Written by: Krysta Ryan
The Growing Biofuel Industry
Earth has provided mankind with many resources of great importance and significance such as the necessary commodities for survival, air, water, and food. The world’s environment has a rich biodiversity of raw materials, minerals, and resources which has aided in the growth of our modern civilization. The United States, since its birth, has historically contributed to the advanced prosperities with an optimistic and inventive spirit.
The progression of new technologies most importantly, America’s success of previous decades has allowed the nation to build an intricate transportation system and an enormous energy industry. This success was largely attributed to the use of fossil fuels to power the needs of the economy. It is critically important to identify the inevitability of using only fossil fuels and quickly incorporate renewable resources into our current energy matrix.
One renewable resource that has been growing in popularity and worth discussing in further detail is the growing innovative developments within the biofuel market. The innovative methods for production, diversity in biomass feedstocks and the self-sustaining predictability of this type of fuel will serve as a powerful transition fuel.
Biofuel is considered the energy source of the future. For the last few decades, extensive research and developments within the industry have propelled the invention of new innovative production techniques, using a variety of renewable feedstocks.
Currently, the technologies used for burning and storing biomass are much more complex and expensive than the technologies used for supplying heating from natural gas (Jovovic, Simanaviciene & Dirma, 2017). Therefore, developing new technologies and methods of production will be critical to ensure that biofuel energy will be sustainable, available at a moderate cost and does not affect the agricultural system responsible for the worlds food supply.
Biofuels can be retrieved either directly from plants, or indirectly from the organic waste produced within the industries, such as agricultural, commercial, domestic, and industrial manufacturing. Biomass, an industry term more commonly understood as the plant-based waste product, not suited for consumption, either as food or feed.
Biomass is organic feedstock that contains a renewable energy derived from previously living plant and animal material. More than one billion people in the world today still use wood as their primary source of energy for heat and cooking (Botkin & Keller, 2014, p.379). Biofuels produced from biomass has been a primary source of energy throughout human history.
Biomass can become an energy source can be used either directly via combustion to produce heat, or indirectly after converting it to various forms of biofuel.
Botkin and Keller (2014) divide biofuels into five distinct groups,
1.) unmanaged growth harvested by people, including firewood, grasses, and peat;
2.) organic wastes used directly, and methane emitted from decomposition of waste;
3.) agrofuels-crops grown to be converted into liquid fuels;
4.) ethanol produced by some algae as a by-product of photosynthesis; and
5.) ethanol produced by bacteria as a by-product of decomposition of organic wastes (p.379).
The industry divides biofuels into the categories of first, second and third generation.
Types of Biofuels
First-generation biofuels are controversial because the feedstocks used are crop-based sources such as starch, sugar, animal fats and vegetable oil, all of which are consumable by humans. The most familiar first-generation biofuels include biodiesel – derived from vegetable oils and crops like soybean, rapeseed (canola) and sunflower. Another first-generation biofuel is ethanol- produced during a process of fermentation with feedstocks containing simple sugars found in crops such as sugarcane, corn, and wheat. Biogas-refers to a mixture of various gases created during the breakdown of organic matter, typically raw materials such as agricultural waste, manure, and crop residues.
Second-generation biofuels also are produced from sustainable feedstocks, but unlike first-generation biofuel feedstocks, the biomass grown is not typically suitable for human consumption. Often referred to as advanced biofuels their methods of extraction and production can be quite difficult, requiring technologies that have capabilities to process a wider range of plants as biomass resources, from agriculture, forestry, wetlands and waste materials. One of the popular second-generation biofuels comes from the organic components in biomass feedstocks such as sewage sludge, animal wastes, and industrial effluents, can be broken down through anaerobic digestion into methane and a carbon dioxide mixture called as ‘‘biogas” (Demirbas, 2008). This type of biofuel has seen significant technological progress in terms of how sewage treatment facilities can breakdown waste through anaerobic digestion in bio-digesters to produce biogas as a fuel source for electricity. Biogas is a viable fuel that is environmentally friendly, relatively cheap to produce and extremely predictable.
