A handful of gas stations in Northern California made history this week by becoming the first to offer algae-based diesel fuel at the pump. At select stations run by alternative gas company Propel in Redwood City, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose, the algae fuel company Solazyme will be offering its signature algae fuel blend.
Imagine a bunch of Volvo station wagons and Volkswagon Jettas lined up to fill their tanks with the green goop, their trunks full of quiñoa and Greek yogurt from Trader Joe’s, and you’ve got yourself a nice little snapshot of the 21st-century hippie fantasy. But the best part about it is that it’s real, and if all goes well in California, the algae fuel revolution could spread across America. Still, not everything is as fantastic as it seems.
Algae fuel is hardly a new invention. It was developed back in the late 1970s as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program, an ambitious program initiated by the Carter administration. Like corn that produces ethanol and soybeans that yield biodiesel, algae can be processed into a cleaner-burning alternative to fossil fuels. For 20 years, the program set out to develop a system that would make the fuel affordable for every day Americans.
The big benefit of using algae over corn or soybeans was that you could produce much more burnable fuel on far less land. (Growing corn takes up a lot of space. Pond scum, not so much.) However, the government gradually choked off funding to the program, and its library of algae strains were eventually shipped off to the University of Hawaii to be archived, as the Department of Energy shifted its focus to ethanol.
After the government lost interest in algae fuel, the private sector—more specifically, the oil industry—swooped in to pick up where they left off. Armed with funding from Chevron and EcoPetrol, Solazyme became one of the companies that emerged to compete in the new market. As always, though, the economic of producing the fuel didn’t make sense. It was too expensive. Earlier this year, a report from the U.S. National Research Council declared that algae fuel was not a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels because of the strain on the world’s energy, water or fertilizer supply.
“Faced with today’s technology, to scale up any more is going to put really big demands on … not only energy input, but water, land and the nutrients you need, like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate,” Jennie Hunter-Cevera, the microbial physiologist who headed up the study, told Reuters a few weeks ago. “Algal biofuels is still a teenager that needs to be developed and nurtured.”
But if Solazyme’s new program in Northern California is as good as the press releases make it sound, there’s been a breakthrough. At the participating Propel stations, algae fuel is being sold alongside biodiesel for the same price, and the company says it’s on track to bring the fuel down to the $60- to $80-per-barrel range by 2013. There’s not a lot of details out there about exactly how that’s going to happen, but it presumably involves the plant that Solazyme is building in Brazil. That’s a big deal, if it works; biofuel makers have long struggled to ramp their production up to the point where economies of scale make their fuels viable.
But, hey, here’s an algal biofuel you can buy at the pump, which still serves as something of a milestone. And for the Bay Area’s eco-obsessed folks, it’s a dream come true. Think about it: station wagons from Sweden, superfood from the Andes, algae fuel grown in Brazilian jungles. All that’s missing now is a nice tall latte made from Ethiopian beans. Still, kidding aside, drop-in fuel replacements that will help wean us off oil are something we all ought to be stoked on.