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USDA & DOE Release National Biofuels Action Plan; UN FAO Report Calls For Review of Biofuels Policies

NBAP top-level advanced biofuels commercialization timeline. Click to enlarge.

The US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) released the National Biofuels Action Plan (NBAP), an interagency plan detailing the collaborative efforts of Federal agencies to accelerate the development of a sustainable biofuels industry.

Separately, in a new edition of its annual publication The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2008, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called for an urgent review of biofuel policies and subsidies to preserve the goal of world food security, protect poor farmers, promote broad-based rural development and ensure environmental sustainability.

The NBAP was developed and is being implemented by the Biomass Research and Development (R&D) Board. Co-chaired by USDA and DOE officials, the Board was created to coordinate the activities of federal agencies involved in biomass research and development. Its membership represents the combined expertise and resources of senior decision makers from nearly a dozen executive branch agencies and the Administration.

To enhance the impact of federal biofuels investments and enable attainment of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the NBAP outlines interagency actions and accelerated federally supported research efforts in seven areas including:

Sustainability. Amendments to the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program made by last year’s energy legislation (EISA 2007) include promoting sustainability by (1) directing reductions in greenhouse gasses be achieved for different feedstocks; (2) requiring that biofuels production not adversely impact the environment or natural resources; (3) focusing on the development of cellulosic and other feedstocks; and (4) stipulating that every 3 years EPA assess and report to Congress on environmental impacts of biofuel systems.

Among the Biomass R&D Board actions outlined in the NBAP in this area are:

  • Defining by November 2008 a set of science-based national criteria and identifying science-based indicators to assess sustainable production of biofuels across the biofuels supply chains.

  • Establishing a Sustainability Interagency Working Group led by DOE, USDA, and EPA, with participation from other agencies, to facilitate strategic planning and coordinate Federal activities; interface with industry and environmental groups; coordinate EISA studies across different agencies; and define and evaluate sustainability criteria, benchmarks and indicators.

  • Planning a series of workshops with internal and external stakeholders.

Feedstock Production. Interagency studies have suggested that the US has sufficient indigenous biomass available to meet the EISA targets. Key activities required to enable this include:

  • Environmental implications and balance between Environmental implications, such as the effect of feedstock production on soil, water and air quality, and market implications of increased production of feedstocks used for biofuels, for food, feed, and fiber, need to be considered as use of first generation feedstocks (e.g., oilseeds and grain) increases.

  • Utilization of second generation feedstocks should sustain and enhance water and air quality and other ecosystem services. The availability and cost of these feedstocks need to be inventoried to qualify plant siting opportunities.

  • Third-generation feedstocks—crops such as perennial grasses, fast growing trees, and algae—should be developed to increase drought and stress tolerance; increase fertilizer and water use efficiencies; and provide for efficient conversion.

  • Improvements in the yields of all feedstocks will be necessary to support future targets.

The Board commissioned an interagency feedstock working group to address feedstock availability and cost, sustainability, and greenhouse gas emissions from feedstock activities. Another feedstock working group will develop a long-term integrated feedstock research plan across the Federal government by December 2008 to promote enhanced coordination and collaboration.

The Board will use this information to address the impact of current regulatory processes on the introduction of modified energy crops and to work with farmers and foresters to increase acceptance and introduction of new crops and trees.

Feedstock Logistics. The area of feedstock logistics comprises four main elements: Harvesters & collectors; storage facilities; preprocessing/grinding equipment; and transportation of feedstocks from the field to the biorefinery.

The Board will facilitate collaboration to develop and deploy logistics systems that can supply cellulosic feedstocks to demonstration facilities currently planned for construction. A working group consisting of the USDA, DOE, and other agencies will lead a planning process to develop milestones culminating in the implementation of logistics systems demonstrations in partnership with industry.

Conversion Science and Technology. Significant transformational basic research and applied R&D is necessary to meet the challenge of developing cost-effective, commercially viable conversion technologies that will be needed to support a major move to cellulosic biofuels.

Although researchers have been primarily focused on cellulosic ethanol, the potential also exists to produce other fuels including higher alcohols, renewable gasoline and diesel, and aviation fuels produced via enzymatic and microbial and/or chemical catalytic processing of biomass.

Such advanced biofuels would have numerous advantages, for example, having energy content comparable to current petroleum-based fuels, and easier integration into the existing fuel infrastructure.

Key next steps outlined in the plan include:

  • Developing the knowledge of plants, microbes, and enzymes at the system, cellular, and molecular levels so as to enable re-engineering of these biological systems to substantially reduce conversion costs and increase product yields.

  • Developing technologies to enable co-production of marketable fuels and value-added co-products that can improve overall production economics.

  • Discovering and developing better technologies for the production of hydrocarbon fuels from lignocellulosic biomass, utilizing microbial, thermochemical, or catalytic processes.

  • Addressing fundamental issues of catalysis in the gas and liquid phases, including characterization and durability.

  • Addressing the feedstock-conversion interface with the ultimate goal of robust utilization of regionally diverse, multiple, variable, and potentially complex feedstocks.

