[OPINION] Advanced Biofuels: Nothing’s Perfect, But There’s A Lot of Good

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Advanced Biofuels: The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels,” by Almuth Ernsting, co-director of Biofuelwatch.] 

– by Joanne Ivancic, Executive Director, Advanced Biofuels USA


Photo: Europa.eu

Is the glass half full or half empty? Is a feedstock sustainable or harmful to the environment? Is a conversion technology efficient or too complex? Is a familiar process too expensive or on the way to affordable? Or too expensive at small scale, but economical at large scale? Does a particular policy spur needed sustainable innovation or improperly impinge on existing industry?

Is it better to make “cleaner” products that fit into existing infrastructure or begin to change infrastructure to accommodate renewable mobility? To assure local job creation and best environmental, worker and human rights practices, should we prioritize “home-grown” over imports whether we are talking about crude, feedstocks, components, rare earth metals or finished products?

When exploring the world of renewable mobility, whether considering methane, CO2, environmental harm, land ownership and use, or other sustainability issues, these questions prove difficult to address with easy answers—or even with 30-second elevator speech sound bites. The hazard of throwing the baby out with the bathwater also comes into play when making generalizations.

In my experience, many in the U.S. equate the word “biofuel” with “ethanol,” and the word “ethanol” with ethanol made from corn starch, and equate corn-ethanol with “bad for the planet.” Reasons alleged? Low energy return on energy invested; use of land to grow corn that could be used to grow “food;” use of a food crop to make fuel; unsustainable farming practices; nutrient runoff.

Aside from the elucidation of those perceptions provided in the links above, the basic understanding and language used in the premise provides a weak foundation for understanding the world of biofuels.

Most essentially, “biofuel” means so much more than corn ethanol. Just as “animal” certainly describes cats, it also refers to dogs, horses, fish, insects, and even humans. Similarly, “biofuel” also encompasses biodiesel, renewable diesel, renewable jet fuel, isobutanol, renewable gasoline blendstock, marine biofuel, and even biogas and straight vegetable oil used for transportation.

And, although some of these might use parts of a corn kernel as feedstock, they don’t have to. Ethanol can be made from numerous grains, sugars, agricultural and forest residues, energy beets, food processing waste and food waste, among other things.

Biodiesel and renewable diesel, jetfuel and gasoline blendstock, can be produced from used cooking oil, tallow (rendered animal fat), oil seed crops, purpose-grown poplar and willow, hemp, coffee grounds, algae, jatropha, pongamia, and agriculture/forest waste and residues.

Some of these items can be used as feedstock for multiple kinds of biofuels. Some organisms produce ethanol or hydrocarbons directly as Joule, Algenol and others demonstrate.

In the end, answers to the questions posed above lie in continued research, development and deployment/use testing of options, as well as and in developing societal consensus on goals, values and policies that inform how we want to interact with our world.

In addition, the overall easy answer will remain, “It depends.” Most often, it will depend on local circumstances and situational answers to specific challenges. What can the land sustainably grow? What does the community need? Is it reliable? Is it economically, environmentally and socially sustainable under the circumstances?

Joanne Ivancic serves as Executive Director of Advanced Biofuels USA, a nonprofit educational organization, which she co-founded in 2008, dedicated to promoting understanding, development, acceptance, and use of advanced biofuels as an energy security, economic development, military flexibility and climate change/pollution control solution.

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