More than 80 percent of biodiesel is made from vegetable oil (the rest is mostly animal fats). The soybean and canola oil that make up the majority of biodiesel is basically the same as the cooking oil you buy at the grocery store, while the corn and used cooking oils are inedible varieties generally used for animal feed and other purposes.
Using more oils and fats for fuel instead of food and animal feed has consequences for competing users of these products and for the global agricultural system. Of particular importance from a climate perspective is the relationship between rising biodiesel use in the United States and palm oil expansion in Southeast Asia, which is a major driver of deforestation and global warming pollution.
Figure 1 shows that palm oil itself is not a significant direct source of US biodiesel production. But there are important indirect links between how much biodiesel we use in the US and how quickly palm oil plantations expand in Indonesia or Malaysia. These connections can be understood by comparing the rise of biodiesel with ethanol, and by examining the sources of biodiesel one at a time.
Vegetable oils and animal fats are converted into biodiesel via a chemical process called transesterification, after which they’re blended with diesel and used in trucks. Transesterification sounds complicated, but it is a pretty simple chemical reaction (you can actually make biodiesel in your garage); compared with ethanol, the biodiesel production process takes less energy and has lower direct emissions.
The main source of emissions for biodiesel comes from the vegetable oils and fats it is made out of, and not the process of converting them to fuel.
Although ethanol production is much larger, biodiesel has grown more quickly since 2010, more than tripling between 2010 and 2015:
Biodiesel is most often sold as a blend of up to 5 percent biodiesel mixed with petroleum diesel. This is labeled as ordinary diesel fuel consistent with the official specifications. Some trucks can use up to a 20 percent biodiesel blend, but distribution challenges associated with marketing different blends for different vehicles have limited the adoption of these higher blends.
Today, biodiesel accounts for about 3 percent of the diesel fuel sold. For comparison, 10 percent ethanol is blended into most of the gasoline sold today.
While biodiesel is a relatively small share of diesel fuel, it has a large footprint in agricultural markets. The fact that ethanol consumes about 40 percent of U.S. corn is much publicized by ethanol critics, but less attention has been paid to the growing share of soybean oil being made into biodiesel, now about 25 percent.
One reason for the different level of publicity is that expanded demand for corn to make ethanol increases input costs for meat producers, who have been among the loudest and most persistent ethanol critics. But counterintuitively, increased demand for soybean oil actually makes input costs cheaper for the meat industry. To understand this mystery, read on!
Soybeans are an interesting crop, connected to their sister crop corn in complex ways in the agriculture, food and fuel system. While you may occasionally encounter soybeans in their immature form as edamame, the majority of soybeans are crushed to make soybean oil and a high protein meal that is mixed with corn in animal feed.
Soybean oil accounts for only 40 percent of the value of the soybeans, so the economics of soybean production depend jointly on the oil and the meal. As you would expect, increased demand for soybean biodiesel will raise demand and prices for soybean oil, but meal goes the other direction. As more soybeans are crushed to supply oil, the price of soybean meal will fall as increased production meets unchanged demand.
Since soybean prices depend on the sum of oil and meal prices, the net result is that soybean prices are only weakly linked to soybean oil prices. In a specific example worked out and explained in detail here, a 10 percent increase in soybean oil prices led to a 4 percent decrease in soybean meal prices and less than a 2 percent increase in soybean prices. So the impact of soy biodiesel on food prices is mixed, increasing the cost of vegetable oil, but decreasing the cost of animal feed.
But while soybean production is not very responsive to soybean oil prices, other vegetable oils are more responsive, particularly canola and palm oil, which have a higher share of their value derived from vegetable oil. For this reason, increased use of soybean oil to make biodiesel does not lead to much increased production of soybeans, but primarily leads to substitutions among vegetable oils and ultimately more vegetable oil imports.
The substitution of imports for soybean oil used as biodiesel is clearly illustrated in recent agricultural statistics. Starting in about 2003, there was a relatively sudden increase in the use of soybean oil for biodiesel. This increase did not result in an associated jump in soybean oil production, which pretty much stayed on its previous trend, driven by steady growth in demand for protein meal.
Instead, as US soybean biodiesel production grew, domestic consumption of soybean oil for food and other uses fell. Soybean oil use for food and other uses was replaced by imports of other oils, primarily canola and palm oil. This shows up quite clearly in the chart below, which compares the rising use of soybean oil for biodiesel to increased imports of palm, canola and other oils.
It is clear from the data that expanded use of soybean oil to make biodiesel was matched by growing volumes of imported vegetable oil, but the question of causality is a little trickier. That is because in the same timeframe that soy biodiesel consumption was growing, concern about the health impact of trans fats, mostly hydrogenated soybean oil, led to decreased consumption of trans fats, which were replaced in Oreos and many other prepared foods with other oils.
Some of the hydrogenated soybean oil was replaced with palm oil because of its similar properties. In this telling of the biodiesel story, biodiesel expansion is not the cause of increased imports. Rather, rising imports of palm and other oils were caused by changes in US food preferences attributable to health concerns; expanded production of soybean biodiesel was an outlet for the unwanted soybean oil, providing a substitute market while also displacing fossil fuel use and lowering the cost of soy meal for meat producers.
This optimistic interpretation is not implausible, but it is certainly incomplete. Vegetable oils are traded in a global marketplace, where demand for vegetable oil has been growing steadily. If the soybean oil no longer consumed as hydrogenated oil had been exported (either as vegetable oil or as whole soybeans) it would have found a market among the major vegetable oil importers. Vegetable oils are highly substitutable in many markets, and greater availability of soybean oil would have displaced some of the growing demand for palm oil.
