Green Shoots: After a sluggish decade, is the bioenergy tide turning?

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By Gerard J. Ostheimer, Ph.D. (Managing Director, below50)  and Douglas L. Faulkner (“the Clean Tech Conservative” & President, Leatherstocking LLC)

Special to The Digest

Is the tide starting to turn in favor once again of biofuels and biobased products?  It can certainly still seem that the opposite is true, after a sluggish decade for these industries.  In the U.S., Big Ag and Big Oil remain stuck in a bitter stalemate over the Environmental Protection Agency’s small refinery exemptions from ethanol and biodiesel.  Adding insult to injury the fixation on first-generation biofuels crowds out consideration of advanced renewable fuels. Europe is reducing the use of “crop-based” fuels across-the-board and Brazil remains a muddle.

Conventional wisdom in the press and among many policymakers has long been that biofuels are at best an outdated and gratuitous subsidy to farm states and at worst a collaboration with fossil fuel companies to degrade the environment and accelerate global warming.

But, we can’t help but notice what appears to be signs of progress just about everywhere we look – “green shoots” of bioeconomic growth, if you will. On the left there is a surging sense of climate action urgency. On the right is growing concern over energy security. And many Democrats and Republicans at least in the fly-over states share a deep concern for the health of rural communities.

So, the same coalition of environmentalists, energy hawks and middle America politicians that brought us the Renewable Fuel Standard years ago may be “getting the band back together” as a new centrist domestic coalition to back a bioeconomy renaissance for the new century.  While much remains to be done to nurture these tender seedlings of progress at home and abroad, we cautiously conclude that things are finally starting to move in the right direction.

New drivers of change

Alongside the highly visible and voluble calls for climate action, there are signs that more sober actors are moving the climate debate away from the extremes of the left and the right toward a more market-oriented, common sense approach.  We believe that this may well open the door for new considerations of the role of bioenergy in the mix of climate mitigation solutions, as the International Energy Agency bravely advocates. The increasing concerns over the massive buildup of petro-plastic wastes in our oceans are fueling considerable interest in bio-based and bio-degradable plastics as well as re-use applications. Driven by rising consumer interest in sustainable products prominent investors, like BlackRock, are putting big money on the table.

Meanwhile, the recent attacks on installations and shipping in the Persian Gulf have re-awakened old concerns over the vulnerabilities of the global oil markets.  This may well resurrect focus on promoting global biofuels production for added insurance against oil supply disruptions.  At the same time, populist pressures are leading politicians of all stripes to pay more attention to stagnant rural economies with their abundant natural resources, like forests, as new centers for bioenergy growth.

Green Shoots Poppin’ Up

In addition to the trends described above, specific examples of these trends include:

  • The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard continues to roll and is enticing investments into new biorefining capacity from companies like Neste, World Energy, Philipps 66/Ryze, REG/Philipps 66 and SG Preston. Washington State’s Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has just issued its similar rule for public consideration; so they could soon join the fledgling West Coast advanced biofuel zone.
  • Biofuels for commercial aviation are slowly growing in acceptance, production and use. United Airlines has strengthened its partnership with World Energy, and SkyNRG that launched its Board Now program that allows companies to offset emissions from employee travel, while investing in bringing more biofuel production online.
  • Likewise, the GoodShipping Program is harnessing corporate demand for low carbon freight solutions to bring sustainable alternative maritime fuels to market.
  • Scania is developing a broad-based, multi-stakeholder program to accelerate growth of the European Bioeconomy, which is timely, since the EU is currently developing its own Green New Deal.
  • In the U.S., the federal and some state governments are taking steps to improve forest management, reduce fire risks and increase economic opportunities for rural logging communities after decades of economic dislocation. The President’s Executive Order last year promoting “active management” of national forests and rangelands has sparked new federal approaches on how best to preserve and use the national forests. California’s Governor has also issued executive decrees to clean up forest floors in his state.  America’s vast amounts of woody biomass can fuel the growth of a sustainable advanced biofuels industry.
  • The federal Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee has focused on reducing regulatory barriers and expanding opportunities for sustainable woody bioenergy industries in its 2019 “Year of the Tree.” See the link to the Committee’s reports and recommendations at biomassboard.gov

Biofuels were once widely embraced by both parties and the American people – – and they can be again. Part of that impetus for change will come from the new success stories emerging around the world – – and that success will be triggered by multiple efforts to reduce barriers and incentivize new markets.  Thought leaders, especially from the private sector, need to make the case more clearly and more forcefully for these industries.  Public support from enthusiastic fuels users can go a long way to dispelling the many myths that have grown like barnacles over the past few years.

Myths suggesting that biofuels are bad for the environment or food production  or that the technology is old-fashioned, boring, and ineffective could act like a late season frost on the green shoots that we are seeing.  But if we can shrivel the weeds of doubt and feed the growth of new demand then these seedlings of hope will take root and spread.  Bioenergy will then be ready for its date with destiny in the 2030s when low carbon emission options in the transportation sector will be more critical than ever.



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