Taking biofuels to the next level

President Barack Obama toured and met workers at a POET refining ethanol plant in Macon, Missouri Wednesday as part of his trip to Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. POET is the largest ethanol producer in the United States, and has recently announced plans to produce 3.5 billion gallons of advanced cellulosic biofuels by 2022.  CAP’s Jake Caldwell has the story in this repost.

There is no question that the United States must reduce its dependence on oil. One-fifth of the oil consumed in the United States is imported from nations that are “dangerous or unstable” for travelers, according to the State Department. And since surface transportation is responsible for 65 percent of oil use in the United States, this task will require us to meet the challenge of oil use in the transportation sector head-on.

We will need to employ a variety of important measures to reduce oil use, including significantly more efficient fuel economy standards, investments in public transportation and high-speed rail, and smart growth development efforts. The production and use of alternative fuels, including natural gas and advanced biofuels, are also key components of a strategy to diversify our sources of energy for transportation. And each of these steps, taken together, can increase energy independence by reducing oil use by millions of barrels.

President Obama and his administration, including Secretaries Thomas Vilsack and Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, have demonstrated great leadership in promoting the production of advanced biofuels in a more innovative and efficient manner, while ensuring that we maintain the existing infrastructure for the current generation of biofuels.

Yet there is still much more work to be done.

The current generation of biofuels producers, the advanced biofuels industry, Congress, and the Obama administration should work together to promote this important energy sector with the following policy goals and recommendations:

Support sustainable biofuels. Bring advanced, cellulosic biofuels””made from agricultural waste, wood chips, or dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass produced in rural America””to commercial scale on as rapid a timetable as possible. Ensure a stable long-term market for advanced biofuels by making investments in the infrastructure needs of the current generation of biofuels.

Push for comprehensive, bipartisan clean energy and climate legislation in Congress that establishes a price on carbon pollution. The biofuels industry must raise its visibility and high-level support for federal clean energy and climate legislation. An economywide price on carbon will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reinforce a predictable price signal that will drive innovation and investment to produce cleaner fuels, create jobs, and deliver more renewable energy from rural communities.

Increase support for the current national Renewable Fuel Standard. The RFS II will require better funding and interagency strategic implementation of the program, particularly regarding its emphasis on rewarding biofuels’ performance characteristics. Congress should also ensure that legislative definitions of “renewable biomass” adhere to certifiable environmental and land use safeguards on ecologically valuable and vulnerable public and private lands and provide a means to measure lifecycle greenhouse gas reductions.

Support loan guarantees for the construction and deployment of advanced biofuel refineries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program has in the recent past been the sole federal source of loan guarantees to develop, construct, and retrofit commercial-scale advanced biorefineries attempting to produce cellulosic biofuels at commercial levels, and it should receive an additional $300 million toward this goal. This core funding will allow the program to issue loan guarantees for biorefinery projects established primarily in rural communities.

Provide incentives to farmers to begin growing advanced biofuel crops. The USDA’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program provides funding to producers and farmers of renewable energy crops of up to 75 percent of the cost of establishing the energy crop and annual payments for up to 15 years for crop production, and should receive additional support.

Encourage farmer-owned and farmer-operated biorefinery and biofuel plant cooperatives and biomass enterprise zones. Direct producer payments and other targeted incentives can help farmers engaged in the establishment of farmer and locally owned biorefineries and biofuel facilities, but should be temporary and phased out over a 10-year period, and should have majority local ownership. Farmers will also need technical and financial assistance to encourage them to pool resources and enter into larger biomass enterprise zones that would maximize economies of scale and regional geographic proximity. Biomass enterprise zones could facilitate the co-location of biomass growing, production, and processing. And marketing alliances could encourage collaboration on facility construction, storage, and transportation infrastructure to enable biobased products to enter the retail market efficiently.

Dedicate $300 million for five USDA regional feedstock research centers. These research centers will ensure appropriate biofuel feedstocks and supply chains are available in different regions of the country, and support other Department of Energy bioenergy and biomass programs. Biomass growers are primarily located in rural areas, and the costs of collecting and transporting biomass means that many production facilities are also in these communities, providing jobs and raising regional revenues.

