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By Robert Rapier on Jul 16, 2009 with no responses

The Dominant Fuel in 2030

I just spent a fruitful week in Canada, learning about some of the biomass resources in Alberta. There are some interesting opportunities there for the right technology, and I expect that I will be making future trips up there.

One of the questions I was asked this week by one of my new Canadian friends was “Do you believe fossil fuels will still be the dominant power source in 20 years?” Without hesitation, I said “Absolutely.” Others around the table nodded their heads in agreement, and the questioner said “So do I.” It isn’t that this is what we want, but this is how we see it. Government agencies like the EIA see it the same way. While they show renewable energy growing, there is a very long hill to climb before they begin to challenge fossil fuels for supremacy.

I think the question was meant to gauge whether I am realistic about the potential contribution of biofuels in the years ahead. I believe that I am. While I believe that biofuels – or more appropriately renewable energy in general – will eventually become our predominant source of energy, that is going to take a long time. I also believe that it is going to happen by necessity – because of the depletion of fossil fuels – rather than a breakthrough that makes something like algal biofuel as cheap to produce as petroleum. Regardless, we need to pave the path to that potential future today, so when the need is pressing we aren’t scrambling to come up with solutions.

Speaking of algae, you may have seen the story on ExxonMobil plunking down $600 million for algal biofuel development. When I was in Canada, someone referred to this as “Dead Money Walking”:

Exxon’s algae

Exxon, the west’s biggest oil company, has launched a new research programme into producing biofuels from algae, in a break from its general antipathy towards alternative energy.

At first sight, this looks a pretty bizarre thing for the company to be doing. Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s CEO, has been consistently sceptical about biofuels, even the advanced “second generation” variety. (Or, as Steven Chu, US energy secretary, described them to the FT, “fourth generation” biofuels.)

Incidentally, I did an interview in the airport yesterday on “4th generation biofuels.” I told the interviewer that I hate that term “4th generation biofuels.” Can we at least wait until we see what the 2nd generation really looks like?

But back to the ExxonMobil story. I am highly skeptical of the conventional paths to produce biodiesel from algae. In fact, John Benemann recently commented here that if you really want to know where algal biofuels stand, offer to buy some for $100/gal. He said you can’t get it. On the other hand ExxonMobil is certainly not stupid, so you have to wonder about their angle. The reporter I spoke with asked about algal biofuel, and I did say that I could see one circumstance in which it might work. If you could engineer/breed algae that excreted oil, you could potentially collect it by skimming it instead of collecting and pressing the algae. That would potentially be a much lower cost fuel, provided the production rates were decent.

Finally, it looks like I have 100 responses to the previous open thread, and I presume at least some of those are questions for me. I will try to work my way through those over the next few days. First, as indicated before I will speak with POET tomorrow about their ethanol work, and I will report on that conversation here in the next couple of days. If you have anything that you would like to ask them, let me know in the comments and I will try to get your questions answered.