Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bioenergy - Gettin' Some?

Bioenergy is receiving renewed attention in California with the release of the final California Bioenergy Action Plan.

Bioenergy, particularly when it comes to electrical generation, has gotten the short end of the stick. It just isn't sexy. PV is sexy (and full of sexy people, of course!) and so is wind. Guess where the money goes?

This action plan is a good start to rectifying that. Bioenergy is really important to our sustainable energy future because it can play a role that other renewables don't naturally lend themselves to - base load generation. Bioenergy plants are, for the most part, very similar to conventional combustion powerplants. They can run 24/7. You can bring them online or take them offline as needed. It's very valuable.

Bioenergy plants can also be small to take advantage of combined heat and power (CHP) and the benefits of distributed generation.

The Bioenergy Action Plan indicates that the technical potential of biomass, almost entirely from waste products, is 18% of total statewide energy consumption by 2017 - 60,000 GWh from 7100 MW of powerplant capacity. This is enormous. For perspective, the biggest PV powerplant in the world is 10 MW; a typical large coal or nuclear powerplant is about 1000 MW. In other words, waste biomass has the potential to avoid the construction of 7 nuclear powerplants in the next ten years - or more realistically for California, 24 natural gas fired plants.

The really great thing about this plan is that it strongly emphasizes sustainable feedstocks, primarily materials that are currently going to waste. Dedicated energy crops, in general, are less desirable - but not necessarily unsustainable, as some would argue.

The main complaint that I have about this report is that it does not mention, never mind support, sustainable feedstock development for biodiesel such as algae.

It does recommend support for development of Fischer-Tropsch diesel from waste biomass. This is all well and good, but I would argue that supporting sustainable biodiesel feedstocks is the quickest path to a sustainable, low emissions petrodiesel substitute, with the potential for major secondary benefits (also see this article).

One frequently heard argument against bioenergy is that it will literally steal food from the mouths of the poor by dedicating arable land to energy, instead of fuel. This assumes the use of dedicated energy crops on productive farmland.

First, it should be noted that a substantial amount of energy can be generated from waste products, as we've seen. This is also true of biofuels.

It also ignores the fact that dedicated energy crops can often be grown on land that is unsuitable for crop production, and even be part of remediation strategies that bring unproductive land back into agricultural use - such as where soils are contaminated with salt (a growing problem in California's central valley). Energy crops have even been proposed to remediate the effects of radioactive fallout.

Now it's clear that today, the majority of biodiesel and ethanol is produced from soybeans and corn respectively. This is not ideal, but it isn't stealing food from anyone. US overproduction of soy and corn due to subsidies results in "dumping" of agricultural products on the developing world at low prices, destroying local agriculture and promoting dependence on US food exports. Finding an increased domestic use for these crops actually works against this trend. In the long term, it's not sustainable to use corn and soy for fuel. However, it also will not be economical, so those who shoot down the possibility of biofuels solving our petroleum addiction based on the current feedstocks are tearing down a straw man.

Speaking of which, the other commonly leveled charge against biomass energy is that it may take more petroleum energy to grow and process it into fuel than the end product provides- most recently in the infamous Pimental / Patzek study in reference to ethanol and biodiesel. This has been widely refuted as bad science. NREL and UC Berkeley's EBAMM project are two respected peer-reviewed studies that have taken Pimental and Patzek out to the woodshed. Just for fun, check out where Patzek works, and who funds his research.

The biggest problem I see is the trend towards energy plantations (sugarcane and palm oil) in the developing world to feed the demand for biofuels in the developed world. This means tearing out rain forest and a continuation of the exploitative pattern so evident in the petroleum economy. This is all the more reason to accelerate R&D into sustainable domestic feedstocks, and make such activity uneconomical and irrelevant.

So. It looks like California is headed in the right direction as far as biofuels - and as goes California, often, so goes the nation. Hopefully state sustainable biodiesel advocates can get the CEC to pay more attention to sustainable feedstock R&D, and the perverse incentive created by the soybean lobby in the Federal biodiesel tax credit that provides double the tax credit for biodiesel made from "agricultural" (virgin soy) oil than from waste oil.

2 comments:

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