19 Hurdles for Large-Scale Biofuel Use: Reflections from the Emerson BioRefinery Summit

corn%20ethanol.jpgIn an energy hungry world, oil has allowed us to achieve unbelievable feats. An inconceivable amount of resources have been poured into an infrastructure that allows us to travel to every corner of the globe. As the fuel for this way of life dwindles, the future of transportation has yet to be written. We are so entrenched in the status quo and corn-based ethanol present insurmountable challenges.
In the World Energy Outlook Report, the International Energy Agency predicts a global shortage by 2030 of a staggering 28.6 million barrels of oil a day. It is hard to say what the leading technologies will fill this gap, but biofuels have a good shot to play a huge role if certain hurdles are overcome.
Speakers today at the Emerson Biofuels Summit highlighted some of the hurdles for large-scale production for 2nd generation biofuels. These challenges include:

1. Competition for Food: Although some experts do not believe that recent food shortages were caused in large part by corn-based ethanol production, it is imperative that 2nd generation biofuels do not compete with food production. Randall Fortenbery, a professor at the Renk Agribusiness Institute at the University of Wisconsin raised the point that food and fuel is a necessary combination because food crisis solutions require energy for refrigeration and distribution.
2. Price Volatility: A variety of feed stock are in the running as future sources of ethanol. The price volatility that we have seen this year however increases risk and hinders long-term planning in the marketplace. What may be a cost-effective feed stock today may not be tomorrow.
3. New Feedstock Not Energy Dense: Switchgrass for example is not as energy dense at corn kernels. This creates huge transportation and storage challenges because larger quantities are needed.
4. Variety of Feedstock Necessary: The U.S. consumed 140 billion gallons of gasoline in 2007. “No single feedstock is going to bring us there,” said Randall Fortenbery. What might work very well in one part of the globe may not be viable in another. This will keep the scientist busy.
5. Compelling Message: The public support of ethanol has waned due to concern about food scarcity, food prices, and land use for corn cultivation. When socially and economically responsible options are available, public support must be earned once again.
6. Water Use for Cultivation: It takes 2,500 gallons of water to grow one bushel of corn, which equates to a measly 2.5 gallons of ethanol. Some future options for ethanol production including natural prairie, which requires little or no irrigation.

7. Regional Solutions:
It is not practical to transport feedstock all over the planet, especially if it is not energy dense. “Feedstock streams of tomorrow will be varied,” said Tim Donohue, Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. An ideal option in one area could be inconceivable in another. Palm oil cultivation in Alaska for example is a bad idea.
8. Technology Breakthroughs: “Microbes need to be developed that will eat all sugars at once,” said Tim Donohue as he spoke about cellulosic ethanol. It is not viable for microbes to eat only one type of sugar.
9. Minimal Impact on Land Quality: Land degradation can have significant financial, social, and environmental ramifications. Corn for example necessitates high inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, water, etc.) and has a low species diversity. Native prairie on the other hand has comparatively low inputs and high species diversity.
10. Collaboration With Engine Manufacturers: These technologies cannot be created in a bubble. Flex-fuel vehicles for example have engines that can run off of both E85 and gasoline. The automobile and biofuels industries must work in tandem.
11. Effective Economy of Scale: Larger ethanol facilities require sizable quantities of feedstock and increase need to transport fuel across greater distances. Smaller scale production may be difficult due to the current railroad infrastructure limitations and price considerations.
12. Optimal Biofuel Plant Location: Proximity to feedstock, local governmental support, transportation infrastructure, and distribution channels are some of the top concerns in the industry regarding location.
13. Competing Land Use: Many ethanol advocates encourage the use of marginal lands for ethanol feedstock, such as switchgrass. Randall Fortenbery contends there is no such thing as marginal land.
There is great concern about the impact of additional land being under cultivation. Many countries do no possess underutilized land and maintaining natural habitat is important in countries that do. High yield crops are preferable because less land is needed for cultivation.
ethanol%20laboratory2.jpgAndrew Held, Director of Process Development for Virent Energy Systems says that they are developing a transportation fuel that can be used in gasoline pipelines with existing pumps, pipelines, blending equipment, and engine technology. This mitigates infrastructure and logistical costs, while minimizing the carbon footprint.

16. Favorable Net Energy Balance:
Needless to say, for a transportation fuel to be economically, socially, and environmentally sound, a high net energy balance is vital.

17. Bringing Technology to the Marketplace Quickly:
If oil production is near or has reached its peak, viable alternatives need to be quickly implemented.
18. Price: Ultimately, most of these factors come down to the price at the pump.

19. Highly Risky Market:
Tim Donohue referred to the cellulosic ethanol market at a “high risk, high payoff business.” The right scientific breakthrough could revolutionize the industry or researchers could be barking up the wrong tree.
The electric car could have widespread use quickly, thus reducing the demand for biofuels. Jet fuel and diesel however are more likely around for the long haul.

Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Labs

Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Energy International Quarterly, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.