Scarred by the failure of first generation biofuels and by the increasingly bitter controversy over the burning of imported biomass at Drax and elsewhere, the UK has backed away from research into using biological materials for energy conversion or storage. This behaviour is mirrored across Europe. Outside the US, research into using natural materials has almost ceased as concerns over the diversion of land from food production and low carbon savings have overwhelmed the case for increased renewable energy.
This is a mistake, and possibly a tragic one. In sunny parts of the globe, solar PV may provide the cheapest source of electricity. But PV doesn’t provide either reliable 24 hour power or a source of liquid fuel for transport. Since electricity is typically provides less than 40% of total energy demand, the world needs to find inexpensive low carbon sources to meet other needs. Biological sources of energy are vital, not least because they can both store power (thus complementing intermittent sources such as PV) and can be converted to high density liquid fuels suitable for transport. A piece of wood is a semi-permanent store of solar energy and can be converted – albeit expensively at present – to a liquid hydrocarbon. Algae are similar. But work on even relatively simple technical problems such as improving the slowness of the breakdown of cellulose molecules in anaerobic digesters simply isn’t taking place in the UK.
By contrast, this note looks at Joule Unlimited, a seven year old US company that is making ethanol and other fuels from CO2, sunshine and water. Like many other US bioenergy companies, Joule has raised what to European eyes look like prodigious amounts of capital. But the $160m of investors’ money has bought what seems like exciting intellectual property. If Joule can do as it promises and produce transport fuels for less than $50 a barrel of oil equivalent, it can undermine the conventional supply of oil, a market currently worth about $8bn a day. Read the rest of this entry »