SOMETHING YOU MAY NOT ALREADY KNOW
Bill says that converting corn to ethanol useful for powering motor vehicles uses approximately ninety percent (90%) as much energy as it creates. He goes on to say that converting cellulose from pine trees to ethanol uses about thirty percent (30%) as much energy as it creates.
ROB: This is Rob Hassett for btobmagazine.com. Today, I’m going to be interviewing Bill Bulpitt who is the senior engineer with the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech. Hey, Bill.
BILL: Good morning, Rob. How’re you?
ROB: Doing good. How are you doing?
BILL: I’m all right. A little cold today. A little cold. The energy meters will be spinning today.
ROB: I appreciate your being on today. Now Bill, you have a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech.
ROB: And you were a co-op while at Tech. You were a co-op in Florida somewhere, right?
BILL: Yeah. I worked for Pratt and Whitney Aircraft for two years in West Palm Beach when they were building rocket engines for the Saturn program and also the gas turbine engines that powered the SR71, so it was pretty exciting stuff. And then I worked for an additional year as a co-op with Scientific Atlanta here in Atlanta.
ROB: Well, great background there and in school. And then you worked for the Georgia Research Institute.
BILL: I worked for the Georgia Tech Research Institute when I got out of the military in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And a lot of what we were doing at that point in time back then under the Carter administration was renewable energy research. But funding for that kind of started drying up in the early ‘80s, and so I ended up leaving and eventually joining a subsidiary of the Southern Company and building power plants.
ROB: And that became Mirant when it was spun out?
BILL: Right, it started out as Southern Electric International and then we changed the name to Southern Energy Incorporated, and then that subsidiary was spun off from Southern Company and was then called Mirant, which is still in business in Atlanta.
ROB: And then you went in to environmental consulting for a fairly short time, right?
BILL: Right. I had done environmental consulting for a time before I came to the Georgia Tech Research Institute down in Florida. I was doing that back in the mid ‘70s. I was doing air pollution control work for paper mills and power plants down there. And then when I left Mirant, I did some environmental work again, related mostly again to industrial companies and the power industry before coming back to Georgia Tech four years ago.
ROB: So you came back to Georgia Tech and joined the Strategic Energy Institute about four years ago?
BILL: Correct. Right.
ROB: And what is the mission of the Strategic Energy Institute?
BILL: Well, we have several missions. But the overarching mission is to be a coordinator, an umbrella, for energy research programs at Georgia Tech, and also in cooperation with other universities. We actually, believe it or not, do a lot of work with UGA and have a pretty cordial agreement with them, much more so than on the football field anyway. And there are so many different schools at Tech and so many different research centers at Tech that all have an interest in energy. And what we try and do is get people working together and get people chasing funding together from various sponsors in the hopes that overall, the final product will be better than if each school was trying to do it by themselves.
ROB: So you have various initiatives at Georgia Tech and in cooperation with other schools to try and come up with solutions for the energy issues that we’re dealing with correct?
BILL: Correct. That’s correct. For example, UGA and Georgia Tech are working quite closely together in the biofuels area, and we’re doing research programs in making cellulosic ethanol from the pine tree resource. And that has a good future in the state, and hopefully, we’re going to be able to get more funding, certainly from the new administration, that’s what we’re looking for anyway.
ROB: I have a list of sources of energy and what I’d like to do is go through each one and get your comments about whether you think it’s a long term solution or a dead end, etc.
BILL: Okay, sure. Now this is my opinion now. You know, it’s not necessarily Georgia Tech’s opinion, but I guess I could say it’s based upon twenty years of experience in the utility business and additional years in the research business.
ROB: First of all, let’s start with the obvious which is oil. What do you think about the future with oil as a source of energy for us?
