About John Davis

Domestic Fuel welcomes our newest blogger, John Davis. John is a 20 years+ veteran of traditional news and is getting his first taste of this "new media." We've known John since Chuck hired him to work at the Brownfield Network in January, 2000 after he served an 11 year stint in the U.S. Air Force as a broadcast journalist. John lives in Jefferson City, Missouri with his wife, two sons, two dogs, a cat, a mouse, and a fish! You can read more about him and his thoughts at his own website John C. Davis Online.

Crumbling Infrastructure Hurting Rural Ethanol & Biodiesel Industries

Rural America’s infrastructure challenges cut to the heart of the six challenges outlined during this morning’s session of the Farm Foundation’s Food and Agriculture Policy Summit being held in Washington, D.C.

As you might have read on my earlier post over on AgWired.com, this morning, Farm Foundation Pres. Neil Conklin outlined the six major areas of challenges facing agriculture over the next 30 years: 1. Global financial markets and recession, 2. Global food security, 3. Global energy security, 4. Climate change, 5. Competition for natural resources, and 6. Global economic development. Gene Griffin with the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University told the group attending today’s Farm Foundation session that a crumbling rural infrastructure, in particular, the roads, touches each one of these six challenges and threatens to make them even worse.

“The engineers will tell you [the pavements] look OK on the surface, but underneath it is starting to crumble.” Griffin says by the time the damage is clearly noticeable, it costs two to three times as opposed to normal maintenance and repair.

“Just getting the political will of people to pay for systems they want to use… but they’ve gotten used to the idea they don’t necessarily have to pay for it. And I think those are two huge problems.”

Griffin says in his home state, where rural roads are seeing a huge amount of big trucks working the biodiesel and ethanol industries and North Dakota’s burgeoning petroleum industry is also taking a toll, that infrastructure needs the funding… although it might not see the same amount of traffic a higher-density population area would see. He says if the cities want the fuels that are produced in rural areas, we need to develop a system that links the high-density traffic areas with the low-density ones.

He says it comes down to deciding if we’re going to pay for the infrastructure that will help us be more energy independent now at a lower price or at a much higher price… down the road.

Listen to my entire conversation with Gene here:

Download the audio here.

ADM: We Can Have it All… Food & Fuel

The world’s population will grow by 33 percent by the year 2040, but the amount of farmland to feed and fuel that growing demand won’t have to grow by that same one-third… that’s what attendees at the Farm Foundation’s Food and Agriculture Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. heard this morning.

Greg Webb from Archer Daniels Midland gave that optimistic assessment as he told the group increasing efficiencies in production agriculture would help meet the growing demands while adding only a disproportional smaller amount of land to the production mix.

“Agriculture’s role is not one of conflict between food or fuel. It is one that is quite compatible. Producing more food results in more fuel being produced as well.”

Webb says more efficient practices will give farmers, who are already are being pretty efficient compared to just recent history, an even greater opportunity to produce both the food and fuel the world demands, as long policies don’t get in the way.

“We need to have policies that allow those innovations and investments express themselves.”

Webb adds Pres.-elect Obama’s new Cabinet will have a great impact on how those policies play out.

You can hear my conversation with Greg by clicking here:

Download the audio here.

Biodiesel Board Blasts Biofuel Plantations Report

The National Biodiesel Board is taking exception with a report that seems to equate unsustainable practices to produce biodiesel in some parts of the world with what American biodiesel producers are doing

In a statement from Manning Feraci, Vice President of Federal Affairs at the NBB, the group takes aim at the report titled, “Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate” :

“The U.S. biodiesel industry does not support or condone practices that cause the destruction of sensitive ecosystems such as rainforests in Southeast Asia. In fact, credible science has repeatedly shown that the vegetable oils and animal fats produced in the U.S. and used for biodiesel production are sustainable and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions when compared to fossil fuels. This information was unfortunately not acknowledged in this study.

“It is interesting that throughout this study, the authors repeatedly acknowledge shortcomings in the data necessary to make definitive determinations on greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, the paper notes:

‘Our study has some important limitations. First, the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions contains uncertainties because of necessary assumptions and the limited empirical basis of some published figures.’