  • Optimizing processes to make technologies economically viable on a small scale.

  • Identifying processes and innovations achieved in related industries, such as petroleum refining that can be leveraged to improve the performance of biofuel conversion pathways.

The Board has established an interagency working group to guide the exploration of concepts capable of leading to cost-effective and commercially viable processes for converting cellulosic and other forms of biomass to biofuels, including: ethanol; higher alcohols; and green gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuels. The interagency working group is comprised of NSF, DOE, USDA, EPA, DOD, and other agencies.

Distribution Infrastructure. A future biofuels infrastructure must address each of the following areas: capital; corrosion; and capacity. The Board is establishing an interagency working group led by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to study and make recommendations to the Board by December 2008 on the following issues:

  • Feasibility of pipeline use for biofuels transport, including facilitation of the necessary interagency collaboration on standards development.

  • Liquid fuel flows over infrastructure, including pipelines, rail, barge and truck transportation to identify short and long-term infrastructure bottlenecks that will inhibit biofuels development.

  • Integration of Geographic Information System (GIS)-based tools housed at agencies such as DOT, USDA, EPA, and DOE in order to begin to link transportation infrastructure, demand, feedstock location, as well as water and other resources.

The US will need to adopt intermediate ethanol blends to consume the biofuel required by the RFS, according to the NBAP. Click to enlarge.

Blending. The US E10 (10% ethanol blend) market will be saturated in the next few years and the number of E85 fueling stations and flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) will likely not grow fast enough to accommodate the higher volumes of ethanol required by the RFS, according to the NBAP.

One option for increasing biofuel consumption is to use intermediate blends such as E15 or E20. Before moving to such intermediate blends, the air quality impacts of higher blends need to be quantified; the legal and technical ability of the fleet to absorb higher volumes of ethanol needs to be determined; and the compatibility with higher ethanol blends of the materials used in the current infrastructure with higher blends needs to be assessed.

The Board’s member agencies are conducting an interagency testing program to evaluate the impact of intermediate blends on vehicle emissions and material compatibility to support potential fuel supplier waiver applications. Initial test results are targeted to be available in Fall 2008.

The Board also plans to work with state and local agencies to ensure full national penetration of E10.

Environment, Health and Safety. The Board will establish an interagency working group to benchmark agricultural and biofuels industry successes and practices.

  • The group will inventory the Federal government’s activities and areas of jurisdiction with respect to public health, safety, and environmental protection.

  • It will review and summarize potential public health, safety, and environmental issues related to the life-cycle of biofuels and identify research needs and potential mitigation options.

The DOE has allocated more than $1 billion to research, development, and demonstration of cellulosic biofuels technology through 2009. Since 2006, USDA has invested almost $600 million for the research, development and demonstration of new biofuels technology.

UN FAO: The State of Food and Agriculture 2008. Biofuel production based on agricultural commodities increased more than threefold from 2000 to 2007, and now covers nearly two percent of the world’s consumption of transport fuels, according to the FAO. The growth is expected to continue, but the contribution of liquid biofuels (mostly ethanol and biodiesel) to transport energy, and even more so, to global energy use will remain limited.

The FAO report, subtitled “Biofuels: prospects, risks and opportunities” concludes that concerted efforts to reform policies and invest in agriculture will be essential if the risks associated with biofuels are to be reduced, and the opportunities more widely shared.

Among the key messages of the report are:

  • Demand for agricultural feedstocks for liquid biofuels will be a significant factor for agricultural markets over the next decade and perhaps beyond.

  • Rapidly growing demand for biofuel feedstocks has contributed to higher food prices, threatening the food security of poor net food buyers in both urban and rural areas. Safety nets are urgently needed.

  • In the longer term, expanded demand and increased prices for agricultural commodities may represent an opportunity for agricultural and rural development. However, higher commodity prices alone are not enough; investments in productivity- and sustainability-enhancing research, enabling institutions, infrastructure and sound policies are also urgently needed.

  • The impact of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions differs according to feedstock, location, agricultural practices and conversion technology. In some cases, the net effect is unfavorable. The largest impact is determined by land-use change—for example through deforestation—as agricultural area is expanded.

  • Harmonized approaches for assessing greenhouse balances and other environmental impacts of biofuel production are needed.

  • Liquid biofuels are likely to replace only a small share of global energy supplies. Land requirements would be too large to allow displacement of fossil fuels on a larger scale. The possible future introduction of second-generation biofuels based on lignocellulosic feedstocks would greatly expand potential.

  • Given existing technologies, production of liquid biofuels in many countries is not currently economically viable without subsidies.

  • Policy interventions, especially in the form of subsidies and mandated blending of biofuels with fossil fuels, are driving the rush to liquid biofuels. However, many of the measures being implemented by both developed and developing countries have high economic, social and environmental costs.

The rapid policy-induced development of biofuels has, in many ways, been significantly in advance of actual scientific knowledge about their effects and impacts. As our understanding of their environmental and socio-economic implications improves, the need arises to put biofuel policies on a more solid base.

—The State of Food and Agriculture 2008



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