Sunday, August 30, 2009

But Don't Try This in Your Lamborghini

P.T. Barnum was right. There's a sucker born every minute in America. The current fascination with pie-in-the-sky energy panaceas proves the point.

The competition was tough, as always, but my latest Energy Con Job of the Week Award goes to the "E-Fuel MicroFueler," which is poised to go big following this gullible write-up in the Los Angeles Times. Have a few casks of rancid wine or old beer laying around the house (don't we all?)? Run out of creative ways to ditch those lawn mower clippings (besides chucking them over the neighbor's fence?)? Problem solved, my friends.

The E-Fuel MicroFueler -- just like the flux capacitor that powered the time-traveling DeLorean in the Back to the Future movies -- can turn all that household flotsam into something you can burn in your gas tank. The E-Fuel MicroFueler is your ticket to energy independence. The E-Fuel MicroFueler is the must-have item for those who don't mind spending ridiculous amounts of money, and going to absurd lengths, to demonstrate their earnest desire to reduce their carbon footprints. It's the perfect holiday gift for the Ed Begley Jr.s in your life.

And here's the best part: Taxpayers will pay half the cost of your E-Fuel MicroFueler, whether they buy into this B.S. or not.

Writes the L.A. Times:

"It sounds too good to be true: A residential system that allows people to make fuel from waste products and use it to run their vehicles. That’s what inventors of the E-Fuel MicroFueler claim, and there's support for the idea in government, industry, technology and pop culture."

Most things that sound too good to be true are too good to be true. And I'm not sure what credibility "pop culture" lends to things. But go on.

"The $10,000 E-Fuel MicroFueler consists of a 250-gallon holding tank for organic feedstock, such as waste wine and beer, and a still that converts it to 100% ethanol, or E-Fuel. The still doubles as a fuel pump, which works similarly to those at traditional gas stations. The only waste product is distilled water, which can flow down a drain or be used to irrigate plants."

How does this miracle technology work? The story doesn't say, exactly. But it sounds good on paper, which is all you need in order to sell the public energy policy snake oil.

"Although . . . MicroFueler is most effective with wastes that are already high in alcohol content, ethanol "can be made out of any waste – lawn clippings, dairy products, old chemicals, cardboard, paper, bruised and discarded apples from the grocery store. It can be fermented and turned into fuel in minutes," says [the Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind the concept].

How many bruised apples or old cartons of rancid cottage cheese does it take to whip up a gallon of ethanol? Details, details. The reporter doesn't say. Standard journalistic skepticism and cynicism get suspended in such stories. The aim is to dazzle readers with the possibilities, not bog them down in the devilish details, throwing cold water on a cool new idea. You usually have to read carefully, or between the lines, to see that some things really are "too good to be true." Only later in the story do we discover that the real-world workability of the MicroFueler has barely been tested.

So far, only one MicroFueler is up and running. It was installed in late June at the Pacific Palisades home of Chris Ursitti, CEO of the green-technology firm GreenHouse, which is distributing the units and supplying the feedstock to those who install MicroFuelers at their homes.

Distributing the feedstock? What's with that? I thought this thing worked on household refuse. Where does said "feedstock" originate? What will it cost an average MicroFueler owner? What sort of carbon footprints are created by the collection, packaging and delivery of said feedstock? Once again, our "news story" is lacking such details.

But not to worry. The MicroFueler is endorse by basketball star and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Shaquille O'Neal (who's also an investor in the company), so it must work, right? Right.

An enterprising reporter might have asked whether O'Neal really burns homemade Hummer hooch in his favorite Escalade. A bold reporter would have asked for a demonstration. But most reporters aren't interested in asking questions that might pour cold water on the good story; most reporters are born suckers when it comes to these sorts of things. So we'll just have to take Shaq's word for the fact that it works. But I'm betting he doesn't use it in his Escalade.

We do get an acknowledgment in the story that ethanol has substantially less "fuel value" than gasoline, meaning that you must burn considerably more ethanol than gasoline to cover the same distance. The story claims that ethanol "creates 38% less carbon dioxide than gasoline when burned," but doesn't acknowledge that other bi-products of burning ethanol contribute to smog (something people in L.A. need to be cognizant of), calling the fuel's environmental benefits into question. Ethanol production leaves a significant "carbon footprint," if one looks at what goes into growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the "feedstock." You can't really judge ethanol's efficacy as an alternative to gasoline without factoring those things in. But most ethanolics conveniently overlook those issues.

Then there's the issue of permitting. You didn't really think a government that regulates virtually everything was going to let MicroFueler owners off the hook, did you?

Under U.S. law, it is legal to create up to 10,000 gallons of an alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, per year on one’s own property, though it is not legal to sell it to others. All that’s required is an alcohol fuel producer’s permit from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which issues the permits for free if producers meet the appropriate criteria – describing the premises where the alcohol will be produced, how it will be used, what type of security mechanisms are in place and guaranteeing that the alcohol will be denatured so it’s not drinkable.

This makes getting a federal permit sound like a snap. Will the feds simply take your word that you're meeting permit requirements, or are home inspections and modifications part of what you invite once you install a MicroFueler? The story glosses over this question.

If someone really believes this technology will save the planet; if he or she is willing to endure the hassles and expense and time required to install, maintain and operate a MicroFueler; if he or she wants to risk the engines of their cars or trucks by burning homemade moonshine; if he or she wants to open their home to federal regulators -- if they want to do all this on their own dime, that's their business. It's still a free country, at least on paper. But I resent having to pay for it.

"The U.S. government, as part of its stimulus bill, is offering a $5,000 tax credit to homeowners who purchase MicroFuelers," reports the Times -- meaning that you and I are helping to bankroll such gimmickry, and to line the pockets of the eco-shysters peddling it.

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