Blazing pathways through the clean-tech and governmental wilderness

July 31, 2019 |

By Douglas L. Faulkner, The Cleantech Conservative

Special to The Digest

The Swedish firm, Elmia AB, held a seminar on 07 June near Jӧnkӧping, Sweden, on Sweden’s role in the emerging global woody bioenergy industry.  Doug Faulkner, the Digest’s own “Cleantech Conservative” and President of his firm, Leatherstocking LLC, gave the keynote address and then joined several Swedish experts for a panel discussion.  The full video of both are on YouTube and linked here with Elmia’s permission.  Elmia AB is a leading Nordic trade show organizer, which holds events on a wide range of business sectors.  Its established international fair for the entire forest industry, Elmia Wood, is scheduled for May 2021 and will feature an expanded focus on woody bioenergy.

Bioenergy:  Hard Reality, Bright Promise

Good morning.  Great to be back in Sweden and here for my first time to Jӧnkӧping.  This is a first for me with both humans and animals in the audience.  I promise not to say anything that will upset the cows!

I’m a son of the soil from very small village on the Illinois prairie.  Grew up surrounded by farms and worked in the fields from an early age.  I have a deep affinity for those with dirt under their fingernails, those that work with their hands to grow and make things.

That personal background and my over two decades in green energy color my remarks here today.  You could say I was “present at the creation” of modern bioenergy in America which really began in earnest in the late 1990s.  I started in bioenergy helping leaders of Clinton Administration build a new initiative for biobased products – – using crops, trees and wastes to make chemicals and consumer goods, like plastics, paints, adhesives, lubricants and even cosmetics, instead of petroleum.  After the passage of the landmark “Biomass Research &Development Act” of 2000 – – the Bible for federal bioenergy efforts – – I led a Presidential initiative in the George W. Bush Administration to expand the use of cellulose and lignin for transportation fuels.  Then, after leaving government in the Obama Administration I started my own clean technology advisory company, Leatherstocking LLC.

Capping all of that, the U.S. Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture, my old departments, named me last summer Co-chair of the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee.  That’s a long title for a Congressionally-authorized group tasked with giving independent advice to federal government’s many bioenergy offices to implement this nationally-designated priority.  This new assignment takes me full circle in my career, because as a senior political leader I helped to create this group and build its federal oversight body:  now I’m on the other side of the table as a volunteer private citizen.

In my short time as this group’s new leader, I proposed and the Committee approved my initial plan of action:  we first addressed bio-based plastic research needs; second, we reviewed government regulations preventing the growth of advanced biofuels, a controversial action; then we launched an effort for 2019 for an intensive look at forests of the future and their opportunities for woody bioenergy, what I dubbed “The Year of the Tree.”  I should note that our actions dovetail well with the Trump Administration’s focus on regulatory reform.  We have publicly released all three sets of recommendations; they can be found at biomassboard.gov.  We are taking a site visit in a few weeks to the American Northwest (Montana) followed probably by another later in the summer to the Southeast (maybe North Carolina or Georgia):  two very different geographies, cultures, economies and of course forests.

Lotta invited me here today to share some of those perspectives with you and look to the future prospects for using trees for energy.

But first let me explain name of my company, Leatherstocking LLC.  It might be confusing to a foreign audience.  The firm takes its name and inspiration from the early American frontier fiction series, the Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fennimore Cooper.  You may know it from its most famous book, “The Last of the Mohicans.”  Much of the series’ earliest action takes place in the great primeval American forests of the colonial Northeast; I draw parallels with the hero now for blazing pathways through the clean-tech and governmental wildernesses!

We are partnered here in Scandinavia with Kristiina Helenius of NordicWestOffice.  Our goal is to give our clients the access and visibility in North America for you to succeed.

Good News/Bad News

There was an ad for women’s cigarettes in my youth whose catchy slogan was “You’ve come a long way, baby!”  Well, that can certainly be said for bioenergy. The International Energy Agency recent review stated that modern bioenergy is an “Overlooked giant.”

