Renewable Fuels and Environmental Sustainability

How will the U.S. meet the new Renewable Fuel Standard and still address environmental sustainability? — Aaron M., Chicago, Illinois

Many reports as well as news articles have been released highlighting positive and negative externalities of the growing bioenergy industry. Questions around greenhouse gas emissions, economic development, international impacts (including land use changes and property rights of indigenous people) have all illustrated conflicts with many of the original goals of advocates for bioenergy production. Expectations that bioenergy, specifically renewable fuels, would be a part of the US national security strategy to break the country’s ‘addiction to oil’ as well as the strategic use of these fuels as part of a greenhouse gas reduction regime are being called into question.

Last year’s action on energy legislation resulted in the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). The EISA has been proclaimed by some energy experts as a landmark bill designed to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. This law includes several important provisions, including an expansion and extension of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that was first authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The RFS requires 9 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be used in 2008, increasing to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Of this requirement, 21 billion gallons must be advanced biofuels, including cellulosic biofuels and biomass-based diesel. The important inclusion of the RFS by Congress illustrates its dedication to the growing role that it expects renewable fuels to play in addressing climate and national security issues.

Concerns over meeting the requirements of this large RFS and about the environmental and social impacts of renewable fuels have not gone unnoticed by Congress. Programs have been under development for the last year that will help the expanding renewable fuel industry address national security and climate change. These programs may be found in the House- and Senate-passed farm bills — Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007 and Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, respectively. Objectives of these programs (discussed below) include: diversification of feedstocks, development of appropriately-scaled projects and needed research.

Diversification of feedstocks for renewable fuels and other biomass technologies will have to occur if the country is going to meet the recently passed RFS. The transition to cellulosic energy crops from traditional row crops may be very risky, especially if markets are not fully developed. The Biomass Energy Crop Transition Assistance (Senate) and the Biomass Energy Reserve (House) provisions are designed to provide incentives to farmers and foresters to grow bioenergy crops in a sustainable manner. This program also provides an incentive for producers to harvest, store and transport biomass to bioenergy facilities. If these new feedstocks are grown in a way that does not change land use (such as winter cover crops) some concerns around biomass may be lessened. Additionally, the Biomass Inventory Report will help the country identify new feedstocks including waste streams, which may be converted to bioenergy without changing land-use.

Concerns about sustainable usage of agriculture residues as well as forest thinnings for large-scale production facilities are understandable given the challenges the country faces with the increased demand for energy. Bioenergy production facilities that are appropriately scaled to biomass availability may be propelled forward in new farm bill programs. One such program that addresses this issue is the Community Wood Energy Program (modeled on the successful Fuels for Schools Program) that provides financial assistance for communities that wish to use woody biomass as the primary energy source in schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public buildings. These projects may not exceed 2 megawatts for electric power production or 50,000,000 Btu per hour for heating. The program provides small grants for the creation of community wood energy plans and more substantial grants for upgrades and acquisitions in equipment and technology. Furthermore, the Future Farmsteads Program will equip five farmhouses (and the surrounding land) in diverse regions of the country to demonstrate energy efficiency and local, on-farm production of energy from diverse feedstocks. The program will serve as a visual, working example for rural communities, showcasing technologies and energy solutions appropriate to the locale.

Continued research, demonstration, deployment and most importantly, commercialization of new technologies is encouraged in the House and Senate farm bills through several programs. Key areas of research include: sustainable production; social and economic impacts of production; and technical applications, including conversion of materials, harvesting and storage infrastructure. For example, the Renewable Woody Biomass for Energy program establishes a research and development program focused on developing technologies for the utilization of low-value biomass for energy. Another program that has a long history of successful projects is the Biomass Research and Development Initiative. One of the objectives of this initiative is to produce a “diversity of sustainable domestic sources of biomass for conversion to biobased fuels and biobased products.” This program may be vital in identifying how to utilize organic waste streams and residues, which do not induce a land use change, for conversion to renewable fuels.

The current challenge is to ensure that clean and sustainable bionenergy becomes an integral part of agriculture policy. Although it is exceptional to see these programs included in both farm bills, there is a giant disconnect in the minuscule funding levels for all of these important energy programs and the significant role that they are going to play, not just in reaching the new requirements of the RFS, but in addressing the pressing issues of the 21 Century — national security and climate change.

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