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Advances and Challenges for the Bioenergy Sector

November 24, 2015 By Carl Weinschenk

bioenergyA forum on bioenergy at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in early November pointed to both good news and concerns for the sector.

The fate of an alternative to any established product or service depends on the health – economic and otherwise – of the incumbent. That is at bad news for bioenergy, at least in the short term, according to the report on the forum at Southeast Farm Press:

The biggest challenge is low oil prices which makes bioenergy less competitive. However, speakers at a forum on a biofuels and biochemicals at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park Nov. 4 stressed that demand is still strong and growing for green energy from plants and trees.

The story also mentions regulatory uncertainty and the cost of building plants as obstacles to the category’s growth. Steve Peretti, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University, suggested that a path forward is using the same basic processes to make chemicals, plastics and other substances.

The industry seems to understand the challenges. In response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today, Tyton BioEnergy Systems President  Peter Majeranowski suggested that the industry is looking at new product categories and ways to lower costs. “Today, technology is moving beyond biofuels to produce a wide range of petrochemical replacements,” he wrote. “New advancements in plant science, conversion and processing tech are also driving down the cost of production to make the duel goals of sustainability and affordability the new reality. “

There is potentially an even greater threat to bioenergy than the economics of the fuel source it seeks to replace. The simple question is whether bioenergy actually lives up to its promise. An article at BirdLife International suggests that the bioenergy sector is more or less using accounting tricks to make its claims on emissions reductions.

Writer Sini Erajaa basically raises the question of whether the industry has been selective in how it assesses its contributions. More specifically, she suggests the industry is counting emissions it cuts without paying attention those it creates and to the environmentally positive plant and tree life it eliminates when it creates the energy:

While greater harvesting of forests to burn wood for energy might mean less polluting fossil fuels, it also means decreased carbon stocks in forests. The clearing of carbon-rich areas like grasslands and forests for agriculture or plantations to produce bioenergy also releases emissions. There’s also the risk of increasing emissions because we need more biomass than fossil fuels to produce a unit of energy.

The story refers to a study done by BirdLife Europe that found that the use of wood energy in the European Union by 2030 will add 100 million to 150 million tons of carbon dioxide annually during a 20-year period. The story also points to a study by the Natural Resource Defense Council that suggests wood pellets would be responsible for more carbon emissions than fossil fuels during the next half century.

There have been, however, news items over the past week that should give bioenergy proponents reason to cheer.

  • Yesterday, Biodico said that its plant in Five Points, CA, will come on line during the first week of December. The Biodico Westside Facility, according to the company, is the world’s first biofuel facility that is completely run by on-site renewable heat and power. The output of the facility – as much as 20 million galls of biodiesel per year — will be used by local farmers and truckers. Five Points is in Fresno County.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) yesterday announced $125 million in funding for 41 technologies under its OPEN 2015 program. Among the companies being supported is Marine BioEnergy Inc. of San Diego.

The company will receive $2,146,988 to help it study ocean cultivation of macro algal biomass that can be converted to a liquid fuel precursor, according to the press release. The platform will cycle between nutrient-rich deep water and sunlight at the surface. It also can “hide” in deep water during storms. The research initially will be conducted in the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone off the coast of California.

  • This week, the Toyota plant in Georgetown, KY will begin using bioenergy. The plan – as reported in IndustryWeek – is for methane produced at the Central Kentucky Landfill to be collected by a network of wells and used to power generates. The electricity will be sent via underground transmission lines to the plant. It will provide about 2 percent of the plant’s energy, with expansion capabilities to 10 percent.

The industry clearly is dealing with challenges as the landscape shifts. Majeranowski is realistic – and optimistic. “There are some compelling, new technology solutions entering the bioenergy and green chemicals markets, and it is encouraging to see advances in the cellulosic feedstock space,” he wrote. “But the progress has been slower than many would have predicted 10 years ago, in large part because much needed investment evaporated during the Great Recession. The industry needs to accelerate to address climate change and growing consumer demand for sustainable products. Low petroleum prices and uncertainty around federal policies are also near term challenges for the sector.”

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