Precisely quantifying these relationships is tricky, but given the link between palm oil expansion and deforestation, this alternative explanation paints a less optimistic picture of the climate impact of soybean biodiesel expansion in the last few years.
Regardless of whether you assign causality to falling demand for trans fats or rising demand for biodiesel, that chapter has come to a close. The shift away from hydrogenated soybean oil is now essentially complete; we should not expect a continued surplus of soybean oil.
In fact, the soybean industry is hard at work developing new technologies to regain lost market share in food markets. To the extent they succeed, it will further increase demand for soybean oil and lead to further substitution by palm and other oils.
The point is that increased use of soybean oil-based biodiesel in the US has a limited impact on soybean production, which is primarily determined by demand for protein meal. Instead, the main effect is to tilt the balance of demand in favor of vegetable oils versus protein meal, which favors sources like palm and canola. Canadian canola oil may supply some of this additional demand, but palm oil is the least expensive, fastest growing source of vegetable oil on the global market, and most likely to fill the void left by US soybean oil being used for fuel.
While the majority of biodiesel is made from the same vegetable oil used for cooking, about 40 percent is made from inedible and recycled oils and fats that are not used directly as human food. This share has stayed fairly constant even as biodiesel production has increased.
Every schoolchild knows that recycling is good for the environment, and so increased use of used cooking oil and other recycled sources to make biodiesel is a feel-good story and gets a lot of attention. But like many stories we tell children, the reality is a little more complex.
It turns out that recycled oils and fats used to make biodiesel are not a free lunch for the environment after all. That’s because for the most part, these oils and other fats are not being diverted from landfills like egg cartons used for art projects. There are existing uses for these resources, including livestock feed, pet food, and to make soaps and detergents. If used cooking oil that was feeding livestock is diverted to fuel, the livestock will have to eat something else instead.
There are certainly some efficiency gains to using a lower value feedstock instead of food grade vegetable oil to make fuel, so while these recycled fuels are not a free lunch, they are certainly a discounted lunch. Determining exactly how much of a discount is tricky, and requires lifecycle analysis to figure out the indirect impact by estimating the replacements in animal feed and other existing markets. But ignoring the need to replace these products leads to unrealistically optimistic environmental assessments.
Another fast growing source of biodiesel is inedible corn oil produced as a byproduct of corn ethanol. Corn oil has historically been more expensive than soybean oil, and thus not an attractive source of biodiesel. But over the last few years, a new source of corn oil emerged that was competitively priced.
The corn ethanol boom of 2005 to 2010 saw a huge increase in production of distillers’ grains, an animal feed co-product of ethanol production that is left behind once the corn starch is made into ethanol. Ethanol producers learned that they could extract corn oil from the distillers’ grains, reducing the fat content of the animal feed in the process.
This distillers’ corn oil smells like a brewery and is not sold for human consumption, but it works for biodiesel and animal feed and sells at a significant discount to edible corn oil. Removing a portion of the oil from distillers’ grains of animal feed reduces its caloric content, but it does not reduce its value significantly. So this approach is quite profitable, and most ethanol producers adopted it.
Biodiesel produced from distillers’ corn oil grew by about ten times from 2010 to 2013, but leveled off thereafter. Corn oil associated with distillers grains is limited by corn ethanol production, and while some further shifting of oil from feed to fuel markets is possible, the increase associated with the ethanol boom is unlikely to be repeated, and is not the basis for a sustainable trend into the future.
One well known source of environmentally-friendly biodiesel is used cooking oil, which allegedly makes your old diesel car exhaust smell like French fries. Together with distillers’ corn oil, used cooking oil (also called yellow grease) has accounted for most of the growth of biodiesel from recycled oils and fats.
But while higher prices for used cooking oil has increased collection somewhat, most of the large sources of used cooking oil were already being collected. Increased demand for waste oil does not increase supply of used cooking oil, since this is a waste product whose quantity is set by demand for corn chips or French fries.
For the last few years, overall production of used cooking oil has been basically steady while biodiesel use grew from a small share to consuming 60% of domestic used cooking oil in 2015. The increase came mostly from reducing exports rather than increasing diversion from waste streams.
Even if 100% of our remaining exports are made into biodiesel, it would increase biodiesel production by just about 5%, and the current importers would have to look elsewhere to replace the lost oil. So there is not much more growth coming.
I’ve walked you through the major domestic sources of biodiesel, qualitatively highlighting the limitations to domestic sources of biodiesel. Last year we commissioned Professor Wade Brorsen at Oklahoma State University to do a quantitative projection, and he determined that 29 million gallons per year of growth would be reasonable from domestic sources.
Twenty-nine million gallons sounds like a lot, and indeed it is enough to fill an additional 44 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. But it amounts to less than 2% growth a year in biodiesel production, which is itself a small share of diesel production.
If biodiesel production grows faster than this rate it is likely to be either imported, produced with imported sources of oil, or produced by bidding away existing sources of oil from other users, who will in turn be forced to switch to imports.
The potential for significant and sustainable growth in domestic biofuel production depends upon moving beyond food-based fuels made from vegetable oil or corn starch and turning instead to biomass resources. These resources have the potential for significant—but by no means limitless—expansion as the technology to convert them to cellulosic fuels scales up.
The potential and implications of making ethanol from biomass is discussed at length in Chapter 3 of our recent report, Fueling a Clean Transportation Future. And as cellulosic ethanol technology matures, different biological or chemical processes can make the same resources into cellulosic diesel, jet fuel or other fuels or products as well.
