Earth Day: 3 Big Reads for a Sustainable BioFuture

EarthWant to help Mother Earth? Get on your backside and master these key reports. 

If you’ve not put it in your calendar, Earth Day is this week, April 22nd to be exact. On the original Earth Day, in 1970, hundreds of thousands of people gathered around the world, to demonstrate support for greener policies with respect to industrial development and, in essence, sustainability.

That effort has already changed the world — not only as expressed in corporate sustainability targets — but in the proliferation of an entire generation of sustainable products, as The Digest annually demonstrates at ABLC Next in San Francisco, with the NEXT Store.

Accordingly, the focus for Earth Day ought to be on demonstration of general goodwill — bottom line, we get it. What the world needs are sustainable, affordable, reliable, available technologies to meet those understood expectations for a more sustainable future. Which means that Earth Day ought to be less about demonstrating desire as understanding the options. And that means doing some homework.

Three reports have arrived this week that help – especially in the corner of sustainability relating to biobased energy, fuels and products. One led out of Brazil, tapping the efforts of 137 researchers at 82 institutions in 24 countries that documents and analyzes impacts, benefits and constraints related to the global expansion of bioenergy. Peer reviewed data and scientific evidence from more than 2,000 sources was included.

And, two from the US, the Energy Information Administration’s much-awaited Annual Energy Outlook, which takes us through 2040. And, the latest update from the US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office to its multi-year plan, which offers some tempting specific timelines and performance targets.

Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps

The most comprehensive report on bioenergy ever issued?

The SCOPE Bioenergy & Sustainability Report is the collective effort of 137 researchers at 82 institutions in 24 countries that documents and analyzes impacts, benefits and constraints related to the global expansion of bioenergy. Peer reviewed data and scientific evidence from more than 2,000 sources were used to evaluate the documented and predicted effects of expansion of bioenergy production and use on energy security, food security, environmental and climate security, sustainable development and innovation.

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SCOPE was established by the United Nations International Council for Science in 1969 as an interdisciplinary body of natural science expertise that addresses constraints of society on the environment as well as the human response to environmental issues.

The resulting report Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps is now available. You can download it here.

The authors affirm that sufficient land is available worldwide for expansion of biomass cultivation, that most of this land is in Latin America and Africa, and that the use of these areas for bioenergy production would not represent a threat to food security and biodiversity under certain conditions. Moreover, they present evidence that soil improvement technologies, production chain integration and use of bioenergy byproducts in poor rural areas could boost economic performance, enhance food quality, reduce pollution and create jobs.

Another conclusion reached by the authors is that bioenergy production systems based on sustainable practices can help to offset greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land use changes or loss of biodiversity. These technologies and procedures include combinations of different feedstocks, use of co-products, integration of bioenergy with agriculture, pasture intensification, agro-ecological zoning, landscape- level planning, improving yields, and other land management practices adapted to local conditions.

Reaction from stakeholders

Jesper Kløverpris, senior sustainability researcher with Novozymes

“This is the ultimate go-to source on bioenergy. It is comprehensive and inter-disciplinary expert work, extensively reviewed, addressing basically all aspects of sustainability. It refutes common misconceptions and shows how bioenergy can provide major benefits for the environment and support food and energy security. Hopefully, this will help to ensure the political support and frameworks necessary to unleash the full potential of sustainable bioenergy.”

Keith Kline of ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division contributed to a chapter on land use for the UN Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) Bioenergy and Sustainability Report. “Misconceptions about the availability of land needed for growing food crops and about the opportunities and synergies possible from combined production systems could undermine investment in a key strategy for climate change mitigation,” Kline said.

The land use chapter explores the subject of biomass and food crop production, concluding that the two can co-exist or be complementary. Projected land demands for biofuel production fall well within conservative estimates of current and future land availability, and integrated systems for food and energy production can improve food security.

Said Kline, “Biomass production not only has potential to make increasingly meaningful contributions to energy supply but can also support practices to improve management of soils, forests and croplands that are essential for increased mitigation of, and resilience to, impacts of climate change over time.”

Virginia Dale, a Corporate Fellow researcher also in ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division, co-authored a chapter on biodiversity and ecosystem services. “Deploying biofuels in a manner to reduce effects on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services can be done with planning, monitoring and appropriate governance,” Dale said.

“Negative effects of biofuels can be avoided or reduced by conservation of priority biodiversity areas, recognizing the context-specific effects of biofuels, and adopting location-specific management of production systems. Developing those management strategies takes time and effort,” she said.

The US Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Outlook

Projections in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015 focus on the factors expected to shape U.S. energy markets through 2040. The projections provide a basis for examination and discussion of energy market trends and serve as a starting point for analysis of potential changes in U.S. energy policies, rules, and regulations, as well as the potential role of advanced technologies.

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You can download it here.

Key results:

• The future path of crude oil and natural gas prices can vary substantially, depending on assumptions about the size of global and domestic resources, demand for petroleum products and natural gas (particularly in non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (non-OECD) countries), levels of production, and supplies of other fuels. AEO2015 considers these factors in examining alternative price and resource availability cases.

• Growth in U.S. energy production—led by crude oil and natural gas—and only modest growth in demand reduces U.S. reliance on imported energy supplies. Energy imports and exports come into balance in the United States starting in 2028 in the AEO2015 Reference case and in 2019 in the High Oil Price and High Oil and Gas Resource cases. Natural gas is the dominant U.S. energy export, while liquid fuels continue to be imported.

