Biofuels producers, environmentalists explore common ground at “Innovation in Midwest Biofuels” conference

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Representatives of the Midwest biofuels industry and environmental groups met for a two day forum in mid-September, organized by Great Plains Institute, a Twin Cities-based non-profit group that takes a solution-oriented approach to climate and energy challenges, focusing in particular on policy, technology and infrastructure.

“The area where we found agreement is in improving the carbon intensity of existing fuel plants,” said Brendan Jordan, a key organizer of the event for Great Plains Institute (GPI). Jordan serves as director of bioenergy and transportation programs for GPI. Jordan said, “Many in the biofuels industry are already doing this as a cost-saving measure. Improving the existing fleet does not ask environmentalists to agree to new (grain biofuel) capacity, so environmentalists are more comfortable with that. Economists are trying to quantify the costs and benefits of these investments that reduce the carbon footprint. The question raised by people on all sides of the issue is ‘why isn’t more of this happening, what incentives, policies could be put in place to incentivize this even more?”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, who have argued against the need for the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) brought forward a proposal for a carbon reduction tax credit that would be based on the amount that carbon use/emissions are reduced.

Biofuels industry representatives were receptive to the idea, and impressed with the conciliatory effort, according to Gary Herwick, a transportation fuels expert representing Minnesota Corn Growers Association at the conference. However, such incentives would likely have to be more substantial to offset the front end capital expense of carbon reduction technologies like biomass gasifiers.

Meeting the goals of the Renewable Fuel Standard regulation known as “RFS2” would reduce carbon emissions attributed to transportation fuels by about 7%, according to Herwick, president of Transportation Fuels Consulting, of Milford, Michigan.  He has more than 40 years experience in the auto industry including 5 years of consulting in vehicle emissions, transportation fuel quality and alternative fuels.

“This meeting was an opportunity to look at the potential to reach a ten percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from fuels and to encourage further innovation in the biofuels industry,” said Herwick.

One important message from the meeting was the need for better tools to assess the entire lifecycle of all fuel types, to assure that they consistently and fairly compare the real carbon intensity of the fuel. Presenters offered evidence that efficiencies achieved not only in the ethanol production process itself but in the increasing efficiency of crop production, have resulted in lower carbon intensity.

“It stands out that the biofuel industry, not necessarily motivated by regulations, but by economics, has made great strides forward in energy efficiency which positively impact carbon emissions,” said Herwick. “The GREET model, Argonne National Laboratory’s gold standard tool for evaluation of the biofuels lifecycle, developed a standard number for dry grind ethanol production of 36,000 BTUs of energy input per gallon of ethanol. That number is ranging around 26,000 BTUs today, and some plants are achieving substantially lower energy inputs than that.”

The state of California, which has put in place its own Low Carbon Fuels Standard, has accepted the petitions of a score or more of Midwestern corn ethanol plants who proved to the state authorities that their carbon score is lower than the standard rating for gasoline of approximately 95 grams of carbon per megajoule of energy. This process has allowed these ethanol plants to qualify to sell product into the California transportation fuels market–the largest single market for ten percent ethanol blends in the country.

Herwick and Jordan agreed that the dialogue begun at this conference was encouraging and they are both hopeful that continuing discussions among these groups can produce both understanding and influence public policy in mutually beneficial ways.

In a process completely distinct from the biofuels innovation conference, Jordan has worked as a consultant through GPI for the past two years to explore the concept of a Midwest Low Carbon Fuels Standard. Though MGA has decided not to continue the development of its own LCFS, the information developed through the process continues to inform all these stakeholders in the quest to achieve ten percent carbon reduction while enhancing the economic position of farm-based energy.

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