January 28, 2009

Perspectives on Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production

This article is a response to a call for comments on Version Zero of the draft Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Biofuels written by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels after extensive, multi-stakeholder, international collaboration. A running public dialog on these standards is available online at the Bioenergy Wiki.

We need change to a renewable fuels paradigm and we need it to be sustainable.

How do we engage in a massive overhaul of our energy paradigm that impacts on the quality of life of future generations without disturbing the natural order of things?

According to the preponderance of current research on "global warming" we have already disrupted the natural order of things. We need to quickly learn to responsibly manage Earth's resources to correct an imbalance that will not correct itself.

One only has to look at 2008's headlines and editorials to see how important the concept of "sustainability" has become to a wide swath of stakeholders as we move into the renewable energy era. Unfortunately, good news is rarely considered news-worthy to major outlets of opinion journalism. Instead, useful debate about certain sustainability issues has been, in far too many cases, distorted far out of proportion to their real significance. Controversy over "energy return on investment", "food vs. fuel", and "indirect land use change" stole much of the momentum that was being generated in support of advanced biofuel production. Some promising and sustainable projects were lost in the process.

Still, the artificiality of the controversy perpetuated by some of the media is no excuse to disengage from a discussion of the issues. To an extent, controversies draw valuable public interest to the topics under debate. In a sincere attempt to contribute a constructive opinion on these issues, I submit the following comments:

Recognize the threat posed by the status quo.

Renewable biofuels are carbon neutral (or negative) and are getting more plentiful and cleaner (fewer noxious byproducts and a reduction in greenhouse gases). Contrast that with fossil fuels that are carbon positive and getting dirtier (more greenhouse gases emitted from harder to extract and refine resources like tar sands and oil shale).

Before biofuels sustainability criteria are promulgated, it is important to ascertain the level of the challenge and the cost of doing nothing. Even prolonged delay has consequences. Lifecycle analyses of fossil fuel production should be used as a standard for comparison. Distance from well to wheel is a very important variable because it take energy to transport (and transmit) energy.

Credit the achievers.

Creating biofuel alternatives require innovation, creativity, and a significant amount of investment risk-taking.

In the fog of adversarial journalism, it is easy for the general public to lose focus on the clear benefits and achievements of the corn ethanol industry during the past few years. Few recognize the credit the ethanol industry deserves for replacing ALL groundwater contaminating MBTEs with clean, biodegradable corn ethanol as an oxygenate blended into gasoline. This simultaneously extended the volume of non-imported fuel used in American cars (roughly 3% nationwide) and resulted in cleaner running, less polluting vehicles.

Without the ethanol industry's rapid growth, there would be far fewer alternative fuel vehicles on the road, less developed infrastructure for supply and delivery, increased dependence on foreign sources of energy, more expensive gasoline during the recent price spike, and many lost opportunities to bolster a revitalized generation of Midwestern rural communities. This is an industry that has not only doubled production within the last few years, but is also moving forward with retooling agricultural practices, reducing fossil energy usage, and expanding the variety of feedstock that can be converted. With deployments come improvements.

We should continue to build and improve on models that have been successful.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

The deleterious impacts from the status quo energy paradigm is the reason that we seek alternative technologies. It is not likely that new innovations will meet all criteria upon first deployment. And raising the bar and adding new criteria - like water usage, land use change, and greenhouse gas emissions - often arise after high capital expenditure deployment. By penalizing innovation we risk total inertia. Doing nothing is not an option.

All too frequently innovative processes are compared to theoretical concepts and abstract ideals that have remained pure because they have never been deployed so their impacts can be measured. Some may never be viable economically whether they meet sustainability criteria or not.

Biorefineries can cure environmental ills.

