Biofuels Done Right?

Images from the “slow-motion catastrophe” that began last week 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana brought to mind a bit of sarcasm I offered to a colleague almost exactly a year ago. The NRDC was running the below ad on Capitol Hill, saying, “Biofuels. If we’re going to use them, let’s do it right,” with a picture of the deforestation that many assumed would occur from use of biofuels.

NRDC-- Biofuels Done Right Ad

My facetious idea was to run a counter ad, with pictures from the Exxon Valdez disaster, asking NRDC if they considered “biofuels not done at all” to be done right. And perhaps that ad could have been rerun on March 31, as the Obama administration announced with purely Orwellian logic that plans for expanding offshore oil drilling were “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

Now, of course, 5,000 barrels of oil each day are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruptured pipes of a deep sea oil well, creating an oil slick covering 400 square miles. While not yet rivaling the Exxon Valdez disaster, where 258,000 barrels leaked, the threat to wildlife and sensitive wetlands still exists. And consider, an estimated 90 rigs drilling in the Gulf of Mexico provide 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, nearly one-third of total US production.

Today, President Obama is touring a POET biorefinery in Missouri and talking about the need for increased biofuel production:

For decades, we’ve talked about how our dependence on oil from other countries threatens our economy. But usually our will to act kind of rises or falls depending on the price at the pump. We talked about how it threatens future generations, even as we witnessed some funny things going on in terms of our climate change, and recognizing the environmental costs of relying on fossil fuels, but, frankly, we always said we’ll get to it tomorrow. We talked about how it threatened our security, but we’ve grown actually more dependent on foreign oil every single year since Richard Nixon started talking about this danger of dependency on foreign oil.”

But of course, cellulosic and advanced biofuel production has fallen short of goals, primarily due to a lack of capital needed for rapid scale up. Investor confidence in the sector was undermined in 2008 and 2009 by a combination of the economic recession, wild volatility in feedstock costs, and predictions of impending doom by opponents of biofuels.

Investor confidence may be slowly recovering, according to recent indications, but the overall mood still remains skeptical. A few of the more choice pronouncements indicate the general mood.

Want to become a millionaire investing in publicly traded advanced biofuel stocks? One way would be to start as a multi-millionaire.”

“Very few investors in any cleantech sector are going to be investing the amounts of capital we saw at the height in 2008,” when venture capitalists were investing in production facilities, says Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a research and consulting firm that tracks venture-capital spending in green technology.

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Ways and Means Should Include Job Creation of Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts in Green Jobs Leg

On Wednesday, April 14 the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on Energy Tax Incentives Driving the Green Job Economy. The focus of the hearing is to examine the effectiveness of current energy tax policy and identify additional steps that the Committee can take to ensure continued job growth in this area while at the same time advancing national energy policy focus on a discussion of current and proposed energy tax incentives. Witnesses for this hearing have not been announced and we do not know how much of the hearing will focus on transportation fuels however, energy tax incentives for biofuels and biobased products should be a significant area of focus for this round of green jobs legislation. These technologies are ready to deploy and create near term job opportunities.

Industrial biotechnology is the key enabling technology for producing biofuels and biobased products like bioplastics and renewable chemicals to aid in reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the ability to crate jobs, jobs that are currently moving overseas due to their reliance on petroleum as a feedstock or more favorable economic or political environments.

The United States has invested considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars to try to revive our economy. Too often, though, the resulting jobs are being created overseas, as other countries invest in green technology deployment. As a result, the opportunity to improve our economic competitiveness is lost. The United States is a leader in the research and development of green technologies, but to maintain that lead we must invest in the companies that are putting that green technology to work in our economy. These industries have shed hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs over the past two decades, as petroleum producing countries have attracted more capital investment. For example, U.S. chemical and plastics companies have increased capital investment outside the United States by 32 percent over the past decade, while increasing investment within U.S. borders by only 2 percent.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) enacted as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 sets the minimum level of renewable fuel that must be produced and blended into the US transportation fuel supply at 36 billion gallons by 2022. 21 billion gallons of that requirement must be cellulosic or advanced biofuels. Direct job creation from the advanced and cellulosic biofuels volumes in the RFS could reach 29,000 by 2010, rising to 190,000 by 2022. Total job creation could reach 123,000 in 2010 and 807,000 by 2022. Jobs will be across many sectors of the economy. Some projected job creation sectors are: labor/freight, mixing and blending machine operators, shopping/receiving/traffic clerks, truck drivers, chemical equipment/technicians, chemical plant/system operators/electrical, sales etc.

The Ways and Means Committee can aid in accelerating this job creation by incentivizing biorefinery construction here in the United States. In 2008 Congress enacted a cellulosic biofuels production tax credit and enhanced depreciation for advanced biofuels facilities as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, both of which are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Due to an overall downturn in the worldwide economy, this tax credit has not yet been utilized by cellulosic biofuels producers. This credit needs to be extended now in order to signal to investors that a plant being constructed this year, will have certainty in the availability of that tax credit once the plant begins to produce the advanced biofuel. A tax credit that expires before or shortly after production begins, does not create economic security for a yet to be built advanced biofuel biorefinery looking for funding. Furthermore, capital costs for construction of next generation biorefineries, which utilize renewable biomass to produce next generation biofuels and biobased products, are a substantial barrier to commercialization. Congress should provide an investment tax credit to help accelerate construction of next generation biorefineries and speed deployment of next generation fuels, chemicals and products.

