Promethean: Agents of Change

Agents of change.

Be greater than average. Be an agent of change. Be the solution. Be Promethean.

How many times have we passed someone in distress only to pass them by in the hopes that someone else would arrive, perhaps better qualified or less pressed for time in that moment, to assist them. I am guilty of this, and I imagine most of us can remember at least a time or two this has happened.

And yet I stand behind the statements initiating this entry, for that is the reality of the culture we are creating at Promethean Biofuels.

We are not perfect. We do not need to be. In fact our imperfections contribute to our ability to find solutions to problems, whether they are implementing changes to our process to improve efficiency, or simply overcome the fact that individually moving 6 tons of butter every day quickly leads to exhaustion in humans.

We have problems. Some are more easily resolved than others.

We are a microcosm of the human condition and at times we lose sight of what is really important. We also lose sight of how much power we have as individuals to positively or negatively impact the lives of our families and neighbors, whether these impacts are ultimately realized in their level of happiness or the preservation of the environment that sustains us.

We strive to overcome our imperfections. Those we cannot overcome we at least do our best to understand.

We work really hard to make the world a better place. We work as a team. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses, and having the strength to inform those around us, makes the team more effective and helps us achieve our desired goals.

We believe in what we do and the ultimate value of our products and services.

We are responsable and accountable.

We serve the community, intelligently, utilizing sustainable technologies.

I have the privilege of working with an amazing cadre of talented individuals. We are always seeking others to join us in our cause and approach, which I have outlined briefly above. I would love to hear from anyone out there that is interested in working together with Promethean.

As always, make it a better place.

Todd

Promethean growing pains: 2012

Every organization that survives the initial stages of growth goes through “growing pains”. The type and scope of the pain may vary, but generally they range from issues with internal communication, inconsistent adherence to quality controls or other corporate policies, and consequently an increase in the number of events in direct correspondence to lower levels of customer and team satisfaction . As the pace of business increases, the likelihood of these newly emerging issues manifesting themselves becomes inevitable, often necessitating changes in personnel, corporate culture, and the addition of increasingly stringent controls.

At Promethean we find ourselves experiencing more pain, and we are preparing ourselves for rapid growth. At the same time I realize that we are walking a fine line; we are skirting the edge of greatness and oblivion at the same time.

Two weeks after hosting a very successful conference we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in our culture and mode of operation. The next few months will determine our place in the rapidly maturing, but far from mature, California bio fuels market place. More importantly, the new technology few weeks will see the formation of the team that can take us from a small production plant placed somewhat counter-intuitively in the midst of southern California wine country to a readily recognized global market participant.

Those of us who have more than a few years under our belts in this industry know that it often seems as if we are on a roller coaster, with highs and lows that sometimes obfuscate the reality of how well, or how poorly, our individual enterprises are actually performing at any given moment. There are many that I count amongst my friends who will not have the same opportunity to experience the joys and pains that the next few years hold for those of us that continue to actively fight the good fight and produce our often under appreciated fuel. Many will go on to be agents of change in other industries.

Nothing is certain as it pertains to the future. For now we simply need to do our best to enjoy the ride.

Make it a better place.

Todd

2012 Collective Biofuels Conference: Day 1

In the past I have always been excited in the days leading up to the conference, but never more so than today.

Within a few short moments of my arrival at the Temecula Creek Inn, this year’s primary conference venue, I found myself in the midst of a discussion with Gerhard Knothe (USDA ARS) regarding alternative fuels feedstock. A few minutes later Rod Yawn and I are in deep discussion about cationic resins, which is then followed by me meandering over to Leon Griffin of WVO Designs who is intently constructing his Beast Centrifuge which will be on display at the vendor tables.

This years participants number slightly less than a hundred. Many have come long distances, from Europe, to the Eastern United States, Canada, and India.

Many old friends are here, and in some ways it is a time for us to reflect on our past year in the industry. Sometimes our discussions evolve into a type of cathartic commiseration.

Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board said something to me earlier in the evening that struck me as as especially applicable for the folks here. The essence of what he said to me is that a person’s dedication to a cause tended to increase in a manner proportional to the amount of suffering one has endured in its furtherance.

