Climate plan addresses potential of biofuels, bioenergy

Source: By By Erin Voegele, Ethanol Producer Magazine • Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Senate Democrats Climate Committee released a new report on Aug. 25 that details how climate action by Congress can create new jobs and grow the U.S. economy. Biofuels and bioenergy are among the topics discussed.

The 263-page report specifically calls on Congress to achieve 100 percent global net-zero emission by 2050, stimulate economic growth by increasing federal spending on climate action to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) annually, and create at least 10 million new jobs.

In the near-term, the report calls on the U.S. to significantly grow solar and wind energy, energy storage, and electric vehicles while conducting more research into new technologies, advanced biofuels and smaller and safer nuclear power.

One section of the report specifically discusses opportunities associated with the bioeconomy. “The United States can create and expand the economic value and market for agricultural products while reducing the use of fossil fuels, because byproducts of agricultural commodities and other natural waste products can be processed into biobased fuels and chemicals that replace fossil fuel-based products,” the committee wrote. “The growing biobased products industry contributes $393 billion and 4.2 million jobs to the American economy. These products have helped the United States transition away from foreign fossil fuels, generating a 19- 48 percent reduction in emissions when switching from petroleum gasoline to corn-based ethanol for transportation. Many of the bio-based alternatives to fossil fuel-derived chemicals are also less hazardous to human and environmental health; transitioning to them reduces risks to workers, costs associated with handling hazardous chemicals, and long-term contamination passed on to future generations. Additionally, opportunity exists in developing bioproducts that can improve the performance of manmade materials. For example, cellulosic nanomaterials derived from woody biomass can be mixed into concrete and other products to add strength and durability. These technologies offer a significant economic opportunity for farmers and managers of working lands, as well as their rural communities.”

While the federal government has invested in research and development of these products for years, the committee stresses that regulatory uncertainty and market volatility create barriers to private sector investment in advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol. The committee calls for increased federal funding for research, development and demonstration of advanced biofuels and biobased products from waste products and non-food crops, noting those efforts could significantly accelerate the adoption of advanced biofuels and bioproducts in American commerce, thereby lowering emissions in the transportation, electric and industrial sectors.

“We need a stable framework that accounts for the climate and ecosystem benefits of these fossil fuel alternatives—and passes this value on to farmers and advanced biofuel producers,” the committee wrote. “This would promote the sustained investment necessary to develop the next generation of these products and accelerate their use by consumers and industry. But as this sector grows, we must focus on increasing productivity on each parcel of land, while protecting high-worth conservation areas.”

The report also addresses the potential of on-farm anaerobic digestion (AD) projects. While AD projects have been piloted and deployed over the past two decades, the report notes that their widespread use has been stymied by technical challenges, shifting regulatory climates, and energy prices that did not cover the costs of operation.

“For methane digester systems to be financially viable and truly beneficial to reaching climate goals, farmers must be compensated for capturing methane from their herds,” the committee wrote. “This could be achieved by incorporating the added value of the renewable fuel into its price, resulting in additional income and reduced emissions. Additionally, we must make using them less risky, more practical, and increasingly reliable. Biogas companies are actively innovating in how digesters are owned and operated, which may attract farmers who otherwise would not be willing to host a digester on their farm. To take advantage of the emissions capture potential in this technology, financial incentives should be provided to help with the costs of getting a digester up and running smoothly. These upfront costs can be prohibitive to farmers without assistance, but represent relatively modest investments compared to other emissions sequestration strategies.”

In the electric sector, the report stresses the U.S. needs to develop ways to reduce the price of on-demand, low-carbon generators, such as biomass, geothermal, advanced nuclear, or fossil generation paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS). The committee highlights the potential of biomass power paired with CCS, noting it could potentially contribute to net-negative carbon emission electrical generation.

The report also addresses the potential of CCS paired with advanced and cellulosic biofuels in the liquid fuels sector, stressing that those renewable fuels have the potential to serve as alternatives to fossil fuels if the U.S. continues to invest in their development.

Regarding the Renewable Fuel Standard, the committee notes the use of advanced biofuels has not developed as rapidly as the authors of the RFS envisioned. “This is at least in part because the Trump administration continues to lower biofuel volumes and waive blending requirements under the RFS, jeopardizing the market stability that the RFS was intended to create,” the committee wrote in the report. “New policy tools may be needed to encourage growth of new advanced fuels beyond just corn starch ethanol and soybean biodiesel.”

According to the committee, a federal Low Carbon Fuel Standard may be an effective policy to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuel supply. The report cites the California LCFS as helping to avoid 38 million tons of carbon pollution and the use of 13.7 billion gallons of gasoline to date.

Growth Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association and the American Coalition for Ethanol have spoken out to welcome the inclusion of biofuels in the committee’s climate plan.

“Investments in American biofuels continue to pay dividends for our climate, driving down carbon emissions and replacing toxic fuel additives that poison our air,” said Emily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy. “We’re pleased to see climate leaders in the Senate examining opportunities to accelerate progress toward a carbon-neutral future by opening the door for cleaner low-carbon biofuels, more green jobs, and continued innovation in renewable bioproducts to replace petroleum. It’s encouraging to see a growing chorus of lawmakers ready to harness the full potential of biofuels to decarbonize our transportation sector, open new doors for agricultural innovation, and break down regulatory barriers holding back production of advanced biofuels.”

“We are glad to see Senate Democrats recognize that renewable fuels like ethanol have an important part to play in our nation’s low-carbon future,” said Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the RFA. “We are pleased to see the Committee acknowledge the role the Renewable Fuel Standard has already played in reducing emissions and we welcome the report’s discussion of a potential national Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). This report complements the House Select Committee’s recommendations in June, and it is clear that consensus is building around the need to further reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector.”

“ACE has been laying the strategic groundwork necessary to leverage ethanol’s low carbon value in the market through new clean fuel policy solutions at the state and federal level,” said Brian Jennings, CEO of ACE.  “We appreciate the Senate Committee acknowledging the significant role alternative liquid fuels could play in reducing the carbon intensity of the transportation sector and our reliance on petroleum, as well as the need for new policy tools like a Low Carbon Fuel Standard due to improper implementation of the RFS in recent years.”

A full copy of the report can be downloaded Senate Democrats Climate Committee’s website.