Historically, the U.S. chemicals and plastics industry was the envy of the world. At its peak in the 1950s, the industry was responsible for over 5 million domestic jobs and a $20 billion positive trade balance for the United States. Jobs associated with the industry were typically among the highest paid in U.S. manufacturing. However, the petro-chemicals and plastics industries are now hemorrhaging jobs overseas. Conversely, biobased products and chemicals production, like domestically produced biofuels, will stay in the U.S., in close proximity to their biomass feedstocks. Total US employment in the chemicals industry declined by over 20% in the last two decades and is projected to decrease further. The US is a world leader in industrial biotechnology with a wide range of companies pioneering new, renewable pathways to traditional petroleum-based chemicals and plastics.

The potential job creation from bio-products is immense. Consider that the nascent biobased products industry employed over 5,700 Americans at 159 facilities in 2007 and every new job in the chemical industry creates 5.5 additional jobs elsewhere in the economy. Currently the biobased products portion represents only about 4 percent of all sales for the industry. Congress should create targeted production tax credits that can help them to expand their share of the market and grow additional domestic jobs. With an industry with the potential to grow by over 50% per year, bio-products can form the basis for a strong employment growth engine for the US.

Clearly commercializing the advanced biofuels and biobased products industries is an integral solution to creating high caliber domestic green jobs in the United States that will catapult this country to be a leader in successful high tech, sustainable technologies. BIO will be urging the Ways and Means Committee through written comments to recognize that innovations such as these are some of the most promising sources of green jobs and economic growth for the future.

From Pacific Rim Summit: Specialty Crops, Renewable Feedstocks & Sustainability

This panel on the second day of the Summit consisted of Richard Gustafson from the University of Washington, Gillian Madill, an independent consultant representing views of the environmental NGO community and John Sheehan, from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

While Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Sheehan gave informative talks on lifecycle assessment modeling and sustainability issues, Ms. Madill lit up the room with her talk titled, “Environmental Concerns with Energy Biotechnologies.” Ms. Madill started the conversation with the assertion that the environmental community and the biofuels community have the same goal, to supply energy in a new way that preserves the environment and our earth. Renewable energy and technology are tools to get to that end.

The environmental community has several valid concerns over widespread biofuels production. They see biofuels as a transition technology on our way to an energy future less dependent on liquid fuels, some would say zero liquid fuels. Zero because of the belief that no biofuels are carbon neutral. The question asked by environmental groups is, Why incentivize an unsustainable industry? Some concerns raised by Ms. Madill on behalf of the environmental community include deforestation of sensitive lands such as rain forests, environmental degradation, incorporation and containment of genetically engineered crops and organisms and intellectual property protection.

The biofuels industry plans to be a sustainable industry, but it is a new industry on the verge of commercialization with a formidable competitor. Ms. Madill’s point was that the environmental community and industry, while striving for some common goals, are currently at odds.

As I expressed to Ms. Madill, at the heart of this debate is the fact that most of the controversy centers around land use and protecting sensitive ecosystems. If biofuels went away tomorrow, other industries would compete for those same sensitive areas. After all, solar and wind farms require significant acreage as well, not to mention building schools or highways or the new grocery store that just opened in your neighborhood. Any industry that has a footprint will at some point, one can only assume in a future low carbon world, be mandated to quantify their lifecycle assessment, including land use and potentially indirect international land use, as biofuels are today.

My suggestion would be to partner to serve the common goal, protection of our vital and sensitive areas and resources which are important and treasured by all.

Weekly Industrial and Environmental Bio Blog Roundup

This week we start off with a little Road Music, From Bluegrass to Switchgrass, from our colleagues at the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. They’ve put together a nice set of bluegrass pieces. To listen visit their web site.

Gas2.0 announces this week that BP could start selling biofuels in 2010, writing that,

“BP has partnered with Verenium to bring a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility online next year to start bringing alternative fuels to a gas”

Wednesday, according to the Government Monitor,Tom Vilsack announced,

“the publication of nine additional BioPreferred product categories which will now be eligible for Federal procurement preference.”

Making, “more Than 1,000 Biobased Products Eligible For Federal Procurement,” the Monitor reports.

You can find USDA biopreferred on Twitter, http://twitter.com/BioPreferred and on the Web at: www.biopreferred.gov.

So what’s the deal with this conversation on whether or not biofuels are carbon friendly? We at BIO have certainly have had a lot to say on the matter and you can find all our opinions on our biofuels page.

However, our opinions aside, the folks at the journal Science, where the initial study and follow-up policy paper were published say that they are giving us the inside story, by holding a moderated conversation between Tim Searchinger and John Sheehan—kind of interesting, take a look for yourself.

