Changing Tunes on Brazilian Ethanol vs. US Biodiesel

d-goodA pair of University of Illinois researchers say the reinstatement of the $1 a gallon biodiesel blenders credit has changed the equation back in favor of American biodiesel versus Brazilian ethanol.

Back in December and even earlier this month, Darrel Good and Scott Irwin found that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, which qualifies as an advanced biofuel under the Renewable Fuels Standard, was a cheaper alternative to American biodiesel to meet RFS obligations. But according to this Biodiesel Magazine article, since the renewal of the biodiesel tax credit and making of the credit retroactive back to 2012, Good and Irwin have relooked at the issue, especially after getting several comments pointing out omissions in their analysis, including the 2.5 percent Ad Valorem tax on Brazilian ethanol:

“The price relationships at the U.S. Gulf on Jan. 10 favored biodiesel blending over the blending of Brazilian ethanol, even without consideration of the opportunity cost of Brazilian ethanol,” write Good and Irwin. “That cost added substantially to the advantage of biodiesel.”

After the more complete analysis of blend economics, Good and Irwin conclude the data suggests an economic advantage to U.S. biodiesel over Brazilian ethanol in meeting the advanced biofuel requirements of RFS2.

“The biodiesel advantage is large and a dramatic change from our analysis [on January 10],” they write. “It also has potentially far-reaching implications for both U.S. corn and domestic fats and oils consumption in 2013.

Good and Irwin also point out that since Brazilian ethanol has to be shipped, that would add to the cost of that fuel.

Photovoltaics Versus Biofuels in Energy Conversion

How does energy produced by the sun (solar) compete with ethanol in terms of land use, life-cycle emissions and cost? These questions are being asked by University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) Bren School of Environmental Science & Management Professor Roland Geyer. He wants to know what makes more sense, growing fuel crops to supply alternative-fuel vehicles with ethanol or other biofuels or using photovoltaics (PV) to directly power battery electric vehicles (EVs).

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 1.07.55 PM“The energy source for biofuels is the sun, through photosynthesis,” explains Geyer. “The energy source for solar power is also the sun. Which is better?”

To find out, Geyer joined former BrenSchool researcher David Stoms and James Kallaos, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, to model the relative efficiencies of the technologies at converting a given amount of sunlight to miles driven. The results have been published in the paper, “Spatially Explicit Life Cycle Assessment of Sun-to-Wheels Transportation Pathways in the U.S.,” in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Results showed photovoltaics (PV) to be much more efficient than biomass at turning sunlight into energy to fuel a car.

“PV is orders of magnitude more efficient than biofuels pathways in terms of land use  — 30, 50, even 200 times more efficient — depending on the specific crop and local conditions,” said Geyer. “You get the same amount of energy using much less land, and PV doesn’t require farm land.”

The researchers examined three ways of using sunlight to power cars: 1) the traditional method of converting corn or other plants to ethanol; 2) converting energy crops into electricity for BEVs rather than producing ethanol; and 3) using PVs to convert sunlight directly into electricity for EVs. Because land-use decisions are local, Geyer explained, he and his colleagues examined five prominent “sun-to-wheels” energy conversion pathways — ethanol from corn or switchgrass for internal combustion vehicles, electricity from corn or switchgrass for EVs, and PV electricity for EVs — for every county in the contiguous United States. Continue reading

Study Looks at Environmental Benefits of Ethanol

According to a new study performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn grown using no-till methods may sequester larger amounts of carbon than previously believed. The study was published in BioEnergy Research and showed that corn grown over a 10-year period using no-till practices sequesters carbon in the soil to depths as far as 59 inches BioEnergy Research Coverunder the surface. Previous studies only looked at depths of 11 inches and did not take into account carbon sequestration below tillage depths. These past studies arguably missed more than 50 percent of the increase in soil organic carbon below this depth.

With this new information, models used to calculate and predict the environmental benefits or liabilities of corn production will be able to better reflect the actual impact. As the study shows an average annual increase in soil carbon of approximately 1.2 tons of carbon per acre, new models will likely show more accurately how corn-based ethanol offers a tremendous greenhouse gas emissions reduction when compared to petro-fuels. Soil organic carbon and its sequestration are important, because they affect both soil fertility and greenhouse gas fluxes.

“The findings of this study are important in that they demonstrate a previously overlooked environmental benefit of corn production in general and of corn-based ethanol in specific,” said National Corn Growers Association Corn Board member Keith Alverson. “Estimates of the greenhouse gas savings corn offers over petro-fuels will undoubtedly show a more significant savings once data of this nature is factored into the overall analysis. Farmers are working harder every day to produce food, fuel and fiber sustainably as they actually improve the land through their growing practices. As scientists expand the pool of data, the positive impact of the biofuels produced from their crops becomes clearer also.”

The study, also looked at switchgrass, and was the longest on-going effort to look at carbon sequestration by these two crops.

