Cultivating Clean Energy: The Promise of Algae Biofuels

Issue Paper
October 07, 2009

A growing number of entrepreneurs, investors, academics and policy makers are working to make algae-derived gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel a reality. The economic, national security, and environmental costs of our dependence on oil become more clear every day. If developed sustainably, the algae biofuel industry may be able to provide large quantities of biofuels with potentially minimal environmental impacts.

But to properly assess algae biofuels, we need a way to see the big picture -- to develop the full life cycle of algae-to-biofuel production and analyze all potential impacts. In this report we provide a framework for comprehensive environmental analysis of algae biofuels; identify key ecological issues to be considered across all stages of production; summarize the known and unknown environmental impacts of each production process; and recommend areas for future policy and research. This report includes a particular focus on attempts to determine the impact of algae biofuel production on key ecological resources like water, land, soil, biodiversity and air, as well as its potential effect on our overall energy and carbon balance.

Ensuring that the algae biofuel industry scales up in a consistent way that provides the greatest range of benefits will require close attention from a regulatory and policy standpoint. In addition, the algae industry can proactively address sustainability issues by conducting and publishing analyses of the life cycle impacts of their technologies and adopting low-impact development, operations, and maintenance practices.