The EPA is currently considering new production mandates for biofuels. That presents a good opportunity for a wide-ranging look at exactly where biofuels stand today. Have they lived up to their promise? Do they have any future? To dig in, I talked with Dan Lashof of the World Resources Institute.
My understanding from my DOE days in the 2010s was that biofuels were never intended for passengers vehicles or electricity but for things like planes were batteries are impractical and liquid fuels were necessary.
We seem to be talking past each other. As far as I can tell, you are calculating PV panel area and annual electrical output. Those numbers are perfectly reasonable both for your own installation and nationwide. I'm just adding in the land area between and around panel rows needed in actual solar farms. Fenceline to fenceline.
As a regular listener of the Volts podcast (and of The Energy Transition Show with Chris Nelder- and many others), thank you for doing what you do.
Over the past ~30 years (i.e. since finishing an undergrad BA in communication w/a psych minor in 1995), I haven't been a big reader. That I also ended up working technology in Silicon Valley and then as an Army medic on active duty may seem to be equally weird. Or was... until I returned from Iraq in 2008 and received a diagnosis of ADHD inattentive type (in 2010). Now, ten years into a spinal cord injury which happened shortly after retirement and finally receiving the care I need (but not from the VA), I'm not only reading again but starting to write, too. (I'll admit I'm not writing very well at the moment, but that should change over time.)
That said, I'm looking forward to reading more of your work as time goes on.
As for future topics, off the top of my head I'm not sure if you've addressed the population question before or not- but that may be a timely topic to return to. So, too, may be something which I think you have done a podcast or two on: the potential impact of individual human action and it's role wrt climate change & the energy transition. To do so with some attention to the context of competing interests, bad actors & intentional misinformation and the (often) slow wheels of government (in & across the U.S. & elsewhere) might be helpful, especially for those who are just coming to the table (!) or who may already be aware of the need to move at least a little more quickly- and far more effectively- than humanity is doing today. (Or, in other words, I'd encourage anything that helps people translate ICCP and UN SDG info into actions they can do- today- independent of anything which may transpire in the halls of government, whether that's D.C., individual statehouses or town halls.)
Again, great episode & I'm looking foward to more... (Mahalo!)
Wow. I want to take that land factor for biofuel vs. solar PV - EV miles and burn it into the brain of everyone who pops up with "...'industrial' solar farms take too much land...." Was it 100x, 300x? W/o relistening, I ran some conversions myself and it was around 1 car for every 2 acres for ethanol, 50 cars/acre for PV, so 100x. Your actual mileage may vary. Soy biodiesel seemed like another 3-4x more land. Only 65 gallons/acre it seems. Seems like ONE ACRE per FILL UP for a FU3500. Yikes.
I'm surprised that a discussion of biofuels didn't mention California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which is really driving the market for renewable diesel. Neste and Valero learned early on that renewable diesel, especially from supposed waste products like renewable diesel and beef tallow, would earn a significant premium through the LCFS, which is structured to provide the greatest benefit to the fuel with the lowest carbon footprint. Now other oil and gas companies are converting existing oil refineries into renewable diesel refineries. An article from the International Council on Clean Transportation (https://theicct.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/lipids-cap-ca-lcfs-aug22.pdf) recommends that California impose a cap on lipids (including vegetable oils, used cooking oil, yellow grease) in order to prevent these new refineries from causing significant deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil, as well as increasing competition for local supplies of soybean oil.
Continuing the growth treadmill up to 10million just seems insane at this point.
The damage done to land by decades of chemical agriculture might not be as easy to fix as we might assume, be it for food or for fuel.
I really liked listening to the conversation. I work with biogas (biomethane / bio-CNG and LNG) in Germany and we always struggle with the reputation of ethanol as the most commonly known biofuel, which makes it hard for us to convince people that a "bio" fuel can be a positive thing, especially from waste. So is life with a niche product.
By the way, the EEG (Renewable Energy Directive) in Germany doesn't give feed-in tariffs for CHP electricity from pellets - only biogas or biomethane. They incentivize pellets for residential heating. I don't know how the situation in other EU countries is.
Good conversation. Would love a take on Exxon finally dropping algae biofuels and Microsoft picking it up, greenwashing or yet another hope around the corner? And good to hear the wood-pellet bioenergy topic getting attention. And also the timefullness of bio-carbon systems, of course the fossil fuel cycle time line is 6 orders of magnitude longer when creating that saw-tooth graph of circulating carbon over time.
In the physical world there is so much 'waste' available any target you want to set is reasonable. The cost to collect that waste is just an economic killer for any attempt to recover and utilize it - and of course folks will exploit the cheapest or most available stock rather than the stock with the greatest environmental impact. In forestry the 'waste' biomass from (forest fire) fuel reduction projects is often stacked and burned because there is no viable market for the green biomass. This can be on the order of 25-100 tons per acre, and there are millions of acres in the west in need of work to mitigate fire risk and catch-up with past neglect (10x the mass of cornstover annually). Why are we burning wood in the forests to mitigate wildfires? Uncontrolled burns have tended towards catastrophic recently and in a high severity fire you don't just kill the trees but you can burn off the carbon in the soil, and then anything left washes away and produces fish-kill events in the rivers and streams months after the fire has been put out. High severity fire is very bad, even in the middle of nowhere, so burning some biomass now to prevent a massive fire later is carbon and ecologically mindfull work - even if individual opinions about how much and when vary. That said, the air quality impact alone is reason to find a better way. An actual functional market would dramatically improve the ability for this work to be done as most of it already requires subsidy to pencil out, even though all this biomass is theoretically energetically interesting and otherwise going right back into the atmosphere. We should be able to put this to work. More than volume, we need to specify origin (e.g. forest fuels vs. food) and tighten up the counterfactuals to avoid the run-away wood pellet shenanigans - because that's ultimately what is driving corn and soybean interest. We can use more biofuel production, but none from that feedstock that people are using right now.
When creating a market for forest waste, it tends towards small mills, bioenergy power plants, soil remediation and amendments, etc. and not Biofuels. Even if you bring in the sophistication of a biofuel process, now you've got things like carbon removal and storage credits that just pay much better for the same input of raw materials and technology development. Think, Charm Industrial where they are creating a bio-oil for long duration storage. It is very common that not doing anything at all with the material is better than trying to make biofuel work from a wilderness source.
I think that example is illustrative. As a *fuel* for vehicles there is always going to be petrochemically derived fuels that undercut the cost of biofuels (to say nothing of battery electrics for desirable environmental impacts). Only when you are explicitly pricing the carbon (such as in a carbon removal credit) is there enough subsidy to support the development costs. We have enough woody biomass to produce all the fuels we need at a cost no one will accept (the tyranny of trucking range is real). So it gets stacked and burned, hauled to the dump and buried, or re-arranged in the forest and the inevitable future fire burns with high intensity despite the work meant to mitigate that intensity. You can't get the feed-stock to the factory, nor can you bring the factory to the feed-stock. It is a frustrating situation, and the inability to get sensible biofuels operating in easy to get to locations like farmlands make the wilderness and forestry story just so much more unlikely.