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Second-Generation Biofuels

Two studies published in the journal Science last week have reinforced the urgency of moving quickly to a second generation of biofuels. The two studies, one produced by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, and the other led by researchers from Princeton University, found that biofuels can actually produce more carbon dioxide emissions than they save—if they force natural habitats to be converted to cropland, releasing the carbon contained in trees and grasses and in the soil they grow on.

The gist of the two reports? Clearing land for biofuel crops—especially when it involves the loss of forests, peatlands, and grasslands that are nature’s premier method of carbon capture—is a bad idea. The reason is clear: the world’s forests and grasslands contain an enormous reservoir of carbon, which will add to greenhouse warming if it’s released to the atmosphere. Even switchgrass, if grown on land now being grown to produce corn, could increase emissions by 50 percent if it forces the clearing of new land to grow food.

The Science papers, covered in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and virtually everywhere else, blared such headlines as “Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat.” And it’s shaking the scientific community into high gear. According to Washington Post writer Juliet Eilperin, senior scientists responded to the new studies by sending a letter to President Bush and House Speaker Pelosi urging them to reconsider their energy policies.

“While politicians in the U.S. and Europe have tried to craft policies dictating that new biofuels will not come at the expense of clearing land, the papers show that sometimes land conversion is often an indirect result of this expansion,” the 10 scientists wrote. “There is an urgent need for policy that ensures biofuels are not produced on productive forest, grassland or cropland.”

These studies provide important new evidence to reinforce a message that the Worldwatch Institute produced in its pioneering 2007 book, Biofuels for Transport: “Because increases in the land area used to produce feedstocks can result in large releases of carbon from soil and existing biomass, they can negate any benefits of biofuels for decades.” Now, it turns out, the expansion of some biofuel crops could actually make the world’s climate problem worse.

It is time for policymakers in Washington and around the world to reduce subsidies to food-based biofuels and increase them for biofuels that will truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address other environmental problems as well. As one of the Science studies concluded, “biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.”

Last autumn, Worldwatch worked with the Sierra Club on the report, Destination Iowa: Getting to a Sustainable Biofuels Future, which sets forth recommendations on how the state of Iowa, a leading U.S. ethanol producer, could do just that. Some of the report’s suggestions for moving toward a more sustainable biofuels future include:

* Accelerate development of cellulosic biofuel technologies and the infrastructure to harvest, transport, and process the new crops.
* Provide incentives for low or no-till agriculture, the planting of cover crops, and the creation of riparian buffer zones.
* Support farmers who want to invest in sustainable fuel crops such as perennial grasses or fast-growing trees.
* Reduce tax subsidies for food-based biofuels and increase subsidies for fuels with a low-carbon footprint, such as waste and cellulose-derived biofuels.
* Increase investment in solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy that provide greater climate benefits than today’s biofuels do.

The main message the world should take from the new biofuels studies is that the current world agricultural system, like the world energy system, is unsustainable. And unless it’s fixed, rising production of both fuels and food will wreak havoc.

Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.

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We can't forget the emerging technology that derives rich oil from algae. It is highly efficient and requires only vats in which to grow and sustain the algae- NO clearing of biomass required. To me this is the solution that's being ignored, trampled by the hysteria over the recent SCIENCE studies.

Check out this lowdown on a promising (relatively) new idea:

Posted by: Shawn Perine on 13 Feb 08

Mining our soils for fuel has always seemed a very poor trade-off. Mining our forests for is equally poor. A few years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists raised these same issues. Let's make sure we're listening to the UCS!

Starting small with local algae-oil initiatives and commitments is probably the best bet. Perhaps we need to "guarantee" these early starts the same way that we guarantee bank accounts. It takes political risk to advocate for adopting these new technologies. Let's make it somewhat less risky with a fund for those things that, try as we may, just fail to work (or are eclipsed in the marketplace.)

Posted by: Geo. Donart on 13 Feb 08

The studies are a bit obsolete, because new land use techniques are here that take CO2 out of the atmosphere. In combination with fourth-generation biofuels, you actually fight climate change in the most radical way.

