Final Notes from BIO’s World Congress

On June 29 at BIO’s World Congress, Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes, and Stephen Tanda, Board Member of Royal DSM N.V., released a report from the World Economic Forum on The Future of Industrial Biorefineries. The report says that a biorefinery value chain could create revenue for agricultural inputs ($15 billion US), for biomass production ($89 billion), for biomass trading ($30 billion), for biorefining inputs ($10 billion), for biorefining fuels ($80 billion), for bioplastics ($6 billion) and for biomass power and heat ($65 billion) by 2020.

You can download and listen to the press conference Release of report on The Future of Industrial Biorefineries.

The highlight of the final day of the World Congress was a debate between Princeton Visiting Scholar Tim Searchinger and MSU Professor Bruce Dale, moderated by Univ. of Minnesota’s John Sheehan. Sheehan sought to explore both the strongest and weakest parts of the arguments for and against including an indirect land use penalty in the carbon lifecycle of biofuels and bioenergy. For him, the central question in the debate is whether or not the world is running out of land to use — for all purposes, not just agriculture — meaning that any new use, such as biofuels, inevitably causes a shift of use somewhere else.

For Searchinger, the central point is that the traditional lifecycle of biofuels and biomass energy accounts a credit for using carbon stored in crops and trees. Bioenergy, he argues, should only get credit for new sources of carbon that it creates or for using carbon that would have decayed and entered the atmosphere anyway, but never for carbon that is already stored.

Dale took an optimistic view that a switch to bioenergy — and away from petroleum — would spur the creation of additional carbon stores. This could be accomplished through increased productivity and yield on the same amount of land, for instance, and through regrowing of crops and biomass sources so that the credit given to bioenergy is repaid quickly.

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Raining on Cellulosic Ethanol’s Parade

Writer Alyssa Danigelis posted an item of interest on Discovery News last month detailing the latest supposed “blow” to the biofuel industry. The writer highlights a new study in Agronomy Journal in which Kansas State University Assistant Professor Humberto Blanco-Canqui concludes, “Only a small fraction (about 25%) of residue might be available for removal, depending on soil type and climate. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible.”

Matt Merritt of POET and Professor Bruce Dale of Michigan State University have posted responses to Blanco-Canqui’s conclusion. What they drive at is that the fraction of agricultural residue that can be removed from a field depends greatly on the geography and management of that field. Jim Hettenhaus of CEA Inc. has helped lead a study in Imperial, Neb., to determine optimum stover removal and storage practices based on local variables in soil type and weather, and he was kind enough to share preliminary results (See Stover Value Review). And several years ago, BIO published a study, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, that indicates the amount of residue removed from a field can be increased through adoption of no-till soil management.

The economic feasibility of harvesting crop residues for cellulosic biofuel production, of course, is highly dependent on the individual farmer. Aside from its value in managing organic carbon in tilled soil, crop residues are also currently used as animal bedding and other things. Individual farmers are thus faced with a decision whether the biofuel market for crop residues is attractive enought to induce them to change their field management practices, buy new harvesting equipment, and forego current uses of residues to instead transport them to a collection or storage facility. The same economic question faces any farmer who considers growing switchgrass or short-rotation woody crops, which are favored by Blanco-Canqui. And for the most part, biofuel production does not yet provide a compelling market for farmers, although POET and others have begun contracting directly with farmers to harvest and deliver small, easily harvested amounts of residues to pilot production plants.

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption behind many academic and press articles is that cellulosic ethanol “proposes turning waste into something useful.” Considering the costs of trash removal for most cities, even trash won’t be considered “waste” if it becomes a valuable feedstock for biofuels. Just as pernicious, perhaps, is the industry’s assumption that an apparently abundant resource is naturally a cheap resource. Inevitably, these assumptions have led everyone to search for the perfect energy source – one that doesn’t compete with food production, doesn’t require petroleum fertilizers, and doesn’t come with the dreaded “unintended consequences.” A far better plan would be to seek sources that best fit a local area, and then look for ways to manage them in economically and environmentally sound ways.

Industrial and Environmental Biotech Weekly Blog Roundup

In industrial biotechnology this week the Wall Street Cheat Sheet says algae is the next great thing.

“Algae could be the most promising candidate yet for the future of the biofuels industry.