Import tariff phase down. The United States should gradually begin the phase down of the current 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported biofuels as Congress and RFS II provide a mandate for the biofuels industry to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. All countries must take reciprocal action to remove trade restrictions on sustainable biofuels.

Spur consumer demand and retail infrastructure. The United States must create requirements and strong incentives to make biofuel blends reliably available at filling stations by promoting the installation of new blender fuel pumps and distribution infrastructure that allow drivers to choose between traditional 100 percent gasoline blends and 85 percent biofuel blends. It should increase renewable fuel infrastructure grants to $100 million in each fiscal year.

Mobilize government purchasing power. The federal government spends more than $230 billion annually on products and services and is a major consumer of transportation fuels. The United States should fully implement the existing Farm Bill biobased purchasing program to use the government’s purchasing power to increase market demand for biobased fuels and products.

Biofuels and other types of biobased energy are not the only solution to all of the world’s energy and transportation challenges. We also need an array of energy sources from sun, wind, geothermal, and other renewable technologies. Most importantly, we need comprehensive, clean energy and climate legislation that puts a price on carbon pollution, and will allow sustained private and public investment in renewable energy and cleaner fuels.

But with the right safeguards, biofuels can play a direct role in diversifying our energy sources and contribute to cutting our oil dependence, enhancing our national security, and spurring economic growth and development, particularly in rural communities.

Jake Caldwell is the Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade and Energy at American Progress.

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23 Responses to Taking biofuels to the next level

  1. Wit's End says:

    This is a travesty. Nobody is even looking at what the emissions from burning biofuels will do. As linked in this post, there were two researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology who announced that their studies showed that ethanol produces less CO2 than gasoline. So I called on of them and asked him whether he tested for acetaldehyde, and he said, nobody does because the equipment is too expensive and it has to be heated.

    So basically our government wants everybody to burn this junk with absolutely no investigation into what the effects on people, animals and vegetation will be.


  2. Ricky Renaldo says:

    Most smart people realize bio fuels greatly increase CO2 output. Poet is doing fine because they purchased a good number of bankrupt ethanol plants at a hugediscount. They banks and the farmer/investors got clobbered.

  3. Zan says:

    This is good, but what about models that turn trash to fuel, like Taylor BioMass Energy(TBE)?
    There may be some NIMBY concerns like in the late ’80’s with incinerators, but if they
    can build a wind-farm of the coast of MA, I imagine anything is possible.

  4. Lore says:

    I’m trying to grasp the logic of why a world population exponentially growing and headed towards major food and water shortages, would grow crops for fuel? On top of which, the fact the energy spent for energy returned in producing ethanol for fuel makes little economic sense. That is unless you consider the good it does to those taking advantage of green subsides by diverting money to them for feel good political measures, but will end up doing little to solve our energy independence.

    [JR: I have said many times don’t think we will grow any significant amount of crops for fuel. Gotta be non-arable land, low-water-use cellulosic biofuels — or nada.]

  5. paulm says:

    crops for fuel (CFF) is a reaction to peak oil. In the US, it is an essential component of its security for the supply to the military.

  6. Mike #22 says:

    Given a ready supply of biomass which doesn’t displace food production and is sustainable, you get almost twice the vehicle miles by using the biomass to make electricity for plug ins than through the ethanol route. Biomass is storable, and there is already a rail system for moving coal to power plants.

    As for turning food (corn) into vehicle miles here in the US…there is a moral aspect to this which cannot be ignored.

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    Not such good news from India concerning jatropha as a fuel source…

    “…initially specialists assumed that jatropha could flourish on wasteland, without irrigation it in fact requires moderate irrigation. …investments are stuck due to the poor quality of jatropha seeds.”

    If jatropha works it is going to require more water than anticipated.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    Roughly 25% of the US corn crop goes to ethanol, it is subsidized by the tax payer, and the 2007 energy bill mandates that, by 2022, 36 billion gallons per year of biofuel be produced. In 2008 we produced a little more than 10.5 billion gallons per year. It will be a very difficult struggle to disentangle the farmer from his corn ethanol subsidy. It is a very bad practice and we need to switch to advanced cellulosic biofuels as soon as possible. But the advanced biofuels are not commercially ready while corn to ethanol is a well established fuel product and will continue to meet the requirements of the energy bill for many more years to come. By the time the advanced fuels are ready the corn/ethanol industry will be a very large and rich segment of the fuel industry.