That’s all for this week. See you next week!

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.

Industrial and Environmental Biotech in the Blogosphere

This week we start off with a United Nations report that urges caution on biofuels. Green Inc, a New York Times blog writes,

“The study concluded that whether a biofuel is climate-friendly or not depends largely on whether it is based on crops or production residues. Biofuels of the latter category were generally considered beneficial for the environment, and generating electricity locally from waste materials was found — in most cases — to be more energy efficient than converting biomass to liquid fuels.”

This paper was also written about in the blog, Futurism Now, the post called, Biofuels Will Increase Global Warming According to Study

They explain,

“That is because the land required to plant fast-growing poplar trees and tropical grasses would displace food crops, and so drive deforestation to create more farmland, a powerful source of carbon emissions.”

Not so fast, check out the Sustainable Production of Biofuels.

And biofuels continues to be the topic of the week. The biofuel review writes this week about a report from the Imperial College of London. The report has an upbeat tone about the future of biofuels and The biofuel review ends their post with a quote from Clare Wenner, Head of Renewable Transport at the Renewable Energy Association that says,

“Imperial College London has verified the results which show that these fuels can be produced in a sustainable way. With the right legislative framework, including the implementation of environmental rules under the Directive, it will be possible to limit indirect land use effects. Land will always be used for food and fuel, and the overall balance of these impacts could be positive as far as food is concerned. In fact, it seems likely that wheat-based biofuels production will not affect the amount of wheat exported by the EU as a whole.”

Then it’s more biofuels from Creamer Media’s Engineering News

According to Engineering News,

“Pretreatment and gasification technologies are on the verge of making second-generation biofuels a commercial reality, according to new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, entitled ‘Worldwide Market Analysis of Second Generation Biofeedstock.”

Engineering news interviewed Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst Phani Raj Kumar Chinthapalli,

“The use of second-generation biofuels is expected to reduce 
the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly carbon 
dioxide (CO2), from combustion engines by 80% to 85% in comparison with conventional fossil fuels. The lifecycle emissions for second-generation biofuels are in the negative range, which implies consumption of CO2 rather than emission.”

That’s it for this week, see you next week.

Weekly Blog Roundup

This week in the blogosphere there’s a lot of chatter about synthetic biology. The Columbia Journalism Review says that synthetic biology is still not a story. They cite a number of articles in a number of publications however they say,

“According to a recent poll, Americans know very little about synthetic biology, which seeks to genetically engineer new forms of life or endow existing ones with novel powers. Part of that may be the press’s fault. While the field has drawn increased media attention over the last seven years or so, it is still not seen as a major story.”

“The most important and popular angles are efforts to synthesize organisms that produce clean fuels and that fight disease. But an interesting alternative, for smaller outlets especially, is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an undergraduate synthetic biology contest run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, The Capital Times (unfortunately, unavailable online) in Madison, Wisconsin, and other regional newspapers have run stories on local students creating biological “machines” that fight cancer; detect arsenic in water; or simply make the room smell like bananas. NPR did a story about using synthetic biology to brew better beer.
Given this body of work, perhaps one should thank the press for helping elevate American awareness of synthetic biology from 9 to 22 percent, rather than faulting journalists for the low figure overall. Many outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times, have hardly touched the subject, however. That won’t do.”

New Hampshire public radio did a spot on synthetic biology with Drew Endy a researcher and professor at Stanford University.

Onto biofuels, Xconomy of San Diego writes,

“When the organizers of the annual Algae Biomass Summit convene to begin planning for next year’s event, they might consider renaming it the Algae Biomass Smackdown.

It might be more accurate, considering the air of skepticism that seemed to pervade some of the sessions I attended during the three-day conference that was held last week in downtown San Diego. Bear in mind that in September 2008 we learned that Bill Gates’ investment arm, Kirkland, WA-based Cascade Investment, was participating in a $100 million secondary round of funding for San Diego’s Sapphire Energy. About 10 months later, ExxonMobil disclosed that it was investing $600 million to develop algae biofuels, including at least $300 million through a partnership with Synthetic Genomics, the algae biofuels startup founded by human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter.”

Biofuels get some attention this week in the New York Times,

“Across the country, start-up companies and major corporations are trying to produce biofuel without relying on food crops the way corn-based ethanol does. Congress has already guaranteed these companies a market if they can make the fuel, and the government has given some of them construction grants. The companies have raised millions from investors.

The results of all this effort are starting to show. Pilot facilities are going up, companies are testing their production lines, and they are starting to make better estimates of the likely costs.”

The New York Times also blogs this week on Tanzania and biofuels reporting this key piece of information,

“Reacting to mounting pressure from farmers and environmental groups citing concerns over food shortages, the Tanzanian government has reportedly suspended all biofuel investments in the country and halted land allocations for biofuel development.”

At the moment there doesn’t seem to be an immediate solution at this point and that only suggests that there is more discussion to come.

That’s it for the round up! See you next week.