We are all survivors here. We all have spent the year learning, making mistakes, and recovering from them.

I am proud to be here, amongst others who share a similar devotion to making our fuel an integral part of a solution to our global energy needs.

Make it a better place.

Todd

 

 

Collective Biofuels, Visitors, and Production Intelligence

I find it hard to believe that we are already in the midst of summer. It has already been a tremendously eventful year at Promethean, and it seems that we need to pick up the pace.There have been so many changes in such a brief period of time. Some of the changes were made by choice; there was at least one occasion where the choice was made for us.

At any rate, change is essential for progress and progress is exactly what we are making.

Repetitive and, one can easily argue, often tedious data collection requirements resonate through the core of our fuel-making process; the legacy of instituting a quality management system. But the system is phenomenal. We are working on ensuring that process redundancies are curbed, that the data we are collecting can be easily interpreted and will ultimately yield meaningful and utilitarian production intelligence.

We are preparing for a multitude of visitors at this year’s Collective Biofuels Conference (http://collectivebiofuels.org) in Temecula, CA this year. It is being held August 17th – 19th, 2012. I will have more to say about this stupendous event in an upcoming entry, but the current confirmed speaker list includes Dr. Jon Van Gerpen (amongst other things the author of the Biodiesel Handbook), Dr. Virginia Gordon (Bonanza Labs’ President and Founder), Don Scott (Sustainability Director for the NBB), Graydon Blair (Utah Biodiesel Supply), Jason Burroughs (Diesel Green Fuels), Dr. Jonathan Meuser,… Well, we’re very excited!

We are also in the midst of making some minor adjustments to our process lines based on the changing nature of the feedstock we have available to us for conversion. We are on a very tight schedule to implement these changes, since the fire earlier this year, among other things in the key of life, resulted in a less than average production start for this year.

As a final ramble for this entry, Joe Spatafore of Extreme Biofuels in Corona, CA stopped by to see us today. Joe has had a standing invitation to come by since we broke ground in early 2008. He lives relatively close to the plant, but never had the time to come by. I was glad he did. We spent some time talking about surviving in this industry. If anyone knows about surviving in the biodiesel business it’s Joe. I wish him the best of luck.

Make it a better place!

Todd

Ethanol and biodiesel may not be worlds apart…

I have spent the last few days in scenic Florida at the NBB’s 2012 conference. It has been an interesting event, part time to see old friends and industry veterans, part opportunity to hear about the industry from both NBB’s and Big Petroleum’s perspectives, and finally time to see what wares the larger technology vendors have augmented their armouries with in the last year or two.

I have received invitations from several ethanol producers in the last few months interested in the co-locating a Promethean-scale biodiesel plant next to their ethanol production facility. This has historically been a challenging sort of partnership for the for both biodiesel and ethanol producers alike given the intertwined states of current technology and economic conditions.

A current factoid is that there is more than 2 billion gallons of biodiesel capacity ready today with a market size of 1.3 billion gallons (given RFS 2 mandated production targets). With that quantity of excess capacity, I do not believe that any new large-scale greenfield biodiesel plants need to be built anytime soon. Even with site-sourced feedstock, its axiomatic that the investment in a new facility is unnecessary with the quantity of willing and able buyers that are out there for DDG-derived oil.

At the moment the most logical model for those plants interested in processing DDG-derived oil remains sourcing and transporting it from logistically tenable ethanol plants. This also allows the plant to leverage it’s current fuel blending and distribution infrastructure, which is feasible, yet obviously tangential, to the core business of the manufacturer.

And then there is the additional issue of the technical complexity of converting corn oil into biodiesel. The fact is inedible corn oil is difficult to process into biodiesel feedstock. Coupled with the ever-evolving set of ASTM specifications for biodiesel and plant installation now runs the risk of having to upgrade there equipment early enough that it ruins any amortization assumptions made to support timely ROI (return-on-investment).

That said, I do believe that there is a bright future for the ethanol industry to create plants that make specialty chemicals out of byproduct streams. That is one reason I believe I have been receiving so many paid invitations; we have a good deal of experience in developing products out of our byproduct streams.

