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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January 6, 2009

The Impact on Renewable Energy from Obama's Nominations

"Who ARE those guys?"

The bad news is that the economic crisis threatens to suspend deployment of renewable energy facilities. Coupled with the meteoric drop in fossil fuel prices - one of the key drivers for developing alternative fuels - and it would not be surprising to see a new administration lose focus on renewable energy.

The good news is that the incoming Obama administration's choices for Cabinet and key positions are very encouraging to those in the emerging renewable energy and energy efficiency industries. Below is the full "Special Report" analysis on each nominee as reported by 25x'25 dated 12/31/08.

The one disappointment is the loss of Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico who was nominated to be Secretary of Commerce. Just yesterday he opted out of confirmation because of government investigation of some alleged "pay for play" campaign contributions.

Obama Nominations Expected to Drive Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency Policy

President-elect Barack Obama has moved quickly to fill his Cabinet and most key positions in an administration set to take control of the White House in three weeks, and a significant number of the nominees or appointees bring with them serious renewable energy and energy efficiency credentials. Obama's selection of scientific, energy and environmental experts to his administration underscore his campaign pledge to address the faltering economy and climate change with programs that will use green technology and infrastructure improvements to create jobs and boost markets.

The diversity and bipartisan nature of the new administration team mirror the similarly wide-ranging composition of the National 25x'25 Renewable Energy Alliance, whose member organizations come from the agriculture, forestry, energy, environmental, business, labor, civic and government sectors. Five of the 14 Cabinet nominees have over the past two years formally endorsed the 25x'25 Vision for a renewable energy future. Obama was an original co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution adopted by Congress in 2007 as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act signed into law a year ago. Members of the bipartisan team that Obama has picked include what some analysts have deemed to be "superstars" in their fields.

Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004 and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, represents a key appointment for renewable energy interests with his nomination to head the Department of Energy. Chu is a champion of second-generation biofuels and solar technologies, focusing the Berkeley lab's scientific resources on energy security and global climate change, in particular the production of new fuels and electricity from sunlight through non-food plant materials and artificial photosynthesis. The lab director, who has shared his research at a 25x'25 roundtable in California in 2007 and at the National 25x'25 Summit in Omaha in March, has also spearheaded significant work at Berkeley on energy-efficient technologies.

Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and another champion of land-based renewable energy development, is Obama's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. One of the early endorser's of the 25x'25 Vision, the two-term governor vigorously campaigned for Obama, promoting their common ideas on renewable energy and rural growth. "As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat but the energy we use," Obama said in nominating Vilsack. The former chairman of the Governors' Biofuels Coalition has pushed for further development of cellulosic ethanol, in which products such as woodchips and switchgrass are used as feedstocks, and promoted wind energy as an alternative source of electricity.

Sen. Ken Salazar, an original co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution adopted by Congress, is the nominee to head the Interior Department. As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the second-term senator from Colorado says he "will do all I can to help reduce America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil" and work with Obama "as we take the moon shot on energy independence. That energy imperative will create jobs here in America, protect our national security, and confront the dangers of global warming." Salazar also said he wants to help "build our clean energy economy, modernize our interstate electrical grid, and ensure that we are making wise use of our conventional natural resources, including coal, oil, and natural gas."

Rep. Ray LaHood, a supporter of mass transit, is set to lead the Transportation Department in the new administration. As a co-sponsor in the House of the 25x'25 resolution ultimately enacted into the 2007 Energy Act, the Illinois lawmaker voted for legislation that would have eliminated tax breaks for oil and gas companies and diverted them to the development of renewable fuels. LaHood also voted for an amendment to the National Science Foundation funding bill that created a K-12 curriculum on global warming, climate change, and the actions people can take to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The six-term congressman Ray LaHood was recently honored for his work in promoting Illinois' 25x25 Renewable Energy Alliance during a special ceremony in Peoria last month. Former U.S. and Illinois House Representative Tom Ewing, a member of the National 25x'25 Steering committee and coordinator of Illinois' 25x25 efforts, joined other Illinois 25x'25 alliance members in presenting an award of appreciation to LaHood. "Ray LaHood has been a real champion of the 25x25 movement since we started it in 2004," said Ewing, speaking at the Illinois Commodity Classic conference in Bloomington. "He was a supporter of our independent resolution in Congress recognizing our goal of producing 25 percent of the nation's energy from renewable sources - including agricultural sources - by the year 2525."

