Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

Biofuels Lowdown

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The Renewable Fuels Standards, their recent revisions, and some of what it means for biofuels, and for Americans, in the next decade.

A sugarcane plantation in São Paulo, Brazil

What’s below was a post from earlier this month, but I received enough questions about it that I thought it should be its own page. It has been fascinating to work in the biofuels realm these past few years, maybe even more so since I still don’t have my mind made up about how beneficial they are, or how effective they can be at achieving the goals of rural economic development and being a more environmentally friendly transportation fuel.

I began working with biofuels while living in Brazil, and initially had the intention of discussing what a silly idea it is to use valuable agricultural land to produce transportation fuels, basically taking food out of people’s mouths and putting it in to our gas tanks. Corn in the U.S. is especially destructive in so many ways, and I feared the expansion of sugarcane ethanol in Brazil forcing other agricultural activities into sensitive and priceless places such as the Amazon Rainforest.

Well, here we are almost four years later and, casting aside my preconceptions in the interest of objectivity, I’ve learned so much about how much food there is in the world, how much of it we waste, and the vast potential for biofuels technology.

Yes, it is possible that we will soon be able to take food and other kinds of waste and extract the usable energy,  pushing us tantalizingly closer to that scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) shoves some banana peels into the flux capacitor to fuel his Delorian.

Okay, that may still be a ways off, but it is interesting to look at the possibilities, so long as we are always mindful that the energy in the world is finite, and that efforts to develop these technologies should always be preceded by efforts at conservation and efficiency.

You can find more articles about biofuels here.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, please feel free to leave a comment anywhere on this site and let me know what you think.

jjb

Well, this is fairly important news for those of us (meganerds) who are directly involved with this whole biofuels thing.

As a bit of background, in 2007 George Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which included the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS), mandating increasing amounts of renewable fuels, almost entirely ethanol, in the U.S. gasoline supply. The standards, which mandate nearly 13 billion gallons of renewable fuels this year, and up to 36 B gals in 2022, also has substandards for cellulosic ethanol and “advanced biofuels,” which are defined as those that decrease greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% compared to gasoline. (I know, hard to believe that W. would pen a law that mandated GHG reductions, but there we are.)

These new laws, known as RFS2, do not change the overall requirements, but affect some of the environmental accounting and the substandards. First, the original RFS mandated 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, which is ethanol that comes from the green portions of plants such as corn and prairie grasses. The problem is that the technology for these fuels still has a little ways to go, and we are not capable of producing 100 million gallons of it. RFS2 reduces that requirement to 6.5 million gallons, quite a reduction indeed.

The other change is in the assessments of environmental impacts of biofuels, mainly lifecycle analysis (LCA) of GHGs, including those from land use changes. The argument, put forth most notably in a paper by Searchinger et al.  in Science magazine, posits that when corn is diverted from the food supply and used for biofuels, the decreased supply and increased prices induce farmers in other parts of the world to plant more corn. At times this may mean clearing forest for the new crops, and rarely is agricultural land as productive, or are fertilizers and other inputs as available, as in the U.S. Therefore, the 130 or so bushels of corn from one acre of land in the U.S. that’s diverted to ethanol production can mean, for example, an acre and a half of forest cleared in another part of the world. This, Searchinger and others have argued, defeats the purpose of biofuels in that their proposed environmental benefits are undermined by this deforestation.

In the new RFS2 rulings, these land use changes are now counted in the GHG calculations for biofuels, which is a huge advantage for cellulosic biofuels that are not reported to cause these indirect land use changes (ILUCs), but a bit of a hit for corn ethanol producers. Poet LLC’s CEO, Jeff Broin argues in the article below, “we are concerned that some pieces of the rules put out by EPA today run contrary to that stated effort. Although the international indirect land use change penalty has been lessened somewhat, EPA still relied on the disproven theory when all of the data shows that ethanol production continues to improve and isn’t requiring new land.” His statement that Searchinger’s theory is “disproven” stems from the fact that tracking these land use changes is basically impossible. We can’t very well say that one particular acre of corn in the U.S. diverted to ethanol means that another specific acre of land is diverted to corn from a particular land use to make up for the fallen supply.

As the debate rages on, as I’ve said in previous posts on this site, corn ethanol does not seem to me to translate to healthy, efficient use of land, especially given the terrible effects on land and water from the way we grow corn. I am also not convinced that such large scale corn ethanol production is necessary in order ease the transition to second and third generation biofuels technologies. Finally, while I believe there is great promise for those advanced technologies, the greatest promise, in terms of efficacy and cost effectiveness, lies in the simple task of using less transportation fuel.

By Lisa Gibson

Posted February 3, 2010, at 4:22 p.m. CST

The new requirement for cellulosic biofuel production in 2010 is reduced to 6.5 million ethanol–equivalent gallons in the renewable fuels standard (RFS2), down significantly from the 100 million gallons established in RFS1, included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. EPA released final RFS2 rules Feb. 3 as media outlets, producers and others scrambled to find out how it will affect their industries.

[…]

“I think it’s a great change,” said Arnold Klann, CEO of California-based BlueFire ethanol, which focuses on producing cellulosic ethanol from waste. “It was very clear our industry couldn’t meet the standard set for this year.” He added that the new goal is easily achievable and was a good decision.

[…]

Ethanol from sugarcane also meets the standard, reducing GHG emissions by 61 percent. “EPA’s reaffirmation of sugarcane ethanol’s superior GHG reduction confirms that sustainably-produced biofuels can play an important role in climate mitigation,” said Joel Velasco, chief representative in Washington for the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA). “Sugarcane ethanol is a first generation biofuel with third generation performance.”

[…]

RFS2 rules were originally scheduled for release Jan. 1, 2009, but inclusion of new elements pushed it back. It expands the scope of the program and lays out the strategy for reaching the RFS of 36 billion gallons by 2022. Currently, the country is not on track to meet that goal, as only about 12 billion gallons of biofuels are produced annually. President Obama’s biofuels initiative, also released Feb. 3, states that the goals will be met by supporting the existing biofuels industry, while accelerating the commercial establishment of advanced biofuels by increasing communication and having a strategic plan across the U.S. government, and by employing strategic public-private partnerships.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

February 22nd, 2010 at 3:21 pm

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2 Responses to 'Biofuels Lowdown'

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  1. […] looks like the U.S. may not be content to let Brazil be the only producer of “advanced […]

  2. Thanks for the tip, works great.

    Proactol

    10 Jul 10 at 9:18 pm

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