Algae biofuel was a bubble

algae biofuel photo
Solray algae to biofuels opening 2009 Photo by siftnz

Algae biofuel development crashed and burned in a spectacular manner, taking hundreds of millions, maybe billions in VC money with it. In 2009, the buzz was algae biofuel could scale, and be produced at commercial-scale for a reasonable price. It couldn’t be.

There are many problems with algae biofuel. It’s expensive to do, requires large amounts of water, and is often manufactured in areas that don’t have much water, like deserts, because the process also needs lots of sun.

There was carnage. Many companies closed or went bankrupt. The surviving companies are focusing on using algae byproducts for cosmetics, nutraceuticals, specialty oils, and more. But not for mass production of fuel.

There is incredible potential for algae technology in drug discovery and production, specialty oils and a range of chemicals. Will we be running commercial engines on algae-derived fuels in the 21st century?


Elon Musk’s big batteries could kill the duck!

A major problem with solar power has been the duck curve. Demand increases when the sun goes down, just when solar plants stop producing energy. One answer is huge batteries that store excess solar power to be used later. However, the technology needed to create such batteries hasn’t really existed at scale until now. Now maybe Telsa has invented them.

Tesla has delivered a giant battery farm with 396 stacks of batteries that can provide enough electricity to power 15,000 houses for four hours, about how long it takes to shave the peaks, to kill the duck.

These Tesla powerpacks are good for 5,000 cycles, which is low for grid-scale use. Hopefully the tech keeps improving, with more cycles and lower costs.

Block Island Wind farm. U.S. first offshore wind


The Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island nears completion and will be the first ever offshore wind farm in the U.S. Essentially, it’s a test site, just 30 MW. However, if all goes well – and let’s hope it does – developer Deepwater Wind plans a South Fork, a 90 MW wind farm 30 miles from Long Island and Deepwater One, a 1,000 MW wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard. (Presuming of course that squealing NIMBYs like the Kennedy clan, proud environmentalists all, don’t again succeed in killing offshore wind anywhere they can possibly see it.)

Wired details the engineering challenges:

The blades on Deepwater Wind’s turbines will be almost 250 feet long. That means the top and the bottom of the rotors will be separated by 500 feet or more. Anything covering that much area will have to deal with widely variable wind conditions. Sometimes the wind will be the same speed across the whole turbine, but that speed will change dramatically over the course of the day. Other times, the winds can be steadily 10 miles per hour faster at the top than at the bottom.

To help protect the turbines’ machinery and electronics, engineers can lock their rotors to keep them from spinning too fast or chaotically. “If we reach some level of wind which is not acceptable, then we stop the machine and the machine is put in standby.” The same happens if it gets too cold.

But stopping the rotors doesn’t stop the wind. The surface area of each blade is about the same as a football field, so there’s a lot of air hitting the turbine and trying to topple it. To stay steady, turbines are anchored to the seafloor and to a narrow foundation dug 200 feet underground.

California may get floating offshore wind farm

floating offshore wind, California

The US, despite its bleating about the wonderfulness of its renewable energy, still has no offshore wind farms. A little dinky 30 MW wind farm off Rhode Island may be operational next year. Meanwhile, Britain and Europe have huge offshore wind projects with more coming.

Trident Winds proposes installing a ginormous floating wind farm 25 miles offshore from Cambria CA. I wish them luck. NIMBYs and Very Concerned Citizens will no doubt wallpaper them with lawsuits while a ponderous state regulatory system requires endless EIR reports. Yes, it’s a good thing that everyone can can involved and yes, regulations need to be tough. However, offshore wind has a tiny environmental impact compared to other sources of energy and somehow Britain has managed to produce 10% of its power (5 GW) from offshore wind without, y’know, the oceans dying or something catastrophic happening. Just saying. Any source of power will have environmental impacts. Wind and solar are about as benign as it gets.

The Carlsbad CA desalination plant near San Diego is finally operational. It took them years to get the necessary permits and get past the NIMBYs. That’s just too long.

The Trident project calls for mounting 100 turbines on floating foundations in water that’s roughly half a mile deep. Floating foundations, which are kept in place with anchors and cables, have so far been used only in small pilot projects in places such as Portugal, Norway and Scotland. The anchors themselves may be giant concrete blocks or huge steel structures with hooks that grab the sea floor, not unlike a ship’s anchor.

Floating wind is more expensive than fixed wind. So that may impact whether the wind farm is built.

Biomass plants using dead trees could lessen forest fires

Dead trees. Pine bark beetle

The pine bark beetle has killed millions of trees in California. These dead trees are now a fire hazard. Hauling the trees to biomass plants to be burned to produce electricity will lessen the fire hazard. However, transporting the trees uses diesel fuel, and thus is polluting, plus biomass plants can be a bit messy themselves.

But still, imagine a fire facing down a mountain and hitting thousands of dead trees. The pollution into the air from such a conflagration would be way more than biomass plants produce. Unfortunately, biomass plants in California are closing because they don’t get subsidies like solar and wind do. This is short-sighted and counter-productive.

It’s truly a no-brainer because there are a number of well-located (biomass) facilities that are underutilized,” Malinowski Ball said. “It means millions of tons of organic material diverted from the least favorable environmental outcomes, such as landfilling and burning.”

Meanwhile, a large supply of organic material looms in the Sierra.

There are an estimated 66 million dead trees in California’s forests.