BILL: Well, I think oil has its place. Now 98% of transportation obviously in this country still comes from oil. I think maybe 2-3% has been displaced by natural gas, the Boone Pickens Solution, which makes sense in certain applications, particularly for fleets. For example, the buses in Atlanta, most of them are fueled with natural gas. But for better or for worse, oil obviously is the fuel of choice for transportation. Now what we’re trying to do with the cellulosic ethanol is make a contribution towards displacing some of that oil at least at a 10% level, which is the gasohol that is 10% ethanol, which virtually is available in most places now in this country. And ultimately, we’d like to see the availability of E85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. A lot of people are driving vehicles they don’t even realize are capable of using this fuel. It was started some years ago, let’s say ten years ago. In particular with SUVs and things like Ford Explorers and so forth to where they were capable of burning this E85 because it got … And I don’t know all the details, but it got the auto manufacturers some break on their corporate average fuel economy numbers if they made so many cars that were compatible with this flex fuel. But anyway, you know, there’s a lot of people that I work with at Tech and a lot of people that we keep up with, in particular people like Matt Simmons out of Houston, who have published a number of papers and books related to peak oil and the end of oil, and I believe there’s a lot of evidence that certainly production of oil probably peaked back in the ‘70s worldwide. And that’s not to say that there aren’t undiscovered resources out there; I believe there are. But at the end of the day, the competition for this very, very valuable resource is only going to get more intense. Right now, we’ve got a bubble again where oil is $40 a barrel after being $140 six to nine months ago. It will be back. It will be back. We’ve seen this before. I mean I can remember very vividly the energy crisis of ’73 and ’79. And we don’t need to be in a place where, and I’m talking about the United States, we’re totally manipulated by offshore resources.
ROB: No doubt. What about diesel?
BILL: Well diesel, unfortunately, diesel has got a very bad reputation in this country. And I have to lay that on some of the failed products that were sold as diesel automobiles back in the ‘80s. And, you know, Americans in general got kind of a bad taste in their mouth about the use of diesel as a transportation fuel. Now obviously the truckers have never changed, but I think as I was telling you another time, two times I’ve rented diesel cars, actually three times, diesel cars in Europe. One time was an Audi A6 which was a beautiful car anyway, but it was a diesel, in France. And another time it was a S40 Volvo in Ireland. Now the S40 Volvo which is a relatively small sedan, it’s smaller than a Camry, or maybe almost as big as a Camry, but this was a six speed, a manual transmission six speed diesel, it had a lot of get up and go, it got an honest forty miles a gallon, it was quiet, it was a pleasure to drive and, you know what, if I could buy that car in America, I would consider it, but I can’t. It was never brought to this country because for better or worse, a lot of offshore manufacturers perceive that diesels can’t be sold in this country, and a lot of it has to do with ancient history, but I don’t know how that’s going to get changed. Now you know, as you’ve seen with the whole deal last year and even today, the price of diesel has been significantly higher most of the time than gasoline, and that’s to do with the so-called refinery split, and that’s because they don’t tune the refineries in this country towards diesel; they do it towards gasoline, and that makes the price of diesel higher.
ROB: So diesel could be made to be competitive with oil on price and you’d get a lot more mileage anyway?
BILL: Yes, that’s right.
ROB: It still requires oil, but I guess if everybody was driving diesel, it would require less oil.
BILL: That’s correct. Sure. You know, and that has to do with just the mechanics of the engine. I mean I don’t consider myself an expert on diesel, you know. Thermodynamic efficiency of a transportation engine has a lot to do with compression ratio, and diesel engines are twenty to one compression ratio. They’re compression ignition; they don’t have spark plugs. And that in itself improves the overall efficiency of the engine which allows it to get much better fuel economy than the same size gasoline engine.
ROB: Now you had mentioned to me though that diesel does emit particulate matter as far as environmental issues?
BILL: It’s always been a problem with particulate yes, and that’s unburned carbon particles. And I think that they’ve gone a long way in improving fuel injection systems. Again, I don’t consider myself an expert on diesel. And there is evidence that some of the restrictions in this country on emission standards in some of the states, I mean California for example, are probably much stricter than what most of these European offerings have to meet. I think as environmentally astute as the European Union is, I find it hard to believe that they’re really that lax, and I can’t tell you with certainty, but their standards may be the same as the worst in America at this point; I don’t know. Anyway, there are some things in the diesel emissions that are not desirable compared to gasoline; let’s put it that way.
ROB: What about nuclear, Bill? Nuclear energy, do you think we have a future, that there is a future for that?