Senator from New York and former Obama political adversary Hillary Clinton was nominated by the president-elect as Secretary of State. Sen. Clinton is a member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works and a co-sponsor of the 25x'25 resolution. She was a strong supporter of renewable energy provisions in the 2007 Energy Act. Her advocacy of measures that would stem climate change is expected to be carried into the international arena. Also expected to play a part in Clinton's approach to her role as Secretary of State is her support as a senator of policies to diversify energy supplies by investing in renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, and her promotion of the environmentally responsible recovery of oil and gas resources. She also championed energy-efficiency in cars, homes, and offices.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, one of the first national political leaders to embrace the 25x'25 Vision when the campaign was launched in 2006, was nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. The secretary-designate has long promoted the clean air benefits of renewable energy and is expected to tout the health advantages inherent to improved air quality as the Obama administration develops energy policies that reduce polluting emissions. With more than 25 years of service in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and 10 years as Senate Democratic Leader, Daschle has played an instrumental role in the development of U.S. legislative and regulatory policy. He brings to the incoming administration extensive Washington experience and high odds for quick Senate confirmation. The former South Dakota senator, who lost his bid for re-election in 2004, has been serving as a member of the Energy Future Coalition national Steering Committee and a ''special public policy adviser'' with the Washington law and lobbying firm of Alston & Bird. His portfolio there includes health care and renewable energy.

Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a green jobs advocate and author of clean energy job training legislation included in the 2007 energy bill, has been nominated to head the Labor Department. Her legislation authorizes up to $125 million in funding to establish national and state job training programs, administered by the Department of Labor, to help address job shortages that are impairing growth in green industries, such as energy efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy efficient vehicles, and biofuels development. H.R. 2847 was included in the Energy Independence and Security Act adopted by Congress and signed into law in December, 2007.

Other key members of the incoming administration announced by Obama that are expected to have significant impact on renewable energy and energy efficiency policies include:

Lisa Jackson, who is set to head the EPA. The agency regulates the nation's renewable fuel standard, which determines how much ethanol, biodiesel and eventually other biofuels get used each year. Rules currently under formulation would determine the extent to which land use and the effect of biofuel production on climate change are to be considered in setting the RFS. Jackson was the director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being tapped to head Obama's energy and environment transition team. She had previously served as DEP Deputy Commissioner. Her past experience includes management responsibilities at the EPA's regional office in New York; for enforcement programs at both EPA and DEP; and for New Jersey's Land Use Management Program. Jackson helped create the Northeastern states' Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and also served as vice president of the RGGI's executive board. She is a professional engineer.

Carol M. Browner, who has been named to the new position of Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Her position has been coined as "climate czar" and Obama says she will coordinate environmental, energy, climate and related matters for the federal government. The former chief at EPA during the Clinton administration, Browner is a founding member of the Albright Group, a "global strategy group" headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As a principal in the firm, Browner assists businesses and other organizations with the challenges of operating internationally, including the challenges of complying with environmental regulations and climate change.

Nancy Sutley, who will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality. She has instituted a number of energy saving programs in Los Angeles where she currently serves as the Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment. She has previously served as a gubernatorial energy advisor and the Deputy Secretary for Policy and Intergovernmental Relations within the California Environmental Protection Agency. During the Clinton administration, Sutley was a Senior Policy Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA, Region 9 in San Francisco and a Special Assistant to the Administrator at the Federal EPA in Washington, DC. Sutley has also served as the Policy Director for the National Independent Energy Producers and as an Industry Economist for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

John P. Holdren, who was named Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A Harvard professor of environmental policy, Holdren led major studies for the Clinton administration's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology on U.S. energy research and development strategy. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Since 2002, he has been Co-Chair of the independent, bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, and from 2004 to the present he has served as a coordinating lead author of the Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, reporting to the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Commission on Sustainable Development.

National 25x'25 Alliance leaders say stronger support for renewable energy within the incoming administration will help mobilize the 25x'25 base in 2009 and expand grassroots support for the policies needed to create a clean and green U.S. energy future. An alliance plan of action for next year notes that over the past four years, the 25x'25 Alliance has evolved into a strong coalition that now serves as providers of solid, credible information on the role renewable energy can and will play in a revived economy. "We believe that in 2009, the new administration, in concert with the incoming 111th Congress, will support our efforts to sustain the nation's resource base and protect the environment through renewable energy development and energy efficiency," says Project Coordinator Ernie Shea. "The Steering Committee believes our new national leadership understands the role agriculture and forestry can play in improving energy security, boosting our economy and reducing emissions that contribute to global warming."


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