  9. Wit's End says:

    The corn/ethanol industry already IS “a very large and rich segment of the fuel industry” – one which requires MASSIVE amounts of petroleum-based, nitrogen fertilizer and, again, nobody is investigating what effects this disruption to the essential nitrogen cycle will be on other vegetation.

    Mandating the use of biofuels without FIRST proving the safety of their emissions is just as disgusting as the government allowing 70,000 industrial chemicals to be used without first testing the safety of any but a measly few hundred.

    Cancer is coming to a member of your family soon, courtesy of the US Government:

  10. “advanced cellulosic biofuels”

    It’s always the _next_ thing which will make biofuels work. I will remain a biofuels skeptic until the feedstocks are specified concretely, and the full environmental footprint of their production is accounted for.

    In the Pacific Northwest, “cellulosic biofuels” are just another excuse for more logging. More logging of forests, which tends to release the carbon already stored, while reducing the ongoing capacity of the forests for biological carbon sequestration.

    Biological carbon sequestration. It’s real, it’s been working for millennia, and we need it. We should be protecting and enhancing it, not freelancing loose ideas around increasing biomass consumption to try maintain the liquid fuel fix.

    Systems thinking, please!

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    Kevin – we don’t know how to fuel some of our forms of transportation other than with liquid fuels. Better, IMHO, to use some sort of grown source to produce that liquid than to continue to dig up sequestered carbon.

    Remember, that carbon that is in the plant was earlier in the sky.

    Personal transportation, that I’m not expecting to stay long on liquid fuels. Electricity is just so much more efficient.

    Once people understand that driving an electric car is like having a $1 a gallon pump at their house I don’t think it will take long to get us out of ICE cars.

  12. substanti8 says:

    There’s also this thing called a bicycle – which happens to be the most energy-efficient means of travel.

    I agree with Kevin, and I have a hard time reading something that has a pitch for smart growth in the third paragraph.

  13. If we really hit the oil peak over the next few years, organizations from airlines to local school districts are going to hit economic survival crises. At that point there will be such a political uproar demanding any kind of liquid fuels, we will see intense political pressure for federal subsidies to build coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid plants, as well as for any kind of biofuels that can be produced in bulk, poor people, forests and topsoil be damned. If we have not developed environmentally sustainable alternatives, we will be washed away in this political tsunami. For ground transportation, certainly the move to electricity needs to happen, but it will take many years to switch out current fleets, so liquid fuel demand will remain. Aviation will not run on electricity, and shipping could be supplemented with high-tech sails, but will still need some measure of liquid fuels. This is why the dismissive and somewhat cynical comments by some of the people above on biofuels are a recipe for defeat. If you say “no” to any kind of biofuels, you are in effect saying yes to very high carbon unconventional fossil fuel alternatives. Have the depth to make distinctions and promote truly sustainable biofuels pathways. And many start in waste streams, which do not compete for land or food. (In fact, a pilot plant generating biofuels and other products attached to a sewage treatment plant in America Falls, Idaho validates the proposition that each and every one of us is a potential source of sustainable biofuels feedstocks.)

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    Patrick #13, I agree. Short term we may be faced with some “lesser evil” choices. Liquid biofuels would seem to less bad than gas from oil sands. Electricity from natural gas would seem to be less bad than electricity from coal.

    Just adding a point. Approximately 50% of all US driving is done in cars which are 5 years old or less. Those people are spending a lot for gas and for them EVs will be very financially attractive. ($1 gas in a 30MPG car. 24,000 miles in a 30MPG car and $4 gas is over $3k a year.)

    If we can find a low environment/food supply impact biofuel for the other 50% of vehicles that might be a good idea while we let them naturally die off.

    We might even do something cute like using switchgrass to give us short term cellulose biofuel and let the switchgrass improve the marginal soil in which it will grow in order to increase our available land for growing food later as populations swell….

  15. Mike #22 says:

    I must point out that efficiency is the only solution that allows people to keep on doing what they want (driving around a lot apparently) while dramatically reducing emissions and correcting our oil import problem.