BILL: Well, nuclear has a place for sure, I think. Now you know … I mean I worked in the utility business for almost twenty years. None of what we did had to do with nuclear energy. Most of what we did, really most of it had to do with natural gas. But we did do some coal and some other fuel oil as well in central station generating plants. But in this country, what’s happened is obviously, you know, I can remember when Three Mile Island happened and how bizarre it was that that particular month in time when that happened, that movie came out with Jane Fonda in it about the meltdown of the nuclear plant. I’m trying to remember what the name of it was, but it really set the whole country abuzz on the dangers of nuclear power. The fact of the matter is that what happened at Three Mile Island was not all that bad in terms of what was actually released to the atmosphere and the danger that was there for the local residents near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But Chernobyl obviously was just a mammoth event that even today … That was 1986, so 23 years later, I don’t think we fully understand what all of the effects of Chernobyl have been. Obviously, there were thousands of people that died from the radiation poisoning, and those that were involved in the so-called immediate clean up, et cetera, and that was really one of the worst environmental events in history. We only now are beginning to realize what the long term effects on people were and so forth. But the fact of the matter is that the Chernobyl reactors were of a type that were inherently not nearly as safe as any of those that were built in the U.S., and now the new designs that are being put out there by Westinghouse and General Electric and other manufacturers, Arriba. These nuclear plants are going to be inherently much more safe because of the failsafe mechanisms that in the event of any kind of failures of cooling water pumps, et cetera, et cetera, there will be orderly shutdowns of the reactors in a safe manner. Now the problem with nuclear that people just have to realize is the cost. And I’m talking about capital cost. Capital costs that are being published right now for this new wave of nuclear plants that are being permitted are something in the order of between $6,500 to $8,000 a kilowatt. Well, that’s two to two and half times more on a dollars per kilowatt basis of a coal plant that could be built today, and really five times more in terms of cost than the coal plant that was built only ten years ago. So a lot of this is driven by commodity pricing of steel and concrete and copper for the generators, and exotic metals that are needed in the reactors themselves and so forth. But the fact of the matter is that people just need to realize that the electricity coming out of these reactors when they go commercial, when they come online, is not going to be cheap. It’s not going to be low cost power that we have been enjoying for the last twenty years.
ROB: But it does reduce the use of natural gas, I guess which is the fuel of choice right now for power plants, right?
BILL: Right. Natural gas is the fuel of choice and a lot of it has to do with the fact that people like to beat up on the electric utilities, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t have much choice right now. It’s at their peril that they would try and start the process for permitting a coal plant because there’s so much momentum against them right now related to global warming and the greenhouse gas issues, and emissions issues, and not-in-my-backyard issues, and the mountaintop mining issues, and all these other things. And the ash bills like we saw in December up in Tennessee from when the TVA plants … There’s a lot of things working against coal right now. So that’s why a utility executive that is forced to face the need for new generation, his obvious solution that can be done quite quickly, I’m talking about a plant that can be permitted and brought commercial in three years or less, probably, is to build a combined cycle gas turbine plant of the type of plants that I built when I was with Mirant. They are quick to market, but the big unknown there is what’s the price of natural gas going forward? I mean what’s the price going to be? Georgia Power’s putting in a bunch of new gas-powered generation out here at Plant McDonough on the Chattahoochee River, and I think it’s going to go commercial about 2016. Well, the price of the construction of the plant is going to be reasonable, but nobody knows what the fuel price is going to be in 2016. They have projections, but who knows how good they’re going to be.
ROB: Now France relies for their electricity mostly on nuclear power plants, right?
BILL: I think about 80% of their generation comes from nuclear, and the remainder … They do have some hydro in their mountainous regions, and they probably have some natural gas. I don’t know if they have any coal at all in France. They may in some regions, but I’m not aware of it.
ROB: You had told me that each of their plants is a lot less than our nuclear plants, and you told me why. What was that reason?
BILL: Well, when they decided to … When Electricite de France, which is a government agency really so they have the benefit for better or worse, I say the benefit, but they have an agency which is responsible really for the overall generation of electricity for the whole country. And that cuts out a lot of the red tape and a lot of the blind alleys. And once they make a decision they can move on it. And they made a decision some years ago, and I’m going to say thirty or forty years ago, that nuclear was the way to go for France, and they felt like that was a good choice. And so what they did is they standardized a reactor design. And I don’t know the details of whether or not this was EDF’s own engineering that did some of this or if it was some of the big consultants that worked with them, or how exactly it came down. But they standardized a reactor and they replicated it twenty times let’s say for this particular design, whereas in this country, in the U.S., virtually every reactor built in the ‘60s and ‘70s up in to the ‘80s was a custom design. It was engineered to the nth degree, overseen to the nth degree by NRC. And I’m not saying that was a bad thing. I mean you’ve got to have the watchdog regulators in the nuclear business. But as a result, each plant was like a fresh sheet of paper and when you do that, an awful lot of money gets spent on consulting fees and construction fees and so forth. So the price of a plant goes up.
