I had a very interesting conversation this week with my blacksmithing instructor, who is one of those people who seems to know a little bit about everything, especially when it come to self-sufficiency. The conversation was about biofuels, and I actually came out of it a little less cynical than I went in, which is a remarkable anomaly for my intellectual adventures in peak oil! In my last post, I attacked the EPA mandate for renewable fuels, particularly ethanol production from corn. I noted that we could convert our entire food supply into biofuel and still not meet our demands. And I was right.
But after talking things over with my instructor, I'm beginning to think that bio-fuels isn't a completely bad idea, is bio-gasoline replacement that's a disaster waiting to happen. Note that every renewable fuels mandate that is getting any press and US Federal support is intended to do one thing: keep major oil companies selling us our fuel at fucking gas stations and making tons and tons of coin. That's it. Keep the Big Oil tit producing the sweet, sweet milk of corporate profits. All of it, the ethanol mandates, the subsidies, the hostility to efficiency requirements that would do the work of BILLIONS of gallons of overpriced moonshine, is intended to keep us shelling out a considerable part of our income to BP, Shell, and Exxon.
The fact that the resource->refinery->central distribution center->local gas station food chain is completely unworkable for anything except crude oil, with its gigantic supply in a handful of locations, doesn't matter, of course. The cardinal rule of mainstream renewable energy initiatives is this: thou shalt not market any technology that eliminates or reduces the amount of money consumers spend on electricity or transportation fuel. Too many fat cats depend on the rivers of money flowing into gas station cash registers and utility companies, fat cats with enough political influence to murder true, household-level energy independence programs in the cradle. So we see the square peg of renewable energy being desperately hammered into the round hole of existing distribution networks; massive wind farms being built and hooked into the Grid where a hundred times as many rooftop windmills that cost 1/10,000th as much could do the same job; massive fields of corn grown to brew ethanol which is then mixed wholesale into petroleum gasoline supplies (making E-5, E-10, and a range of other pseudo-renewable gas hybrid fuels), making it impossible to switch to biofuel entirely, or distribute it locally in a meaningful way. The bureaucrats charged with finding solutions to energy problems are operating in a political space where they must not disrupt or modify the way American consumers acquire the energy they use to power their homes and transportation needs, and under that constraint, truly renewable energy is impossible. You cannot apply systems designed to harvest and distribute the overwhelmingly concentrated energy of petroleum to the much different problem of collecting and conserving relatively diffuse renewable energy source. It's like using a grenade to mow your lawn.
The real renewable energy solution, of course, is a decentralized model of reduce, conserve, and produce. Home-scale technologies that were used for centuries, like wind- and water-mills, will be joined by other innovations, once of which I want to highlight today, not so much because I expect everyone to rush out and build wood-fired cars, but because realizing that such a thing is possible, and requires only that one walk away from the central-distribution model of energy production to become damned obvious, will help us all find solutions to our individual energy problems when the pumps finally, inevitably, run dry.
Wood gas generation: making your own fuel without competing with your own stomach!
Wood gas, or more accurately "producer gas," is a fuel gas produced through the heat-decomposition of organic matter. Basically, one builds a low, smoldering fire, that produces a lot of flammable gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. The smoldering fire does not efficiently burn this gas, the natural combustion of which forms the bright yellow and blue "tongues" of flame that roar above a well-built campfire and produce most of the light (though not most of the heat) of that fire. In a producer gas generator, this flammable gas is pulled off the fire and bubbled through a water column to remove tars and particulates (yes, this is precisely how a bong operates, in fact), and then routes the fuel into a gas turbine or even an internal combustion engine. Conventional gasoline engines can combust producer gas with the same level of modification required for a bio-diesel conversion, which is to say, something that can be done in your own garage for a few hundred dollars if you are fairly handy with tools. This is a solid, 19th-century technology that has been used in fuel shortages before, and is so reliable that FEMA has a design for an emergency producer-gas power station that can be built during a fuel crisis.
Producer gas is sustainable, in that it consumes fresh rather than fossilized organic matter, which also makes it carbon neutral as far as greenhouse gases go; the carbon dioxide produced by the engine was pulled out of the air by the plant whose tissues you're burning in the last ten years or so. Also, unlike the majority of bio-ethanol production schemes, the feed stock for producer gas is not something that can be eaten by humans or domestic animals: wood scraps. These scrap materials are available in great abundance and at low cost, and while there is talk of using them as feedstocks to produce bio-ethanol ("cellulosic bio-ethanol," named after cellulose, the indigestible carbon compound that makes up the majority of wood), such technology is not well-developed and is likely to be less efficient, overall, than gassification of the same scraps. Also unlike the Pay-at-the-pump ethanol scheme, producer-gas rigs are extremely easy to build and fuel at the local level; while building one in their own garages may be beyond a lot folks, it is certainly an industry that any competent small-town auto shop could make into a business model with relatively little fuss. The technology is old enough to be public domain, so Exxon-Mobil isn't going to come along and buy the patent so they can sit on it.
I'm not going to suggest that producer-gas cars are going to solve our transportation problems, far from it; reducing our dependence on motorized transport is a given. In fact, the main point of this post is to point out how truly dubious any solution that includes the concept "business as usual" really is; anybody claiming to be able to "solve" peak oil or climate change at no inconvenience to you is stupid or lying, straight up. Building a town-scale producer gas plant would be a dirty pain in the ass, and would never yield anywhere close to the abundant and easy fuel we have today. But it is an example of the sort of innovative techniques that we as households and communities can apply to dealing with that inevitable down-shift; it doesn't have to be dark ages and wallowing in filth, folks. Just think outside the pump.