Here's how it works:

1. you pyrolyse the biomass from the land clearing. You store the char into soils, which makes them more fertile. Voila, your initial carbon debt is immediately gone.

2. Then you grow fourth generation crops (high CO2 storing, high biomass - these crops have been developed).

3. You turn them into decarbonised fuel or energy, and store the CO2 under ground (or you take the biochar route).

And voila, you have a carbon-negative energy system.

Forget wind, solar, hydro, nuclear - they're all dirty carbon-positive forms of energy: they add between +30 to +100 grams of CO2eq/kWh over their lifecycle.

Carbon-negative bioenergy results in negative emissions that can be as high as -1000gCO2/eq per kWh.

This should be a no brainer. If we want to fight climate change, carbon negative bioenergy is the most obvious way forward.

Obviously, a carbon price would make this happen.

Posted by: Jonas on 14 Feb 08

National Algae Association

Algae: The Next Biofuel


Algae Commercialization
Business Plan and Networking Forum

April 10, 2008

Algae: The New Oil

Early stage algae production algae production companies will showcase their companies at the National Algae Association business plan and networking forum on April 10th. The most promising algae oil production companies will present their new ventures in front of an audience of algae researchers, biodiesel/biofuel companies interested in learning about algae commercialization as well as potential investors and lenders.

Deadline for all business plans and white papers must be submitted by March 28, 2008. Business plans and white papers will be reviewed by the executive committee. Only 6 business plans will be picked to present at the National Algae Association quarterly business plan and networking forum.

