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Bob Armantrout- biodiesel in relation to other fuels and energy systems  RSS feed

 
Andrew Schreiber
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Location: Zone 6a, Wahkiacus, WA
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Howdy Bob, I have a few bigger picture questions. I hope that you can follow my thread of thought and offer you reflections.

Some background: We're working a lot with ]biomass gasification based energy systems - running engines, vehicles, and propane equipment directly off of woodgas - as well as developing a village scale fuel plant capable of converting woody biomass into methanol, and other hydrocarbons (i.e. synthetic crude oil.)

We have not gone the route of biodiesel because of a substantial issue in finding any reasonable source for the raw inputs. We cannot really afford (in terms of the nature of our hilly rocky land) to grow and harvest oil seed crops effectively. And we are an hours drive away from the nearest town that may have some waste products we could convert. Not only is it difficult to get these materials, I am dubious as to the resiliency and long-term efficacy of using waste oil from restaurants (which only exist because of big-ag production, and thus is a net loss of energy), or tying up areable land with oilseed crops which could be used for other purposes.

A side note: We had a community member go and work for Portland Biodiesel (Porland oregon) for several years to help set up their plant. It terms out that even that very "green oriented" market was not ready for biodiesel. even with practically free inputs, they had a hard time turning anough of a profit to float the ongoing expenses associated with running and maintaining their plant. They have sadly since closed down.

With all that said I have (sort of) two questions:

1.) I have concerns about how economical it would actually be run a biodiesal plant. Can you elaborate on the cost of set up, and the potential Return on that investment over the life of the system? Wondering primarily if the embedded energy in the establishment and maintenance of the system itself is greater or less than what the system processes. Perhaps there is a optimal scale for production?

2.) I wonder your opinion about where biodiesel stands in relation to other fuel sources, such as woody biomass from a longterm forest systems. In terms of it's resiliency and long-term viability, how can a person. My concern is biodiesel, as a energy-system, is not a net producer of energy. Which means it is invariably propped up by fossil fuels, making it only a short term option for people who have basically free access to waste stream oil, or who have ample and fertile enough land to grow energy crops. So that, a person spending the time and money investing in biodiesel system is going to get only get short term (less than one life time) use out of it. When another type of energy system would be a much more viable option long-term, and so it makes more sense to put the investment in the long-haul resilient technologies.
 
Bob Armantrout
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Andrew Schreiber wrote:1.) I have concerns about how economical it would actually be run a biodiesal plant. Can you elaborate on the cost of set up, and the potential Return on that investment over the life of the system? Wondering primarily if the embedded energy in the establishment and maintenance of the system itself is greater or less than what the system processes. Perhaps there is a optimal scale for production?

2.) I wonder your opinion about where biodiesel stands in relation to other fuel sources, such as woody biomass from a longterm forest systems. In terms of it's resiliency and long-term viability, how can a person. My concern is biodiesel, as a energy-system, is not a net producer of energy. Which means it is invariably propped up by fossil fuels, making it only a short term option for people who have basically free access to waste stream oil, or who have ample and fertile enough land to grow energy crops. So that, a person spending the time and money investing in biodiesel system is going to get only get short term (less than one life time) use out of it. When another type of energy system would be a much more viable option long-term, and so it makes more sense to put the investment in the long-haul resilient technologies.


Hi Andrew,

Running smaller scale commercial biodiesel plants has never been very cost effective. This is why many smaller scale plants have failed and why very few are still operating.

The old rule of thumb used to be that the capital costs (equipment but not including buildings and land) run about $US1 per gallon of annual output - a 1 million gallon a year plant would cost about US$1 million in capital to set up. Depending on technology choices - this rule is still about right. Larger producers are more vertically integrated from field to fuel and can operate at a loss in the fuel making side of the business to offset profits in the food oil and meal side.

Conversion cost varies on feedstock and process, but for smaller plants (< 3 million gallons per year) the margins are typically negative without the US government subsidy of $1 per gallon, which is not in play right now and may or may not be reenacted retroactively in November. For our plant - we would lose 30 cents per gallon without subsidy and make 70 cents per gallon with it. Kind of like playing Russian Roulette and hoping to get lucky.

I believe that biodiesel makes sense in only a couple of niches - home or small co-op scale using WVO (Waste Vegetable Oil) collected from local restaurants and farms who can use the fuel and meal from some of a soy or canola crop on their farm to fuel their equipment and feed their livestock. I'm aware of a number of examples of both these cases that are working well for those whose site specific situations are favorable.

As far as biodiesel's resiliency versus other fuel choices, I'll comment on just a couple of aspects of this huge topic.

I don't see biodiesel as resilient at all, in anything but the very short run (which still is relevant IMHO). If by resilient we mean able to withstand shocks to the status quo, supply chains for methanol and KOH reach across the planet. Disruption of supply lines would render making biodiesel impossible as soon as you run out of methanol, KOH, or electricity. That being said, it is easy for someone to today to collect oil, turn it into biodiesel, and reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and save some money. Not a bad value proposition for those who don't mid spending some of their time and money on getting set up to do this.

As far as woody biomass goes, it's not currently very easy to run a vehicle on it. and I don't believe that we'll ever see cellulosic ethanol be a big player in our liquid fuel mix. It seems much more likely that the electric car's day is finally arriving.
 
Andrew Schreiber
Posts: 216
Location: Zone 6a, Wahkiacus, WA
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Thank for the thoughtful response Bob. The economic picture you paint is helpful in putting my experience with small scale commercial biodiesel production into context.
 
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