Conversion technologies can be used to turn environmental blights into fuels and power. Waste-to-energy power plants have helped municipalities reduce the amount of post-recyclables destined for landfills while creating new electricity. Similarly, biorefineries are being proposed to utilize environmental waste as biomass feedstock - trash and tires; bug infested forest timber; wildfire salvage; chicken litter; food scraps; forest management trimmings; hurricane, flood, and tornado debris; forest knockdown; and industrial wastes. These biowastes emit greenhouse gases as they decay so lack of management contributes to global warming.

Cleanly harnessing the btus contained in biomass waste completes a cradle-to-cradle energy value chain. The commercial value of biofuels and biopower can help fund environmental cleanup. We need as many conversion technology approaches as possible because the range of environmental challenges are vast and the resources available are becoming ever more precious.

Sustainability standards should be inclusive and regional.

To achieve the ends that we all want - more sustainable energy processes to pass on to future generations - we must deploy the most promising technologies now so we can perfect them. Multiple approaches provide options that can be tailored to specific resource, climate, and local stakeholder acceptability.

One of the prime characteristics of the bioenergy paradigm is the shift from centralization to decentralization. Fossil fuels are found at specific locations and, over time, the hunt for new reserves ranges further, wider, deeper - and dirtier. By comparison, biomass is relatively ubiquitous. It can be found everywhere except the most extreme conditions - like the deserts and the arctic regions.

The logistics for bioenergy solutons are based on short radius resources basins of 75 miles or less. Rather than expending vast sums for shipping remotely accessed raw materials from the corners of the world, biorefineries will depend on utilizing resources indigenous to the immediate vicinity. What is sustainable in one resource basin is totally different than another. Soil fertility, water availability, climate, and cultural mores vary greatly as do stakeholder interests. To mandate global sustainability criteria without factoring in indigenous variables would be pure folly.

This has already happened. The definition of "renewable fuel" in the groundbreaking 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act excluded classifications of different feedstock (notably woody biomass from federal forest lands). To many in the industry this seemed very arbitrary. Those that it did not specifically exclude were couched in terms that could lead to litigious action in the future against biorefiners attempting to receive the benefits outlined in the renewable fuel standard. The definition should be inclusive of a broad range of feedstock from private and public sources - not exclusive - because every resource basin is different.

Add concerns over the use of water, depletion of soil, deforestation, wildlife diversity, pesticides, energy return on investment, and fertilizers and the obvious question becomes "is there any biofuels production technology that will deployable?" If so, will it be so hamstrung by over-analysis and red tape that it never achieves its potential as a reasonable alternative to the status quo?

Even if a developer successfully threads the needle of expectation this year, will increasingly restrictive standards make duplication of the feat impossible to permit?

What ends might we sacrifice if we focus solely on the means?

Our dependence on fossil fuels is playing havoc with our economy, national security, environmental quality, and the climate predictability of our atmosphere. Just because fossil fuel industries existed before lifecycle analyses were required does not mean that they should forever be immune to measurement and sanction. The social, economic, health, climate, and military costs of fossil fuels are profoundly high.

We need to incentivize the development of many technologies to leap the hurdles of our paradigm challenge. Let's be careful that we don't handicap entrepreneurship with restrictions that will serve mainly to hamper creativity, slow the pace of change, and stifle investment.


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Anonymous said...

It's good to see that someone gets it. And has taken the time to contemplate deeply into this movement.

DutchTreat said...

These are very good points. One of the main hurdles facing renewable energy is the conviction that it requires a costly high efficiency distribution grid or pipeline/road delivery system. This level of investment is unlikely, except for strong emerging economies like India's that need to build new infrastructure anyway. It is particularly unlikely in the US given its large geographic scale, aging infrastructure and economic challenges.

Perhaps the best bet, at least in the short term, is local renewable energy production and consumption based on local needs and resources, as you say. But it will also be important that the energy end products are regionally or nationally standardized so that communities can come to each other's aid when needed and potentially pool their energy resources for special projects.

In any case, change typically happens from the ground up, from community models to counties and states, and where would we be the nation's unofficial renewable energy lab, California?

