19 March 2008

Regional Strengths, Global Weaknesses: Answers to Outsourcing and Global Energy Strangleholds

Economics is boring. Poverty is even more boring, however. In order for a nation or region to avoid poverty, it must be able to run its industrial base without paying exorbitant energy costs. In the year 2008, the term "energy costs" generally refers to the cost of oil and gas.

It seems that if a country or region is not rich in oil and gas resources, its economy is being held ransom to high energy costs. Most oil and gas is controlled by autocratic and oligarchic governments in control of national oil companies. High oil prices put more money into their corrupt government coffers and private Swiss bank accounts, so it is not in the interest of the oil tyrants to produce more oil and gas--which might cause the value of their underground assets to decrease.

Nations without oil and gas cannot grow healthy economies in current circumstances. In order to strengthen local and regional economies, it is important to match the region's strengths with economic opportunities and needs. Find what your region can produce at a reasonable profit, and look for ways to cleanly and economically develop that resource.North America happens to be particularly blessed by bio-potential. The North American economy is the world's most prolific--in terms of all around research, development, invention, and production--and it also has an abundant potential for vastly more bio-energy production to fuel much of its future growth.

Biomass is particularly suitable for regional development--at the small and intermediate scale. Small and medium sized regional hubs of bio-energy are likely to grow up in areas that are currently relatively impoverished, away from the mega-cities that are becoming increasingly top-heavy and unstable.
We propose a network of regional biomass processing centers (RBPC) to address many of these issues. The RBPC, in its mature form, is conceptualized as a flexible processing facility capable of pre-treating and converting various types of biomass into appropriate feedstocks for a variety of final products such as fuels, chemicals, electricity, animal feeds etc. as shown in Figure 3. It is envisioned that a number of such RBPC will form an extended biomass supply infrastructure feeding into large biomass ethanol refineries and other processing facilities.

Preprocessing is designed to improve biomass handling, transport, storageability, and potentially add value by making biomass more fit for final conversion to fuels, power, and chemicals. Preprocessing includes: cleaning, separating and sorting, chopping, grinding, mixing/blending, moisture control and potentially densifying. In most of existing literature, biorefineries have been typically designed to accept baled biomass and carry out all the preprocessing onsite at the biorefinery, followed by further processing stages of pretreatment, hydrolysis, fermentation, ethanol recovery. (e.g. Wooley et al., 1999; Aden et al., 2002; Hamelinck, 2005). We propose to strip both preprocessing and pretreatment steps out of the biorefinery and carry these out at RBPCs. A number of RBPCs will then supply pre-treated biomass to the biorefinery for further processing. While some prior research has looked at potential small scale on-farm preprocessing of biomass, mainly physical state alteration by chopping and grinding to improve transportability, we propose more advanced preprocessing, which will involve both physical transformation and chemical pre-treatment, in relatively large, intermediate, geographically distributed facilities.

...Distributed preprocessing can potentially reduce overall supply chain costs. Because chopping and grinding carried out prior to pretreatment nearly doubles the bulk density of biomass, a two stage collection system where the raw baled biomass from a smaller collection area is first transported to the RBPC, pretreated into more uniform and denser feedstock, and then transported to the central biorefinery may be less costly. However, actual cost savings are a function of the additional costs of handling the feedstock twice, and spatial distribution of the biomass sources relative to the biorefinery and the transportation infrastructure. RBPCs can also be designed to serve as appropriately designed, intermediate storage facilities that can reduce spoilage and deterioration of biomass compared to open on-farm storage. Further, RBPC locations can be chosen to ensure all weather access, so that the biorefinery can draw uniformly from the inventory at the RBPCs even during winter months. Because of high fixed costs, high capacity utilization is critical for financial success of a biorefinery, and on-field storage can be problematic in areas with poor access during some seasons. Distributed preprocessing can also reduce local environmental impacts of biorefineries, e.g. traffic congestion and associated air quality effects, and odor from stored biomass. Distributed preprocessing facilities can also be designed to receive different local feedstocks and mix them appropriately to deliver uniform quality feedstock in terms of composition, size, density, moisture etc. to the biorefinery. In fact, research has shown that growing a mixture of grasses instead of a single variety of grass may increase the biomass energy yield per acre by as much as 238% (Tilman et al., 2007). _Source__Feasiblity of Regional Biomass Centers__via__QiBioenergy

Looking for small and medium sized opportunities is a smart way for a person to get into business for himself. Bio-energy is a ground floor opportunity for those intelligent enough to perceive the energy future for the next several decades.

North Americans have been well-indoctrinated in the "job mentality", working for someone else, indentured servitude. The idea of stepping out on one's own, of taking the risks involved in working for oneself, causes too many academically lobotomised, psychological neotenates to quake in fear.

For all the high school and college dropouts, who rejected that indoctrination, these opportunities for starting small on the ground floor most definitely exist. Even for the well-established professional or working person, the prospect of hundreds or thousands of these small to medium regional biomass pre-processing and processing centers should suggest some investment opportunities.

It is a different way of looking at the world. Locally, regionally, in a distributed and more accessible manner.

Image Sources: Biomass Processing and Anthonares blog

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