    Doubling and then doubling again our fleet fuel efficiency fixes everything in the liquid fuels department. We don’t need to turn food into gas–we can export that corn to a hungry world–China for example. We don’t need to hope that cellulosic ethanol can move from research to reality (I am not refering to orange peels here). We don’t need to upset the people who like to fly around by rationing air miles. We win the oil endgame.

    The 2010 VW Polo Bluemotion is getting 60+ mpg. US car companies can do just as well, or build similar performing hybrids.

    Any CO2 benefit from corn ethanol has yet to determined. A recent study from Duke shows (again) net positive CO2 for ethanol

    That being said, I am afraid we are stuck with the ethanol subsidies for a while. Looks like POET may have a solution for the incompatibilty of ethanol with the existing pipeline infrastructure, “This is a big pipe — extending 1,800 miles, crossing seven state lines, carrying 240,000 barrels a day — and it won’t happen without an equally big boost from taxpayers” More subsidies, more land grabs.

  16. Wit's End says:

    Patrick Mazza, #13, if you want to make the realpolitik argument that we will use biofuels – because we can – and peak oil blah blah blah, and national security, and no one should ever be asked to actually conserve…then go ahead. But please, don’t pretend biofuels are “green.” They’re filthy. They are not part of a clean economy.

    It looks like your organizations, “Climate Solutions” is a big promoter of biofuels. Where does “Climate Solutions” obtain funding for its staff and operations?

    Just askin’

  17. UnReal2r says:

    We are on the brink of massive social, political, and economic disruption because irresponsible idiots with a short-term profit motive, and a government that is fueled by campaign graft, don’t factor long-term consequences into their decisions. There is absolutely no compelling reason to believe that bio-fuels will be LESS harmful – environmentally or otherwise – than fossil fuels. To the contrary, and as Wit’s End correctly points out, there is a grow corpus of research suggesting bio-fuels are every bit as harmful as their fossil antecedents. With the possible exception of jet powered flight, we don’t need liquid fuels. We can get by just fine with electricity in virtually every other instance (including, Mr. Mazza, in the HVAC plants of homes, schools, and other buildings).

  18. Wit's End says:

    Hey Jake!?

    Where is your data that emissions from biofuels are green???

    Give me a link or two, please!

  19. substanti8 says:

    Mike wrote:

    “Doubling and then doubling again our fleet fuel efficiency fixes everything in the liquid fuels department.

    But we would also still have an economic model intent on “doubling and then doubling again” the size of the fleet.  Growth will run roughshod over dreams of sustainability.  And there’s also the overlooked problem of Jevons’ paradox.

    Always remember this:

    I = PAT

    Maintaining industrialism and growth is a fool’s errand, because improvements in technology (T) would be forever chasing the tiger’s tail of growth in population (P) and per capita consumption (A) – resulting in no significant reduction in ecological impact (I).

    “Smart growth” is still growth, and the mathematics of the exponential function causes a doubling at a fixed interval.  I’ve seen even intelligent people fail to integrate that fact into their political ideology.  Or as Saint Albert has said for years:

    “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

    Patrick Mazza wrote:

    “Have the depth to make distinctions and promote truly sustainable biofuels pathways.”

    Please have the depth to understand that Industrialism 2.0 (with its intrinsic growth imperative) would only postpone the day of reckoning and thereby increase the ultimate level of suffering.  I would like to see you talking about reducing population and affluence.

    If we are going to resign ourselves to coddling the narcissistic screams (“political uproar”) of a generation addicted to high speed with liquid fuels, then we might as well expect the relatively imminent termination of this species.  I would rather focus on demanding more maturity from people.  I find the real cynicism to be the proposition that we must acquiesce to the self-centered ignorance of a typical American suburbanite, with the implicit premise that a “new man” is impossible, so dreams of true “sustainability” must be deferred.

    We need more systems thinking – especially about economic systems.

  20. Scatter says:

    I strongly feel that the limited supply of good quality (low life cycle carbon) biofuels are wasted on the automotive sector where there are many options to reduce carbon that haven’t yet been grasped.

    Would it not be better to make high quality biofuels and ringfence them for sectors where carbon reduction is much harder i.e. long haul aviation?

    Aircraft technology is only improving very slowly and some progress could be made on tightening up load factors through fiscal measures, but other than that, there isn’t a great deal that can be done in that sector.

  21. Wit's End says:

    substanti8, I, mired in my shallow cynicism, salute you.

