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Steven Chu

Dr. Steven Chu is the distinguished Noble prize winner appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of Energy.

Charley says Dr. Chu has promoted the white roof alternative. By changing to a white roof, or even a light colored roof  - the next time you replace your roof, you would benefit from substantial savings in household energy bills. This is a clear mandate, with achievable goals, unlike the transportation and power industry goals he has set forth.

Charley, our Sea Otter mascot, really understands this approach.

Open letter to Energy  Secretary Steven Chu

18 Sept 2009 (revised 29 Jan 2013)

Dear Secretary Steven Chu,

Having had a couple of weeks to digest your talk at the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Re-energizing America Conference, I realize that you don’t see that the US and the world can’t wait for genius fostered at new ‘centers of excellence’ to save us from the CO2 catastrophe you so aptly described. Your approach is the equivalent of going ahead with the Manhattan Project after hearing that the results of Fermi's pile was indecisive. Twenty years more of what we are doing may seal the world’s fate, most importantly, because the Chinese, Indians and other rapidly developing economies will be multipliers of CO2 emissions in factors of 3 and 4 more than us if we don’t lead the way -- both morally and technologically -- off oil as a transportation fuel. The only way is to set an example, which has a path of high certainty. We need to show the rest of the world that driving with bio-methanol is the way.
            As you are probably aware, the California Air Resources Board has determined that bio-methane made from wastes has a well-to-wheel carbon content that is currently calculated at only 10% of that of reformulated gasoline or low sulfur diesel (see CARB estimates). If algae are anaerobically digested to make methane and the resulting CO2 is recycled to grow more algae, the well-to-wheel carbon content, even after converting the gas to liquid methanol, can be zero (witness Volvo's use of black liquor as a feedstock). The emphasis on growing algae for its oil is a mistake. Natural strains of algae, which robustly grow locally, and can be grown even faster using CO2, should be anaerobically digested to enable huge amounts of bio-methane to be produced, and the residual CO2 used to grow the next crop of algae. Driving the world’s fleet on bio-methanol can buy us decades, and maybe far beyond, of carbon neutral fuel. Your vision of 'new centers of excellence' will then have time to generate the ideas we need to successfully live in a further carbon constrained world.
            Clearly directly using natural gas will be an ongoing unacceptable expense on US society, as our regulations make the tanks and other parts so expensive that converting the fleet would cost a greater percentage of our gross national product than the interstate highway system. The unintended consequences of methane emissions and leaks from all those fuel dispensers and fuel tanks could catastrophically increase global warming.
            Electric cars, based on Lithium Ion batteries, have two critical faults. First the US electricity mix (approximately 45% coal for many years to come means that plug-ins are just coal surrogates, see CARB plot. (Using the natural gas and renewable natural gas as a feedstock for methanol would be more efficient.) Secondly, the Lithium superpowers, Bolivia, China and Chile will just replace OPEC. How much better off will the US be? The Department of Energy owes the American public a systematic study of going electric in personal transportation, in comparison to using the bio/fossil natural gas feedstock.
            Clearly, putting heavy emphasis on ethanol fuels, derived from cellulosic feedstocks, is a high-risk gamble in comparison to using methanol as a fuel. It is well known how long this research has been going on - do you really expect a cost breakthrough soon? Should America hang its hope on this? The EPA, which you oversee, has ignored the value of anaerobically digesting our wastes, and delegated our wastes to the production of cellulosic ethanol.
            As you know, cellulosic ethanol has yet to be made commercially viable, yet biogas made from anaerobically digesting our wastes is the most successful technology in the history of mankind. DOE needs to honesty tell the story as it historically has been, and not hide this renewable, zero net carbon solution from the American public. A real, NOW solution should be much more thoroughly developed and promoted. Using methane from biogas to make methanol is both green and renewable.