Although algae-based fuels won’t be commercially available for several years, algae offers several advantages over other first-generation renewable fuels, such as corn and soybeans. For example, algae grows faster, requires less resources, can be used as jet fuel, can use existing distribution systems, and absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.”

The post closes with,

“All of this syncs up neatly with a White House concerned with climate change and looking to develop “green energy” technologies with long economic coattails.

While it may be too early to call algae the clear winner in the biofuels race, at least for now, the future of algae-based biofuels looks bright.”

The Biofuels Digest

writes about BIO’s recent Pacific Rim Summit,

“In Hawaii, at the BIO Pacific Rim Summit, Joule Biotechnologies announced that it has achieved direct microbial conversion of CO2 into hydrocarbons via engineered organisms, powered by solar energy.

Joule’s Helioculture process mixes sunlight and CO2 with highly engineered photo synthetic organisms, which are designed to secrete ethanol, diesel or other products.

However, unlike algae and other current biomass-derived fuels, the Helioculture process does not produce biomass, requires no agricultural feedstock and minimizes land and water use. It is also direct-to-product, so there is no lengthy extraction and/or refinement process.”

Sounds interesting, guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

Yesterday the DOE and the USDA announced,

“projects selected for more than $24 million in grants to research and develop technologies to produce biofuels, bioenergy and high-value biobased products. Of the $24.4 million announced today, DOE plans to invest up to $4.9 million with USDA contributing up to $19.5 million. Advanced biofuels produced through this funding are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent compared to fossil fuels.”

Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to “fix” the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

To be sure, use of bioenergy can only reduce the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil (in root systems). And yes, individual biofuel or bioenergy producers could use only new biomass that has recently pulled carbon from the atmosphere (although other environmentalists may differ on that) or biomass that would otherwise be left to decay and emit the stored carbon anyway. The question then is whether there is enough of this type of biomass to meet energy needs.

But that is not the point of the current Kyoto protocol or of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation. Their shared goal is to reduce overall GHG emissions, over time, ideally lowering the cap until emissions reach equilibrium.

Searchinger cites recent modeling studies to say that not employing his fix to global carbon accounting “would lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forest because clearing those forests for bioenergy becomes one of the cost-effective means of complying with laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the fossil fuel industries are certain to receive allowances under the U.S. legislation. Employing a carbon accounting model that treats biomass as equivalent to fossil fuel would definitely make continued reliance on fossil fuel the cost-effective alternative.

Another interesting response to the Searchinger et al article comes from Geoff Styles of the Energy Collective, who extends the carbon accounting argument to electric vehicles. All alternative energy sources can be opened up to particular scrutiny. What is needed is a truly accurate and balanced accounting of fossil fuel use to compare these arguments.

The only other political option would be to drastically cut use of all energy. Models do project that the current worldwide economic recession has brought about a reduction in climate emissions by cutting energy use.

Searchinger does note that biomass and biofuels have the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions – depending on land management. A better question here is whether his models can show that fossil fuel use also has the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions with proper land management.

Compounded Climate Accounting Errors

Timothy Searchinger, visiting scholar at Princeton University, Dan Kammen of the University of California Berkeley, David Tilman of the University of Minnesota and other authors from the Environmental Defense Fund published an interesting new proposal in the Policy Forum section of Science magazine today. The argument put forward is that “Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon emissions, because the CO2 released by tailpipes and smokestacks is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source.”

The premise behind this proposal is that the world is facing such a great need to reduce carbon emissions that future sources of energy and biofuels cannot make use of any currently sequestered carbon. Maybe… but there’s a perverse consequence of using this logic. Fossil fuels are a source of sequestered carbon. If you then say that all existing biomass is an untouchable source of sequestered carbon, you are essentially counting that sequestration as a benefit of having used fossil fuels for the past 150 years.

The logic is particularly tortured when a foregone sequestration penalty is attributed to biofuels when none is counted for petroleum.

There is much in the paper to agree with — particularly in recognizing carbon sequestration benefits from improved land management practices and energy crops. And certainly, the challenge of climate change is so great that implementing best practices for carbon sequestration is a necessity.

But a proposal that attributes carbon sequestration in trees as a plus in the accounting of fossil fuel use is counterproductive.