Make it a better place!

Todd

Towards balanced abundance.

America’s  $2 billion dollar-a-day oil habit actually costs an additional $4 billion in indirect costs, to the total of $6 billion dollars a day, or 16% of our Gross Domestic Product. That’s $1.5 trillion a year Americans pay in additional costs varying from supply-side economics, oil-price volatility, and the cost of our military engagements in the Gulf region.

Our way of life is soon to be shocked by the geologic reality that the Earth’s oil supply is finite. The petroleum industry is certainly spending tremendous sums in search of a triumvirate of new; new technologies, new supplies, and new political allies. Peak oil has come and gone. Although news of North Dakota boomtowns like Williston seemingly herald an end to our immediate supply woes; even if these fields produce 24 billion barrels of oil they will be dry in ten years at our current rate of consumption. The United Nations recently released revised projections that our global population will increase through 2050 upward from our currently near 6.8 billion global inhabitants to as high as 10.5 billion.

As oil prices go up, America pays through businesses forced to pass along higher fuel costs to their customers, higher fuel prices at the gas station, and increased reliance on foreign oil. .  We also send billions of dollars to foreign countries, as well as maintain a considerable debt load, to feed our addiction to gasoline and foreign oil. Although oftentimes we look to the Middle East as our major supplier of oil of foreign origin, in reality 55% of it is supplied by Canada. Saudi Arabia supplies approximately 30%, and Venezuela and Mexico provide an additional 10% and 5% respectively.

2011 has been a banner year for biodiesel, with production soaring. The planets have aligned, and the industry is enjoying a tremendous amount of support.

The biodiesel tax credit is set to expire and many believe that because the demise of the ethanol tax credit seems a near certainty for 2012 the end of one spells doom for the other.

I believe the best calls to action are simply stated but broad in vision. In this moment lies our opportunity to take control of our destiny and fulfill our obligation as environmental stewards. More importantly, our actions now will have an effect on climate change, which is an issue that is already threatening the survival of several species which may in the long term be a set inclusive of humanity.

The economics alone may not be sufficient to change our behavior. The threat that climate change poses to the way we live, if at all, may not be sufficient, or simply sufficiently grasped in time.

One of our goals at Promethean is to try and educate that sustainability is about balance, not about sacrifice.

We are striving to create a world of balanced abundance. We are working on technologies that increase the efficiency related to what we do here at our scale; we know our efforts are being pursued by others in the renewable fuels sector, from a myriad of directions. All of these efforts are in the end working towards life enhancement. Their commercial success depends upon it.

At the end of the day we must avoid as a nation the temptation to not invest in our energy infrastructure given the current state of the economy. Our renewable energy capacity will prove a critical component of our future as a global leader. Our future is counting on it.

Make it a better place!

Todd

Hyper consumerism is a plague.

Hyper consumerism is a plague sapping the strength from our beautiful nation.

Many argue that our consumer culture is the root of our current military conflicts; our need for foreign oil, amongst other things, grows every day. Our political representatives in dissonance to their actions proclaim their dedication to all things “green”. Meanwhile we see investment in our schools and roads, the future brains and arteries of America, suffer from year after year declines even as the banking industry has arisen from the brink of failure.

China is currently the world’s largest consumer of energy. The United States is second. The Indian economy is growing rapidly as well, and their prodigious acquisition of gold is one of the reasons that they are the world’s largest consumer of the nigh-indestructible stuff in 2011.

The economists of international consultancy PwC predict, along with many others, that the GDP of China will be larger than that of the US by 2025, with India surpassing the U.S. by 2050.

It may be the case that in 2050 the financial house of the United States of America will be in better order. But the oil markets, such as they may be at that time, are likely to be far more competitive than they are even now, and the pressure for conflict an inevitable consequence.

A movement can change the world one person at a time, but the person has to be willing to change. Social change on the scale we are advocating cannot be forced; only discovered and adopted as a way of being.

What we do  here at the plant is often difficult. Making biodiesel from used cooking oil is not an easy craft. Our form of energy is not derived from pristine sources. We make liquid beauty by eradicating chaos.