Talking about government regulations is a good way to put people to sleep (at least my wife), so I saved this little lullaby for the finale. Each year, the EPA must put forth specific regulations to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which Congress passed in 2005 and was amended in 2007. In recent years, this has gotten tricky, as tradeoffs and constraints in the fuel system make realizing Congress’ goals complicated.
Last year the EPA made a major overhaul of its approach to the RFS, which basically put the policy back on track. This year they are sticking quite close to that approach (see this summary for details), which will help build stability and predictability for a policy that has been short of both.
For biodiesel, the EPA has proposed an increase of 100 million gallons, from 2 billion gallons a year to 2.1 billion gallons, the same increase they proposed last year.
Not surprisingly, the biodiesel industry has a more bullish view, and argues that EPA should expand mandates for bio-based diesel by 5 times as much, to 2.5 billion gallons.
This is 17 times more than Professor Brorsen found could be supported by domestic sources of oils and fats. Growth rates this far in excess of domestic resources will inevitably lead to much greater reliance on imports of either biodiesel or oils and fats to replace domestic sources bid away from existing users. The 500-million-gallon a year increase the industry seeks is unsustainable, and would set the industry up for a crash. It would also create a huge hole in the global vegetable oil market which would largely be filled by palm oil expansion.
To provide stable support for the biodiesel industry and to avoid unintended problems across the globe, it is important that policy support for biodiesel growth is consistent with the growth in the underlying sources of oils and fats. The EPA should scale back its proposal in light of these constraints.]]>
This should be achievable, but there’s one sector in the U.S. that is increasing its CO2 emissions at a rapid pace—trucking. Currently, trucks move 72% of the tonnage and 70% of the goods’ value nationwide. By 2050, truck travel is expected to increase by 80% nationally and by 50% in California. Given current trends, the Energy Information Administration projects trucks will account for a large and growing share of freight transport energy use (Figure 1) and CO2 emissions through 2040.
But this CO2 future does not have to happen—there are a range of measures that can be taken to dramatically cut truck CO2 emissions. One is fuel economy improvements, and this is being tackled via the federal government’s truck fuel economy standards program, with measures nearly set through 2027. That is great news, but it’s not enough—it will probably keep truck CO2 emissions at a fairly constant level rather than reducing them.
Another measure is to replace fossil diesel and natural gas with renewable fuels. Low carbon diesel alternatives (e.g. made from waste oils or natural gas captured from landfills and waste water treatment facilities) could make a significant contribution to cutting carbon emissions from trucks. But, competition for these fuels from hard-to-electrify sectors like aviation and limitations on the amount of low carbon renewable feedstocks will constrain their overall impact.
Therefore, to go for deep CO2 reductions from trucks, we will very likely also need very low CO2 emission technologies—namely fuel cell and battery electric vehicles, both of which are “ZEVs” – zero emission vehicles. The only CO2 they will emit is from upstream processes to produce the fuel, and these are progressing towards very low CO2 emissions over time. ZEV trucks can also help tackle a related problem—air pollution. These vehicles do not emit any pollutants at the tailpipe, a huge co-benefit, particularly in polluted areas such as around Los Angeles.
But we have a problem: there are almost no ZEV trucks on the nation’s roads at this point. Why not? An obvious reason is that the key technologies (e.g. batteries and hydrogen/fuel cell systems) are new and more expensive.
Another issue is the “range problem.” Trucks often need to drive long distances in a day, and battery systems typically do not have sufficient energy density to meet the needs of high-mileage trucking, particularly given their long recharge times. Fuel cell trucks can typically travel farther and refuel much faster (like diesel trucks), but need hydrogen fuel, which is not easily available in many locations, another major challenge.
But shoots of grass are emerging in the cracks, as some types of trucks can more easily run on batteries than others. For example urban delivery trucks, large refuse collection trucks, and drayage trucks which operate at ports often have a daily use pattern that can fit with a battery system, and some electric trucks are appearing in these markets. Battery costs for cars have been dropping rapidly, and this also helps to lower battery costs for other vehicle types—so electric truck costs are declining even if very few are being built today.
Other types of trucks that “return to base” once or twice per day can operate on hydrogen that is dispensed at that base—they don’t need a widespread refueling infrastructure. A few hydrogen trucks and bus projects are underway around the country. AC Transit, located in Oakland, California, has been operating fuel cell buses for ten years, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently proposed a very large demonstration program for ZEV trucks and buses at California ports and in disadvantaged communities across the state.
Another challenge will be “scale-up”—how do we get from a few promising applications and projects to much more widespread use of these technologies? The needed rate of scale up is one question; we produced a white paper on this topic in 2015 that shows that a major transition to ZEV trucks needs to begin fairly soon if it is to be completed by 2050. As shown in the figure below, even with a very rapid transition, it takes a long time to go from niche markets to dominating the large markets, so each year counts.
In our paper (and in the figure to the right) we also show that widespread use of advanced biofuels in conventional trucks could really help, since some types of biofuels do not require changing truck technologies—a big plus. But drop-in diesel replacement biofuels require advanced technologies. Producing high volumes of these biofuels from sustainable feedstocks resulting in low greenhouse gas emissions will be a significant challenge.
So, what’s to be done? There are in fact a number of things that our local, state and federal governments can do to get moving on a transition to ZEV trucks:
In this process, there is an important “virtuous circle” we can benefit from: the more we produce and use these vehicles, the better and cheaper they will become. Governments have a critical role to play to help the truck manufacturing industry and truck purchasers/operators to get onto that circle. This can be done, for example, with price incentives to produce and purchase these technologies, perhaps starting with the applications that make the most sense.
