Thursday, September 25, 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A new Biofuels plant.


The following article should provide you with a glimpse of the challenges facing Biofuels of all sorts. It would be helpful to keep in mind that the US consumes every year over 135 billion gallons of fuel and that under 5 billion of them are biofuels.  Note also that Biofuels are not extracted from corn but that there is a controversy about whether using the "stover" affects the ferility of the soil.
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EMMETSBURG, Iowa — Charlie Kollasch, a farmer supplying raw material to a huge new ethanol factory here, stood inside a big red shed on his property, showing off the V-shaped metal frame studded with prongs that he and his son had installed on top of a flatbed truck.
The contraption — “our little Star Wars deal,” he called it — is meant to grip tightly packed bales of corn cobs, husks and leaves, known as stover, on their journey from field to refinery, one of the many logistical tasks that has proved unexpectedly difficult in transforming agricultural waste into biofuel.
“I hope it works,” he said with a shrug, laughing.
He could have been speaking of the industry as a whole. With three major commercial plants in some stage of opening, the business finally appears poised to take off.
For example, the factory that Mr. Kollasch is helping to supply, a joint venture between the ethanol producer Poet and Royal DSM, the Dutch life and materials sciences company, held its grand opening here this month, drawing the king of the Netherlands to this town of roughly 3,800 set among rolling fields of head-high corn.
But the industry still faces deep uncertainties.
The federal government is considering pulling back from an important mandate, one that producers say is necessary if their large-scale plants are to succeed.
At the same time, the market is struggling to absorb the ethanol already in production.
And many technical hurdles remain, which is where farmers like Mr. Kollasch come in.
It has taken years of expensive bioengineering to figure out how to break down tough natural material meant to give plants enough structure to stand upright and convert it to sugars that can be fermented into fuels.
Ethanol producers have also had to persuade farmers to accommodate the collecting and bundling of the agricultural waste they were generally accustomed to tilling under the field or leaving on top to help enrich the soil or control its erosion.
Feeding a new generation of factories that can consume hundreds of thousands of tons of biomass to produce 20 million to 30 million gallons of ethanol a year has meant new costs in labor and equipment.
“Farmers don’t give it away,” said Wallace E. Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, and transportation and storage have added even more expense.
Early estimates put the cost of the waste material at $30 a ton, Mr. Tyner said, but his department now puts it closer to $80.
As a result, the first wave of plants is relying heavily on subsidies, and the Agriculture Department is helping pay some of the costs of obtaining the feedstock.
There are other supports as well. The recently opened Poet-DSM project, for instance, received roughly $20 million from Iowa and about $100 million in grants from the Energy Department.
Ethanol executives say they are working to reduce the costs to make their fuel economically competitive.
“We have to find efficiencies to get the costs in the area that they need to be,” said John Pieper, who manages feedstock operations at DuPont.
The company, he said, has been working closely with PacificAg, a leading biomass harvester, to develop and streamline the supply chain.
“I believe fully this is the way we’ll farm one day,” he said. “It’s just a question of how quickly will we grab that future and maybe bring it into today.”
Hundreds of farmers have signed up to supply the stover, though Mr. Kollasch said the refinery here might have trouble getting all it needs.
For him, the benefits include new income as well as better management of crop residue, which has been increasing over the years as farmers plant each acre of prized black soil here ever more intensively.
There is some debate over the potential harm or benefit of taking the stover away from the fields, and questions remain about how tilling, taking certain amounts of the material or leaving just the stalks and roots affects soil health and productivity.
Also up in the air is the best shape for bales — square or round — to ease transportation and storage and reduce the risk of fires like one that started at the Poet-DSM plant in July.
“We’re tackling a brand-new collection process, a brand-new feedstock, a brand-new production process, brand-new enzymes, brand-new yeast,” Jeff Broin, Poet’s founder, said at the refinery. “You can see, there’s a lot of learning going on.”
The uncertainties have some producers already looking to what’s next.
DuPont plans to market a cellulosic ethanol byproduct from its factory in Nevada, Iowa, as a solid fuel that could be used in place of coal. And it may move into making other products there as well, said Jan Koninckx, global business director of advanced biofuel.
Most of the companies making biofuel from sugars, including Beta Renewables, which operates a large cellulosic plant in Northern Italy, are involved in or are seeking partnerships to allow them to move into the chemicals market, said Andrew Soare, a senior analyst who leads alternative fuels and bio-based materials and chemicals research at Lux Research.
It is the same approach, he said, that many companies making other kinds of biofuel pursued when they shifted their focuses to chemicals that could fetch higher prices than fuel.
“They could just get much higher value for a gallon or a kilogram of their product,” he said.
And Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Agriculture Department, recently urged a group of ethanol producers to focus their businesses on exports, the Defense Department and ethanol byproducts.
That shift is being driven partly by the ebbing demand for gasoline from consumers, who are driving more efficient cars, and industry, which is enjoying the benefits of surging domestic oil production. On top of this, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering cutting by more than 40 percent the amount of advanced biofuels that must be blended into vehicle fuel. A decision, which has been delayed, is still pending.
Still, executives like Mr. Broin are pushing ahead with their projects, expressing confidence that the technologies and processes they have developed over the years, at great public and private expense, will prevail.
In addition to Poet-DSM, giants like Abengoa and DuPont expect to start producing significant quantities of cellulosic ethanol, made from the nonfood parts of the corn plant, in the Midwest within months.
In an office at the Poet-DSM refinery in July, when smoke from the fire still shrouded the fields, Mr. Broin talked about the huge investment of money in explaining why, this time, the business would work.