NBB officials say that biodiesel, produced from sustainable U.S. feedstocks, can be a key part of America’s strategy to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. They fault the researchers for trying to use inexact science and incomplete data to possibly to try affect America’s commitment to biofuels.

Biofuels Key Part of Conversation at Farm Foundation Meeting

It was a pretty amazing event today at the Farm Foundation’s Food and Agriculture Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. today.

Seven former Secretaries of Agriculture (six in-person and one by videotape) debated the future of agriculture in America, especially what the immediate future would hold for the next person to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A big part of this historic, bipartisan conversation was the role of biodiesel and ethanol, as well as other sources of renewable fuels.

John Block, who served as Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Ag Chief, said there’s too much infighting within the agriculture community over renewable energy.

“We’re one family in agriculture. We shouldn’t be fighting each other. I think there’s been too much fighting in the family over this food and fuel issue.”

Block says we can’t take our eye off the ball of getting energy from all sources. He says the recent drop in oil prices won’t last.

Listen to Block’s comments here:

Download the audio here. (mp3)

MN Extends Biodiesel Grants Deadline

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has extended its deadline to apply for grants to help the state’s biodiesel industry.

This press release from the department says the new deadline is Friday, December 12, 2008:

A total of $300,000 in funds is available to the owners of facilities that supply petroleum products to customers who sell, use, or transport fuel in the state of Minnesota. The facilities should be located on or near a petroleum terminal and have an infrastructure that can be designed to blend cold weather biodiesel with conventional diesel fuels. Cold weather biodiesel is a high-quality biodiesel blend that can be used successfully year-round, even in the coldest climates.

Grant funds may be used to offset the cost of necessary infrastructure equipment including but not limited to tank, pipe, valves, meters, pumps, and heating equipment plus the cost of engineering, fabrication, and installation.

Officials admit that they received no applications by the Nov. 28th, 2008 deadline… the day after Thanksgiving… but many had expressed an interest and said they just needed more time to do their applications.

More information is available at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture web site: www.mda.state.mn.us. Click on Grants, Loans & Financing.

State & Federal Money Help MO Biodiesel Startups

The construction industry might be struggling a bit these days, but biodiesel plants are still being built… with some help from federal and state programs that are backing the capital to get these startups going.

As an example, a Missouri-based biodiesel maker has received some help to get their proposed biodiesel plant and soybean crushing facility off the ground. This story from Biodiesel Magazine has details:

Moberly, Mo.-based Producers’ Choice Soy Energy LLC has received a $9.5 million construction loan from Advantage Capital Partners, a venture capital and small business finance firm. The loan was made possible through state and federal tax programs, including the Missouri New Markets Development program, that are designed to stimulate growth in underserved communities.

The funding will be used to support the construction and operational needs of a soybean processing plant and 5 MMgy biodiesel production facility. The soybean crush will process up to 250 tons of soybeans per day for use in biodiesel processing. In addition, 65,000 tons of extruded soybean meal will be produced annually.

The plant is scheduled to be finished this coming February.

Lower Oil Prices Make Biodiesel Producers Struggle

Rising oil prices were a boon to biodiesel producers this summer, as near-$150/barrel prices for crude oil made it more and more profitable to produce biodiesel from a variety of feedstocks. However, with that same barrel of oil now costing less than $50, margins have tightened up for makers of the green fuel.

This story in the Tampa (FL) Tribune highlights how biodiesel producers have had to get more innovative to keep bottom lines in the black:

[Last summer], producers said they were limited only by how much $3-a-gallon chicken fat they could truck into the plant.

[Pensacola-based] Agri-Source’s investment [to turn chicken fat into biodiesel] earned it an Industry of the Year award from the Pasco Economic Development Council. Two months later, though, Agri-Source has slashed its production by half as plummeting oil prices and its fixed cost for raw materials have turned the company’s bottom line from black to red.

“The profitability has really weakened,” said Agri-Source president Rick Higdon. “We have the ability to ride it out, but it’s no fun.”…

The key to the industry’s future will be developing new sources of raw materials, said Robert McCormick, principle engineer in the fuel performance group at the National Renewable Fuels Laboratory in Colorado.