We are humble in the practice of our alchemy, and increasingly conscious of the operational precision required to ensure quality product that can power the community.  Many of the founding fathers of chemistry, including the man who is largely regarded as the first modern chemist, Robert Boyle, had their foundations in the noble pseudoscience that is alchemy.

I must admit that I realize that this particular entry is more opinion piece than factoid. I will not apologize for sharing my point of view.

I say it because I care. And if you have dared to read this far I know you care too.

Make it a better place!

Todd

A collective aacount…

I made a journey recently to attend the Collective Biodiesel Conference, held this year in Duncan, British Columbia.

From my perspective, it was nothing short of amazing.

I was there to give a talk on the last day of the conference about growing community-scale biodiesel cooperatives.  It gave me the opportunity to visit some old friends, make new ones, and share our differing philosophies on how to handle common problems affecting us all.

I was surrounded by a cadre of biodiesel loyalists and industry heroes and often found myself in the midst of conversations that ranged from a gregarious Lyle Estill (Piedmont Biofuels) and Jennifer Radthke (Biofuels Oasis) discussing Josh Tickell’s new film “Freedom” to Josh and I discussing his plans to develop an off-grid community, followed by Jason Burroughs and I discussing his trip from Seattle in a fully loaded vehicle with 8 other passengers and a scary tire blow out.

The next day I was spent listening to Lyle Estill as he discussed a brief history of Piedmont Biofuels, a cooperative that has  into an industrial producer  and research organization over the course of the lst 9 years. Piedmont’s capacity is roughly 1 million gallons per year. They are working on an enzymatic approach to treating high FFA feedstock with Novazymes, and have several patents in the works.

I flitted from presentation to presentation, covering everything from the state of algal research, especially as it pertains to the future of genetically modified algal strains, to Kumar Plocher’s talk on all things Yokayo, until finally on the last day my turn to speak came.

My presentation was focused to assit those interested in the set of considerations that affect whether or not a group interested in forming a cooperative should, how the goal of the industry at large should be to make BQ 9000 obsolete, and the trials and tribulations of facility registrations under RFS2.

In a short three days I was reunited with old friends, made several new ones, and spent my time immersed in the nurturing environment of old friends more used to the daily trials and tribulations of manufacturing, marketing, and evangelizing our advanced biofuels.

I came back rejuvenated, and refocused on our goal: Clean chemicals, clean materials, and clean power from recycled feedstock.

It’s time to shake the world.

Make it a better place!

Todd

Green energy as a commodity?

These are strange times for the alternative fuels industry.

Feedstock prices remain at an all time high.  Theft is a problem for most. Margins remain tight, even though from a credits perspective all the planets have temporarily aligned in favor of alternative fuels.

Those of us at Promethean have been working on understanding the set of things we are good at doing, and the set of things that we need to improve upon. Ours is an interesting industry in that what began as a boutique approach to making fuel is quickly transforming into a commodity business. It is an oddity to think that the higher form recycling we do everyday may soon be similar to industries like paper and scrap metal recycling. In those markets, brand differentiators are difficult to articulate, especially when the bars in fuel production are minimally set in terms of achieving the ASTM standard.  Many consider BQ 9000 to be the current differentiator between top tier producers, but ultimately the quality controls supported by this program will be adopted by most out of necessity if they are to survive, even if they do not pay a third-party auditor to confirm the existence of an active program.

We do have loyalists that visit us.  In many cases they are committed to B100 and a petroleum independent world, where those who drive can do so knowing that they have converted waste to energy. So are we. We also understand that to be truly sustainable we must not only be able to supply consistent fuel quality and quantities, as well as identifying and formulating products that serve a higher purpose for our feedstocks and byproducts.

Green energy as a commodity. It may sound horrible to some. The tone and tenor of the thought makes me uncomfortable as well. But there is a magic in the achievement, as any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to the unenlightened or lay person. We must pursue this sort of product anonymity and make it part of the common reality. True success in our business means that our products will enjoy a similar anonymity to their petroleum-based counterparts. They may be fundamentally different from petroleum products in the molecular sense, but in functionality they need to ultimately be superior, and lest we forget, price competitive.

Make it a better place!

Todd