2009 - [Sustainable Concepts] Turning Algae into Energy and Cheap
2009, vol. 74
Welcome to the May 2009 newsletter from Design Forward.
Please take some time to enjoy this month's features.
Quote of the Month: "When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves."
Lisa A. Swan
Biofuels: Turning Algae into America's New Energy
Just three years ago, Colorado-based inventor Jim
Sears shuttered himself in his garage and began tinkering
with a design to mass-produce biofuel. His reactor (plastic
bags) and his feedstock (algae) may have struck soybean
farmers as a laughable gamble. But the experiment worked,
and today, Sears' company, Solix Biofuels in Fort Collins,
is among several startups betting their futures on the
photosynthetic powers of unicellular green goo.
The science is simple: Algae need water, sunlight and
carbon dioxide to grow. The oil they produce can then
be harvested and converted into biodiesel; the algae's
carbohydrate content can be fermented into ethanol.
Both are much cleaner-burning fuels than petroleum-based
diesel or gas.
The reality is more complex. Trying to grow concentrations
of the finicky organism is a bit like trying to balance
the water in a fish tank. It's also expensive. The water
needs to be just the right temperature for algae to
proliferate, and even then open ponds can become choked
with invasive species. Atmospheric levels of CO2 also
aren't high enough to spur exponential growth.
Solix addresses these problems by containing the algae
in closed "photobioreactors"-triangular chambers made
from sheets of polyethylene plastic (similar to a painter's
dropcloth)-and bubbling supplemental carbon dioxide
through the system. Eventually, the source of the CO2
will be exhaust from power plants and other industrial
processes, providing the added benefit of capturing
a potent greenhouse gas before it reaches the atmosphere.
Given the right conditions, algae can double its volume
overnight. Unlike other biofuel feedstocks, such as
soy or corn, it can be harvested day after day. Up to
50 percent of an alga's body weight is comprised of
oil, whereas oil-palm trees-currently the largest producer
of oil to make biofuels-yield just about 20 percent
of their weight in oil. Across the board, yields are
already impressive: Soy produces some 50 gallons of
oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm,
650 gallons. But algae is expected to produce 10,000
gallons per acre per year, and eventually even more.
"If we were to replace all of the diesel that we use
in the United States" with an algae derivative, says
Solix CEO Douglas Henston, "we could do it on an area
of land that's about one-half of 1 percent of the current
farm land that we use now."
Solix plans to complete its second prototype by the
end of April and to begin building a pilot plant this
fall. That plant will take advantage of CO2 generated
from the fermentation and boiler processes of New Belgium
Brewery, also in Fort Collins. The company's initial
target is to be competitive with biodiesel, which historically
sells for about $2 per gallon, wholesale. They believe
they can reach this goal within a few years, and are
ultimately aiming to compete with petroleum.
John Sheehan, an energy analyst with the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., believes
these goals are within reach. "There is no other resource
that comes even close in magnitude to the potential
for making oil," says Sheehan, who worked in the lab's
algae program before it was shut down by the Department
of Energy. One of algae's great strengths, Sheehan adds,
is its ability to grow well in brackish water. In the
desert southwest, where much of the groundwater is saline
and unsuitable for other forms of agriculture, algae
GreenFuel Technologies Corp., based in Cambridge, Mass.,
is focused on cultivating algae that can produce high
yields of both biodiesel and ethanol. There are more
than 100,000 strains of algae, with differing ratios
of three main types of molecule: oils, carbohydrates
and protein. Strains of algae high in carbohydrates
as well as oils produce starches that can be separated
and fermented into ethanol; the remaining proteins can
be turned into animal grains. GreenFuel hopes its pilot
plant will see initial yields of 8000 gallons of biodiesel
and 5000 gallons of ethanol per acre of algae.
The main focus now, says Cary Bullock, GreenFuel's president
and CEO, is figuring out "how to grow algae fast enough
and cheap enough that it makes sense economically. That's
not easy to do."
With the science well in hand, the degree to which algae-based
biofuels can replace petroleum-or the limited acreage
of traditional feedstocks-rests upon that bottom line.
Once the technology hits the ground, will a commercial-scale
facility be on par with petroleum? Says Bullock: "You
don't know until you've actually built the thing."
Article © popularmechanics.com Picture © popularmechanics.com
on "Turning Algae into America's New Energy" on Lisa's
A Cheap Way To Install Solar Panels On Your House
Cool Tools has an interesting suggestion for home
owners who want to incorporate solar technology, but
can't afford the steep investment costs: let the solar
panel company finance it for you. The trade-off is you
won't save as much money as you would if you paid for
them outright, but you will save some money, and the
company that's paying for the panels has a financial
incentive to keep them working properly over the course
of the agreement.
You sign up with a company that installs high-quality
panels on your property for no money down. Zero dollars!
On sunny days the panels make electrons which run your
meter backwards. The quantity of panels are sized to
cover about 80-90% of your current electric bill, so
that you should be expected to pay the utility only
10-20% of what you pay now. In addition to the much
smaller payment to your electric grid company you will
also now pay the solar company a fee based on the number
of watts you send into the grid. This is how they make
money to cover the costs of installing the panels and
their profit. The rates they will charge you per kilowatt
will be less than the utility rates, so your total bill
for electricity will be less each month. (Not zero,
not half, but less.) Because the solar company makes
money by how much electricity your panels produce they
have a clear incentive to maintain the panels' performance
and keep them clean and the inverters going. After 15-18
years, you own the panels and set up free and clear.
Kevin Kelly notes that by going the financing route,
you're exchanging the bulk of the energy produced for
free installation, which means the savings you'll see
are real but not dramatic:
"While you may be generating 90% of your usage, because
you are leasing the panels, your total combined bill
will not be 90% less. It may only be 10% less per month.
But since it costs you nothing or little up front, over
18 years that 10% adds up."
Visit his site for more information on how solar power
purchasing agreements (Solar PPAs) work, and some links
to companies that offer them. "Zero-Down
Solar Panels" [Cool Tools]
Article & Picture © consumerist.com Comment
on "Here's A Cheap Way To Install Solar Panels On Your
House" on Lisa's Blog
on May 30: Building Green
Building Green: Making Your Home More Energy Efficient
Join Design Forward's Lisa Swan in Glendale on May 30,
2009 for a Building Green seminar for home owners.
Class Description: Whether you are interested in a new
house, remodeling your existing home, or just adding
a few sustainable features, this innovative class will
give you an in depth review of green building and sustainable
architecture. Learn about solar and wind energy, wall
systems such as straw bale, insulated concrete forms
and foam insulation, natural and recycled materials,
efficient windows and appliances, and more. Also learn
how you can save money through State and local rebates.
Reference Class: SI011
Instructor: Lisa Swan is the owner of Design Forward,
a residential design firm, specializing in sustainable
and green projects. She is an Honors' graduate of the
Illinois Institute of Technology, with a Bachelor of
Architecture and has an MBA from Norwich University.
Date & Time: May 30, 2009 9:30am - 12:30am
Cost: $35, plus $10 materials fee is payable to the
instructor in class.
Location: Glendale, CA - Garfield Campus of the Glendale
Register Begins March 1, 2009: http://www.glendale.edu/cse
on this article on Lisa's Blog
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