Overall the outlook is bright for moving to very low emissions trucking in the U.S. We have several ways to do it and we are getting some initial experience in some “pioneer” applications. But we have to take up the challenge to move this along faster, and create a sense of urgency that may be lacking today on many fronts. 2050 is just around the corner…
Dr. Lewis Fulton has worked internationally in the field of transport/energy/environment analysis and policy development for over 25 years. He is Co-Director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS) program within the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. There he leads a range of research activities around new vehicle technologies and new fuels. He is also a lead author on the recent IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Mitigation (“Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change”, transport chapter).
Dr. Marshall Miller received his B.S.E. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. After a postdoc at the University of Chicago, he joined the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. For over 20 years he has worked on advanced fuels and technologies to increase vehicle fuel economy and reduce vehicle criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases. Dr. Miller runs a laboratory on campus where he studies advanced batteries and ultracapacitors for use in electric and hybrid vehicles.]]>
My new report, Fueling a Clean Transportation Future, released today, takes a broad view of how transportation fuels are changing. I delve deep into the changing sources of oil used to make gasoline and the growing negative consequences for the climate; the way ethanol is made today, and the prospects to make it cleaner in future; and the growing importance of electricity as a transportation fuel, and what it will take to realize the full climate benefits of this important technology.
Here are a few key findings about gasoline that may surprise you. Read the whole report to learn more.
Featured photo: Richard Masoner]]>
Even better news is that the report, Half the Oil: Pathways to Reduce Petroleum Use on the West Coast, shows the main measures to reduce petroleum use are the same ones we have now, but accelerated and intensified. These include better vehicle efficiency, more use of alternative fuels- especially electric vehicles- and better local transportation planning and transit options.
We don’t need a lot of fancy new technologies or breakthrough inventions to dramatically reduce our need for oil, not to mention help decarbonize our transportation sector. California has a head-start on this progress, with policies today that when fully implemented will reduce petroleum use 24%. Existing measures in Washington and Oregon already reduce petroleum use by 8% by 2030, so all three states have a strong start.
The analysis showing that we can cut petroleum reduction in half in a region of almost 50 million people puts the lie to oil industry claims that it can’t be done.
Last year when California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin De León introduced legislation (attempting to codify an administrative goal set by Governor Jerry Brown) that would reduce in-state petroleum consumption by half by 2030, the oil industry responded by saying, “A mandate to reduce petroleum consumption by 50 percent is an impossibly unrealistic goal.” (Western States Petroleum Association press release, February 10, 2015)
The oil industry then launched a huge campaign of misdirection, claiming that reducing oil use 50% would have to be accomplished by restricting driving, rationing gasoline, imposing penalties on vans and SUVs—anything they could think of. Given the decades of deception that UCS and others have uncovered on the part of oil companies such as ExxonMobil, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that scare tactics were used to score a win rather than facts and data.
But the data bears us out—half the oil is within our grasp. What we need now is continued strong leadership from the governors in all three states and beyond, who can seize opportunities this year and in coming years to promote, defend, and strengthen policies that help us reduce oil use. We also need not just strong and vocal public support for strong state and federal policies, but demand for very low-carbon transportation products and services- electric vehicles, very low-carbon liquid fuels, improved public transportation, and increased fuel efficiency among other things.
At a time when oil prices have collapsed worldwide, some may think it harder than ever to generate support for low-carbon transportation. But if recent history is any guide, the economic circumstances that are driving prices down will be temporary.
And it’s not just the economy that may change things—recent history also shows that we are only a single extreme weather event, geopolitical conflict, refinery explosion, or other catastrophe away from yet another spike in oil prices. And then of course there are the costs of dirty air, polluted waterways, respiratory disease and cancer, and increasingly disruptive extreme weather events spurred by global warming. The oil industry succeeded temporarily last year in pushing back California’s first attempt to codify a goal to halve our oil use. But the case for not only why we should, but how we could, achieve half the oil is getting ever stronger and more self-evident.
We have a roadmap to a better way—we should follow it.
The ad ends with the actors stating that they are “voting for American energy” and are “energy voters”—implying that voters interested in energy security and economic prosperity are inherently pro-oil and natural gas. API’s assumptions and implications, however, are rapidly becoming outdated and I hope that this year’s election season will present a new kind of energy voter—the renewable energy voter.
Absolutely nobody (seriously N.O.B.O.D.Y) would ever seek to stymie jobs, opportunity, and economic growth “for our children and our grandchildren.” But, the suggestion that our energy security and job opportunities will be primarily and inextricably linked to fossil fuels such as oil and NG for generations to come is both short-sighted and dishonest; and in the context of global climate realities, it’s offensive. Luckily, our national discussion on energy security is evolving as more and more renewables achieve parity to fossil fuels. API’s “Vote4Energy” campaign, with its cheap nationalistic framing and reckless environmental disregard, may not get the same mileage during this election cycle, and it may, in fact, uncover that American energy voters are actually becoming clean energy voters. Although API is all-in on dirty energy, if the American public begins to see viable choices between clean versus dirty, clean wins and its game over for API. Perhaps this is the reason API left out any substantive discussion of renewables or energy efficiency in its annual energy outlook.
NOAA has concluded that 2015 was second hottest year on record, just behind 2014—the hottest year in modern record. In fact, 8 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred during the last decade. This is not breaking news to most Americans because it has become nearly impossible to turn on the news without hearing more about hotter seasons, stronger storms, melting ice, and rising tides.
