Great Discussion of Land Sufficiency and Biofuels (Part 3)

Here's the exciting (at least to me) conclusion of my summary of Lee Lynd, Mark Laser, John McBride, Kara Podkaminer, and John Hannon's chapter on the myths surrounding the potential for ethanol to play a large role in providing energy service needs. (Here's part 1, part 2, and a link to the book, "Energy and American Society - Thirteen Myths.") In part 1, I reviewed Lee et al.'s explanation for why there are such wildly divergent claims about the amount of land needed for biofuels to contribute significantly to our energy service needs. In part 2, I summarized the authors' explanation for why technical constraints are not likely to limit the role of biofuels.

In the end, Lee and his colleagues argue that the real constraint to the role of biofuels will be on our willingness to adopt policies that drive innovation and change moving our economy towards a more sustainable energy future. Here are the last 2 paragraphs from the chapter:

Ultimately, questions related to the availability of land for biomass energy production and the feasibility of large-scale provision of energy services are determined as much by world view as by hard physical constraints. If the question is: “In a world motivated to solve sustainability and security challenges, assuming that innovation and change responsive to this objective are possible, could biomass make a large contribution to provision of energy services?” We think that the answer is unequivocally “Yes.” On the other hand, biomass can make a much more limited contribution to energy supply in a world based on current or extrapolated realities with respect to important technical and behavioral variables determining biomass requirements and availability. To a substantial degree, the starkly different conclusions reached by different analysts on the biomass supply issue reflect different expectations with respect to the world’s willingness or capacity to innovate and change. However, change is our only option if we are to achieve a sustainable and secure future, whether we are talking about biomass or all renewable energy sources.

Rejecting energy service supply options because they require innovation and change decreases the set of alternatives that can make a meaningful contribution markedly, and perhaps to zero. Such rejection also denies the essence of our current situation: that we cannot extrapolate the current unsustainable and insecure present and get to a sustainable and future. The scenarios most conducive to biomass playing a significant energy service supply role involve complimentary combinations of several changes, with the largest contributions made possible by a combination of technical advances and behavioral changes. We suspect that this is not limited to biomass and indeed is true of most if not all paths to a sustainable future. Studies that project a small role for biomass generally change only the source of fuel and leave other variables constant. This, however, amounts to projecting that technologies and behaviors that arose in a world largely unconstrained by  energy availability will continue in the future. This is unlikely if one believes that energy sustainability and security challenges will become yet more pressing as we move forward – a proposition for which more support is accumulating daily.

In part 2, I parenthetically referenced a post by Robert Rapier from the R-Squared Energy Blog. As part of that post, Robert offered a strong caution against assuming technologies will work out. I imagine that he might this caution in response to Lee's arguments about why the favorable outcomes for biofuels are technically possible. I posted a comment on his blog about the post that captures much of my take on techno-optimism and world-view. Here's what I wrote:

This is all great stuff--posts and comments. I particularly like your precautionary principle about technology. I would take it a bit further and argue that even if all the renewable energy technologies that we love do develop as we want, the practical realities of deploying them and the urgency of acting to stop and reverse global warming means that no one technology can be a silver bullet--we've got silver buckshot at best. 

On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to extrapolating BUA out for all technologies and policies, I would argue that it's impossible to get to a sustainable future. So a non-intuitive corollary to being cautious about assuming any one technology will save the day is that we have to assume an ability and societal willingness to innovate and change.

Especially given the need to start achieving GHG reductions within the next 10 years and the infrastructure and consumer acceptance challenges around electric power in transportation, I would argue that we actually need to make biofuels work environmentally at least through 2050 and probably 2100.

Putting biofuels in the context of a global commitment to cut our GHG emissions and thus in context of commitment to innovation and change, it actually not that hard to construct scenarios where biofuels play an important role in meeting our transportation energy service needs. They have to be pursued as part of a package of all the technologies that you discuss here: energy efficiency first and foremost, reduced VMT through smart growth, plug-in hybrids powered by as green a grid as we can get, and international agreements to protect our forests and other critical land-based carbon stocks and sinks. Nevertheless biofuels could be an important chunk of reductions--probably on the order of our current light-duty vehicle GHG emissions.

Finding these plausible scenarios that get us to a sustainable energy future strike me as much more telling than thought experiments such as planting the world with corn or rapeseed, which only show that we can think up bad ideas.

The part that I didn't address in this post and Lee et al. also didn't address in their chapter is how do we move forward assuming a willingness to innovate and change but without assuming that just because we can do something good technologically doesn't mean that we will. I got a chance to take a stab at answer that in part this morning in a comment on a post by David Roberts over at Gristmill.

David's post is about a company developing a microbial conversion process to convert cellulosic biomass into liquid fuels other than ethanol. The company's technology may be able to use less energy in the process of converting biomass into liquid fuels and be more compatible with existing infrastructure. This hardly addresses all of the concerns people have about biofuels, but is another promising sign of the technological potential. Here's the critical part of my comments:

Fortunately, LS9 is not the only company pursuing different ways of converting lignocellulosic biomass into different liquid fuel molecules. One other company that I've heard of is called Virent (Virent). I'm not making any claims about their technology's viability, but they are trying to take an entirely different, non-microbial approach. The important lesson here is not to get wed to specific conversion processes or even specific fuel molecules (or even molecules at all to keep the door open for electric power), but rather to focus on the environmental, economic, and end-use performance characteristics we want from low-carbon alternatives to petroleum.

Of course, as you [David] point out, starting with vehicle efficiency is the first, cheapest, fastest, best option, but we need to shift our biofuels policies away from ethanol gallon mandates to performance requirements. California has taken the first step in this direction with its plan to implement a low-carbon fuel standard that requires a reduction in average fuel lifecycle carbon intensity rather than requiring a specific number of gallons.

A fellow commenter correctly pointed out that CA's low-carbon fuel standard does not encourage end-use efficiency. While that's true, CA actually has a binding economy-wide carbon limit (Assembly Bill 32) and a vehicle tailpipe CO2 standard (the Pavley 1493 bill), which encourages auto manufacturers to use efficiency along with other technologies to reduce tailpipe standards.

The important thing here is that CA has a fairly comprehensive package of technology-neutral, performance based standards that will drive major improvements in the sustainability of our energy sector. Different packages would certainly work, but the principle should be the same: be optimistic about technology, but don't pick individual technologies; be optimistic about competition, but pick aggressive performance standards.

My last thought on the topic for now is that while Lee and his colleagues have done a great job on the energy and land aspects of biofuels, there's equally important work to be done on the water, soil, and wildlife impacts. I'm pretty confident that exactly the same lessons can be drawn: that the math of large positive or negative impacts is simple, that the technology for highly favorable outcomes is very promising, but that again we should focus on the performance we want from our farmers and foresters. I'm hopeful that NRDC can help provide this follow on analysis.

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