Thursday, October 21, 2010

Today's WTF Policy: USDA Money Goes to....

big picture agriculture

Yesterday, on my Ag news Update thread, I included the WSJ article, (Bio)Mass Confusion: High costs and environmental concerns have pushed biomass power to the sidelines in the U.S. The key sentence was, "Biomass power costs more to produce than power derived from fossil fuels, largely because it requires more labor to chip up wood and truck it to plants, industry executives say."

The problem with biomass is logistics. With switchgrass, for example, massive storage facilities need to be built next to plants to dry the grass bales prior to burning, not to mention the inputs necessary to harvest and transport the volumes of "mass." With wood, you need to harvest it, haul it, then try to burn it in the least polluting way possible. In wooded areas it makes some sense and it's been used as a supplement to electricity generation in some places such as Minnesota for many years. As FF's become more expensive, it will make more sense, too.

But, now, excuse me. I just have to call in one of my favorite Henry David Thoreau quotes from a book that I have:
I just put another stick into my stove,---a pretty large mass of white oak. How many men will do enough this cold winter to pay for the fuel that will be required to warm them? I suppose I have burned up a pretty good-sized tree tonight,---and for what?

I settled with Mr. Tarbell for it the other day; but that wasn't the final settlement. I got off cheaply from him. At last, one will say, "Let us see, how much wood did you burn, sir?" And I shall shudder to think that the next question will be, "What did you do while you were warm?" Do we think the ashes will pay for it? that God is an ash-man?

Back to today's USDA announcement, "Vilsack announces biomass subsidies in the name of "advanced biofuels." The subsidy focus is directed differently than the biomass article from the WSJ, which is biomass for power generation, but the biomass problems related to advanced biofuels far exceed the biomass problems related to power generation since the technology isn't even there and many doubt that it ever will be.

There you have it.


  1. IMO the best information on alternative fuels is Robert Rapier, a chemical engineer with experience in conventional fossil fuels and who is currently working in the alternative energy arena.

    He blogs at R-Squared Energy Blog

  2. I'm an RR fan from way back. Thanks for the reminder since I haven't been visiting his blog lately. I am trying to have a respectable news list going on the left side-bar here, so have now added his site.

  3. You should check out Feed Resource Recovery. Got to see the one of the founders Shane Eten present and they are doing biomass at localized level (i.e. putting it at distribution centers for grocery stores to bring back spoiled food when the trucks are returning empty). Very interesting concept and they are getting into some big chains if I remember correctly.

  4. Jeff
    Thanks for pointing me towards this entrepreneur. Unfortunately, I was unable to find much on the web about Feed Resource Recovery. I see that in '09 he was looking for $250,000 venture capital to get started. I still wonder about the expensive logistics of getting the waste products to his facility. I wish him luck.