Posted by: bcole on 15 Feb 08

It’s absurd for ethanol critics to squawk about Deforestation, when they themselves are part of the problem. With over 240 Million vehicles on the road, thousands of coal burning and fossil fuel power plants, thousands of industries, landfills, sewage disposal plants, feed lots and farms spewing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, Americans are the biggest cause of greenhouse gasses in the world. This article comes a few days after two new studies hit the press, designed to shake our faith in biofuels, by falsely claiming they were worse than petroleum based fuels. Both of these studies are defective and inaccurate. One hypothetical claim is that biofuels cause deforestation. But according to Biofuels Digest, Peter Zuurbier (Associate Professor and Director of the Wageningen UR Latin America Office) attributes the loss of Amazon Rain Forest to unclear land titles. Unethical logging companies take advantage of this. They come in first and illegally cut the big trees. Next, nomadic cattle herders come in and squat on the land, until the grasses are overgrazed and depleated in 3 to 4 years. Then the lands are squatted on by Brazilian soybean farmers, which enriches the soil. Biofuel critics say in their defective studies that the American biofuel industry is indirectly responsible for all this. How Absurd. Illegal logging of Rain Forest in Brazil and Indonesia has been going on for a long time, long before biofuels became a factor. Brazil has been criticized recently for allowing Amazon Rain Forest to be destroyed. In response, the Brazilian government is now implementing a strictly enforced program to protect it, employing specially trained police. Cutting down Amazon Rain Forest may soon be a mute point, because the Brazillian government is putting a stop to it. Here’s another problem: Biofuel critics make the mistake of lumping together all biofuels, which includes corn ethanol, biodiesel, biogas methane, biocrude oil, cellulose ethanol, biobutanol, synthetic biofuels, and more. This is very unscientific, as each of these types of fuels has a very different set of parameters. Biofuels are also produced in different ways from a variety of different feedstocks, and they are used in a variety of different ways. The methods of producing these feedstocks and converting them into fuels also varies from one farm to the next and from one biofuel refinery to the next. The biofuels industry has many facets and is very complex. It is changing fast, and becoming more and more efficient. As the industry quickly evolves, biofuel critics use old statistics and omit vital information, in order to put their own spin on their hypocritical issues. Take a closer look at the vehicles they are driving, their homes and lifestyles, their over consumption, the off balance footprints of the companies and the universities they work for, and the confidential money they take. Then apply the phrase “dirty little secret.” Because you would see a cross section of a country with 6% of the world’s population, consuming 25% of it’s resources, especially dirty and bloody oil. Another tactic used by biofuels critics is to pretend that all CO2 is the same and to ignore the impact of methane, which is also a major factor in global warming. CO2 from biomass is recycled and does not add anything new to the atmosphere. In contrast, virgin CO2 brought up from deep oil and gas wells continues to add to green house gases and global warming. Comparing these two types of CO2, in the context of gasoline vs biofuels, is not a fair comparison. They are very different. The new wave of biorefineries are self powered and integrated. Many are now powered by alternatives to fossil fuels, such as organic waste, biomass, or manure, which is converted to combined heat and electric power (CHP) from methane. In the example of integrated corn ethanol production, the byproduct distillers grains are consumed by adjacent or nearby animals, in exchange for their manure, which is converted into production power to run the plant. In Vicksburg Arizona is a 2,700 acre dairy farm integrated with a state of the art dual fuel biorefinery, operated by “XL Renewables”. This is a 10 to 1 efficiency plant, self-powered from adjacent dairy cow manure. Corn is fractionated into 3 components. The starch is converted to ethanol. The oil is extracted from the corn germ and made into biodiesel. And the high protein distillers grains byproduct is fed to onsite dairy cows to produce milk. The CO2 is collected and sold for industrial use. Again, the XL Dairy produces milk, biogas, ethanol, biodiesel, livestock feed, and commercial CO2, and it is totally self powered and disconnected from the grid. Manure, what was once a detrimental waste product that cost money to dispose of, is converted into a value added byproduct. Consuming the distillers grains byproduct onsite or nearby also increases their value and efficiency. In Texas there are 12 new ethanol refineries being built, and several of them are also integrated with livestock operations. These plants will also consume byproduct distillers grains and control manure for methane based production power. Farm manure that is left to rot or run off releases methane gas into the atmosphere, which is 22 times more potent than CO2 as a green house gas. Ethanol critics are ignoring the fact that biorefineries are now beginning to mitigate this problem, and they conveniently leave integration out of their life cycle equations. Five new ethanol refineries are being built in California; three in Arizona, several in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and numerous other states. Ethanol production is no longer just in the corn belt and no longer based solely on corn. Localization is the trend. Every city has the potential to convert local organic waste and biomass into fuel. When biofuels are produced and consumed locally, this mitigates the transportation factor, which is another thing critics miscalculate with generalizations. In their defective studies, they ignore the $250 Billion a year, their government is spending: (1) To protect a new oil pipeline running though Afghanistan, which the U.S. bullied away from the Taliban; and (2) To wage war in Iraq, in order to restrict the flow of Iraqi oil down to half of what it was before the war. These two American wars caused crude oil to double, from $45 a barrel to $95 a barrel, in just a few years. Higher fuel and transportation costs have made everything more expensive, including food. If anyone is going hungry, blame oil wars before you blame biofuels. And if you’re going to start counting indirect causes for the energy balance of fuels, then add up the impact of all the petroleum based fuels burned by the military in these two wars. Also add up all the CO2 pollution and poisons cause by the massive bombing campaigns. And calculate how much fossil fuel and human energy it takes for taxpayers to pay for these two wars. Now account for all the interest being paid by taxpayers on Federal Reserve debt instruments used to balance the U.S. trade deficit with oil producing countries. Also include the cost of treating and supporting them for the rest of their lives, the many thousands of loyal Americans who were wounded in these wars. Now add all that human effort, pollution, CO2, and cost to the energy balance of petroleum based fuels. All pull together, and you could end oil wars forever. Biofuels is a step in that direction.

Posted by: Jeff Baker on 16 Feb 08

I think the important point is that if governments concentrate funding on biofuels produced from food crops such as corn, there there will be a need to use newly cleared land for producing the combined demands of food and fuel. Thus creating the problem the authors of these studies point out. It shows the need to make sure policy takes this into account and I appreciate the WorldChanging Team posting the Worldwatch/Sierra Club suggestions for a sustainable biofuels future. It would be nice if there were some calculation of how much extra acreage is actually going to be needed given current farming practices. Is it a reasonable amount? Farming, as done today with its use of fertilizers and herbicides and need for tremendous amounts of water, has its own negative impact on the environment and people. But we have to have the food. If biofuels are going to be part of the farming equation then I think it is even more important to create sustainable farming practices.

Posted by: Chris on 21 Feb 08



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