Weekly Blog Wrap Up

There’s a lot going on in the blogosphere about the world of biofuels this week. Yesterday, the World Wildlife Fund released a report,which according to NCTechnews.com,

“concludes that industrial biotechnology can provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide strong progress toward a green and sustainable economy. WWF calls for increased political backing for the industry to leverage the positive environmental effects. The findings are based on peer-reviewed research from Novozymes, the world leader in bioinnovation, as well as contributions from experts and WWF”

Renewable Energy World writes about the “The Algal Advantage.” Algae is big because,

“The big pay-off in algae biofuels will be as drop-in replacements for gasoline or jet fuel. Successful test flights have already been run on mixtures of petroleum and algal-based jet fuels. Chisti says, “generally, only a portion of the crude algal oil is suitable for making biodiesel, but all of it can be used to make gasoline and jet fuel.” For this, the fatty acids in the algal oils are refined by hydrogenation and hydrocracking.”

Algae is also big because, Sapphire Energy has developed a car that runs on algae derived fuel, that can cross the country on just 25 gallons of fuel. The Singularity Hub writes about the car, called Algaeus and has this to say,

“According to the press release, the coast to coast trip will be a ten day journey (September 8 -18) that culminates in the nationwide premier of the new movie Fuel by Josh Tickell of Veggie Van fame. See the trailer below. While the media coverage of the movie is sure to be hyperbolic, I’m much more interested in the premises behind Sapphire Energy. This San Diego based company hopes to use its algae-based fuel to work in the three major petrol markets: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They plan on ramping up production to a rate of than 2 million gallons of diesel per year in the next two years. That’s a small blip on the petroleum market, but a blip that is arriving much sooner than many expected.”

Still in the world of biofuels, Green Tech writes about making better biofuels,

“Research on nuclear energy and hydrogen has yielded what backers say is a technology that could replace U.S. oil imports with biofuels made from agricultural by-products.
Scientists at Idaho National Laboratory have been working for the past year and a half on a process to convert biomass, such straw or crop residue, into liquid fuels at a far higher efficiency than existing cellulosic ethanol technologies.”

“The key advantage is that bio-syntrolysis would extract far more energy from available biomass than existing methods, said research engineer Grant Hawkes. Using traditional ethanol-making techniques, about 35 percent of the carbon from wood chips or agricultural residue ends up in the liquid fuel. By contrast, the bio-syntrolysis method would convert more than 90 percent of that carbon into a fuel, he said.”

The New Energy World Network, picks up the story with a post about Continental airlines,

“Biofuels are increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to conventional jet fuel in the US, according to Continental Airlines’ managing director for Global Environmental Affairs, Leah Raney. The Houston-based carrier has also been implementing its green initiatives across its ground services fleet in its major hubs in Houston, Newark and California by switching to electric vehicles and related infrastructure and using biodiesel in cold weather locations.”

Do you like dates, the fruit, not the social activity? Can you imagine those little packages of sweetness being turned into biofuel? They can in Iraq.

According to the Bioenergy Site,

“Iraq’s prime minister has approved a project by a United Arab Emirates-based company to make biofuel from dates that would otherwise be wasted because they have started to perish, Iraqi officials said on Sunday.”

“Faroun Ahmed Hussein, head of the national date palm board, said the Emirati company would produce bioethanol from dates that farmers cannot export because they are starting to rot. It would be used domestically at first, then possibly later exported.

He declined to name the company, estimate the cost of the project or say how much bioethanol it was expected to produce.

He said Iraq produces 350,000 tonnes of dates annually, a sharp fall from 900,000 tonnes produced before the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein but still more than the 150,000 tonnes it currently consumes. Some are fed to animals, he said.

“They can’t export the left over quantities owing to their poor quality,” Hussein said. “Farmers will be happy to sell their rotten dates instead of throwing them away.”

And finally the world of biofuels winds up with a serious policy issue, that is a “Greater Distinction Needed for Biofuels as Fuel Component under Cap and Trade,” writes 25x’25, they go on to say,

“As Congress continues its debate on comprehensive climate legislation, any measure adopted must adequately recognize and incentivize the extensive benefits biomass and the production of biofuels can provide to address global climate change. The 25x’25 Carbon Work Group has recently reemphasized the need for policy makers to modify pending cap-and-trade provisions to more clearly recognize those agricultural and forestry practices that can contribute to climate change regulation and make those practices eligible as offset projects. Policy makers also should make clear in a final climate change bill that biofuels, including the biofuel component of fuels blends, are not obligated under the emissions cap and are a preferred alternative to fossil carbon-based transportation fuels.”

That’s it for this week. See you next week.

Corn Growers Try to Understand Indirect Land Use Change

The National Corn Growers Association’s recent “Land Use: Carbon Impacts of Corn Based Ethanol 2009” conference highlighted the confusion the issue of indirect land use change has engendered for farmers. Chuck Zimmerman of AgWired summed it up in a report from the conference:

Do you understand things like indirect land use when it comes to regulations via departments like the EPA due to the RFS? Me either. And I’ve sat in on conferences and discussions and interviews on the subject for a while now. That’s because an issue like indirect land use involves predicting the future based on certain assumptions that may or may not be valid, especially if they’re based on out of date data and information.”

Conference chairman Jamey Cline, NCGA Director Biofuels and Business Development, indicated to Zimmerman

that these issues are extremely important to agribusiness and corn growers in particular because if the CARB regs hold up, by 2012 they will effectively shut off that market to ethanol. Additionally, one presenter said that due to the proposed climate change bill and RFS, approximately 27.1 million acres would be taken out of production across the Unites States. That would have a huge impact on our economy, especially in rural areas.”

Jeanne Bernick of Farm Journal also reported from the conference:

Even the leading ag economists of our day are scratching their heads on this issue (read Land Use Change Tricky to Measure). They claim it is simply impossible to verify why land use changes occur.

“‘We are trying to measure the unmeasurable,’ says Bruce Babcock, ag economist with Iowa State University’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD). ‘We would never really be able to verify why those acres changed production plans. Annual agricultural land use is flux, and largely variable.’

“Interpretation: No one really knows what influences land use change. Farmers make planting decisions in the U.S. and around the world based on a multitude of factors (weather, markets, weed and insect pressure), not just one factor like increased biofuels production in the U.S.”

Mike Wilson of Wallace’s Farmer astutely noted several questions raised by the conference:

Why are we setting U.S. policy based on something that may or may not take place in other countries? As speaker and Texas A&M ag economist Bruce McCarl says, ‘If we want to get out of this indirect land use debate, we simply need to have Brazil institute some greenhouse gas emissions penalty for when it develops its land.’

“What role does politics play in this? Clearly politics is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. President Obama has his people in place and a mandate from voters; he wants to get something passed regardless of the flawed logic that is now floating around in EPA’s regulatory proposal.

“Is this an Obama-driven apology to the rest of the world for eight years of George Bush unilateralism?

“Is this punishment for not agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol so many years ago?”

During the August Congressional recess, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) invited EPA officials Gina McCarthy, who is Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and Margo Oge, who heads the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, to tour Iowa State University’s BioCentury Research Farm near Boone and the Renewable Energy Group’s 30-million gallon biodiesel plant at Newton.

Dan Looker, Business Editor of Agriculture.com, reported:

Dermot Hayes, an economist with ISU’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, shared research by a graduate student, Jerome Dumortier, that shows the effects of technology as crop prices rise due to demand for biofuels. Farmers are more likely to spend more on biotechnology that speeds up yield gains, Hayes said. If this effect is just 1% more than the trendline in yields [1.6% is used in EPA calculations] over 10 years, it brings the gain [carbon debt] from ethanol from 166 years to just over 30. If it’s just 2% higher, the gain from producing ethanol instead of using gasoline is immediate. In essence, there is no indirect land use effect.

After the recess, at a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Hearing on Sept. 3, Senators heard from Bill Couser, a fourth-generation farmer from Nevada, Iowa:

As a seed corn grower for Monsanto I have witnessed firsthand the wonderful improvements in corn and soybean genetics over the last few years. The simple fact is that yields are not only increasing, they are increasing at an increasing rate. Coupled with improved farming practices, I have no trouble believing Monsanto’s national average projection of 300 bushels per acre corn by 2030. Iowa will likely hit that mark much sooner. And we will do it with fewer inputs and less impact on soil and water than today.”