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How to Keep Biofuels Sustainable

RP Siegel | Monday December 3rd, 2012 | 1 Comment


While the bio-based economy should be more sustainable than the alternative – any good idea can be implemented poorly. I asked Jesper Hedal Kløverpris, Sustainability Manager for Novozymes, how we can ensure that biofuels are being produced in a sustainable manner.

Jesper Hedal Kløverpris:  There have been a whole wealth of initiatives looking into sustainability criteria for biofuels. In fact, we once counted more than 60 initiatives – one of my colleagues named it the Babel of certification.

Triple Pundit: Could you name a few?

JHK:  There’s the British Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, which requires that a certain percentage of fuel comes from renewable sources (the goal is to reach 5 percent by April 2013).Then, there is the European Committee for Standardization, and  California’s  Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which contain requirements for greenhouse gas reductions (GHG). There is also the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), Global Bio-energy Partnership (GBEP), established by the G8, and of course the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

3p: What do these standards cover?

JHK: Well, the RFS has criteria for GHG reduction, one of the most common criteria in these standards.  The EU Renewable Energy Directive also has reduction thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions as well as restrictions on land used for feedstock production.

3p: Such as?

JHK: There are criteria limiting where feedstocks can be drawn from, such as areas of high biodiversity value, high carbon stock, peat land (because of the risk of releasing GHG, CO2 and methane). The RSB also has a comprehensive list that includes GHG emissions, labor rights, conservation of soil and water and so on.

3p: So what role does Novozymes play in meeting these standards?

JHK: Novozymes is supportive of these standards, though since we don’t directly produce biofuels, we are not bound by them.

3p: What is your interest in doing this?

JHK: Our interest in all this is to help to create a market for sustainable biofuels. The initiatives are to ensure the most sustainable production of biofuels. You can do it in a good way or in a bad way. The standards help producers to make the right choices and move things towards best practices.

3p: What are the things that you would be most concerned about, if someone were to start up a new biofuel production operation, in the absence of these standards?

JHK: I don’t think that any other industry has undergone as much scrutiny as bio-energy has over these past few years. There is always a balance between how much documentation you can demand from a single producer and what you can expect in terms of sustainability. We would like the industry to be able to live up to these standards, but it’s not fair to overburden them with regulations.

One of the things we are most concerned about, especially in developing countries, is the issue of respecting local and customary land rights. The RSB is very good on this. You do hear unfortunate examples of biofuel or food producers who has bought or leased land for production, for instance from a government, and then it turns out that there are actually local people depending on that land although they may not have the legal title to it. We need to be able to take these kinds of implied or customary land rights into consideration.

There are many countries in the developing world where you have weak governments and you can have problems with corruption and things like that.

3p: So what happens?

JHK: Think of a project where you move in and buy a large area of land and then you start growing feedstock on it and then you realize that there were actually people living here. You could say that this has nothing to do with biofuels, but biofuels in that context can lead to problematic issues if you don’t make sure that you do things right, by involving local governments and so forth, before starting a project. In our Mozambique project, which I know you have written about, most of the farmers that participate actually own the land themselves.

3p: Here in the U.S., there is a certain mentality where people believe that if they own their own land, they can do whatever they want on it. That can raise different concerns. Say if, for example, they decide to burn a forest down in order to grow biofuels.

JHK: If you did that that you would not meet the criteria of the EU Renewable Energy Directive or any of the certification schemes that are approved under it. No one could prevent you from selling it, but under the EU rules, a blender would not be able to say he met the blending requirements if they bought from you because it wouldn’t live up to the sustainability criteria

3p: How does Novozymes help its customers meet these requirements?

JHK: Our enzymes are used in the conversion of plant matter into ethanol.

3p: Are the enzymes essential to the process or do they just enhance the productivity?

JHK:  In first generation bio-ethanol, which uses corn, or in the case of Africa, cassava, enzymes are really key.

3p: How do the enzymes impact GHG emissions?

JHK:  In the first generation, enzymes don’t directly impact the GHG emissions because you don’t use that many enzymes converting starch into sugars. They do, however, impact the economics by making the process more efficient. In second generation biofuels, the cellulosic type, you need many more enzymes. Enzymes are key in the bio-chemical pathway, the more dominant of two pathways available today (the other being thermo-chemical). We are now in our third generation of enzymes with Cellic CTec3, which is about 75 percent more efficient than the first generation.

3p: So, you could say that Novozymes improves the effectiveness of the enzymes, which reduces GHG emissions. With less enzyme required, the overall GHG impact of the process is reduced?

JHK:  That’s a correct statement.

3p: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JHK:  Just that cellulosic is progressing very rapidly and that people should be aware of the unprecedented scrutiny that biofuels have faced.

3p: Do you think this level of scrutiny is warranted?

JHK: We need to assess the actual performance against the claims of sustainability, but we shouldn’t kill the local producers with excessive documentation demands.

3p: I suppose, given the level of government support, a certain amount of justification is required in terms of GHG reductions in Europe and energy security in the U.S.

JHK: Yes, but of course if you look at global subsidies for fossil fuels, they are a lot higher.

3p: Those fossil fuel subsidies were put in place in a different era, when, perhaps people were less aware and also more trusting of both industry and government than they are now. In a way, the evolution of the renewable energy industry has taken place in a much more public and transparent way, which is good, of course, but not necessarily fair in being compared to a fossil fuel industry that “grew up” far more slowly and far less transparently, which gives it certain economic advantages. Who knows, if the fossil fuel industry had come of age under the same kind of scrutiny, what would we have today?

JHK: That’s a good question.

[Image credit: Tom Walter: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Paul Dunn

    In looking for a feasible way to upgrade my restored vintage Toyota FJ-40 to an alt fuel, assumed to be a biofuel, I have researched the fuels with the highest output for the total input cost, as well as fuels that are feasible for upgrade without complete engine replacement, such as bio-diesel. Can you tell me the best place to compare fuels with the least bias, and also if cellulosic ethonol has a future in the US if it can be brought to a level market playing field with biofuel alternatives?