ROB: Yeah. I’d imagine so. Alright, now let’s get in to ethanol. What is your opinion of ethanol made from corn?
BILL: Well ethanol made from corn it gets a pretty bad wrap from a lot of quarters, and the main thing being some people say well it takes more energy to make it than the value of the energy that’s in it. I don’t believe that. I believe it’s a net plus, but it’s not a huge net plus, whereas ethanol from cellulosic materials which we’ll talk about in a minute I assume, is a better energy balance. But here’s what you have to think about. This is in my way of thinking, okay. Any ethanol that displaces petroleum fuels in a mixture in this country potentially represents that many, whatever many, fewer barrels of oil that we’re importing from people that don’t necessarily like us all that much, whether it’s coming from the Middle East or Nigeria or whatever. Now this has been a boon for better or worse to a lot of farmers in the heartland, particularly in places like Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas for example. There have been all of these corn ethanol plants built that have been huge moneymakers for the farmers, and the farmers are typically part owners. There’s a lot of them that have been built by agricultural co-ops which the farmers actually own. And so when gasoline got so high and the price of ethanol tracked behind it, these people made a lot of money over the last ten years. Now was that at the expense of somebody else? Well, you know, the whole food versus fuel debate will go on forever. Obviously the price of corn got very high. Did it affect the price of chicken feed? Did it affect the price of tacos? Did it affect the price of anything based on corn? Sure it did. Absolutely, I believe that happened. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. People like to say the ethanol experiment in this country was an absolute disaster. I don’t think that’s true. I think it has at least focused the debate on what the avenues are that we can make renewable transportation fuels from.
ROB: Now what is the advantage of making ethanol from pine trees, which I understand is one of your projects?
BILL: Well, the energy balance on pine to ethanol can be as good as … Let’s say the total energy for the ethanol that’s produced, perhaps 30% of that energy goes to making it and the rest is a net plus. So the energy balance is better than corn to ethanol.
ROB: What is it for corn to ethanol?
BILL: Pardon me?
ROB: What is the balance for corn to ethanol?
BILL: It’s probably about 10%. In other words, it’s probably about 10-12%.
ROB: Versus 70%.
BILL: Versus what?
ROB: Versus 70% for —
BILL: Correct. Correct. And why is that? Well, you’ve got to look at … Now when I talk about cellulosic ethanol, I’m talking about in the case we’re focused on, for example, pine trees, pine plantations, for example, that have been grown for pulp and paper in the Southeast for the last fifty years. These plantations, a lot of them have been grown on land that was marginalized years ago, used to be tobacco land, used to be cotton land, a lot of it pretty low productivity compared to the beautiful soil that you see in places like Iowa and western Minnesota okay. The black loam that is so productive for vegetables. So you’ve got a lot of land in south Georgia that’s sandy and it really is not very productive for growing vegetables that had been used for cotton and what not in the past, and has been changed over for growing pine trees. Well you’ve got an infrastructure in place too that has served the pulp paper industry. And you don’t have the cultivation needs and the energy needs in terms of energy to make fertilizer, energy for tractor fuel, energy to run irrigation pumps that would make growing corn in these same regions so energy intensive relatively. So you go out there and you put out seedlings for pine trees and you let them grow for fifteen years, then you thin them. Ten to fifteen years, then you do a thinning. Then you let them grow another ten years, thin them again, and then if you … The whole thing about pine trees in this state or in the Southeast, you’ve got a lot of different ways to go in the past. You go to saw timber which is very valuable material. You go to pulpwood which is valuable, but less so. And in the case that we’re talking about, the demand for pulpwood has waned in the past five to ten years because pulp and paper, the pulp and paper industry is not as robust as it once was. 90% of the commercial forest land in Georgia is owned by tree farmers now, whereas thirty years ago, 90% was owned by paper companies. The tree farmers want a new outlet for their product which is their trees, and they’re all for the rise of the cellulosic ethanol market. So that’ll give them a new place to sell their product.
ROB: Is ethanol from pine trees, is it available now for cars?
