Category Archives: Energy

Grow your own fuel?

Whoa, the Seattle Times reports that Washington state is talking about low-interest loans for “biodiesel factories”. Just the fact that they call them factories instead of refineries means they probably are actually hoping that this will take off on a distributed level:

Gov. Christine Gregoire recently proposed low-interest loans for biodiesel factories, and a requirement that diesel sold in the state contain at least some biodiesel. State lawmakers from both parties are vowing to promote similar plans when the Legislature convenes next month. And Congress last summer included a tax credit for biodiesel in its energy bill.

Frankly, this seems very lopsided compared to the information technology revolution that led to the Personal Computer. Companies like Microsoft that kludged together some flimsy DOS system, sold it to a couple big customers and…the rest is history. But the energy age seems to be struggling with generating a reliable source of energy to be converted, rather than the efficiency of doing the conversion itself.

I think growing greens for oils (or processing fish, meat, etc.) might not be the best approach, since you could actually get another use out of the oil first and then process the remaining waste. We still find that each small restaurant produces 20 gallons of waste oil a week, with larger productions reaching 50-100 gallons a week. I will verify that this Friday, but what if you can tap into the waste issues of resort-towns with their close concentration of hotels and affiliated restaurants, or strip malls, or even large malls? It seems best for municipalities and counties to promote that for every 1,000 gallons/week of waste oils they will subsidize establishment of a bio-diesel station. Thus you are not only focusing production of the bio-diesel around a ready supply, but you are also reducing waste/land-fill issues.

I’m not suggesting that farmers shouldn’t grow their own fuel, but it seems to me that it would be better to convert to plain oil and retain flexibility by diversifying output options — they might be able to do a minor conversion to sell to restaurants, manufacturing, energy, etc.

One thing is for certain, beware the opportunists who pose as engineers:

“You have seen a lot of snake-oil salesmen come through with the next best thing,” acknowledged Conklin, the Palouse Biodiesel president.

Both examples in the story (straw-board and beets) illustrate what happens when a concept is marketed and sold as ready for production before it even has been properly tested (quality problems and equipment failures). And because that brings me back to the issues of security in a system development lifecycle (SDLC), I think I’ll categorize this post as security too.

TDI Passats appreciate in value

USA Today reports today that the ’04 and ’05 VW TDIs have appreciated in value, unlike most cars which have depreciated as much as 26%. And when you consider the diesel option actually made the car cost less up-front than the gas engine, bio-diesel powered Passats have turned out to be not only one of the most fun cars to drive but also a good financial and environmental investment.



This red-dot winner seems like a good idea at first glance. It’s a sunbrella/solar-panel. Perfect for beachgoers who need to power those portable air conditioning units or giant portable beer coolers. In fact, this seems like the just the right thing for small villages in the desert that suffer little or no wind, which brings me to my second glance; what happens when the breeze picks up the disc and launches it like a monster frisbee into the monster-truck parked next to the guy with all the muscles? And how do you collapse/store the thing when you don’t want every bird in the harbor to use it for target practice? Ew, messy. Oh, well. At least it looks a lot prettier than the CIA’s new solar and wind energy units, shown below, made by SkyBuilt Power.

The CIA plop and drop

The Petroleum Gap

The latest EPRI* Journal (PDF) has an interesting article about the future of hybrid vehicles and the benefits of new plug-in technology, which has led to the ungainly name of PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles). New York, Kansas City and LA are apparently testing a Dodge Sprinter PHEV and seeing some pretty amazing results.

At current U.S. energy prices — that is with the cost of gasoline at $3 per gallon and the national average cost of electricity at 8.5c per kilowatthour — a PHEV runs on an equivalent of 75c per gallon. And given that half the cars on U.S. roads are driven 25 miles a day or less, a plug-in with even a 20-mile-range battery could reduce petroleum fuel consumption by about 60%.

A PHEV passenger car is said to be able to recharge in three to four hours on a regular 120V (well, regular for the US) outlet, and ideally would be charged at the end of the day when “40% of the generating capacity in the United States sits idle or operates at reduced load overnight.”

I hate to ask but will the diesel version of the Sprinter (based on the Mercedes engine) have a PHEV option? The electric-city/biodiesel-highway vehicle seems like the perfect high-performance low-cost solution to help drive the US economy and military away from the impending petroleum disaster.

* Electric Power Research Institute

Here is one of the graphs from the report, which actually mentions increasing security risks due to petroleum-based energy:

EPRI chart of the US Petroleum Gap