“If you could sell B20 for a nickel or 3 cents less than petroleum diesel, you could probably sell all you could make,” McCormick said. “They haven’t been able to do that.”

Industry leaders say the $1-a-gallon federal credit they’re getting is helping for now, and the 500 million gallon mandate for biodiesel that kicks in next year will give the market a floor. But they also realize they need to make a profit to stay viable.

I’m sure some of you are reading this and saying, “See, it’s not working!” But keep in mind, it’s those 500 million gallons of petroleum diesel that biodiesel will replace next year… and more in subsequent years… that will help keep the price of petroleum down. As biodiesel refining technologies… helped by those subsidies and mandates… are made more efficient, it will cost less and less to produce biodiesel, making it less reliant on any tax dollars for support. Less expensive, more sustainable feedstocks will replace the more expensive, less sustainable ones. Survey after survey show Americans want to support domestically-produced alternative energies. Right now, the industry just needs a little leg up. Isn’t it better to help out these guys making the green fuel, than to subsidize million-dollar retreats for bankers who can’t balance their balance sheets or give money to carmakers who make cars people don’t want to buy? And if we save the planet in the process, all the better.

LA Looks to Become Solar City

Los Angeles wants to become a hub of the solar energy industry.

This article from the LA Times says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has unveiled a long-range to have solar power meet one-tenth of the city’s energy needs by 2020, an initiative that is expected to help the city’s Department of Water and Power kick the fossil fuel habit:

The plan calls for enough solar panels to produce 1,280 megawatts of power, a goal that would be reached through a combination of private and public generating facilities and the installation of solar panels on homes.

“Nobody’s contemplated that many megawatts for one city,” said Rhonda Mills, Southern California director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and a solar power advocate.

The announcement Monday is the latest in a series of renewable energy initiatives touted by the mayor in recent weeks, including using redevelopment funds to lure “clean” technology companies and investing city pension dollars in environmentally friendly companies.

Shifting Los Angeles to cleaner fuels could buttress both Villaraigosa’s run for reelection and any future run for governor. If he runs in 2010, Villaraigosa would likely face state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, an avid environmentalist.

“L.A. has everything it takes to make this [solar plan] work,” said Villaraigosa, standing alongside environmentalists, union leaders and City Council members. “We have the sun in abundancy. We have the space. We have the largest municipal utility in the country.”

Most of the solar power would come from private companies operating in the Mojave Desert with the balance coming from rooftop panels at businesses and private residences.

You can read the complete plan for yourself by clicking here.

The “Manhattan Project” of Off-shore Wind Farms Proposed for Maine

A massive, 5GW wind farm could be built off the coast of Maine and be fully operational in 10 years if a think tank of energy advisors get their way.

This post from earth2tech.com says the Ocean Energy Institute’s proposal to build five 9.2-square-mile offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Maine could be a boon for the local construction industry and the national energy picture:

Dubbing the plan a “Manhattan Project for Maine,” the Ocean Energy Institute says it could create some 20,000-30,000 jobs. The group on its web site also lays out a larger plan to get the U.S. off of fossil fuels, which the group calls the “Pickens Plan Plus” or the “Simmons Plan’ — use wind farms to power the grid, but add in the large amounts of offshore wind around the U.S.

The Ocean Energy Institute is run by energy investment banker and energy adviser to President George W. Bush, Matthew Simmons, and physicist George Hart. They believe off-shore wind farms offer a greater potential in wind energy that so onshore projects, and the Gulf of Maine is supposed to be one of the windiest areas in the world.

The biggest issues these days seem to be how to finance a project this big and the NIMBY – “Not In My Back Yard” – attitude too many communities currently have.

Solar, Biodiesel RV a Teaching Tool

You might remember my story from October 8th, 2007 about Ty Adams and his biodiesel-powered RV, the bioTrekker, Adams is a man who likes to travel the country, preaching the gospel of alternative fuels. Now, he’s rolling on the roads in the SolTrekker, which also runs on biodiesel but, in addition, is outfitted with solar panels and made even more self-sustaining.