“There’s, right out the window here, $250 million all ready to roll,” he said.(NYT)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Global Warning

Thefollowing article might be slightly longer than usual and it does not even mention Environmentalism. Yet it speaks to what we discussed last week and to the heart of the subject of chapter 25.
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Francis Fukuyama’s ‘Political Order and Political Decay’
By SHERI BERMAN SEPT. 11, 2014 (NYT)
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in The National Interest
entitled “The End of History?” that thrust him into the center of public
debate. Although often misunderstood and maligned, its central argument
was straightforward and sensible: With the collapse of Communism, liberal
democracy stood alone as the only form of government compatible with
socio-economic modernity. Over the years since, Fukuyama has continued
to argue the case, and has now summed up his efforts with a two-volume
magnum opus that chronicles global political development from prehistory
to the present. A quarter-century on, he remains convinced that no other
political system is viable in the long run, but concludes his survey with a
sobering twist: Liberal democracy’s future is cloudy, but that is because of
its own internal problems, not competition from any external opponent.
Fukuyama began the first volume, “The Origins of Political Order,”
which appeared in 2011, by stating that the challenge for contemporary
developing countries was how to “get to Denmark” — that is, how to build
prosperous, well-governed, liberal democracies. This, in turn, required
understanding what “Denmark” — liberal democracy — actually involved.
Accountability required mechanisms for making leaders responsive to
their publics, which meant regular free and fair multiparty elections. But
elections alone were not enough: A true liberal democracy needed to have its
institutions of accountability supplemented by a central government that
could get things done and by rules and regulations that applied equally to -
everyone.
Fukuyama showed how throughout human history these three factors
had often emerged independently or in various combinations. China, for
example, developed a state long before any existed in Europe, yet did not
acquire either the rule of law or political accountability. India and much of
the Muslim world, by contrast, developed something like the rule of law
early on, but not strong states (or, in much of the Muslim world, political
accountability). It was only in parts of Europe in the late 18th century,
Fukuyama noted, that all three aspects started to come together
simultaneously.
“Political Order and Political Decay” picks up the story at this point,
taking the reader on a whirlwind tour of modern development from the
French Revolution to the present. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious. He
wants to do more than just describe what liberal democracy is; he wants to
discover how and why it develops (or does not). So in this volume, as in the
previous one, he covers a vast amount of ground, summarizing an
extraordinary amount of research and putting forward a welter of arguments
on an astonishing range of topics. Inevitably, some of these arguments are
more convincing than others. And few hard generalizations or magic
formulas emerge, since Fukuyama is too knowledgeable to force history into
a Procrustean bed.
Thus he suggests that military competition can push states to
modernize, citing ancient China and, more recently, Japan and Prussia. But
he also notes many cases where military competition had no positive effect
on state building (19th-century Latin America) and many where it had a
negative effect (Papua New Guinea, as well as other parts of Melanesia). And
he suggests that the sequencing of political development is important,
arguing that “those countries in which democracy preceded modern state
building have had much greater problems achieving high-quality
governance than those that inherited modern states from absolutist times.”
But the cases he gives as examples do not necessarily fit the argument well
(since Prussia’s state eventually had trouble deferring to civilian authorities
and the early weakness of the Italian state was probably caused more by a
lack of democracy than a surfeit of it). In addition, he surely understands
that authoritarianism is even more likely to generate state weakness than
democracy since without free media, an active civil society and regular
elections, authoritarianism has more opportunities to make use of
corruption, clientelism and predation than democracies do.
Perhaps Fukuyama’s most interesting section is his discussion of the
United States, which is used to illustrate the interaction of democracy and
state building. Up through the 19th century, he notes, the United States had
a weak, corrupt and patrimonial state. From the end of the 19th to the
middle of the 20th century, however, the American state was transformed
into a strong and effective independent actor, first by the Progressives and
then by the New Deal. This change was driven by “a social revolution
brought about by industrialization, which mobilized a host of new political
actors with no interest in the old clientelist system.” The American example
shows that democracies can indeed build strong states, but that doing so,
Fukuyama argues, requires a lot of effort over a long time by powerful
players not tied to the older order.
Yet if the United States illustrates how democratic states can develop, it
also illustrates how they can decline. Drawing on Huntington again,
Fukuyama reminds us that “all political systems — past and present — are
liable to decay,” as older institutional structures fail to evolve to meet the
needs of a changing world. “The fact that a system once was a successful and
stable liberal democracy does not mean that it will remain so in perpetuity,”
and he warns that even the United States has no permanent immunity from
institutional decline.
Over the past few decades, American political development has gone
into reverse, Fukuyama says, as its state has become weaker, less efficient
and more corrupt. One cause is growing economic inequality and
concentration of wealth, which has allowed elites to purchase immense
political power and manipulate the system to further their own interests.
Another cause is the permeability of American political institutions to
interest groups, allowing an array of factions that “are collectively
unrepresentative of the public as a whole” to exercise disproportionate
influence on government. The result is a vicious cycle in which the American
state deals poorly with major challenges, which reinforces the public’s
distrust of the state, which leads to the state’s being starved of resources and
authority, which leads to even poorer performance.
Where this cycle leads even the vastly knowledgeable Fukuyama can’t
predict, but suffice to say it is nowhere good. And he fears that America’s
problems may increasingly come to characterize other liberal democracies as
well, including those of Europe, where “the growth of the European Union
and the shift of policy making away from national capitals to Brussels” has
made “the European system as a whole . . . resemble that of the United
States to an increasing degree.”
Fukuyama’s readers are thus left with a depressing paradox. Liberal
democracy remains the best system for dealing with the challenges of
modernity, and there is little reason to believe that Chinese, Russian or
Islamist alternatives can provide the diverse range of economic, social and
political goods that all humans crave. But unless liberal democracies can
somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay,
history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper.