry – like its automotive and computer predecessors – will be dominated by very large companies that can generate economies of scale. Meanwhile, downstream users – those buying and installing panels to generate power – will benefit greatly from lower and lower prices. “Solar in the next 10 or 20 years will become totally ubiquitous,” he said.

Bingo, the missing ingredient the author shovelled to near the back of the story.  An important piece to the puzzle tossed to the back of the bus, only to be recovered near the end.

As a former student of economics, one key ingredient in a maturing industry is getting the user-end cost down to make it more affordable for consumers. That will increase future demand.

What is going on right now is building the backbone of the solar energy infrastructure, through the glut of supply in the global market. As that occurs, user-end costs for solar panels will come down, creating necessary future demand. Once it occurs, you will see the adolescent period of the solar energy industry starting to mature, and new opportunities will emerge. For example, as more citizens gain access to solar pv’s there will be increased need to keep up maintenance.

Don’t believe me? It happened in the information technology revolution.  After the initial investment boom in IT in the mid 1990’s, the bust occurred around 2000, and investment shrunk. However, what that initial investment did build the backbone of a flourishing e-commerce, and the building blocks of Web 2.0.

The same can be said with mobile phones. Once the cost came down, it allowed developing nations to leapfrog the landline phone, thus giving those who did not have communications tools previously the ability to phone, text and use the Internet with one device, while building their countries more modern economies.

It will be important for everyone to access renewable energy, given climate change, a growing middle class in emerging market countries, who will want better lifestyles, along with an increased global population will squeeze already scarce natural resources.

Maybe, instead solar’s run as an industry is just beginning, rather than near death.

Globalization Could be an Environmentalist’s Best Friend


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A wind turbine in north eastern, Brazil. Renewable energy, a key aspect in fighting climate change, has grown thanks partly to globalization. Website source- International Business Times. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/22439/20100505/brazil-leads-latin-america-wind-energy-markets-study.htm. Photo Source from site: Reuters.


Is globalization an environmentalist’s best friend or foe? This question is debated by some within the environmentalist community very passionately. As a writer for Cleantechnica.com, who has written about renewable energy stories and its advancements across the globe, along with my environmental economics background from my time at the University of Winnipeg, has helped me understand the complexities of this issue.

One the one hand, Those environmentalists who oppose globalization have sufficient data to support their claim. It has been quite well documented that carbon emission levels since the start of the industrial revolution have skyrocketed. Carbon emission levels have increased from 283 parts per million (ppm) in 1800, to the current CO2 level of approximately 396ppm.

Add to that, carbon emission levels have jumped between 355ppm at the end of 1991 at the end of the Cold War, to now to the current level. If you further investigate these numbers, the biggest jump occurring in this time frame was when China entered into the World Trade Organization back in 2001, jumping from around 370ppm-371ppm level to 396ppm now.

The spike in carbon emissions has contributed to the increase in surface temperature of 1.4 Fahrenheit (0.8 Celcius) in the past one-hundred years. Approximately two-thirds of the increase has occured in the past 32 years.

As the temperature rise, thanks to a fossil fuel based global economy, the Arctic ice continues to dwindle, ecosystems threaten, and more extreme weather increases. The list could go on, and on.

I can understand the concern some of the base on some of the statistics I have rattled off pertaining to carbon emission levels and their stunning jump within the past twenty or so years. I can understand why some would want to blame economic growth. Yes, sadly we as humans waste a lot of natural resources to keep the globalized economic system churning through fossil fuels.

However, I disagree with some of globalization`s opponents that we should go back to wearing sweaters, riding bicycles or composting all the time. It is a lot more challenging than what some of the suggestions Bill McKibben of going to a hyper local economy, and cutting off global trade.

I think globalization, despite its faults, can provide a tremendous opportunity to solve the pressing environmental issues. It was the information technology (IT) revolution that cut the cost in communications, making it possible for those who could not afford communication, before to leapfrog older technologies.

