Thursday, September 6, 2007


OK, let's start with insert your own joke or, if you prefer, a quick game of Balderdash...

Jatropha is:
a.) a dance invented by Al Gore
b.) the first thing Terrell Owens will say when he scores a touchdown this year
c.) a Portugese version of tai chi
d.) the latest, greatest hope in alternative energy
e.) a new prescription drug for depression
f.) not just for breakfast anymore
g.) a parrot that kills sheep

The answer is D. By the way, Al Gore invented the rumba; Terrell Owens will exclaim "I love Mary Poppins"; and G is a "kea" (look it up; it's quite frightening!).

From Patrick Barta in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago (along with a number of pictures), an interesting story about a little-heralded but promising alternative energy source: jatropha-- "an ugly wild green shrub that thrives in India"

With oil trading at roughly $70 a barrel, this lowly forest plant is suddenly an unlikely star on the world's alternative-energy stage.

The seeds from jatropha's golf-ball-size fruit contain a yellowish liquid similar to palm oil that can be made into biodiesel – an increasingly important renewable fuel used in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

But unlike other biodiesel crops, jatropha can be grown almost anywhere – including deserts, trash dumps, and rock piles. It doesn't need much water or fertilizer, and it isn't edible. That means environmentalists and policy makers don't have to worry about whether jatropha diverts resources away from crops that could be used to feed people.

Why is this so important? Beyond "the more, the merrier" in terms of potential alternative energy sources, ethanol is quite limited-- in terms of capacity, economic efficiency, and energy efficiency-- despite the hype and all of the subsidies.

U.S. farmers only have the capacity to replace about 7% of the country's gasoline with corn-based ethanol, despite a new federal renewable-fuels target of 15% by 2017. To reach that goal, the U.S. would likely have to find a lot more land.

India, by contrast, has millions of acres of wasteland that isn't fully utilized due to low water tables and infertile soil. Jatropha advocates figure the crop can cover much of that area without causing environmental distress.

According to Goldman-Sachs, the estimated cost per barrel of fuel produced by "biofuel feedstocks" ranges from $43 for jatropha to $45 for sugar cane (see: Brazil and our $.54/gallon tariff on that alternative energy source!) to $83 for corn.

But such calculations are based on limited experience with the crop. Agronomists hardly studied it in the past because it was considered to be mostly worthless. Until recently, jatropha was best-known in India and elsewhere as a hedge to keep wild animals from wandering onto farms.

Even some of jatropha's biggest advocates concede the plant's oil output is unpredictable and often lower than expected. Although it can grow without water, it tends to do much better when water is added, raising its cost of production and mitigating some of the perceived benefits.

Some farmers have already reported financial losses from jatropha plantations after their crops yielded less oil than expected or buyers failed to pay sufficient prices. In a worst-case scenario, some rural-development experts fear, small Indian farmers could wind up serving as guinea pigs for an untested industry, leaving them in debt if the boom fizzles.

A cool story...I hope it works out!