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U.S. EPA Drops The Biofuel Ball, Energy Dept. Picks It Up

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment

A strange dynamic is at play between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is clearly determined to toss climate action aside in favor of keeping U.S. fossil fuel stakeholders afloat, while DOE is forging ahead with new initiatives to promote biofuel and other renewable resources in the US.

Pruitt's EPA is also backing away from polices that prevent water and soil contamination, and DOE is beginning to pick up the slack in those areas as well. In a new study, DOE demonstrates that biofuel production could provide a solid bottom line argument for reclaiming waste and preventing water and soil pollution.

A spark of biofuel gold in the muck

When you think of biofuel, corn ethanol may be the first idea that comes to mind. The new Department of Energy report goes off in a different direction to seek a host of other sustainable opportunities for biofuel production in the US.

DOE lists cattle waste, wastewater, grease from restaurants, food waste and more as potential feedstocks. These waste resources can be found just about anywhere in the US. The new report aims at tackling one of the obstacles to exploiting these riches, namely, lack of information:

...These organic wastes serve as potential biofuel feedstocks, and they are available just about anywhere across the nation. However, industry lacks information about the locations of greatest concentration so it can boost biofuel production while giving human health and the environment a helping hand.

As for the technology needed for waste-to-biofuel conversion, DOE proposes one promising pathway, hydrothermal liquefaction:
HTL mimics the geological conditions the Earth uses to create crude oil, using high pressure and temperature to achieve in minutes what has typically taken millions of years. The resulting material is similar to petroleum pumped out of the ground, but also contains small amounts of water and oxygen.

Valuable byproducts like phosphorus can also be reclaimed through HTL.

Refining the biocrude into usable biofuel is the next step, and DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has already demonstrated that conventional oil refining methods can be adapted for some "wet wastes" like wastewater sludge and algae.

The new U.S. waste-to-energy industry: location, location, location

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory paired with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to produce the new report. The team found that the average annual potential for waste-to-energy biofuel crude production in the U.S. is about 5.9 billion gallons (that's gallons, not barrels).

Municipal wastewater (1.1 billion gallons) and manure (2.7 billion gallons) account for the lion's share of the total. That leaves the door open to leverage economies of scale where human and livestock populations are the most dense. For human populations that includes the eastern U.S. and major cities across the US.

Manure-producing operations take up much of the slack:

The team found the Midwest and Great Lakes region to have the highest resource availability, with a large quantity of smaller individual sites throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, and several large concentrated animal feeding operations in Michigan, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Concentrations of this resource are significant also in California, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and southern Arizona, with resource availability shown as well in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York.

The contents of grease traps from restaurants and other retail food operations (1.16 billion) are also a significant source, with the added advantage that the conversion rate to biocrude is highly efficient.

Another area of interest is food waste (.9 billion), though according to the report the conversion rate for biocrude production is lower for food waste than for other sources.

How biofuel can protect the environment

The report is primarily a technical document. However, in a recent press release announcing the report, DOE picks up where EPA has left off (break added for readability):
...organic wastes can pack a punch to health and the environment.

Wastewater sludge is costly to treat and dispose because of its significant volume and the presence of pathogens and other harmful pollutants. Livestock production is shifting towards fewer but much larger operations, resulting in quantities of manure that exceed local demand for fertilizer.

Food waste placed in the landfill produces large amounts of methane, an environment-harming greenhouse gas. And fats, oils, and grease deposited in sewer pipes can hinder wastewater flow to treatment plants, or harm fish and other organisms if they reach the ocean.

With more businesses -- including sports franchises -- interested in sustainable waste disposal, DOE's work could help kickstart the U.S. waste-to-biofuel industry into high gear.

Next steps for the research team include gathering more information that leads to an understanding of the logistical challenges involved and the cost-benefit tradeoffs.

Whither EPA?

All of this activity presupposes that the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard will continue to support the addition of non-fossil fuel into the transportation sector.

That's not quite a done deal. EPA Administrator Pruitt has been accused of working to undermine the RFS, partly by providing a record number of biofuel waivers to refineries, creating an uproar among farmers and other corn ethanol stakeholders.

Pruitt has also moved to pull back on EPA oversight on a number of issues including water pollution and chemical regulation.

Then there's the climate change issue. Pruitt has a well documented history of denying that human activity is the driving force behind climate change. Things came to a head earlier this month, when a federal court ordered him to produce evidence for that conclusion.

That's a sharp contrast with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He occasionally waffles on climate change when speaking in public, but under his leadership DOE has continued to prioritize climate action:

Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperatures rise, wildfires, drought, and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure. And severe weather -- the leading cause of power outages and fuel supply disruption in the United States -- is projected to worsen, with eight of the 10 most destructive hurricanes of all time having happened in the last 10 years.

Somewhat ironically, an EPA-USDA partnership called AgStar still seems to be active. The program launched under the Obama Administration with the aim of getting more livestock operations to install equipment that draws usable biogas from manure. The process also renders the leftover solids into an inert compost -- a vast improvement over keeping raw manure in lagoons or spreading it on land.

Just this month AgStar issued an interesting report titled, Market Opportunities for Biogas Recovery Systems at U.S. Livestock Facilities.

AgStar notes that as of August 2017, about 250 digesters at livestock operations were recovering biofuel in the form of biogas, mainly at swine and dairy farms. Here's the money quote:

...The full potential to provide renewable energy is much greater: an estimated 8,100 U.S. dairy and swine operations could support biogas recovery systems. These systems may also be feasible at some poultry and beef lot operations as new and improved technologies for these manure types enter the market.

Go figure.

Photo (cropped): Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey