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.

It’s Food AND Fuel

Last week SustainableBusiness.com posted the story, “Bill To Extend Ethanol Tax Credit Reignites Fuel vs. Food Debate.”

They write,

A bill introduced in the US House last week would extend ethanol tax credits for another five years, to 2015. This tax credit is set to expire on December 31, 2010. If extended, the tax credits will provide the conventional ethanol industry with $30 billion over five years.

They quoted Kate McMahon, Energy Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth who said,

The oil and ethanol industries need no further help from the American people. This money should be invested in more cutting-edge, clean, and renewable energy that won’t cause environmental degradation and increase food prices.

Food prices? Not so fast, here are a few facts.

World population growth is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Demand for food, energy, resources, and agricultural productivity is expected to increase at a faster rate, due to increased demand for dietary protein, primarily in developing countries. Accordingly the challenge is to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and biofuel within existing land constraints.

For those concerned about food you should know that:

  • Wheat and soy production have been increasing outside the U.S. since 1970 and that U.S. biofuel production since 2000 shows no impact on these trends.
  • U.S. yields of corn have consistently outpaced the world average. Furthermore, the overall harvested acreage for corn production under the renewable fuel standard is projected to remain stable due to continued yield gains.
  • In the U.S. agriculture has become more sustainable. Since 1980 productivity has increased, even while agricultural inputs have declined.
  • The increase in sustainable agriculture extends outside the boundaries of the U.S. Agricultural productivity gains in the last 20 years worldwide have been accomplished with fewer energy and water inputs per bushel, reduced soil loss, and mitigated climate impacts.

Add all that together and then add the fact that cropland in the U.S. is concentrated in the Midwest and Plains. Other areas have biomass potential in grassland and managed forests.

So that means that there is enough room for food AND fuel.

Seen at the Washington Auto Show: Advanced Fuel Cars

Novozymes today offered members of the media, government officials, VIPs and other attendees of the annual Washington Auto Show a chance to test drive of Chevy HHR powered (literally) by government waste. The fuel used in the car was produced from government office wastepaper and waste cardboard by Fiberight. Novozymes President Adam Monroe previewed the effort on Clean Skies TV.

Also at the show, auto parts maker Ricardo Inc. is displaying a GMC Sierra 3500HD pickup that has been optimized to run on a 30% to 50% blend of ethanol. According to one report, the car heavy duty truck is expected to maintain power while cutting engine size and improving fuel economy by 30%.

Weekly Biofuels and Climate Change Blog Round Up

This week in the blogosphere in Industrial & Environmental Technology we start off with NASCAR. Yes that’s right NASCAR . Domestic Fuel.com quotes an article in USA Today about NASCAR,

“The concept might seem incongruous in a sport inherently tied to an internal combustion engine that many find synonymous with global warming, but NASCAR, despite cars with an eye-popping 5 mpg, is trying to embrace its eco-conscious side as the federal government has begun prodding the racing industry to become leaders in efficiency…

On the competition side, NASCAR is exploring the replacement of its carburetors with more efficient fuel injection (perhaps as early as 2011) and the use of alternative fuels in at least one of its national series…”

Remarkable, but it just shows that biofuels are catching on everywhere.

Joshua Kagan wrote on GOOD.is/BLOGS a piece that mainly discusses the cons of corn ethanol and concludes that,

“There are non-food crops that can be used for biofuel. The federal government has awoken to this and is heavily promoting “second generation” cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic refers to the “non-food” component of a plant or tree—like the husk of the corn or tree trimmings—that contain lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates called polysaccharides that can, in turn, be processed into biofuels. The next installment in this series discusses what is cellulosic ethanol, why you need to know about it, why you are not wrong if you find it ironic that cutting down trees is a carbon mitigation strategy, and how algae are really the future of biofuels.”

Now, I’m aware that different people have different opinions about which line of biofuels research we should pursue, but it’s important to remember that to ensure our energy security we must pursue all avenues of research. Advances in medicine didn’t come about from restricting areas of research, and the same will be true here. Diversity in energy research will ultimately lead to the most sustainable and energy efficient solution.

All Your Eggs in One Basket

Biofuels Digest reported this week that DoE Secretary Chu told attendees of an alternative energy conference, “If it were up to me, I would put every cent into electric cars.”

The following day, Biofuels Digest reported its own lifecycle analysis of E85 from corn and the Tesla electric car. According to the report, “cars running on E85 corn-based ethanol at the proposed new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will generate 30 percent lower CO2 emissions over an average car lifetime than a Tesla all-electric sports car using coal-fired power. E85 saves an average of 6 tons of CO2 emissions over the average life of a vehicle, when utilizing corn ethanol, and up to 36 tons of CO2 when running on cellulosic ethanol derived from waste biomass.”

Further, “The Digest also found that cars running on E85 corn-based ethanol at the proposed new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will generate 10 percent lower CO2 emissions over an average car lifetime than a Chevy Volt running solely on electric power. A Volt using a 50/50 mix of gasoline and electric power would generate 13 percent more CO2 than an E85 car running on corn ethanol.”

The comparisons are of course dependent on the opening assumptions, as are most analyses. And I doubt it will be helpful for industries that ostensibly aspire to reducing carbon emissions to begin tearing each other down. However, I would like to buy Sec. Chu a new t-shirt:

I Heart Electric Cars

I Heart Electric Cars

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.”

Environmentalists Want to “Stick” It to Farmers

Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment wrote recently in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, asking why the Waxman-Markey climate change bill should treat agricultural emissions differently from energy and transportation emissions, with a “carrot-and-stick approach, one in which fossil fuels suffer the stick while agriculture feasts upon the carrot.” Hill’s primary objection to the bill is the amendments added by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), which exempt agriculture and forestry from carbon caps but provide credits for carbon sequestration that farmers can trade on the market. They also would postpone implementation of the EPA’s analysis of international land use change.

Writes Hill, “Peterson’s amendment is essentially nothing more than a slick accounting trick, one meant to portray biofuels produced in this nation in a better light while making the carbon footprint of agriculture in developing countries look worse.”

This is a bizarre statement, turning even the theory of indirect land use change on its ear. The original calculation of indirect land use change put forward by Searchinger et al held that “when farmers use today’s good cropland to produce food, they help to avert greenhouse gasses from land use change.” Further, in the context of international negotiations for a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the ILUC theory is clearly an attempt to shift accounting of carbon emissions in developing countries onto U.S. biofuels.

Calculations of land use change by current models are completely contradicted by agricultural trade and production numbers, making the models appear to be nothing more than accounting tricks. The model projections look nothing like real outcomes because they rely on several false premises and double count certain sources of emissions. The greatest fallacy of the ILUC theory is that worldwide agricultural productivity has already reached a natural limit and cannot respond to increased demand in any other way than clearing of rainforests. The main premise of the theory – that biofuels have been introduced into a static worldwide agricultural system and therefore are the primary cause of shifting agricultural production – is an assumption that can’t be supported by data.

Using USDA’s modest assumption for growth in yields of U.S. corn over the life of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a simple calculation shows that corn productivity can keep up with demand to produce the conventional biofuel portion of the RFS. This assumes continuation of 2016 to 2018 USDA projections for 2022 – constant total planted acreage of 90.5 million acres, increase of 75 million bushels per year for fuel ethanol, and increase of 1.8 bushel per acre per year yield improvement:

Overall harvested acreage for corn production is projected to remain stable due to continued yield productivity gains

In fact, USDA currently projects a corn yield of 159.5 bushels per acre for this year. And USDA projections from January 2009 show that inclusion of biofuels will stabilize land use, in terms of the acres planted to the eight major crops:

U.S. land planted to eight major crops.

Beyond this, and despite a report) that deforestation in Brazil increased in June, the deforestation rate in Brazil continues to decline. Responding to the Agence France-Presse report, Mongabay noted, “Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon typically peaks during the June-August dry season when ranchers and farmers burn forest to clear land for development.”

A group of scholars – that includes Hill – recently called for a focus on real solutions to climate change. The world needs economic growth, energy and food. We should not premise our search for solutions on the false notion that these three necessities are in direct competition with each other.