            Time frame is, of course, an important part of the crisis, not just because of global warming issues, but also because of supply issues. Look at Mexico’s oil production decline. These supply issues have recently been cemented by the approval of the new tars sands oil pipeline from Canada to the US. What a disgrace! This, and the exportation of our natural gas is very poor energy policy. It’s gasoline from very dirty oil instead of CNG and methanol/ethanol from natural gas. It’s a de-facto policy decision to seriously contribute to global warming, both within and outside of borders. How can we justify this? It seriously codifies your lack of confidence that your approach to alternative fuels, and results of the brain storming you propose, are going to do the job in time. To add insult to injury, 30% of Canada's yearly natural gas usage is wasted cooking tar sands.
            To accelerate the world’s understanding and put the US on a strong moral footing, we should establish a national campaign of education to move to the use of methanol. Methanol can be made from our abundant natural gas. As the Plan develops it will increasingly be made from organic wastes. The Department of Energy should strongly encourage municipalities, industries and farms to convert to methanol with the carrot that they will eventually contribute to the manufacture of the fuel they need by using their organic wastes. We should initially mix cleaned biogas into our natural gas pipeline distribution system, where it will be converted into methanol at a downstream plant. We should also encourage the small modifications to be made to existing gasoline engines, and to new ones not yet produced, through some incentive policy. Through the use of 'blender' pumps different blends could be made for vehicles certified to use them. Clearly some older vehicles may be able to use E30 or M30, etc., assuming cost effective modifications. Furthermore, we should specify and label mixtures of methanol made from renewable natural gas and fossil natural gas as bio-methanol M20/BM10, or M85/BM20, etc., so citizens can realize the contribution to the environment and GHG they are making. Clearly as renewable proportions increase we will have a measure of our increasing success in eliminating net CO2 emissions.
            We can run all of our transportation system for as long as we desire from renewable bio methanol/ethanol. Here's an example. After starting by adding with fossil methanol from natural gas to the alcohol fuel blends, we initiate introduction of more anaerobic digestion systems for our cities, major farms and industrial facilities with the appropriate wastes. We tap our landfills. Then we develop algae fields of locally indigenous algae, which are robust, with the goal of anaerobically digesting it to create methane, and from the methane make methanol. Smaller scale methanol plants can be located near the farming. The CO2 generated will be recycled to produce more algae. The methanol so produced could also be piped from remote areas (with smaller losses than electricity is), via joint trunk lines and even used to generate electricity in gas turbines. Furthermore, ethanol and methanol plants can be built in close proximity to use the ethanol emissions of CO2 as input (along with biogas) to the liquid phase methanol process.
           Developing more efficient technologies that burn methanol should be a national priority and can be done, especially now that it is clear that we have substantial fossil NG. In particular, we need to determine whether we need the addition of a NASA type LTOC (Low Temperature Oxidation Catalysts) to remove formaldehyde emissions during startup, and a plan that develops more efficient ‘ICE engines’ for transportation, as well as methanol for fuel cells, as we transition from fossil methanol to bio-methanol as the primary source. The EPA has shown that methanol can achieve the thermodynamic efficiencies of diesel fuel in a modified diesel engine. And as fuel cells are further developed, so as to get even higher efficiencies, methanol will be the best fuel for them. It is clear from Chinese, Brazilian and even past California experience that our global vehicle manufacturers already have the technology to do this (just look at what the new Ricardo EBDI engine can do). There is no chicken and egg problem here as gasoline could always be the fallback. But as methanol/ethanol becomes more available, and engines are built around alcohols, not legacy gasoline as current Flex Fuels vehicles are, American consumers will naturally buy the cheaper, better running, and cleaner fuel. The jobs added, the cheaper transportation, and the fuel dollars prevented from going out of the country will give a big boost to the economy - we will have a catalyst to grow jobs - while keeping the farmers and new cellulosic bio-fuels industry happy.

I respectfully request a reply to these matters.


Robert Falco, PhD, Director, IER
Institute for Energy Resourcefulness