Third-generation biofuels are an evolving market, with biomass feedstocks deriving from one source, algae. Algae has been used as a feedstock in earlier second-generation biofuel production, but more recently key differences have emerged between the two, warranting a separate category for this evolving biofuel feedstock. One notable difference is the extreme ability of algae biomass to produce a diverse array of fuel types such as biodiesel, butanol, gasoline (petrol) and ethanol. Also, algae feedstocks have been proven to have higher efficiency yields, with no impact on the food market and can be self-sustainable. Connor and Atsumi (2010) explain some of the obstacles with developing sustainable third-generation biofuels, is that photosynthetic organisms require more complex reactor designs and their growth and productivity in suboptimal conditions (temperature, salt concentration, etc.) is not well understood.
Current Biofuel Technologies
The bioenergy sector is still in its infancy and the growing interest in renewable energy sources has caught the attention of investors in the bio-market and has mobilized intensive research and development projects. The focus within the industry has been on developing biomass systems for energy conversion and storage. Biomass conversion technologies use various types of feedstocks, are produced in different ways and are transported varying distances different distances – not every feedstock conversion technology is possible or desirable (Farine et al., 2011).
In other words, the methods used for converting biomass and the versatility of using indigenous and native feedstocks, allows bioenergy centers to build facilities and infrastructure most suitable for the needs of the consumer. Biomass diversity provides an infinite supply of feedstocks for producing methanol and ethanol. Those two distinct types of biofuel are anticipated to be key resources for the future and have been said to be able to replace conventional oils and gases used in the transportation sector.
There has been renewed revitalization and interest in biofuels because of the innovative progress within the industry. Most problematically, will be the conversion of healthy domestic croplands to biomass farms, creating a ripple effect on the costs of energy and the price food and energy. Moving from crop-based biomass feedstocks to innovative algae-based biomass is underway which overtime should minimize the stress on our croplands and stop the future conversion of farmland to biomass growth. As of late, it has become scientifically well-known that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change from the release of various toxins, collectively called greenhouse gases or GHG.
For environmentally sustainable energy to diffuse rapidly on a world scale, there must be an international commitment to reduce carbon dioxide and other damaging emissions from fossil fuels (Bellaby, Flynn & Ricci, 2012). Biofuels are cleaner and safer than fossil fuels and switching to biofuels will long-term environmental beneﬁts, such as the reduction of greenhouse gases emitted when burning fossil fuels. Demirbas (2008) writes that biofuels have positive environmental properties resulting in no net releases of carbon dioxide and very low sulfur content. Reduction of greenhouse gases has also been linked to the life-cycle process of growing biomass and the need for carbon dioxide to grow.
Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from the conversion of land use, corn-based ethanol nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for the next 167 years (Searchinger et al., 2008). Determining the best feedstocks to use for producing biofuels should consider the effects on the environment and use methods that would minimize stress to our current croplands.
There has been a continual scientific debate over the actual causes of climate change and commonly two perspectives emerge; Climate change is either a “natural process” or “human-induced”. These two ideologies can influence government authorities, policy makers, energy investors, consumers, product manufacturers and the very large transportation sector.
There has been an ongoing discussion regarding the use of biofuels in relation to the environment and many advocates of biofuel usage claim that the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions during the life cycle process, overtime will drastically reduce greenhouse gases.
Prior studies have found that replacing biofuel with gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock (Searchinger et al., 2008). In other words, plants need carbon to complete the chemical process of photosynthesis, so growing feedstock and using it as a fuel theoretically, over time, should reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Some experts say this assumption does not take into consideration indirect carbon emissions and the effects from farmers worldwide converting forest and grassland to new cropland because farmland used for growing food has been diverted to grow biomass feedstocks.
