The Trouble with Gribbles: Biofuels Hype, Scale Warp Speed

Some media appear to feel that their crowded inboxes — touting discoveries that do not translate quickly into steel in the ground and fuel in the tank — are symptoms of a national bioenergy malaise.

By JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

The trouble with gribbles is not entirely different from the "Trouble with Tribbles," in which the Starship Enterprise is over-run with too many lovable furballs.

An unlikely organism called the gribble has been generating a fair amount of attention in the popular press. The ship rot-inducing worm has been hailed by a UK-based research group for its skill in converting wood cellulose into simple sugars — and, hence, its potential as a micro-organism for consolidated bioprocessing for biofuels.

Today’s media funk appears to be a snide skepticism about the gribble’s industrial scalability, and over the “hyperbolic press releases” with which bioenergy discoveries are announced.

Sifting through the competing claims regarding “breakthroughs” is part of the fun of covering bioenergy — after all, there are (as of now, I just checked) 19,723 references to the word “breakthrough” in Google News today, and I am fairly sure that not every one of them offers a cure for cancer, the discovery of the Higgs Boson or an end to the common cold. There are, according to Google, 19.2 million references to “breakthrough” on the web as a whole, and doubtless most of them could or should be toned down a notch. So what?

Companies who develop technologies are asking why media is treating them with a newly virulent skepticism.

It’s a good question. In the case of the gribble, wood-boring organisms have been a subject of well-funded research for some time. The Energy Biosciences Institute has an entire project devoted to termites — and I well recall a memorable call with Dr. Shulin Chen at WSU who detailed the extent to which research is specializing right down to various midsections and hind-sections of the termite gut. At the time I came away thinking that perhaps the greatest barrier to the national energy solution was not Big Oil, or Big Sloth, but rather the “one call that destroys ‘em all” — to one’s local Orkin pest control office.

And, for sure, no one has previously chided EBI or others for the lack of a plan for scaling fuels made from wood-boring organisms. When people are critical about EBI, it generally is about the deal struck between Berkeley and BP that funded it, though criticism died out about the same time that the EBI’s godfather, Steven Chu, was elevated to Chief Dollar-Giver-to-University-Researchers Secretary of Energy.

Doubtless our scientist friends in the UK, in issuing a press release promoting the potential rewards of more funding for gribble R&D, are looking to get a seat on the bioenergy R&D gravy train — and why not?

The trouble with gribbles is that some sections of the media appear to feel that their crowded inboxes — touting discoveries that do not translate quickly into steel in the ground and fuel in the tank — are symptoms of a national bioenergy malaise. The discussion has thereby shifted from understanding the potential and reporting on the limitations of new discoveries to the immediate reach for the “fear, uncertainty and doubt” button. I suspect the writers in question are looking for press releases to provide better fuel for journalism. Unlikely to happen in our time.

These critics appear to be going through the five stages of (biofuels) grief first isolated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” It wouldn’t be much worth mentioning if these articles had not piled up in Google as a treasure trove that mainstream media keeps recycling when biofuels expansion comes up for discussion.

When I think of the cycle of denial, anger, bargaining and depression we see from too many writers, I think of this comic, animated classic from Adult Swim, and send them best wishes for feeling better soon.

The trouble with gribbles is not entirely unlike the “Trouble with Tribbles,” a Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise is nearly overrun by an exploding population of lovable yet rapidly reproducing animals. The very fecundity of bioenergy research is inducing skepticism.

Another topic on the minds of writers is the lack of scale — the failure of the advanced biofuels industry to produce 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol as called for by the 2010 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) — which has been attracting an inordinate amount of attention.

When the RFS was initially drafted in mid-2007, legislators and the EPA did not have much information to go on. Relying on a projection that Range Fuels would be ready with 20 Mgy in capacity sometime in 2009, and a group called Cello Energy would be ready with 75 Mgy last year, and tossing in about 5 Mgy from pilots and demo projects expected to come online, they guesstimated the 100-Mgy figure.

Cello Energy turned out to be a poor case of due diligence on the EPA’s part — there was none there, as it turned out. Another popular subject in 2008-09 was when it turned out there wasn’t much in the U.S. financial system, either. The government, unsurprisingly, diverted attention from the clean energy transformation to a banking rescue, and banks retreated from biofuels project finance en masse.

Accordingly, it took Range Fuels more than two years to land a USDA loan guarantee that will allow it to bridge the finance gap that emerged in the market — and finally landed it ... It is not entirely clear why the broader media is “shocked, shocked to discover” that Range’s project will not be ready this week. Call my thinking old-fashioned, but it seems to me that the loan guarantee is supposed to predate the loan, which predates the construction, which predates the production. The fact that Range is producing anything this year is pretty good news, considering the times.

Range’s project will be smaller than the progress originally envisioned in 2007 — and there’s nothing wrong with pointing it out and nothing wrong with countering hype with fact. There’s also nothing wrong with holding Range’s former CEO to task for projecting 100 Mgy of capacity for $150 million in investment a few years back. But there’s a distinctive vibe coming from bioenergy’s critics that scale-up is something that happens over a weekend, or a summer vacation, based on nothing more than a command to proceed at “Warp nine, Mr. Scott” from the CTOs and CFOs of the companies involved.

It is dangerously wrong to use scale-up timeline woes as a club to bash or otherwise undercredit the propects for bioenergy. After all, irrational inexuberance is simply the other side of the coin of irrational exuberance — it is simply irrationality of a different type, hypes the bad instead of the good, but hypes nonetheless.

There are plenty of examples of projects that are open for business and ready to scale. If you have $275 million available, and are looking for $1.00-$1.50 biofuel, call Coskata and start your project today.

What the industry needs, in the end, is what the Red Sox needed for the longest time: winners to silence the critics. But what is also needed is, perhaps, a new model for communications of the progress towards the end goal, which for bioenergy, is price parity with oil, and produced at scale.

The 1960s Moon landing project was not a triumph in every single aspect, but in reaching its goal within its timeline, it created an enduring legacy of achievement rather than a focus on mistakes along the way, or the overall cost of the gain. Writers refer to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon more often than Neil Armstrong’s near-death experience in Gemini 8, and the “successful failure” of Apollo 13 is celebrated in film and books while the completely unsuccessful failure of Apollo 1 is nearly forgotten. Probably not one grade-schooler in a hundred today could name Ed White, Roger Chafee and Gus Grissom as the astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire.

One of the smartest aspects of the race for the Moon was the division of the U.S. effort into Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects, with clearly communicated goals for each spaceflight — a model much easier for the public to understand and support than the “36 billion gallons by 2022? or “25×25? targets established by NGOs and the U.S. federal government. The public needs more than goals, it needs a story and a timeline.

In providing help along these lines, the Digest pledges to work harder, and will be revising its Advanced Biofuels Tracking database in support of the same, to offer a more detailed and up-to-the-minute picture of scale-up, accessible to enterprising journalists who want to probe future production capacities.

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