Marginal Lands Well Suited for Biomass

alternative_energy Photo Credit Phil Robertson MSUAccording to an article in Nature, researchers with Michigan State University (MSU) show that marginal lands can serve as prime real estate for meeting alternative energy production goals. By growing mixed-species cellulosic biomass, marginal lands could annually produce up to 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol in the Midwest alone.

“Understanding the environmental impact of widespread biofuel production is a major unanswered question in the U.S. and worldwide,” said Ilya Gelfand, lead author of the paper. “We estimate that using marginal lands for growing cellulosic biomass crops could provide up to 215 gallons of ethanol per acre with substantial greenhouse gas mitigation.” According to Gelfand, this is the first study to provide an estimate for greenhouse gas benefits, and an assessment of the total potential of these lands to produce significant amounts of biomass.

Researchers from MSU, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland used 20 years of data, focused on 10 Midwestern states, from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. Kellogg Biological Station is one of 26 such NSF LTER sites in ecosystems around the world from grasslands to deserts, coral reefs to tundra.

“The study underscores the critical role that long-term basic research plays in determining the optimum balance between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability,” said Saran Twombly, program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology. “Long-term basic experiments suggest that wise management of marginal lands, rather than wholesale conversion of valuable agricultural lands, could contribute significantly to a sustainable future.” Continue reading

Solar PV Atlas Report Released

The new report, “Solar PV Atlas: solar power in harmony with nature,” has been released by WWF. The report shows that even if all electricity is generated by renewable energy sources, using solar photovoltaic (PV) alone, it would take only an insignificant amount of total land area. The report shows, through seven cases in six countries and one region, that less than 1 percent of the total land mass would be required to meet 100 percent of electricity demand in 2050 if generation electricity with with only solar PV.

WWF teamed up with First Solar, 3TIER and Fresh Generation to develop the report. It looks at Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. According to WWF, the regions represent diverse geographies, demographics, natural environments, economies and political structures. They receive Solar PV Atlasdifferent but good average levels of sunshine, and all show vast potential for widespread development of solar PV.

“Research has found that PV power plants provide considerable environmental benefits, including a low carbon footprint and a short energy pay-back time. Replacing existing grid electricity with PV arrays significantly reduces greenhouse gas and heavy metal emissions as well water usage,” said Lettemieke Mulder, First Solar vice president for Sustainability.

The report illustrates that PV technology, when well-planned, does not conflict with conservation goals and clarifies that no country or region must choose between solar PV and space for humans and nature. Solar PV Atlas, supports WWF’s vision of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The organization is actively promoting investments and measures in renewable energy technologies.

Samantha Smith, leader of the WWF’s Global Climate & Energy Initiative, added, “As climate change increasingly threatens people and the natural world, it is more important than ever to work for the rapid and wide-scale adoption of well sited, responsibly operated renewable energy power facilities.”

Corn, Ethanol Industries Drive Rural Economy

Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 11.36.43 PMAccording to a new study released by the Missouri Corn Growers Association (MCGA), the state’s corn and ethanol industries are adding to the state’s bottom line. The study, conducted by the University of Missouri Commercial Agriculture Program, reported that the corn and ethanol industries injected $12 billion into Missouri’s economy from 2000 to 2011. Each year, the state’s ethanol industry utilizes around 100 million bushels of corn to produce nearly 300 million gallons of ethanol and 825,000 tons of distillers grains, a high protein livestock feed. In 2011, Missouri corn production alone added over $1 billion in value to the state’s economy and together the two industries supported 67,000 jobs.

“This research substantiates the tremendous economic benefits corn and ethanol production bring to Missouri,” said MCMC Chairman Jim Stuever, a corn grower from Dexter, Mo. “They are significant drivers for the state by creating jobs, generating tax dollars and increasing vitality of rural communities.”

Over the 12 years studied, the combined benefits to the state’s economy from the corn and ethanol industries were:

  • $12 billion in economic value,
  • $5.3 billion in labor income, and
  • $2.2 billion paid in local, state and federal taxes.

“This is truly a success story for agriculture and the state of Missouri,” noted MCGA President Rob Korff, a corn farmer from Norborne, Mo. “The state’s ethanol industry was built on the faith and dedication of hardworking farm families and support from state leaders.”

During the 12-year period, the ethanol industry yielded a 6:1 return, a net value of over $600 million, on the state’s investment. According to the study, Missouri’s six majority farmer-owned ethanol plants alone generated the following direct and indirect benefits to the state: $734 million in economic value; $416 million in labor income; and $174 million in local, state and federal taxes.

What Do People Think About Biofuels?

What do people in the Southeast think about biofuels? Do they support biofuel ventures? Who will grow the biomass? Will those in established industries fight against it? These are just a few of the questions researchers from the University of Georgia and the U.S. Forest Service are asking as part of studies in locations throughout the Southeast suited for biomass development.

The researchers will use a mix of ethnographic methods to help understand public opinion about bioenergy and also to provide policymakers and business owners with the information they need to make sustainable energy production viable throughout communities.