C. Scott Miller said...

I live in California, which I call the "crucible of renewable energy." It is the port of entry for most of the cars in the country. All the resource factors that impact sustainability - air quality, water availability, soil, natural resources, fertilizing options, etc. - are here in abundance. The schools are very actively researching every aspect of science and economics. The population and media are extremely engaged in the debates.

Sacramento is at the crux for determining what the trajectory of new legislation arising out of AB32 - the Global Warming Solutions act - is likely to be. They probably won't get it all right the first time.

Politicians here cater to urban issues and voters. As a result they often ignore California's biological assets when it comes to renewable energy. Bioenergy is not considered "clean tech" in a state where there are so many renewable tech options - wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and energy efficiency. I think CA will follow other states in recognizing bioenergy as efficient, effective, and sustainable clean technology.

Other states provide effective labs more specialized on fewer issues without the dizzying array of resources and urban political constituencies that CA has. For instance, Iowa focuses on those issues surrounding agriculture and corn. Georgia focuses on forests. Their populace and politicians are more rurally oriented than Sacramento.

Rural America is less likely to overlook the obvious - that photosynthesis at the core of all activity of our farms, ranges, and forests is the natural alternative to photovoltaics for the storage of solar energy. Rural states also want to contribute in a meaningful way to American energy self-reliance and it is hard to ignore the economic benefits regionally and nationally from investment in these areas.

To your other point...

We certainly do need standardized alternatives to fossil energy products. Electricity is obviously a universal standard and is achievable using biopower generation systems. Ethanol is growing in acceptance as a volume extender of gasoline. Biodiesel is fairly standard (although it varies in characteristics based on feedstock).

One overlooked universal standard is syngas (aka, producer gas). It is a clean, non-fossil, conbustible alternative to natural gas that is globally available by pyrolyzing or gasifying organics and waste. It can be used to power electric generators. Syngas is also contains the building block molecules of CO and hydrogen that can be fermented or catalyzed into ethanol.

DutchTreat said...

I lived in California too before coming to "Energy Valley" here in Knoxville TN--one of those incestuous southern Appalachian "hollers" where a bunch of related families have merged into a powerful clan--TVA, ORNL, DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Lab, University of Tennessee Biofuel Program, and our local citizen movement, The East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition http://eerc.ra.utk.edu/etcfc/index.html .

I certainly agree that people in rural areas are much more conscious of biofuels. Our local farmers make biodiesel from soy and sunflower seed to run their corn and switchgrass production equipment. Farmers aren't stupid--why buy fuel when you can make it for next to nothing from your own crops? That's why Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine and why farmers today still have a big incentive to make and use biodiesel.

But in cities my imptession is that people are far removed from the realities of farming, and the Slow Food movement has demonized Big Agriculture and promoted local market gardening, which ironically is often carried out using petroleum fueled tillers and other equipment.

There's also a serious urban "Ivory Tower" problem in my opinion. Investigators tend to automatically assume that biofuel feedstocks are produced with fossil fueled equipment--they don't understand that, all else aside, farmers have a *financial* incentive to use biodiesel.

By the way, the National Sungrant Association research and education website is a good source on comparative biofuel feedstocks, technologies, environmental impacts and life cycle analyses. The site is peer-reviewed and accessible to everyone. The Sungrant Association is a national network of landgrant research universities and bioenergy labs working on biofuels development and sustainability.

Okay, I do drive a biodiesel car but I'm also a board member of our local Electrc Auto Association. ;)

C. Scott Miller said...

I know several SunGrant Initiative leaders - Terry Nipp, Kevin Kephart, Larry Walker, Jim Doolittle - to name a few. You are right about their value to the integrity of information coming out about bioenergy.

In fact, I moderated a communications panel at WIREC with Dr. Kevin Kephart (from South Dakota State U.) focusing on ways to engage stakeholder involvement in the communications process so the media doesn't provide such a disruptive (and misinformed) impact. See http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html .

Thanks for writing.