Ironically, the venue that acquainted me with API’s latest campaign, a presidential debate, happens to be the only sanctuary where issues of energy security and climate change are sufficiently severed so as to allow candidates to pay lip-service to fossil fuels without having to acknowledge the very real climate implications associated with burning them. But, much to the chagrin of API, energy-climate disassociation is far less prevalent among everyday Americans than presidential candidates.
It’s going to be a bad day for API when it realizes that energy voters have become renewable energy voters since it depends on backwards-minded dirty energy support to survive; such support is truly a finite and diminishing resource.
Renewables already represent the single largest source of electricity growth in the United States, and are expected to achieve similar primacy throughout the world in less than 5 years. Sure, API might point-out that renewable energy displacement from wind and solar is occurring rapidly in the utility sector, but what about liquid fuels for transportation? Well, demand for oil has also been lagging a bit as more efficient cars and larger volumes of biofuels are becoming available. And renewable fuel technologies being developed today will provide much more low carbon fuel for the transportation sector in the years to come—in-time for “our children and our grandchildren” to realize new opportunities and economic growth from clean and sustainable resources.
API has chosen to advertise its “Vote4Energy” campaign on TV, so it must not assume that its version of “energy voters” live in caves or under rocks. Such a campaign seems odd in this day and age. Following the historic global climate agreement inked in Paris last month, following the celebration of a new year during which people look forward optimistically to a better future, the energy equation is changing and these changes favor progress. Energy voters in this year’s election may not conform to an antiquated fossil hungry throng without regard for our earth’s climate or our future – after all, I am an energy voter. The campaign that API is running is both wrong-headed and out-of-step with a changing world and changing electorate. This narrow and futile push for more fossil fuel won’t work forever, and I hope 2016 is the election year that proves it doesn’t work anymore.]]>
Hybrid vehicle technologies, like that of Lightning Hybrid’s hydraulic hybrid technology which won recognition at the NREL summit, recover energy that would otherwise be wasted. But the idea of using and not wasting available energy extends far beyond hybrid vehicles to the fuels used to power them. Here, I will highlight three important low carbon renewable fuel pathways that could take advantage of underutilized wastes – pathways that I believe will improve the sustainability of renewable fuels and challenge the misperceptions we have about them. And, in the coming weeks and months I plan to prepare additional posts on each of these pathways—so stay tuned.
Addressing the monumental challenges posed by climate change will demand innovation and cooperation to rapidly transition to a highly carbon constrained economy – an economy in which our traditional carbon-rich fossil fuel sources are severely limited by choice and design (there needs to be lots of unused fossil fuel left in the ground).
Achieving greater sustainability will require the concept of “waste” to evolve and advanced technologies to be developed that allow value and utility to be gleaned from such “wastes”. The casual link between waste, reuse and feedstock will need to become the status-quo; our waste and wastewater loops will need to be closed to establish more fully integrated and sustainable fuel systems.
Moving beyond first generation biofuels, such as corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel, to second generation biofuels produced from agricultural residues, municipal waste and wastewater, and third generation renewable (bio)fuels produced from carbon captured directly from industrial waste gases or the atmosphere will substantially improve fuel sustainability and change our perception of renewable fuels at the same time. Wastes and residues are abundant and underutilized resources. And, not too many next generation fuel technologies have been deployed at scale. However, by investing in the right technologies, establishing the correct infrastructure, and implementing good policies, we can substantially increase sustainable production of low carbon renewable fuel.
1.) Electricity as a biofuel
In July of 2014, the EPA determined that electricity generated from waste derived biogas used in the transportation sector could generate biofuel credits under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program.
This could be a really big deal. I discuss this pathway first because while burning biogas generated by decomposing wastes is not a new or groundbreaking way to produce electricity, leveraging federal policy to add value to low carbon waste derived electricity is rather innovative. In fact, when well-designed policies lead the market to value clean fuels more highly than dirty fuels, the potential of these technologies can take off. Valuable clean fuel credits for electricity will help catalyze the transition away from petroleum fuels and internal combustion engines to renewable fuels and more efficient electric vehicles.
And, the potential is huge! A recent UCS analysis found that as much as ten and a half million metric tons of biomethane could be generated from U.S. municipal waste sources each year. This waste derived biomethane would be sufficient to power nearly 14 million electric cars; displacing enough petroleum for nearly 43 million gasoline powered cars, and allaying unwarranted fears that we cannot meet transportation sector electricity demands cleanly.
But how we view these resources and how the incentives are structured by clean fuel standard regulations will determine whether this concept remains of marginal importance or whether it drives sizeable investments into both electric vehicle adoption and waste derived electricity production.
2.) Refining biointermediates from cellulosic and lignocellulosic wastes and residues
Biofuels made using thermochemical processes have great potential. One major benefit is that they can take advantage of a vast knowledge base developed by chemical engineers working in the oil industry over the last century. Our traditional petroleum based fuel system is complex, and its overall supply chain is compartmentalized. Oil feedstocks from all over the world are aggregated and refined to produce a broad swath of fuels that are then distributed to consumers. Oil extraction, oil refining, and fuel distribution are distinct parts of the supply chain that can be optimized independently. And, these same configurations could be projected onto biofuel systems to allow greater overall efficiency. There is no reason to establish single use biofuel systems, new infrastructure, and unique supply chains for biofuels, when existing infrastructure could be leveraged to produce them.
