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Archive → January, 2011

Humorist On the Psychology of the Chevy Volt

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten - a humor columnist – has written a probing review of the new Chevy Volt for the newspaper’s weekly magazine. Weingarten writes that a quality American-made car would challenge his world view that the U.S. can’t make decent cars. I found his description of the psychology behind the engineering of the Volt to be quite compelling. I urge you to read the full article, because I don’t want to give away the review.

Here’s a snippet:

What makes the Volt the Darling of Detroit is that it has been reverse-engineered to match the perverse American psyche. Americans hate buying gas but love to drive. We definitely

want to stick it to the sheikhs, and in the process maybe save the planet, so we want cars that run on sunshine, twigs and happy thoughts. But these cars also have to kick some ass. And be able to make an impulsive 90-mile run to Philly when we suddenly have a hankering for cheese steak. And we don’t want to worry about hunting for twig refueling stations along the way.

All of that is what the Volt is theoretically designed to deliver.

Coskata Gets Big Loan Guarantee for Cellulosic Biorefinery

Cellulosic waste to ethanol start-up Coskata will receive a $250 million loan guarantee from the USDA to support its plan to build a 55 million gal/year biorefinery in  Greene County, Alabama. 

Coskata runs a pilot facility near Pittsburgh

Coskata has been operating a pilot plant since the Fall of 2009 in Madison, Pennsylvania (just outside of Pittsburgh) where it turns wood chips into ethanol. Here’s how I described the firm’s process when I visited the plant:

Converting feedstock to ethanol at the plant is a three-step process. The tour group observed wood chips being sucked out of a 500-lb bag and into a feed handler and then being sent to a gasifier. Ionized gases at temperatures of up to 2,500 °C vaporize the feedstock into a synthesis gas composed primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

The syngas is then cleaned and cooled; waste heat from the hot gas is used to turn a turbine and provide electricity to the plant. The cooled gas is piped to a series of bioreactors, where specially designed microbes feast on it and excrete ethanol. The microbes are a type of Clostridia bacteria that have been selected to produce only two-carbon alcohols, meaning Coskata does not have to separate ethanol from methanol.

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Germany Unwinds Solar Gravy Train

The German government will begin to pare back its generous subsidies for solar-generated power with an up to 15% cut in feed-in tariffs. The trimming won’t start until July, and will be dependent on how much solar input is actually being generated by the scores of rooftop panels that have been installed in the most solarific of European countries.

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Big Biomass Coming to the Big Island

There is a price to pay for living in paradise. The people of Hawaii put up with an uncomfortable reliance on imported oil to fuel their electric plants and their cars.

The islands’ power supply is 90% dependent on imported oil.  As a result, the population pays some of the highest rates in the U.S. for power and gas. Late last week, the Hawaiian Electric Company awarded a biomass contract to a renewable energy development company called ‘Āina Koa Pono, which means “for the good of the land” in Hawaiian. The company is planning to invest $320 million in a 13,000 acre “energy farm” in the Ka‘ū District of Hawai‘i Island (the southernmost district on the Big Island) on farm land that has been fallow for 14 years.

Ka'u is on the southern coast of the Big Island. Credit: www.thewidewideworld.com /Flickr

The farm would grow sweet sorghum and eucalyptus trees which would feed an energy plant with “the latest biomass conversion technology to transform plant matter – including unwanted invasive plant species – into usable energy products including biofuel, electricity and gasoline,” according to a company statement. No word yet on which of a host of cellulose to energy technologies would be used, or how much energy and fuel would be produced.

Over the last few years I’ve been reading about vague plans the state has for unhooking its fragile energy lifeline. There are wind farms (also in Kau, for that matter), plans for geothermal, solar, you name it. But added up they still don’t make much of a dent, because the scale has not been large enough. In fact, the most widespread cleantech innovations on the islands appear to be clotheslines and biodiesel from used vegetable oil.

But, as the Hawaii Dept. of Business, Economic Development and Tourism puts it, ”Unlike the Mainland, Hawai‘i can’t turn to neighboring states to make up for any temporary or permanent energy shortages. Unlike any other state, imported oil is the single thread that can completely unravel Hawai‘i’s future.” Yikes. The state has clearly outlined it’s ideas for renewable power sources, but it’s hard not to get the sense that they’ve been a little slow to act.