This story in The Oregonian says the Portland man is using his green RV as a teaching tool to all who will listen:

His unlikely pulpit is the 27-foot-long “SolTrekker,” a paragon of sustainability in an eye-catching custom paint job of orange, brown and white, with yellow sun rays reaching from the wheel hubs.

It’s the blood and guts of the motor home that so audaciously flip the RV stereotype.

The SolTrekker runs on biodiesel. Solar panels heat its water and power its electricity. Special gutters channel rain through filters and into holding barrels to use for cooking and cleaning.

The composting toilet doesn’t need to be pumped out.

Bamboo siding replaced the vinyl interior walls and eliminated out-gassing. Dense, soft insulation made from shredded denim jeans seals out extreme temperatures.

“I really like this idea of taking this symbol of consumerism and excess,” said Adams, a freelance writer and editor who counts among his sponsors Monaco Coach of Coburg, his former employer. “I like to take it and make it sustainable. If the RV industry can go this route, any industry can go this route.”

The article goes on to say that Adams has even bigger plans for the RV… possibly even some wind power one day.

You can read more about the SolTrekker by clicking here.

USDA Researching Pennycress’ Biodiesel Potential

Many people know pennycress as nothing more than a weed, but some folks with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking at its potential to become a biodiesel feedstock.

This article from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service says scientists at the ARS’ Peoria, Illinois office are trying to make the farmers’ pest into their cash crop:

There, a team of ARS scientists led by Terry Isbell has been researching the annual winter weed’s potential to yield a bumper crop of oil-rich seed for use in making biodiesel and other products, including an organic fertilizer and natural fumigant. Historically, pennycress has been a bane to farmers. But now, with America’s quest for “homegrown” alternatives to petroleum, the plant is getting a second look.

In July, Peoria-based Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois, LLC (BMI) entered into a two-year cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with ARS to conduct laboratory and field trials aimed at teasing out pennycress’s production characteristics as both a cultivated crop and biodiesel feedstock.

Isbell and his colleagues in the ARS New Crops and Processing Technology Research Unit at Peoria have found that a single acre of field pennycress can potentially produce 75 to 100 gallons of biodiesel.

Farm Foundation to Release Report on Feeding and Fueling the World

Our friends at Farm Foundation are set to release a report next week on the challenges agriculture and the food system face in providing food, fiber and energy to a growing world over the next 30 years.

The report will come out next Thursday, Dec. 4th as part of Farm Foundation’s Food and Agriculture Policy Summit, Dec. 2-4th at the Westin Washington D.C. City Center, in the nation’s capital.

Developed with input from a diverse set of agriculture and agribusiness leaders, government agency representatives and academics, the new Farm Foundation report identifies six major challenges that may impact agriculture’s ability to provide feed, fiber and fuel to a growing world. Conference speakers will address issues within each of the six challenges.

Those conference speakers will include: former Texas Congressman Charles Stenholm; Jonathan Bryant of BASF North America; Bob Wagner of American Farmland Trust; Wallace Tyner of Purdue University; James McDonald of Bread for the World; and William Hallman, Rutgers University Food Policy Institute; Gene Griffin, Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute; and Paul Ellinger of the University of Illinois.

The summit will also feature “A Conversation with the Secretaries” on Dec. 3, when seven former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture will spend 90 minutes discussing the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture today. Participating will be John Block, Mike Espy, Clayton Yeutter, Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman and Mike Johannes. Robert Bergland will participate through a video.

I plan to be there as well, and I’ll be blogging from the event. See you then!

On Turkey Day, Biodiesel Board Gives Food (vs. Fuel) for Thought

On the day that you sit down and have probably the biggest meal of the year, some of you might be thinking about how much higher your grocery bill is this year. While you really need to focus on the family and friends around you and how thankful you are for the blessings you enjoy, the National Biodiesel Board is making the point about how biodiesel and ethanol are not responsible for the hit to your pocketbook on Thanksgiving Day.

This op-ed piece from NBB CEO Joe Jobe says while some have blamed the rising cost of groceries on rising commodity prices (which they erroneously have blamed on biofuel production), that argument just doesn’t add up anymore:

The prices of corn, wheat and soybeans have dropped dramatically – about fifty percent from their prices this spring. However, Americans have continued to see their food prices rise, which contradicts the excuse. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the price of soybeans – the oil portion of which is used to produce biodiesel – is at its lowest level since the Great Depression.