Producing consistent intermediate bio-feedstocks (biointermediates), such as pyrolysis oils or synthesis gases that can be processed using currently available refining capacity or larger unique processes taking-in biointermediate feedstock from several sources and taking advantage of economies of scale could provide greater fuel volumes with fewer lifecycle carbon emissions. Such configurations would offer greater overall efficiency by allowing different portions of the biofuel supply chain to be independently optimized while allowing for innumerable combinations of waste and residual biomass. When fitted together with appropriate conversion technology, they would provide the most efficient use of available resources and infrastructure.
A promising signal for such configurations was recently sent by EPA when it acknowledged the importance of biointermediate pathways and resolved to figure out how to incorporate them into the RFS program. This is good because engineering biofuel systems that can make use of existing fuel production capacity or that can take advantage of greater economies of scale makes sense, and it is an important pathway for producing greater volumes of low carbon advanced and cellulosic biofuels from available biomass wastes and residues.
3.) Carbon capture and utilization of industrial emissions
Waste gases and flue gases generated by industrial emitters and power plants could be captured and used to generate renewable fuels. These technologies, which would make use of engineered microorganisms that capture and use carbon from waste gases, will be made possible by advances in biotechnology, and will allow the environmental footprint of biofuel production to be substantially reduced compared to traditional terrestrial crops.
Breakthroughs in biotechnology and engineering will push these processes beyond “algae” based systems, and some carbon capturing fuel processes may be engineered to avoid the need for photosynthesis all together. Photosynthesis typically serves as the mechanism to capture carbon and power its conversion into biomass, but it can be somewhat inefficient and it requires lots of sun exposure. Powering biomass or organic intermediate generation using electricity could allow third-generation biofuel processes to be deployed in more diverse environments, to require less land, and to demand little or no sunlight. Moreover, such processes would become more sustainable as the power grid becomes cleaner, allowing the “reducing power” needed to generate these fuels to be provided cleanly.
There are even ways to generate third generation biofuels without photosynthesis or electricity, which I will detail in a later blog.
Industrial carbon emissions do not need to be viewed as pollution and do not need to be wasted. Innovative technologies have been and are being developed to provide value and utility from emissions that would otherwise be dumped directly into the atmosphere.
We have already established an enormous capacity for producing first-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol, which has become a significant part of our fuel mixture. But since we have unused, non-food based waste resources (lots of them actually) and the corresponding technologies to turn them into valuable low carbon biofuels, the challenge and opportunity is to develop next generation fuels. In fact, producing more second- and third-generation renewable fuels must be the priority going forward. We need to take stock of our unused waste resources, identify the technologies that best convert these to useful fuels or intermediates, and establish the necessary policy frameworks to promote the resulting low carbon fuels we are seeking.
Future posts will take a closer look at each of the pathways outlined above. I will discuss their potential, their role for improving waste management, environmental protection and sustainability, and I will also identify flexible policy frameworks that support the entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and investors who can bring these clean fuels to market.]]>
Overall, the intended contributions are disappointing. It’s clear that the sum of the INDCs doesn’t add up to what the world needs to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Their treatment of the land sector, particularly for some of the largest countries, shows limited ambition and in some cases doesn’t talk about any actions at all.
Some countries that have achieved a great deal in past decades in reducing deforestation or in reforesting, propose to do considerably less in the years to come. The most important sources of agricultural emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide from ruminant livestock such as beef cattle, are seldom even mentioned.
Furthermore, there is a real deficit in transparency. The clear and specific information one needs to understand what a country is proposing to do – numbers for emissions reductions, sequestration amounts, business-as-usual reference levels, time periods, costs, and which actions are conditional on financing – are all too often lacking.
It turns out that some of the world’s smaller countries did considerably better with respect to transparency and ambition than the large ones. In all three of our white papers analyzing the INDCs, we highlighted how nations like Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo actually did better by the land sector in their INDCs, compared to the U.S., the E.U., China, Brazil, Indonesia and India.
So, what now? One of the important results of the Paris COP should be an agreement on how the INDCs will be revised and improved next year. (They’re also likely to be renamed. One of the leading candidates for the new term is “NDMC,” which despite how it sounds is not actually a tribute to the 1980s hip-hop group.)
In those revisions, what might we hope for from the land sector, combining some of the best features of the INDCs from different countries? Here’s a short list of elements that could be borrowed:
We’d need to add in some things that have enormous potential but were not clearly put forward by any nation:
No country has come close to including all of what we need. But by learning from each other’s INDCs, each could make a commitment next year that would add up to what the health of the planet requires.]]>
The technology DuPont is starting up breaks down the non-digestible parts of plants into the sugars that are the basic building blocks with which we can produce ethanol today, and other fuels and bio-products in the future. These fuels and other products are currently made from oil; replacing them with sustainable low carbon substitutes is critical to building a low carbon chemical and fuel industry, which is why companies like DuPont are pursuing it. It’s also a key element of our comprehensive strategy to cut oil use and emissions from transportation fuel in the years and decades to come, which is why I take an interest in it.
In a past career I was involved in starting up new chemical process technology for very different products (computer chips instead of ethanol). I remember the excitement and rush of learning that comes when the preparation is done and the new factory is starting up. Suddenly there is real money on the line, more than $200 million in the case DuPont’s Iowa factory, and you have no choice but to solve the inevitable problems that arise during process scale-up.
Making progress on these challenges is urgent not just because of DuPont’s financial interests, although I am sure that is a major motivator to them, but also because cutting emissions from transportation and other sectors is urgently needed to stabilize the accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from oil and other fossil fuels that is bringing us ever closer to catastrophic climate change. Earlier this month the World Meteorological Organization announced that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have hit yet another record in their relentless upward climb.
