Let's Begin with a billion gallons of the best

At his Senate confirmation hearing today, Governor Vilsack smartly dodged questions about allowing increased blends of ethanol in regular gasoline (subscription required), and focused on his support for advanced biofuels. That's good, but it highlights the need for a new political and policy direction on biofuels that should start now in the economic recovery bill.

And that brings me to my New Year's wish: let's put aside the important debates about ethanol blends, the RFS, the LCFS and indirect land-use change. All the different stakeholders in the biofuels world need to keep working on the big policy questions, but we're not likely to all agree soon. I think we could all agree on an integrated program to support the rapid development of 1 billion gallons of the cleanest and greenest advanced biofuels we can produce.

If we're lucky, 2009 will be the first year we produce 1 million gallons of advanced biofuels, but none of this will come from commercial scale facilities. There has been exciting news recently from Verenium and Poet  about pilot and demonstration projects coming on line. But these are small scale facilities that are more about learning than volume production. Add these new facilities to those already in operation (such as those of Mascoma, Range and Iogen) and run them flat out (which is not how these facilities are typically run) and maybe we can get 1 million gallons.

The real proof in the pudding comes in the 1000 fold scale up from 1 million to 1 billion. The RFS calls for 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels in 2010 and 1 billion gallons in 2013. USDA officials can hope for this sort of explosive growth all they want, but given the economy this simply isn't going to happen without a very concerted and stepped up effort. And we're not going to get the consensus we need to pass and maintain this sort of an effort unless we're also trying to prove the environmental potential of biofuels.

Our current major biofuels policies and some of the new ones that have been put on the table focus on large volumes of biofuels (e.g. 22 billion gallons of advanced, 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels, 10% reduction in fuel carbon intensity, 60 billion gallons by 2030). I specifically want to avoid debating these policies here, but I will just point out that these large numbers and long time frames raise the stakes in the implementation phase of these policies (e.g. see the great letter debate I've written about), and they don't promise a timely answer to the question of whether or not we can make advanced biofuels a sustainable part of the ag and energy landscape in time to help us stop global warming. A billion gallon program is enough to prove the viability of commercial scale production, develop and validate real world environmental metrics, and rebuild a consensus around the appropriate role of biofuels in our future.

A "Beginning with a Billion of the Best" program (someone help me with a name, please!) would target 1 billion gallons of production by 2014 from feedstocks and conversion technologies that promise scalability but also can meet credible sustainable certification standards as have been developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and are hopefully being developed by the Council on Sustainable Biomass Production. To do this, we would need to stitch together government programs that support the whole system of between 10 to 20 advanced biofuels projects (assuming 50-100 million gallons per facility) and links that support efforts to achieve broad environmental benefits. And because we would be learning how to deploy these systems on the fly, each of these projects should be partnered with a comprehensive research and assessment program drawing on the likes of ag extension services, NRCS researchers, land grant and other universities, and our national labs. We need to learn what works and what doesn't and how to measure and monitor environmental performance in a cost-effective, user-friendly way.

Fortunately, we have a range of existing programs that could be rapidly scaled up as part of an economic recovery package. In particular, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, the Biorefinery Assistance, the EISA Section 207 grants, and the Biomass R&D Act programs start to provide full system support including research and analysis. (See the Green Groups' recommendations for the economic recovery for more detail on these programs.) Obama and Congress should use this billion gallon goal as a screen for economic recovery spending and make sure we're directing our precious dollars only on developing the best biofuels.

The energy bill, which we're hearing will be moving in March-April, should pull together all of our biofuels programs, require coordination among DOE, USDA, and EPA, tie access together and establish the environmental performance standards. The energy bill should also redirect our biofuels tax credits away from simple volume incentives towards paying for performance.