Biofuel's Bumpy Road: The Trials and Tribulations of Algae, Palm Oil, Bioelectricity, Feedstocks, & Birds

country road photo

photo: Kevin/Creative Commons

The biofuel craze passed a while ago and more sober assessments of their promises and problems took over, but that doesn't mean by a long shot that there isn't plenty of interesting ongoing work being done. Here's just a sampling of what's gone on just this week trying to turn plants into power:

palm oil kernels photo

photo: One Village Initiative/Creative Commons

Sustainable Palm Oil Production Doubled This Year

Palm oil has really gotten a bad rep and for much of the palm oil produced in the world--Indonesia and Malaysia dominate the market--this reputation is deserved. Though they may look superficially like forests, palm oil plantations have radically lower biodiversity as well as carbon storage potential than the genuine forest they replaced. And when planted on peat soils, all the carbon stored in the soil gets released into the atmosphere as well. When biodiesel is produced from palm oil grown in this way the carbon emissions per gallon can actually be several times higher than petroleum-based diesel.

But there are good efforts being made to produce palm oil in more eco-friendly ways, as a new piece from WWF shows: So far this year global production of certified sustainable palm oil has doubled, according to figures from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Still only about 6.4% of the world's production of palm oil (that's 46.6 million tons in total) is now certified sustainable, but last year just 3.2% was.

Complicating matters is that, even though there's a lot more sustainable palm oil being produced, end-users aren't necessarily buying it: Only about 60% of the certified output has been bought so far this year; though that was 95% in the first quarter of the year.

Now not all of that, or likely even half, is used to produce biofuel (palm oil lurks in more consumer products than you can imagine), but if palm oil producing countries want to take advantage of palm oil's many benefits, and when it comes to being a biofuel feedstock palm oil has lots of promise, it doesn't make any sense for it to come at the expense of their forests, nor the environment more broadly.

biofuel choices and bird diversity changes map

Left: Brown shows areas with species declines of up to 50 percent on marginal land planted with corn for biofuels. Right: Blue shows species increases of up to 200 percent if marginal lands are planted with diverse grasslands as biofuel feedstocks. Photo courtesy Claudio Gratton and Tim Meehan, University of Wisconsin-Madison

US Biofuel Choices Could Mean Birds Lose Out or Win Big

The issues surrounding changes in land-use resulting from expanding biofuel production are numerous--from biofuel crops taking over land that could be used for food production, to deforestation and habitat loss, to neo-colonial land grabs in parts of the developing world--but a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that it's not always all bad for wildlife when biofuel production expands, when it comes to birds in the Midwest at least.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at how differing methods of cultivation--annual monocultures such as corn, or more diverse perennial prairie plants and grasses--impacted bird diversity.

They found that large-scale increases of monoculture row crops, in areas where these don't already exist, decreased bird biodiversity: In some areas bird species could decline up to 65%; while in others declines were less so, only 7%.

Conversely, planting perennial crops can increase bird biodiversity--particularly in places where annual row crops dominate. In places now dominated by corn like central Illinois and Iowa bird species could increase by 100%, while even elsewhere they could go up by 25%.

Read more: Life Sciences World

mitsubishi electric car photo

photo: T.M.O.F./Creative Commons

Bio-Electricity's Benefits Over Liquid Biofuels Depend on Electricity Being Replaced

About a year ago a study was released showing that using biofuel crops to generate electricity to run cars was better in terms of greenhouse gas impact than producing liquid biofuels from those crops and using internal combustion engines. A new study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, adds some nuance to the discussion, showing that how big an advantage bio-electricity has over liquid biofuels depends on what source of electricity is already in place.
Bioelectricity that displaces coal-fired electricity could reduce GHG emissions, but bioelectricity that displaces wind electricity could increase GHG emissions. The electricity displaced depends upon existing infrastructure and policies affecting the electric grid.

It's all pretty intuitive, but it's worth taking a look at the original study, which looks at differences in greenhouse gas abatement based on using either corn or switchgrass as a biofuel feedstock, as well as a several fossil fuel electricity sources: The Climate Impacts of Bioenergy Systems Depend on Market and Regulatory Policy Contexts [PDF]

algae biofuel photo

photo: Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons

Affordable Algae Biodiesel Still a Decade Away?

More than perhaps any other biofuel feedstock, the commercialization of algae seems perpetually just over the horizon. In fact the US Department of Energy recently said they were still years away. Now a new study in Science says that, based on conditions in Europe at least, cost-competitive algae biofuels are at least a decade off.

Via Renewable Energy World:

According to the authors' calculations on fuel consumption in Europe, almost 2.3 billion gallons of biodiesel will need to be replaced. To supply the European market, algae yields would need to be over 4,400 gallons of fuel per acre each year. That would require 22 million acres - a land area the size of Portugal. In comparison, one acre of palm oil yields about 600 gallons per acre and corn yields about 270 gallons per acre. By looking at existing technologies and modeling a variety of commercial-scale plants, the researchers determined it would take a decade for algae-based biodiesel to become cost-competitive in Europe.

REW points out that even with all the alternate revenue streams associated with algae biofuel production--and the genuine advances being made all the time--the fuel itself still costs between $6 and $35 a gallon.

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More on Biofuels:
Biofuels Falling Well Short of Green Standards in UK
Algae Biofuels Still Years From Commercialization: DoE
Whisky Biofuel Available in a Few Years: 30% More Power Than Ethanol
KLM Schedules First Biofuel Test Flight With Passengers

Biofuel's Bumpy Road: The Trials and Tribulations of Algae, Palm Oil, Bioelectricity, Feedstocks, & Birds
The biofuel craze passed a while ago and more sober assessments of their promises and problems took over, but that doesn't mean by a long shot that there isn't plenty of interesting ongoing work being done. Here's just a

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