Where will biofuels and biomass feedstocks come from?

When it comes to biofuels we have a few choices and options – we can do it poorly, with short- run approaches with no potential to scale, poor trajectory, and adverse environmental impact, or we can do it right – with sustainable, long-term solutions that can meet our biofuel needs and our environmental needs. We do need strong regulation to ensure land use abuses do not happen. A recent report published by the Royal Society highlights some of the factors that need to be balanced – they note that some changes in land use (such as clearing tropical forest or adapting peatlands for crop cultivation) can do more harm than good.  To counter these potential abuses, we have suggested each cellulosic facility be individually certified with a LEEDS (international certification program for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, a green building rating system) like “CLAW” rating and countries that allow environmentally sensitive lands to be encroached be disqualified from these CLAW rated fuel markets. We think a good fuel has to meet the CLAW requirements:

C – COST below gasoline

L – low to no additional LAND use; benefits for using degraded land to restore biodiversity and organic material

A – AIR quality improvements- i.e., low carbon emissions

W – limited WATER use.

Cellulosic ethanol (and cellulosic biofuels at large) can meet these requirements. The Royal Society notes that the uncertainty of some biofuels do not obscure the main benefits of cellulosic fuels: “(1) biofuels from cereals, straw, beet and rapeseed are likely to reduce GHG emissions, though the estimated contribution varies over a wide range, from 10 to 80% (averaging about 50%) depending on crop, cropping practice and processing technologies; (2) biofuels from lignocellulose material are likely to show a twofold or more improvement in average abatement potential when compared with biofuels derived from food crops.”

Our research and data suggests that cellulosic ethanol can reduce emissions on a per-mile driven basis by 75-85%, with limited water usage for process and feedstock as illustrated later. Range, Coskata and other companies currently have small scale pilots projecting 75% less water use than corn ethanol, and energy in/out ratio between 7-10 (Energy returned on energy invested or EROI, even though we consider this a less important variable than carbon emissions per mile driven). The question that eventually comes to the forefront is land use and biomass production – how much will we need? What will it take? Is it scalable enough to make a meaningful positive impact? To be conservative, we assume CAFE standards in the US per current law though we expect by 2030 to have much higher CAFE and fleet standards (hopefully up near 54 miles per gallon (mpg) or 100% higher than 2007 averages), thus dramatically reducing the need for fuel and hence biomass. For, this to happen, we need a combination of factors, including lighter vehicles, more efficient engines, better aerodynamics, low cost hybrids and whatever else we can get the consumer to buy that increases mpg.

What do we believe? As we will cover in this paper, we believe that given reasonable assumptions on technologies, biofuel yields, and adoption of better agronomic practices, most of our biofuel needs can be met with fairly limited land usage. From a technology perspective, the advances and continuing research into thermochemical processes offers potential far exceeding that of standard biochemical approaches. From an agronomic perspective, a greater understanding about the benefits of crop rotations and conservation practices combined with an ability to use generally underutilized land offers us the ability to vastly increase our biofuel producing abilities without cultivating additional land. In particular, we think the potential for winter cover crops as a biofuel source has been greatly understated, and that even modest yield assumptions would allow them to meet a significant portion of our biofuel needs. In the long run, the combination of these multiple factors (an example of the innovation ecosystem at play) will allow us to sever our dependence on oil – for good. Hybrid vehicle technologies will help but not materially on a worldwide basis at current costs.

A note about evaluating alternatives – when looking at a potential solution, it’s important not to evaluate a technology/approach in isolation; rather, we ought to compare it relative to other viable approaches to determine its actual feasibility. For example, every nuclear plant that we did not build over the last 50 years (due to environmental concerns) was almost certainly replaced by a coal plant, whose environmental footprint was significantly worse. We are in danger of doing it again, by going after pie-in the sky or uneconomic solutions to replace oil. That could lead to even more problems – the alternative (as a long run transportation fuel solution) may well be oil shales (Canada is moving aggressively in this direction), which are even worse environmentally. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is irrational – marginal analysis counts.

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