In this context it was depressing to get back to the DC suburbs to hear the oil industry flooding the airways with vacuous arguments about how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. The oil industry has made repealing the RFS their top legislative priority, and their regional affiliate the Western States Petroleum Association is similarly focused on blocking or rolling back low carbon fuel standards in California and Oregon. They claim that with expanded domestic oil production we no longer need these cleaner fuels. Following their usual playbook they have released a slew of ads touting out-of-date and misleading studies during the presidential debates.
Here’s an excerpt from one of these studies, funded by the American Petroleum Institute (API) predicting that implementing the RFS will cause
[…] outrageously high consumer costs that are evident immediately, i.e, in 2015. The 2015 statutory requirement […] requires about a 30% reduction in gasoline and diesel volumes from expected demand in 2015. To achieve this reduction in gasoline and diesel demand requires that costs increase by roughly $90 and $100 per gallon more than today’s costs, respectively.
Not to be outdone, the ethanol industry is hitting back with its own ads, studies and bogus arguments including claims that the RFS is the “only federal law on the books combating climate change” and that EPA’s failure to finalize timely rules for the RFS “has caused net farm income to likely fall more than 50 percent in only two years.”
These absurd claims are based on the flimsiest of straw men and contribute nothing useful to the tired arguments the parties have been making for years. It is obvious to an informed observer that the ambitious timeline Congress set for scaling up cellulosic biofuels has proven far too optimistic. It is equally clear that even without the RFS corn ethanol will remain an important part of the gasoline blend and the agricultural economy. In light of this reality, and with no help from the regulated parties, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the unenviable task of figuring out how to implement the law in a manner that is realistic and makes steady progress on oil saving and climate goals. While the TV ads might make you think the EPA is deciding on the future of corn ethanol, the truth is the post-2015 RFS is focused on expanding the use of low-carbon advanced and non-food cellulosic biofuels.
The RFS is a tough program to implement, but EPA’s proposal is basically on target and I expect them to finalize something close to their proposal later this month. The RFS is an essential tool to make progress on cleaning up an important part of our fuel supply. We should certainly be doing more, but API argues we should do less. It’s also important to clarify that the RFS is by no means the only provision of the Clean Air Act that EPA is using effectively to reduce global warming pollution, with important standards for vehicle fuel economy, and power plants in place and standards for heavy-duty trucks and oil and gas wells in process.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been compelled to point out how unproductive this hyperbolic rhetoric is. It might seem obvious, but when an API funded ad tells you that the most important priority for fuels policy is stopping the RFS, and claims it has the interests of the environment or even the global food markets at heart, you should be very skeptical. The progress on cellulosic ethanol over the last few years is a tremendously important part of building the clean fuel technologies we need to cut oil use and emissions from transportation, and it would not have happened without the RFS.
I am convinced that the progress being made now inside the cellulosic ethanol plants at DuPont, Poet and Abengoa, and at nearby farms and in laboratories across the county are vastly more important than the sad nonsense posing as debate about the Renewable Fuels Standard in Washington DC and elsewhere.]]>
The Algae Biomass Organization (ABO) Summit recently brought the algae industry to Washington, DC. The summit ran from Wednesday through Friday, and it spawned several additional side-events related to algae. On Tuesday there was a roundtable discussing the value of using algae to address global food security, on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a public workshop to receive input on regulating new algae biotechnologies, and on Thursday the Wilson Center organized a panel to discuss how algae could be used to mitigate climate change. Collectively, these events amounted to “Algae Week.”
Here are five key thoughts I am taking away from a thought-provoking algae week.
Although algae technically represent a diverse group of eukaryotic organisms characterized as non-flowering plants lacking roots, leaves and stems, the term “algae” has been functionally expanded to include certain, characteristically similar, prokaryotic microorganisms as well. The functional interpretation of “algae” obviously includes all organisms that are literally algae (including seaweed, diatoms, etc.), but it extends to certain microorganisms that capture and use inorganic carbon.
Algenol Biofuels, LanzaTech and Solazyme are three prominent algae biotechnology companies that attended and discussed their businesses during the ABO Summit. The unique biotechnologies they described highlight the broad diversity of microorganisms and end products that the algae industry encompasses. Ironically, Algenol Biofuels (with “Alg” in its name) and LanzaTech, both members of the Algae Biomass Organization, do not even use “algae” in their processes to produce low carbon renewable fuels. In fact, each of these companies use very different types of engineered bacteria to capture carbon from waste gases – Algenol uses photosynthetic bacteria (cyanobacteria) whereas LanzaTech uses non-photosynthetic bacteria.
By contrast, Solazyme, which does in fact use “algae” to produce its products, uses a non-photosynthetic strain requiring nutrients and carbon from other biomass sources (sugar from sources like sugarcane). Moreover, while Algenol and LanzaTech discussed biofuel platforms, Solazyme chose to discuss the potential for using their algae platforms to produce high-quality food-grade oil or protein alternatives.
The takeaway here is that, in the eyes of the algae industry, algae are not always algae, they are not always photosynthetic, and they are not always used as a feedstock for biofuel.
Microalgae production systems can generate copious amounts of biomass on a relatively small footprint of land. In fact, as compared to terrestrial bioenergy crops, algacultural production could generate as much or more than 2,000% more biomass per acre. And beyond the potential for greater biomass yields, algacultural production can take place on degraded and less productive land not suitable for traditional crops, and in certain circumstances, can make use of wastewater and waste gases as inputs. Further, the uniquely evolved metabolism of algae can be engineered and exploited to synthesize large volumes of valuable products including oils, organic acids, alcohols, and complex chemicals. DHA Omega 3, for example, which is found in a wide range of food products and nearly all infant formula on the market today, is produced by microalgae during fermentation processes.