So did the price of the grain commodities fall because of decreased biofuels production? No. Biodiesel production has increased by more than 100 million gallons compared to last year. And Congress, in recent months, has taken extraordinary steps to encourage higher production of homegrown biofuels, recognizing their value to energy security as well as their proven environmental benefits. With agriculture commodities halved and American families hurting more financially than they have in decades, the prices of our groceries have not budged. Not five, not ten and certainly not fifty percent.

As an example, the piece goes on to point out that bread prices have actually increased over the past year, despite the fact that wheat prices have been cut to less than half of what they were last February. And farmers see only twelve cents of a typical $2.99 loaf of bread.

Jobe says the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has spent millions to promote the smokescreen of the empty “food vs. fuel” debate for its own greedy ends and concludes the op-ed saying, “The excuses just do not give us much to chew on.”

Well said. You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

Hemp Could Be Next Biofuel Feedstock

Farmers in the U.S could be growing hemp as a biomass crop, if a federal court rules in favor of two farmers trying to get a ban on the marijuana-related plant lifted.

This story from Biomass Magazine says the new president could also have a hand in lifting that ban:

The U.S. Appeals Court in St. Paul, Minn., heard arguments Nov. 12 by two North Dakota farmers trying to get a lower court’s dismissal of their suit against a federal agency overturned. David Monson, Osnabrock, N.D., and Wayne Hauge, Ray, N.D., have state approval to grow industrial hemp in North Dakota, but are suing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to get a federal permit to grow industrial hemp. Hemp is related to the illegal drug marijuana and under federal law some of the industrial hemp plant is considered a controlled substance. The three-judge appeals panel will issue a written decision, but that isn’t expected to be available for several months…

[Jim Pillsbury of Framingham, Mass., who is developing hemp for heating pellets and had a Canadian prototype biomass research facility] predicts President-elect’s Barack Obama’s administration will lift the ban on growing hemp in the United States, and pointed out that it’s being grown in many other countries. “The new administration has a solid commitment to bring new and old ideas to the table for renewable energy,” he said. Industrial hemp is an ideal bioenergy, Pillsbury said, citing figures from Canada that show straw yields of 6 tons per hectare (2.47 acres) and 1.5 tons of fiber, in addition to 200 liters (50 gallons) of oil pressed from the seed.

Biodiesel Refinery Idled by Ike Back On Line

Back in early September, Hurricane Ike roared ashore on the Texas Gulf Coast as the third most destructive hurricane ever to strike the U.S. A biodiesel refinery in the Houston area that was part of the destruction (see my post from Sep. 29, 2008) has finally recovered and is back on line.

GreenHunter Biofuels has announced in this press release that biodiesel production has started once again:

Located along the Shipping Channel in Houston, Texas, the Company’s biodiesel refinery, one of the country’s largest, sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Ike in mid-September of 2008. Plant debugging had just been completed and the facility was beginning to ramp up production after its original startup in mid-June, prior to the damages caused by the hurricane. Prior to Hurricane Ike, the Company had announced achieving processing rate mileposts of 50% and subsequently 65% of nameplate capacity.

The Company expects to continue its use of 100 percent animal fats (poultry fat and beef talloy) as its primary feedstock, although the GreenHunter BioFuels Refinery is “feedstock neutral” and has used five different varieties of feedstock (vegetable oils and animal fats) to date.

As you might remember from this photo (on right), the plant had 12 feet of water roll through but Bruce Baughman, Senior Vice President of Engineering and Technology, stated, “The approximate 12 feet of floodwater from Hurricane Ike took out a significant amount of electrical equipment, electronic instruments and control devices that have now been replaced and repaired over the last eight weeks. In the same period we have repaired process piping, pumps, intermediate tanks and bulk storage tanks that were damaged by flood waters.”

There’s still plenty of work to do at the plant, and officials anticipate some more bugs along the way, but they expect to be up to 50 percent capacity in the net month.