On the other hand, bioenergy demands for feedstock will require millions of additional hectares of grassland and forest area to have continues sustainability. There is a direct interaction between energy markets and our food supply, with the first economist to recognize their connection over forty years ago. An article by Timmer (1975), in which he examined the interactions between energy and food prices in a simple micromodel consisting of an aggregate production function and an aggregate consumption function for one of the major food grains.
Results suggest that biofuel mandates are a primary cause of some of the major concerns associated with crop-based biofuel production, including higher food prices and lower consumer welfare (Wu & Langpap, 2015). The conversion of land, on the other hand, could cause higher crop prices, and farmers will respond by clearing more forest and grassland to grow feed, raise cattle and grow food for the growing population.
For example, minimizing risks to food security creates an incentive to cultivate biofuel on currently uncultivated lands, which could threaten natural forests, reduce biodiversity, and increase GHG emissions (Heinimö & Junginger, 2009). Another environmental concern is that biofuel feedstocks are crops that require heavy usage of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which when used creates increased pollution in the air and the increased chance that the ground could become highly contaminated in the farming region.
Also, biofuel feedstocks and agriculture crops compete for water which can directly impact our food supply. Finding enough clean and available water to sustain our growing population is a major environmental concern. The increase in food and biomass croplands being cultivated also increases the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which has been known to contaminate groundwater that flows into underground aquifers used by populations as drinking water. The environmental impact associated with the production of biofuels can also impact the economic stability in areas where biomass is cultivated or processed with considerable risks and benefits which is discussed in the next section.
Economic Analysis- Impact of Biofuels
There are many economic reasons to begin using biofuels, and its continuous research and technological advances will add value to the nation’s energy profile. Many economic benefits exist for an increased use of biofuels, such as energy security, reduction in transportation costs from foreign trade, and socio-economic stimulation within the rural sector by boosting the demand for agriculture jobs.
The biomass intensive future energy supply outlook estimates that 385 million hectares of biomass energy plantations would be in use globally by 2050 with three-quarters of this area established in developing countries (Demirbas, 2008). The versatility of using biofuels over other renewable energy sources is that it can be produced with feedstocks indigenous to the region which is an attractive benefit for developing countries just starting to build infrastructure for energy services.
Take, for example, another renewable energy resource wind electricity which has geographical restrictions that affect efficiency because not all places have enough wind to produce energy. Unlike wind energy, biofuel productions are ultimately determined by the availability of biomass or feedstock. In theory, biofuel production has predictability because economic equations can determine how much biomass is needed.
Botkin and Keller (2014) explain, that the United States, has 314 million people, but use the same amount of energy as China with a population of 1.3 billion, meaning that the American people use four times that of the Chinese (p.338). At this rate of usage, dependence on fossil fuels will have long-lasting effects on all living things on earth. Increased energy consumption from population growth is inevitable and this realization has made biofuel usage an attractive renewable fuel source that can be harvested domestically.
Unlike other renewable energy systems, Searchinger et al (2008) write, the chemical and physical properties of biofuels in their liquid state, as well as, their combustion characteristics are very like existing fuels in use, with a supporting infrastructure already in place. This means that the transition to biofuels would be relatively cheap because minimal updates would be needed to the overall system. This also would significantly reduce the time needed for conversion of facilities and would minimize power outages or disturbances for energy consumers. This means that the existing infrastructure can support the growing use of biofuel with minimal cost factors.
In this regard, biofuels can be a sustainable source of energy if agricultural planning collaborates with energy producers to maximize production of biomass feedstocks at all levels. Results suggest that biofuel mandates are a primary cause of some of the major concerns associated with crop-based biofuel production, including higher food prices and lower consumer welfare (Wu & Langpap, 2015).
