July 1, 2008

West Virginia is Missing the Boat on Biofuels

By Lawrence T. Beckerle

It's a little amusing to listen to West Virginia politicians and editors speak out against the federal subsidies to produce more biofuels. More than that, it's sad because it's a sure sign that they don't understand what is going on.

The move toward biofuels is by stringent pollution-control standards. For a few years, automakers were able to postpone ever more stringent standards by showing the pollution-control equipment wouldn't work with the sulfur levels that existed in the cleanest of available fuels. That argument was turned against them when Congress passed laws to force refineries to reach ever lower limits of sulfur in gasoline and diesel. To speed the process, Congress passed generous incentives for farmers to produce biofuels, because biofuels have no sulfur.

In addition, the biofuels program is aimed at creating new fuel sources. At current rates of improvement it may be economically feasible to produce biofuels from grass and wood by 2020. Meanwhile, oil usage would be about 15 percent higher if the U.S. did not have a biofuels program.

To produce gasoline and diesel with very low levels of sulfur, refineries must process these fuels for longer periods. In other words, they produce less fuel at a much higher cost. You may recall that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush temporarily suspended the most stringent pollution-control standards so the U.S. would have enough fuel.

Another disadvantage of using very-low-sulfur gasoline and diesel is that the lubrication that was provided by normal amounts of sulfur is now gone. Refineries have had to struggle to find new lubricants to put in gasoline and diesel, which also adds to the cost.

Fortunately, diesel made from the oil of very common plants is both a good lubricant and a very good fuel. The oil is treated with alcohol and a catalyst to produce what is now called biodiesel. That we call it biodiesel is ironic, because the first diesel engine was made to run on modified oil from peanuts. The oil from canola, flaxseeds, soybeans, sunflowers and several other plants can be readily made into biodiesel.

During my short-lived campaign to be West Virginia's new commissioner of agriculture, I asked voters to support production of biofuels in West Virginia. Either they didn't hear my message, didn't understand it or didn't believe it, because there was so much talk against biofuels. Whatever the cause, everyone needs to learn more, because the fuel crunch is likely to get worse. By 2011 even off-road diesel will have to meet the ultra-low-sulfur standards. With a little help, there are ways West Virginians can avoid the worst of what's coming, for example:

* Alcohol is easy to produce. Drinkable alcohol is also heavily taxed, so government officials prefer big producers who are easier to find and tax than backyard producers. However, if enough West Virginians produced alcohol from plants that they could grow in their back yards, we would soon see the price of gasoline go down. We might see the price of grain go down, because what is left after alcohol production can usually be used to feed farm animals.

* Biodiesel is more of a challenge for small producers. New "refinery in a foot locker" technology promises to make it possible to produce biodiesel for around $2 a gallon. However, there has been no official interest in promoting that technology in West Virginia. Fortunately, Gov. Manchin has indicated some interest in helping to promote the growing of biofuel crops on surface mined land. Each year about 15,000 acres are mined for coal in West Virginia. More than half could be made usable for growing biofuel crops even where hardwood trees are planted, for example: Perennial sunflowers could be planted between rows of trees. If the tree rows are wide enough, the sunflowers could be harvested with a farm combine. Suppose only enough seed is harvested to result in an average yield of one barrel per acre. Each year West Virginia would be producing another 10,000 barrels of biodiesel. If it took 20 years for the trees to seriously reduce the yield from the sunflowers, then West Virginia would be producing about 200,000 barrels of biodiesel from surface mined land. As in the beer example, the mash that is left over after squeezing the oil out of sunflowers, can be sold as feed for farm animals. This would give West Virginia farmers an alternative to high-priced corn and wheat.

* Hydrogen is considered by many to be the ideal fuel, because when you burn hydrogen, you are simply combining oxygen with hydrogen. Or to put it another way, you're making water out of air. Hydrogen is produced by running an electrical current through water, which splits the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen fuel is bulky. The first automobiles that used hydrogen had fuel tanks almost as big as the automobile. GM and other automakers are again looking at hydrogen. Meanwhile, West Virginia universities could be experimenting with using hydrogen to power small engines where the size of the tank is not as big an issue. If air compressors, generators and lawnmowers began to burn hydrogen, that would help to drive down the cost of gasoline and diesel.

Would hydrogen fuel be expensive to produce? Consider this: To produce a gallon of maple syrup, the producer boils off about 20 gallons of water. If electrical current was used to drive off water and separate it into oxygen and hydrogen, then the whole process of making maple syrup would be more economical. Where are the thinkers in our state government agencies and universities? Why is none of them working on ways to capture hydrogen and oxygen where we now boil water, just because it is in our way?

As the above examples show, there are a number of ways to tackle the fuel crunch. To spur biofuels production, North Carolina has eliminated road taxes for beginning fuel producers. Other help-the- little-guy approaches may do more to spur innovation. So why hasn't West Virginia followed the lead of North Carolina and other states on fuel issues?

Beckerle is a former adjunct professor at Glenville State College's Summersville campus, where he taught biology, forestry and environmental technology.

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