Corn Stover: Biomass Photo Joanna Schroeder“We’re planning to work on the ground throughout the Southeast,” said Sarah Hitchner, a co-investigator and post-doctoral research associate at UGA’s Center for Integrative Conservation Research. “A lot of people talk about biofuels as being an obvious win-win, but it’s more complicated than that.”

Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research projects on sustainable bioenergy through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the research team will begin in Soperton, Georgia-formerly home to Range Fuels and now the Freedom Pines Biorefinery owned by LanzaTech-and then moving on to other areas in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina. While visiting local communities, the researchers will participate in the daily activities of community members and conduct in-depth interviews with a variety of stakeholders, such as landowners, industry representatives, potential employees and county commissioners.

“A big part of this kind of research is to listen to as many perspectives as possible,” said Peter Brosius, professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research and co-investigator in the study. “From there you begin to see patterns emerge.” Continue reading

USDA Supports Sustainable Bioenergy Production

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $10 million in research grants to help develop production of bioenergy and biobased products. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement while visiting Michigan State University, one of the grant winners.

Ford Concept Car with Biobased materialsWhile there, Vilsack mentioned the growth potential of biobased products as detailed in a recent study by Iowa State University (funded by USDA) that found that while biobased products in automobile manufacturing is increasing, there are still many parts that can be replaced with biobased materials.

“USDA and President Obama are committed to producing clean energy right here at home, to not only break our dependence on foreign oil, but also boost rural economies,” said Vilsack. “These projects will give us the scientific information needed to support biofuel production and create co-products that will enhance the overall value of a biobased economy. Today, with a strong and diversified U.S. agricultural sector, the American automobile industry has a greater incentive for expanding use of biobased products while supporting good-paying jobs here in the United States.”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI’s sustainable bioenergy challenge area targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that: contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural systems.

Projects were awarded in four areas: 1) policy options for and impacts on regional biofuels production systems, 2) impacts of regional bioenergy feedstock production systems on wildlife and pollinators, 3) socioeconomic impacts of biofuels on rural communities, and 4) environmental implications of direct and indirect land use change. Click here to view a full list of the winners.

66 Projects Receive ARPA-E Funding

Sixty-six research projects were selected to receive funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), part of the Department of Energy’s “OPEN 2012” program. The projects, which show fundamental technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment, will receive a combined total of $130 million.

The selected projects encompass 11 technology areas in 24 states and focus on a wide array of technologies: advanced fuels, advanced vehicle design and materials, building efficiency, carbon capture, grid modernization, renewable power and energy storage. Approximately 47 percent of the projects are led by universities, 29 percent by small businesses, 15 percent by large businesses, 7.5 percent by national labs, and 1.5 percent by non-profits. The “OPEN” funding began in 2009 and to date, there nearly 285 projects that have been awarded approximately $770 million in awards.

There were a wide-range of projects selected. For example, Plant Sensory Systems was awarded $1.8 million over three-years to develop an enhanced energy (sugar) beet optimized for biofuel production. The beets will be engineered to use fertilizer and water more efficiently and produce higher levels of fermentable sugars compared to current feedstocks.

Another example is Metabolix, who received a subaward to work with UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science to reengineer biochemical pathways for carbon fixation into camelina. Carbon fixation is the key process that plants use to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into higher energy molecules, such as sugars, using energy from the sun.

Click here for the full list of 66 OPEN 2012 winners.

ISU Researchers Growing Algae in Poultry Houses

A research project conducted by several Iowa State University (ISU) researchers is studying the feasibility of growing algae in poultry houses. Poultry manure generates ammonia, a health and safety concern for both animals and workers. Ammonia can burn the eyes, but if released into the atmosphere, could also cause acid rain. But if Honwei Xin, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at ISU he will turn a challenge into an opportunity.

Juhyon Kang, graduate research assistant in food science and human nutrition is joining Xin in the research and are working together, according to an article in the Iowa State Daily, to design and develop a bioreactor that will filter  ammonia out of the exhaust air. The gas will then be repurposed to grow algae in a controlled environment.

“We want to improve the environmental stewardship of the poultry operation,” Xin said. “It would be a perfect match if we could remove ammonia from the exhaust air in poultry houses and use it to grow algae.”

Algae can be used to create a myriad of products including biofuel, biojet fuel, biomaterials, biochemicals and animal feed. Algae thrives on gases that for humans, can negatively affect health such as carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Kang said tests have shown that up to 96 percent of the ammonia is removed from the [air] exhaust. She is currently working on scaling up the algal bioreactor ro commercial scale while other team members study optimal algae growth conditions, analyze algae to produce feed and exploring optimum amounts of ammonia concentration for the algae to grow.

Xin added, “Algae can serve as a feedstock for biorenewable energy or [an additive] for animal feed. It’s a win-win situation; you kill two birds with one stone.”