The Energy Information Administration or EIA (2010) reports that the global production of biomass has increased by a factor of four and the international trade of feedstocks and biofuel is reaching an unsurpassed high. Agricultural concerns about crop-based feedstocks should be evaluated and addressed to ensure that a balance between food needs and biomass feedstock production does not affect the economic stability of the nation.
Political Legislation and Biofuel Policies
Bioenergy systems if managed accordingly could be self-sustaining, under the assumption that, supply and demand for energy are able to withstand fluctuations in demand as our population grows. Breaking free of our nation’s dependence on foreign oil will be a complicated political move and will need to be a collaborative effort among various global markets. There have been many global efforts among international communities with incentives for developing regulatory measures to reduce their use of fossil fuels and reduce their nations overall carbon footprint.
Acknowledgement of our nation’s dependence on foreign fossil fuels paved the way for a critical piece of legislation, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was the first piece of legislation addressing the need for further research and development, with studies related to the biofuel industry. This encouraged the use of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel and gave Congress more power to regulate the biofuel industry.
Within two years Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The provisions of the act amended the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and expanded the biofuel blending mandate for the fuel producers in the transportation sector. The provisions raised the targeted number to 36 billion US gallons (140,000,000 m3) of biodiesel that would need to be blended with conventional sources of gasoline by 2022 (Connor & Atsumi, 2010).
Petroleum companies have contested that the increased biofuel target is impossible to meet. The United States Renewable Fuel Standard or RFS implemented in 2007, was originally designed to gradually increase the total volume of renewable biofuel that would be introduced into the market each year.
The plan would require companies to blend a total of 19.24 billion gallons of renewable fuels into the country’s fuel supply by 2018 and would cost the industry billions (Prentice, Renshaw & Shepardson, 2017).
The stated purpose of the act is
…to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase ratio of the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.
The RFS has become a booming interest across the United States, specifically in the Midwest territory for both corn and oil interests. Although governmental initiatives have propelled the development of the biomass industry, critics still argue that increasing demands on the agriculture industry will amplify the growing concerns over food security.
Wu and Langpap (2015) explain the importance of coordinating efforts among the agricultural, environmental and energy industries so that policies are developed after carefully evaluating the interactions and relationships between crop, food and energy markets.
The diverse variety of biomass feedstocks that can be cultivated to produce all forms of biofuels (solid, liquid and gas), is an added benefit for the usage of, the transportation of and the storage of this reliable type of energy. Biomass has a distinct advantage among the rest of the renewable energy systems in use today, because of the ability for feedstocks to produce energy in the form of a solid, a liquid or a gas (Demirbas, 2008). In other words, biofuel can be customized to suit the needs of a specific industry or market by collaborating with farmers to grow feedstocks native to the region.
This would maximize the biofuel production as well as drastically reduce costs associated with importing feedstocks grown elsewhere. A centralized production model, where feedstocks are grown and processed into energy has the greatest potential if managed properly.
As I have mentioned previously, the biofuel industry is still in its infancy. With time technological innovations with biomass energy may uncover new scientific discoveries. Most promising is the development in the area related to third-generation biofuels because they do not rely on crop-based feedstocks, which are critical to our food supply.
When the technology is available, it will be up to the energy producers to discover better plants for cultivation that uses fewer agricultural lands, grows rapidly and requires less water and in turn, many of the concerns related to biofuel production should be minimized (Ionut & Mihai, 2014). The progress in the biofuel industry has shown that its developments can help significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
In sum, with the variety of second and third generation biofuels being explored and developed, the need for policies limiting crop-based biomass should be implemented to slowly reverse the diversion of croplands. The ongoing worldwide biofuel research is underway and the advanced understanding of newer biomass varieties will help create a thriving biofuel market and will reduce the use of crop-based feedstocks altogether.
Energy is a fundamental utility that has become a necessity, required for humans to thrive. In honor of our nations inventive spirit, the development of a sustainable bioenergy market within the United States should become a priority to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and be the first model of a country using biofuel technologies to fuel their growing renewable energy system.