The same is possible for environmental issues. Globalization and the potential to share talent, ideas. Globalization also has the potential of lowering the costs of renewable energy to make it possible for poor countries to leapfrog more polluting technologies and escape energy poverty.

We are seeing the cost continue to fall for renewable energy across the globe. The following text from Clean Edge`s Clean Energy Trends 2012 outlook explains this:

“As noted above, the scale up of renewables is apparent in the rapidly declining costs and resulting
increase in deployment of a host of clean technologies, most notably solar PV. Solar cells, which are
mostly made from silicon (the same basic material used in manufacturing computer chips), are now
exhibiting economies of scale seen in earlier high-tech revolutions such as personal computers and
cell phones. Between 2007 and 2011, solar PV total system costs (including PV modules, balance
of system components, and installation) dropped by more than half, with complete systems being
installed globally in 2011 at an average $3.47 a peak watt or 14 to 23 cents per kWh. Contrary to
Solyndra’s critics who say the industry isn’t ready for prime time, solar is, in fact, becoming increasingly cost-competitive (making it difficult for high-cost providers like Solyndra to survive).

Clean Edge historical data and projections …. show that solar PV is on a steep price decline
that is bringing it into cost parity at the retail level (for residential, commercial, and industrial
applications), and increasingly competitive at utility scale, far sooner than many had projected.“

The report also noted that global investment in solar energy dramatically increased from US$2.5 billion in 2000 to US$91.6 in 2011. Wind energy in the same period from US$4.o billion to US$71.5 billion. Global biofuel investment increased between 2005 (US$15.7 billion) and 2011 (US$83.0 billion).

The analysis given has shown the substantial growth of renewable energy roughly in the past 15 years. I doubt it that renewable energy would have grown significantly without information technology (IT) and globalization. I think as a society we are more well equipped to deploy the technologies needed to create an environmentally sustainable economy now, then right before the end of the Cold War. I think that without the infrastructure from the IT revolution, people would not be as informed about climate change or renewable energy had the IT revolution, or the Internet was not around.

As the paperback edition of the excellent business book Macrowikinomics written by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams put it nicely regarding the sustainable economy:

” The fossil fuel-based economy is coming to an end and a new green energy economy is emerging in it’s place. Like past energy revolutions, there will be great payoffs for the countries and companies that master the new technologies early. The opportunity for new product and service innovation is huge, as is the potential for smart firms to create hundreds of thousands of new high-skill jobs in fields ranging from solar engineering to software.” (P. 100)

Quite frankly, Globalization, despite all of its problems could still end up being an environmentalist’s best friend.

Is the Weather Getting Weird Enough For You?


A flooded street after a heavy rain-storm. Analysts have said recent extreme weather events could be a preview of a changing climate in the future. Photo Source: DEUTSCHE WELLE: http://blogs.dw.de/ice/?p=11207

Is the weather around the world lately getting weird enough for you?

Record breaking high temperatures literally smashing old records to smithereens across the United States. Places that normally that don’t get 100F temperatures often (roughly around 38C in Canada) in the summer have seen consecutive 100F weather in the past two weeks. As of July 6, Washington D.C. had temperatures reaching nine consecutive days of temperatures reaching 95F or above (35C). So far, the US is on record pace to have its hottest summer, ever.

Wildfires in Colorado, thanks to the winter that never came, is charred much pristine forests, while gutting people’s homes in the Colorado Springs area.

At the same time, thunderstorms with a Spanish kick to them, moving almost as fast as a world-class on June 29 from the mid-west U.S. to the eastern seaboard. The derecho thunder-storm knocked out power to nearly a million people in the D.C and Maryland area. That same day, temperatures reached over 100F.

In June, Duluth, Minnesota, from June 19 to 20 received 7.2 inches (or approximately 182.88 millimetres) of rain, breaking a previous two-day record in July 20-12 1909 of 6.7 inches (170.18 millimetres). The interesting thing was much of Minnesota went from the potential of severe drought to little risk of drought, thanks to heavy rains during this period.

