Friday, November 5, 2010

On the Verge of a Biofuel Breakthrough?

Wednesday we cruised past a dock where Scott Paper has a shipping terminal. On the bank was one huge pile of sawdust and another huge pile of bark mulch.  Nearby a crane was stacking tree trunks with as dispatch, ends butted neatly like soda straws in a dispenser.

As we cruised towards Columbus, Mississippi, I checked the local paper to see what I could learn about sustainable energy projects here.  Apparently I had just missed a local Rotary Club meeting where the speaker proclaimed that "Mississippi is poised to become a national leader in renewable energy production."  And the reason:  The state's abundant timber.

A company is gearing up to open three plants--one of them in Columbus--that will generate crude oil from lumber.  ( Earlier this fall, the state legislature put in place an incentive program for programs like this.)  The company, KiOR, claims to have found a catalyst that lets them do in days or weeks what nature does in millennia: Make oil from organic matter.  

Bald cypress swamp on the Tenn Tom
On other sustainable energy fronts: Beside forest land, Mississippi also has lots of poultry farms, which means lots of "poultry litter," or bedding material soiled with manure. The stuff can and has caused serious water pollution problems.  One poultry farmer has a solution: Make methane.  John Logan has a patent pending on the digestor he developed, and went from spending $75,000 a year on power (chicken houses must be heated and lighted) to getting a paycheck from the power company for the energy he feeds into the grid. Similar projects are in development elsewhere in the state.

Also in this week's news:  The Tennessee Valley Authority is retrofitting a local landfill to capture methane gas emissions. They'll go to power a local paper mill.

Main Street, Aberdeen, Mississippi 
All these projects sound promising . . . feasible . . .  worthwhile. (Though I would like to know, what kinds of trees would be used to make oil from lumber?  Native? Exotic? Fast growing?  How much land mass needed to grow enough for a profitable business? Environmental impacts of the timber harvest?)

Earlier this week we stopped over in Aberdeen, Mississippi, a former cotton port known for its diverse collection of architecturally interesting antebellum and Victoria homes.  We borrowed the marina courtesy car to take the tour, goggling at the slate roofs, skylights, friezes and porticos . . . but also feeling a bit depressed by the decayed state of some of the properties.

Wandering down Main Street, we spotted a storefront with a professional looking green-and-blue sign that read "Benefuel" with some additional language about biodiesel.  Peering inside, we saw the store was empty except for cleaning supplies. Setting up or tearing down?

Looking online, I found a company website--with no info about the company's location, officers, or current activities.  I also found that the domain name "benefuel.com" is for sale.

Looking further, using the search terms "Aberdeen" and "biodiesel," I learned about an unrelated local project: A biodiesel refinery slated for construction in Aberdeen, completion date late 2009, to make fuel from such waste products as chicken fat.  Wow, was it done? Could we see it?

Apparently not. Later newspaper stories said the project had been relocated to Houston after the company failed to secure state economic support because of "adverse news stories."  No evidence the project opened in Houston.  

Meanwhile a company employee was convicted in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud the USDA in its biofuels subsidy program. (He was sentenced to 5 years in prison).

Once upon a time I talked to a guy whose media company focused on environmental issues.  How did he choose this line of work? I asked, expecting him to say he was an avid outdoorsman, grew up hunting, or camping, or fishing.  

Naw, he said, I read the papers.  I see this eco-stuff is a trend.  I saw a business opportunity. 

So what's the point here?  

I want to believe this kind of fraud is rare.  I believe that granting agencies are cautious and do their due-diligence.  I  believe most energy entrepreneurs have the best possible intentions.

But I don't actually know.  Where do you get data on the incidence of fraud in government-supported sustainable energy development programs?    

If you know more, I'd like to hear from you.

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