Central California is home to nearly 1.6 million dairy cows and their manure — up to 192 million pounds per day. It’s a mountain of waste and a potential environmental hazard.
But for dairyman John Fiscalini, the dung on his farm is renewable gold: He’s converting it into electricity.
At his farm outside Modesto, a torrent of water washes across the barn’s concrete floor several times a day, flushing tons of manure away from his herd of fuzzy-faced Holsteins and into nearby tanks. There, bacteria consume the waste and release methane, which is then burned in a generator capable of producing enough power to run Fiscalini’s 530-acre farm, his cheese factory and 200 additional homes.
Fiscalini’s resourcefulness should be drawing accolades, considering that state mandates are requiring California industries to boost renewable energy use and slash greenhouse gas emissions sharply over the next 10 years.
But efforts to convert cow pies into power have sparked controversy. State air quality control regulators say these “dairy digester” systems can generate pollution themselves and, unless the devices are overhauled, are refusing to issue permits for them.
The standoff underscores how conflicting regulatory mandates are making it hard for California to meet its green-energy goals.
“We didn’t expect this,” said Michael Gallo, chief executive of Joseph Gallo Farms in Atwater, Calif., whose family has spent “a lot of money” to get its dairy digester system compliant.
The idea of turning biological waste — whether manure, trash or grass clippings — into fuel has been around for centuries. Technologies vary, but the idea is to extract methane from decomposing organic material, remove impurities and burn it for heat, light or transport. Interest boomed after the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on climate change. Methane, considered by many scientists and environmentalists to be as damaging a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, was among the key six pollutants targeted.
Today, the European Union is leading the global charge to turn waste into watts; more than 8,000 biogas operations are up and running in Europe, and thousands more are slated to open in the next decade. The United States, which has not ratified the Kyoto accord, has only about 150 digester projects operating at livestock farms nationwide, said Chris Voell, a manager of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AgStar program, which works with farmers to get such systems up and running.
Researchers have found a new pathway for making jet fuel components from woody biomass, in a discovery that holds promise for helping the aviation industry reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
A paper published today in Science magazine, written by University of Wisconsin, Madison, postdoctoral researchers Jesse Bond and David Martin Alonso, describes the process.
In an interview, Bond explained that the method they discovered builds on a commonly available “platform molecule” called gamma-valerolactone, familiar to biomass researchers as a building block that can be made from woody biomass and used in a variety of applications.
Bond said his team found a way to react that molecule to make the large hydrocarbon molecules that are a key component of jet fuel.
“The molecules that we’re making, they’re almost identical to a normal jet fuel, so you can blend them at will,” Bond said.
The new process does not require large inputs of hydrogen to make the end product, he explained. That’s significant because hydrogen is generally made from fossil fuels, and relying on it for fuel production partly defeats the goal of making a non-fossil fuel.
“A lot of biomass processing technologies resemble a petroleum industry process called hydrotreating, which uses a lot of hydrogen,” Bond said.
Bond said the new process also relies on simple catalysts that are already solid materials, rather than liquids. That makes it easy to separate the processing material from the fuel itself, helping to control cost.
He said it was too early to know how the economics of the process might stack up against conventional jet fuel production. But since the basic input material can be made from a wide range of feedstocks, including woody plants, agricultural waste or even newspaper or municipal waste, different feedstocks might prove economical in different locations.
If we’re going to find a way to fix our long-term energy woes “” whether it’s through biofuels made from algae or through the rise of miniature nuclear-power plants, “” the solution is likely to come from northern California. Yes, in Silicon Valley, the same entrepreneurs who brought us the Internet “” and, O.K., Pets.com “” are exploring new ways to make and use energy. And we’ll need them, as much for our economy’s well-being as for our planet’s.
The research and advisory company Cleantech Group estimates that by 2020, the global clean-tech sector will be worth more than $3 trillion and could account for as much as 15% of some nations’ GDP.
“We know the potential benefit of focusing on energy or electricity is still valid no matter what happens with the climate debate,” says Amit Chatterjee, the CEO of Hara Software and the author of The Post-Carbon Economy.
The problem is that clean-tech startups run on venture capital “” and VC money, like just about every other form of financing, fell off a cliff during the recession, dropping 33% in 2009 compared to 2008. Not to mention that creating a new energy company is much more challenging than building, say, a major dotcom player because energy companies often need lots of capital to finance major manufacturing. “The cost of scaling up capital is a real business risk for us,” says Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of the algal biofuel startup Solzyme.
But help could be coming from an unlikely source “” the giant, slow-moving corporations that many clean-tech startups are trying to replace. According to the Cleantech Networks, which monitors and guides investment in the sector, the next major investments are likely to come from large companies looking to snap up or form joint ventures with spunky start-ups. If done right, the relationship can benefit both sides “” startups get a major name and funding to work with, while Fortune 500 companies can take advantage of insurgent innovation. “Big corporations now want to get an edge on this,” says Sheeraz Haji, the president of the Cleantech Networks. “Clean tech is something big companies see as a growth area.”
Benny Fung, the head of Hong Kong-based soap and cosmetics maker Lutex, seems to have an eye for detail. The meeting room at his factory here in southern China is lined with neatly packed gift baskets. His jacket has a thin purple velvet accent around the lapel to match his purple tie.
Now Fung’s biggest customer — Wal-Mart Stores — is urging him to pay attention to other details. Environmental details. Energy-saving details. Not just everyday low prices, but low greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, Lutex has been paying attention to more efficient light bulbs, better ventilation and less packaging. It switched from Styrofoam to recycled paper and saved enough Styrofoam to cover four football fields. And Lutex, which has been here since 1991, says it treats four tons of wastewater that it used to dump into the municipal sewage line. That water was supposed to be treated by the city, but like three-quarters or more of China’s wastewater, it almost certainly wasn’t.
“We heard that in the future, to become a Wal-Mart supplier, you have to be an environmentally friendly company,” Fung said. “So we switched some of our products and the way we produced them.”
Wal-Mart has more than 10,000 suppliers in China. In addition, about a million farmers supply produce to the company’s 281 stores in China. If Wal-Mart were a sovereign nation, it would be China’s fifth- or sixth-largest export market. So the company hopes that small measures taken by all suppliers start to add up. Its 200 biggest suppliers in China have already trimmed 5 percent of their energy use.
In the past, environmental concerns have taken a back seat to growth in China and to costs for Wal-Mart. And China and Wal-Mart have come under sharp criticism for conditions in factories. Yet pollution now threatens China’s growth; as a result, awareness of climate change and energy security has spread in China. Likewise, as consumers grow more environmentally aware, Wal-Mart’s executives have responded. On Thursday, the company pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2015.
In October 2008, Wal-Mart held a conference in Beijing for a thousand of its biggest suppliers to urge them to pay attention not only to price but also to “sustainability,” which has become a touchstone for many companies.
Energy security concerns and environment have been further embedded in the Budget with a slew of fiscal incentives and budgetary support for green measures.
A National Clean Energy Fund is to be set up to fund research and innovative projects in clean energy technologies. The fund will be fed by an energy cess of Rs 50 on every tonne of coal produced.
The National Solar Mission, with an ambitious target of achieving 20,000 MW capacity by 2030 under the national action plan on climate change, will also be operationalised this year with the ministry of new and renewable energy’s plan budget being increased by 61% from Rs 617 crore to Rs 998 crore. The target: 200 MW grid power and 32 MW equivalent off-grid solar power to be installed in the next financial year.
The United Nations will commission an independent group of top scientists to review its climate science panel in the wake of accusations of sloppy work, a U.N. climate spokesman said today.
The announcement comes following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s admission that it made a mistake in one of its 2007 findings that predicted Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035. The figure should have been 2350. The error has fueled climate change skepticism.
The independent group will look at the way the IPCC operates and will recommend changes. Part of the review will investigate the IPCC’s use of information from outside peer-reviewed academic journals, since a report from campaign group World Wildlife Fund is blamed for introducing the false statement that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 into the IPCC report. Details of the review will be announced next week.
“Yesterday, it was clear from the member states roughly how they would like this panel to be — fully independent and not appointed by the IPCC, but appointed by an independent group of scientists themselves,” said U.N. Environment Programme spokesman Nick Nuttall. The group will likely complete its review and produce a report by August, he said (David Adam, London Guardian, Feb. 26).
India will use a tax on coal to start a national fund to boost renewable energy projects, the country’s finance minister said in his annual budget speech today.
“Harnessing renewable energy sources to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is now recognized as a credible strategy for combating global warming and climate change,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a speech to Parliament.
Domestic and imported coal will be subject to a tax of 50 rupees ($1) per metric ton. Analysts estimate that could raise 25 billion rupees for clean energy programs.
India, the world’s fourth-largest polluter, has already set a voluntary target to cut its carbon intensity, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product. The country has rejected binding targets on emissions because it could stem growth.
There are no specifics about how revenues will be dispersed, but those in the clean energy industry say they expect more attention and policy. Solar equipment, parts for turbines and electric vehicles will be exempt from a production tax, while pumps used to tap geothermal energy will not be subject to an import duty.
Mukherjee also proposed more tax incentives to increase investment in alternative power generation.