    Also, at the risk of sounding really ancient, I would like to say that when I was growing up, it was accepted that the only people who flew in airplanes (other than the military) were either Presidents, Hollywood stars, or very wealthy. It was okay!

  22. Bob Wallace says:

    “I would rather focus on demanding more maturity from people. I find the real cynicism to be the proposition that we must acquiesce to the self-centered ignorance of a typical American suburbanite, with the implicit premise that a “new man” is impossible, so dreams of true “sustainability” must be deferred.”

    Good luck with that. If you think that has the chance of a snowflake in hell then I’d suggest you need to get out in the world a bit more. Get away from your same-thinking social group and talk to a bunch of different people. Suggest to them that they move into multi-story apartment buildings in dense urban settings and walk/bike everywhere they want to do.

    They’ll probably tell you nicely to stuff it. But that’s what they will tell you. To expect humanity to shift to an ecologically appropriate lifestyle in the next 20 years if it involves significant personal cost, effort or decrease in lifestyle is totally unrealistic.

    The only way I see us getting ourselves out of this mess is to use techniques which do not significantly “bother” the vast majority of people.

    We already know how to get ourselves off of coal. We have the technology to produce our power for roughly the same price with renewables. We know that wind brings down consumer utility costs. And if the price does go up a small amount we can keep the monthly household electricity bill steady by continuing to roll out more efficient electronics and appliances.

    We can reduce our use of petroleum by requiring higher fuel mileages and giving people more and better public transportation options. And by raising our mileage requirements for new vehicles.

    We can get ourselves off of petroleum totally for most ground transportation with electric vehicles.

    We can do all of this stuff and not cause the average person discomfort nor require them to make major changes in their lives. That will work. Asking everyone to become a twenty-something bike riding single will not.

    The kind of change that you want is long term and very difficult. It has a very low probability of being a successful route for saving our butts….

  23. Mike #22 says:

    Substanti8, I am not advocating more vehicles although that is inevitable, nor am I pleased by the types of vehicles we have today and the pollutions oozing off them.

    Technology will always be a part of human civilization. The question is how to fit the gadgets into a healthy biosphere–how to tame that technology. We have really screwed up so far. Switching the fleet over to 60+ mpg is a step. Making the vehicles recyclable and building them in zero discharge plants is another. Manufacturing them with clean energy, and running them on clean electricity is another. Reworking the road system to correct environmental impacts like storm water runoff is another. Finding tire materials and paving materials that are not a constant low level source of environmental pollution is another (Where does all the tire rubber and asphalt go? Into the air and into the watersheds). Some simple roadside monitors would be nice to signal vehicles of wildlife crossing, peds, and cyclists–and fine motorists who do not share the road.

    That is one description of a near zero impact people mover system for people. From the technology side, I can’t see any obstacles to making ALL our gadgets, even those (currently very wasteful, high environmental cost) suburban homes fit inside a recovering biosphere (except for things like space tourism which are clearly crazy)(not advocating building any new homes or new roads–but that will happen also). Picture near zero impact homes, ringed by gardens, embedded in native greenways. I am clueless as to why this hasn’t happened already–why we didn’t transition to permaculture 20, 30 or even a 100 years ago. That is why I read CP and other sites, trying to bridge my mental gaps. I am hopeful that the step change in information flow created by the internet will enable progress.

    Although not the full solution, it is critically important to point out just how easy it would be to cut fossil fuel use on the roads by >50% (mpg upgrades and less unplanned driving) and overall energy use in our buildings by >50% (lighting, appliances, HVAC, insulation, electronics, behavior). With ready-now technology, we can stop oil imports, stop unconventional liquids, and stop coal mining. Unlike most people around CP, I do not think this will be hard to do at all (might help if we cut the military budget by a hundred billion or so–how many nuclear submarines do we really need…). What is so hard about making 60+ mpg vehicles on lines that now make SUVs? Building some big solar thermal and a new super grid laid out on the existing ROWs?

    Later in this decade, Global Warming will be obvious to all, scary, and finally real enough to motivate people to start thinking about a finite planet. Agreed, any trajectory that continues to degrade the finite biosphere eventually ends in environmental collapse. Systems thinking is needed across all of our technology and every place civilization intersects with the biosphere.