Given the high productivity of algaculture, its ability to utilize marginal land and waste inputs, and its product versatility, it is difficult to relegate the algae industry to a single portion of the economy. And algae’s performance in these diverse roles is particularly amenable to enhancement using new techniques in biological systems engineering. In fact, there is a role for algae as a platform to generate low carbon renewable fuels for our energy sector, food and feed for our agricultural sector, complex chemicals and plastics for our chemical industries, and/or new drugs and supplements for our pharmaceutical industry.
The takeaway here is that new algae biotechnologies have the potential to efficiently use scarce resources and spare agricultural land while offering a platform to produce numerous value added products more sustainably. Algae is already playing a role across multiple sectors of our economy and is poised to expand in breadth and scale in the years to come.
Carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are strategies to manage or mitigate climate emissions, and have received greater attention lately as the EPA identified both CCU and CCS as options for meeting performance standards under its recently finalized power plant rule. Most significantly, EPA called out algae as a biological mechanism to capture carbon from power plant flue gas.
Since algae can capture and use carbon dioxide to generate biomass, biofuel, oils and other chemicals, algaculture systems will likely be used by various industrial emitters of carbon dioxide to mitigate their emissions. Algae-based CCU and CCS will be good for these companies, the environment, and with the right incentives and environmental attributes, a lucrative part of the algae industry.
Thetake away here is that CCU and CCS are considered major components of the algae industry right now, and new algae biotechnologies may significantly alter how we address climate change in the years to come.
Although a concentrated CO2 source is commonly thought of as standard part of algaculture systems, this is not always the case. The perceived expansion limits associated with co-localizing algaculture systems and industrial carbon emitters can be addressed in two ways. Both heterotrophic algaculture systems (systems that use sugar rather than CO2 as feedstock) and configurations that allow algae to directly capture CO2 from the air avoid the requirement of co-localization, which may greatly expand the potential for developing algaculture systems.
Advances in this area need to be made. First, we must ensure that heterotrophic algaculture systems can be supplied with sugars derived from sustainable cellulosic or waste sources, and second, direct air CO2 capture systems need to be piloted, tested, and optimized at scale. However, the future looks promising, and any perception that algae systems must be co-located may become an outdated paradigm.
The takeaway here is that severing the link between carbon source and algaculture system will make the algae industry more versatile and it will make the overall impact of algae biotechnology much greater.
Algae represent a huge number of macro- and microorganisms that function in very different ways and produce very different types of biomass and end products. This diversity has implications for how we view and approach algaculture system research. New analyses need to better inform how to develop and expand algacultural production and how best to use the resulting biomass. For example, a common view for how to address climate change using algae biomass involves displacing petroleum oil with algae oil. However, while this may be a perfectly reasonable approach in some cases, the characteristics of algae biomass can also make it a useful source of protein for food and feed. And displacing feed rather than petroleum may actually confer greater climate emissions reductions in some cases, which suggest algae biomass should not always be forced through a fuel feedstock lens.
More algae research should be supported. This research will include studies into how to control and optimize algae biomass characteristics, and should look at how algae biomass can be best used to address resource constraints and balance global demands for food and fuel.
A holistic and nuanced view of algae is needed because just as certain algae can be amenable as a platform for oil and fuels, still others may be more useful to produce food, feed, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals. The takeaway here is that we need to understand the biomass resources we produce and make the best use of those resources.]]>
The EPA’s announcement of new regulations for the oil and gas sector on Tuesday are taking up most of the media’s attention, but it followed proposals released last Friday that would also strengthen the methane mitigation rules in place for landfills, which are the third largest source of anthropogenic methane in the United States.
This fact may come as a surprise to most—landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions? Really?
Yes, and while we don’t think about the climate implications of our waste management system very often, methane emissions from landfills are a very real climate problem that should not exist in the first place. With over two-thirds of our waste ending up in landfills, our waste management system is over-reliant on this disposal method. Many of our landfills have been taking-in waste for decades, and some landfills in operation today are slated to continue taking our trash for decades to come. Nearly half of our landfilled waste is organic, which produces methane and other greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
To address this climate pollution, the EPA requires landfills of a certain size to capture and destroy methane before it is released into the atmosphere. These are important regulations, as greenhouse gases from our landfilled waste will continue to be produced for years to come. However, even landfills with gas collection systems are not great at capturing and mitigating all of the methane that they generate. While the proposed landfill methane regulations seek to lower the threshold for compliance–requiring more landfills to manage methane gas–the proposal does nothing to attempt to reduce the amount of methane being generated by landfills to begin with.
To solve this problem, and not just put a band aid on it, the EPA should consider how to limit the amount of organic waste entering landfills. Diverting organic wastes from landfills makes it easier to keep it out of the atmosphere, and facilitates using it for energy, as biofuel, or electricity – lots more on this in our fact sheet.
Finally, as we move to optimize the utility of our organic waste resources, we need to be smart about our in-place landfill infrastructure. Regulations on landfill gas collection are important—but just as it is important to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations, it is vital that overall methane generation and flaring is limited at landfills as well.
Methane needs to be viewed as a resource, not a nuisance to be managed. Making use of available methane is the proverbial opportunity to make straw into gold, or Trash into Treasure.]]>