BILL: No, it’s not. There have been some demonstrations on a small scale done here and there. We’ve made some at the Georgia Tech laboratories here, okay. And there’s a plant being built down in Soperton, Georgia by Range Fuels. They use an entirely different process than we do. But at the end of the day, they’re going towards a fully commercial plant to make cellulosic ethanol from pine. I’m not sure, I think the first phase of that plant is slated to start making some fuel at the end of ’09 or early ’10, but I don’t know when they’re going to be fully commercial.
ROB: Why has the ethanol from pine trees not progressed more quickly?
BILL: Well, it’s kind of interesting. Back when I was here at Georgia Tech back in the ‘70s, we actually had a pretty impressive program to make ethanol from trees. Back then, it was funded by the Department of Energy, but then it was all hardwoods, okay? And DOE sponsored various programs to make ethanol from hardwoods because hardwoods were readily available, and in a lot of places are considered junk trees. Whereas certainly in the Southeast, pine timber was considered untouchable because it all belonged to the paper companies, and the paper companies knew where their pine trees were going. They were going in to the paper mill or maybe to their satellite sawmill, but certainly not for any other use. And they just weren’t available, so you weren’t going to be able to get that material. Now, like I said, it’s changed. It’s flipped the other way, and most trees out there are owned by private landowners in the Southeast, and also there’s just a slow down in some of the other markets and the owners want to be able to hedge their bets and go to a different place.
ROB: Bill, we’re about at the end of the time we’ve got allotted. If you were the Secretary of Energy right now or Barack Obama our president, what would you be trying to do on the energy end?
BILL: Well, you know, there’s been a lot of talk in the past ten years that energy’s come back up as a point of discussion, of what the silver bullet is, and there really isn’t a silver bullet. But this goes back … Unfortunately, if I wanted to be nostalgic and somewhat disappointed, we go back to the days of the Jimmy Carter era in the late ‘70s when we were coming off of the second energy crisis and we were going to have a solution, and we were going to get America off of oil and we were going to become more self sufficient. There was an opportunity then to advance research in a lot of fronts. There’s another opportunity now. I hope it sticks this time. I think renewables have a role. They have a role in this country. Now, it’s not a be all and an end all, because let’s face it, when I built a natural gas fired 550 megawatt power plant with gas turbine engines, the last project I did in Michigan for example, I could put 550 megawatts of generation on about four or five acres of land with a gas pipe coming and call it done, okay. Very quick, very simple, very clean. Now, the only unknown there is what’s the price of that natural gas going to be? But we need to keep that on the table. We need to keep coal on the table. We need to clean up coal. We need to continue to follow the clean coal route at some level. Because we still have two hundred, two hundred fifty years worth of coal reserves in this country, but we’ve got to be smart about how we use it. And the public sentiment is quite against it at the moment. I think we do need to advance nuclear power. We’ve got to figure out what the waste solution is on that. We’ve got to get Yuka Mountain or an equivalent in operation to deal with that. But renewables have a place. And the point I was going to make with the gas turbine is a 500 megawatt natural gas fire plant on three acres … The equivalent to do that with a wind farm will take square miles, okay. That’s just the reality of it. A wind machine, for example, has only a 30% capacity factor, and you have to space them apart. And you can only put them in places where the wind blows well. And we did a study along with Southern Company off the coast of Georgia that shows there is a wind resource here. We could put some substantial wind farms off the coast and use that as renewables. There’s a lot of biomass in the Southeast that could be utilized. We have to be smart about it. We have to make sure that five plants aren’t built on top of each other and the price of wood becomes three hundred dollars a ton. That’s not going to work. So somebody’s got to be minding the store on smart growth in power plants, for example. But anyway, I would say to the Obama administration — advance the ball on renewables. Make it more of a factor in this country like it has become in Europe, but don’t turn your back on traditional technologies. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got them advancing as well. And if anything new comes down the line in terms of nuclear or what not, it can be utilized.
ROB: Bill, if anyone wanted to follow up with you, how could they reach you?
BILL: You can call me at the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech. My number’s (404) 385-6939. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go on the main Georgia Tech website and Google on the website “energy institute,” “strategic energy,” and our website will come up.
ROB: Bill, thanks a lot for being on today. It was very informative.
BILL: Alright, you’re quite welcome anytime.