Ok, so is the weird weather within North America in the past month STILL not weird enough for you?

Earlier this year, in North America, March temperatures smashed records across the board. Winnipeg alone on March 19 this year reached an amazing 23.7C, with evening thunderstorms. I could even recall my local Safeway having the air conditioning on. Over 15,000 warm temperatures records were blown out of the water in March, 2012 across the U.S alone!

Add to late February and early March’s  off the wall tornadoes that ripped apart parts of Indiana and Illinois, due to unseasonal thunderstorms from unseasonably warm conditions.

Ok, so you still want more “Hard core weather” that has gone on across the planet this year?

March temperatures were 10C above normal across the United Kingdom. Aboyne, Scotland, on March 27 got up to near 23.6C (74.5F), the highest temperature ever recorded for Scotland in March.

And the weirdness is not just confined to record-breaking warmth.

Meanwhile, much of Europe saw the opposite end of extreme weather this year, as much of Europe was in a deep freeze, with Kussamo, Finland reaching as low as -39.2C (-38.6F) in February. Places that normally would not get lots of snow got lots of snow, including Rome Italy.

Climate scientists during this heat wave said this may be a preview of what could come, given the warming climate. The extremes will continue to get hotter, the cold colder. The rains become more heavier, as a warmer atmosphere holds in more water vapor, causing the likelihood of more one time heavy rainfalls. The dries become more drier as a hotter climate will make dry land more arid. Bottom line, the extreme will get more extreme.

Maybe it seems like some great science fiction movie from the mid to late 1980’s or early 1990’s that tried to predict what the early 21st century would look like at this time. You know, Blade Runner, Back to the Future II, Split Second?

What we are seeing right now is similar to a science fiction movie. Unfortunately, it is not a science fiction movie.

Environmental author Bill McKibben in a recent article from the Daily Beast put it very nicely, about what we are seeing going on across the globe.

“Still, you have to admit: for a hoax, it’s got excellent production values.

Consider the last few weeks. Someone turned on the rain machine up in Duluth, Minnesota, where they broke all their old rainfall records (and in an excellent cinematic touch flooded the city zoo with so much water that the seal escaped and swam down the road. You can make this stuff up). And when that was over, the production team hastened to the Gulf of Mexico, turning on the giant fans to conjure up Tropical Storm Debby—the earliest fourth storm of the season ever recorded, which dumped “unthinkable amounts of rain” on central Florida. (Giveaway movie moment: the nine-foot gator that washed into a Tampa swimming pool).

The special effects guys were doing their best in Colorado: first they cranked up the heat, setting a new state record at 115 degrees. And then came the fire stunts! They looked real enough—one Waldo Canyon resident wrote a harrowing account of driving his SUV across soccer fields to escape the blaze, with “a vision of hell in his rearview mirror.” But there were giveaways it was all faked: for one, the “flames” perfectly framed the famous chapel of the Air Force Academy, and on the very day the new cadets arrived. And really, the producers took it a bit too far: they staged a firestorm near the Boulder campus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, forcing the evacuation of the planet’s foremost climate scientists. I mean, c’mon.”

I honestly don’t care for Mckibben’s anti economic growth, hyper local solutions. I come from the school of Thomas Friedman, who believes in taking advantage of globalization in bringing down the cost of renewable energy, and making affordable for the poor and creating new jobs. That would be a lot more realistic and credible solution in mitigating the problem of climate change.

However, McKibben is at least good at diagnosing the problem that still causes confusion.

You can take this all at face value folks. You can admit that the weather is getting weird. You can admit the weather is going to get more wackier, and you can admit to yep, we may have a problem.

Or on the other hand, you can sit back on your couch, watch The Weather Network, (The Weather Channel if you are in the US) or the cable news networks, with a Diet Pepsi and a bag of popcorn, thinking this is James Cameron’s latest greatest science fiction hit movie. Viewer Discretion is advised.

Is this weather STILL weird for you yet?