• Through 2020, strong growth in domestic crude oil production from tight formations leads to a decline in net petroleum imports and growth in net petroleum product exports in all AEO2015 cases. In the High Oil and Gas Resource case, increased crude production before 2020 results in increased processed condensate exports. Slowing growth in domestic production after 2020 is offset by increased vehicle fuel economy standards that limit growth in domestic demand. The net import share of crude oil and petroleum products supplied falls from 33% of total supply in 2013 to 17% of total supply in 2040 in the Reference case. The United States becomes a net exporter of petroleum and other liquids after 2020 in the High Oil Price and High Oil and Gas Resource cases because of greater U.S. crude oil production.

• Improved efficiency in the end-use sectors and a shift away from more carbon-intensive fuels help to stabilize U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which remain below the 2005 level through 2040.

The Outlook and biofuels

The report itself did not revise in any granular detail expected changes in the biofuels market. The one change of note was that the Outlook “revised the renewable fuels standard mandate levels for biomass-based diesel to better match expected production capabilities.” Bottom line, way more biodiesel capacity is available compared to expected levels in the original Renewable Fuel Standard targets.

In general, the Outlook focused, as far as transportation fuels, on mapping the impact of increasing tight oil production and the impact of higher vehicle engine efficiency standards, in bringing down projected net oil imports to 17% from 33% by 2040.

The US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office – Multi-Year Program Plan, 2015 Update

This Multi-Year Program Plan sets forth the goals and structure of the Bioenergy Technologies Office. It identifies the research, development, demonstration, and deployment activities the Office will focus on over the next five years and outlines why these activities are important to meeting the energy and sustainability challenges facing the nation. This MYPP is intended for use as an operational guide to help the Office manage and coordinate its activities, as well as a resource to help communicate its mission and goals to stakeholders and the public.

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You can download it here.

The most important aspect of the Plan are the specific technology development goals, which fall into 7 areas and are 17 in total. 5 can be considered “softer targets” rating to communications and analysis. One is a hangover target from 2014, one is a look-back to validate the DOE’s progress in cellulosic ethanol, and one sustainability tatget is a duplicate of a conversion goal.  Leaving 9 hard targets, of which three are coming up in 2017, and these relate to:

1. Validate a feedstock system below $80/ton

2. Find viable criteria by which industry could access 245 million dry tons of biomass per year.

3. Validate a hydrocarbon technology (drop-in fuels) meeting 50% GHG cut and $3/gallon price target.

Here are the goals in detail.

Terrestrial Feedstocks Supply and Logistics R&D 

• By 2017, validate efficient, low-cost, and sustainable feedstock supply and logistics systems that can deliver feedstock to the conversion reactor throat at required conversion process in-feed specifications, at or below $80/dry ton ($2011) (including grower payment/stumpage fee and logistics cost).

• By 2017, establish geographic, economic, quality, and environmental criteria under which the industry could operate at 245 million dry ton per year scale (excluding biopower).

• By 2022, develop and validate feedstock supply and logistics systems that can economically and sustainably supply 285 million dry tons per year at a delivered cost of $80/dry ton to support a biorefining industry (i.e., multiple biorefineries) utilizing a diversity of biomass resources.

Algal Feedstocks R&D 

• By 2022, demonstrate technologies to produce sustainable algal biofuel intermediate feedstocks that perform reliably in conversion processes to yield renewable diesel, jet, and gasoline fuels in support of the Office’s $3/GGE advanced biofuels goal.

Conversion R&D 

• By 2017, validate an nth plant modeled minimum fuel selling price (MFSP) of $3/GGE ($2011) via a conversion pathway to hydrocarbon biofuel with GHG emissions reduction of 50% or more compared to petroleum-derived fuel.

• By 2022, validate an nth plant modeled MFSP of $3/GGE ($2011) for two additional conversion pathways to hydrocarbon biofuel with GHG emissions reduction of 50% or more compared to petroleum-derived fuel.

Demonstration and Market Transformation 

• By 2014, validate three cellulosic ethanol or bioproduct manufacturing processes at pioneer scale.

• By 2017, validate a mature technology modeled cost of cellulosic ethanol production, based on actual integrated biorefinery performance data, and compare to the target of $2.15/gallon ethanol ($2007).

• By 2027, validate a mature technology modeled cost of infrastructure-compatible hydrocarbon biofuel production, based on actual integrated biorefinery performance data, and compare to the target of $3/GGE ($2011).

Sustainability 

• By 2017, identify conditions under which at least one technology pathway for hydrocarbon biofuel production, validated above R&D scale at a mature modeled price of $3/GGE, reduces GHG emissions by 50% or more compared to petroleum fuel, and meets targets for consumptive water use, wastewater, and air emissions.

• By 2022, validate landscape design approaches for two bioenergy systems that, when compared to conventional agricultural and forestry production and logistics systems, increase land-use efficiency and maintain ecosystem and social benefits, including biodiversity and food, feed, and fiber production

• By 2022, evaluate environmental and socioeconomic indicators across the supply chain for three cellulosic and algal bioenergy production. systems to validate GHG reduction of at least 50% compared to petroleum, socioeconomic benefits including job creation, water consumption equal to or less than petroleum per unit fuel produced, and wastewater and air emissions that meet federal regulations.

Strategic Analysis 

• Ensure high-quality, consistent, reproducible, peer-reviewed analyses.

• Develop and maintain analytical tools, models, methods, and datasets to advance the understanding of bioenergy and its related impacts.

• Convey the results of analytical activities to a wide audience, including DOE management, Congress, the White House, industry, other researchers, other agencies, and the general public.

Strategic Communications 

• Increase awareness of and support for the Office’s advanced biomass RD&D and technical accomplishments, highlighting their role in achieving national renewable energy goals.

• Educate audiences about the environmental, economic, and social benefits of biomass as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, as well as the potential for advanced biofuels to displace petroleum-based transportation fuels.

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