In 2017, half of all renewable energy came from bioenergy, more than all hydro, wind and solar combined.  And it will have the biggest growth of renewable resources for the next several years.  By 2023, bioenergy will account for 30% of that growth from solid, liquid and gaseous fuels for heating and transportation, where other renewables still have a very small impact.  The IEA notably sees bioenergy as a key “blind spot” – issues that are critical to the evolution of the whole energy sector, but receive far less attention than they deserve.

Nevertheless, despite that legacy of overall progress, modern or advanced bioenergy still remains a tiny sliver of the whole bioenergy category.  In America, first generation biofuels has been a real success story:  corn starch ethanol has hit the maximum allowed under the Renewable Fuels Standard mandate and the President has just announced expanding that by year-round sales of E-15.  Soy biodiesel has expanded rapidly, too.

Meanwhile, the stated policy goal of growing the next generations of fuels, chemicals, heat and power from non-food, wastes and residue sources remains only vision of what could be.  For example, there are only five facilities under design or construction in North America for converting trees to fuels.  The biggest hindrance to growth is those onerous environmental regulations I mentioned earlier.

The IEA publicly projects that renewable energy development overall in the heat, electricity and transport sectors has to accelerate and soon.  The shares of these renewable sources, including bioenergy, otherwise will be far lower than they could be and more importantly need to be to meet long-term sustainability and climate goals.  There just ain’t yet enough bioenergy, especially advanced, in the pipeline.

Bioenergy’s complicated story

One overlooked factor in the gap between potential and reality is the difficulty in telling bioenergy’s real story, its good news story.  This has greatly contributed to the “lost decade” when for the last ten years unrelenting attacks and misinformation from bioenergy’s opponents have stalled its momentum, undermining public support, while politicians have focused more on green electricity and electric vehicles.

It’s hard to fit the story into a media soundbite or a pitch to a policymaker.  Bioenergy involves a multitude of current and future feedstocks grown or thrown away on land and from the sea; they can be put through a range of industrial equipment and processes to make an incredible collection of not just transportation fuels, but also industrial products, like cement, and consumer goods.  Early biofuels targeted civilian personal vehicles, but demand from airlines, ocean shipping and heavy road transport as well as from the military are growing.  For example, some estimate a doubling in demand for air travel in the next twenty years.  This means a complicated intersection between the agriculture, forestry, chemical, transportation and energy sectors.   

Bioenergy production and use has been dominated by the U.S. and Brazil, followed by the EU.  But, new players and new markets are emerging globally:  watch rising Indian and Chinese conglomerates in Africa and South & SE Asia; Canada with its vast forests might be its own sleeping giant in the trees-to-energy saga.

Bioenergy is thus subject to an important but ever more complex sustainability regime.  Many still think of that sustainability as only relating to its impact on food supplies or carbon emissions.  But, it is clearly so much more.

For example, the Global Bioenergy Partnership, part of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, was started during the Bush Administration and finalized during Obama’s; I helped lead the early U.S. involvement, in partnership with Brazil.  We insisted that bioenergy was sustainable and to prove that contention we needed metrics and indicators set by experts, not politicians, based on science, not emotion, and all publicly available, not hidden away only accessible to a few.  We argued for measuring a wide range of social and economic as well as environmental factors.  The final 24 indicators have been field-tested and constitute a fundamental tool for national policymakers for sustainable development.  By the way, Sweden has headed this particular effort for several years.  See these indicators at globalbioenergy.org

Bioenergy’s many benefits can make a lot of sense to voters, especially those in rural areas.  All too often national elites forget the real impact on humans in setting policies that would effectively raise everyday costs and reduce supplies of energy:  witness our recent Green New Deal hullabaloo, which never even mentioned bioenergy but advocated a massive expansion of government.  The poor and middle classes need hope their lives can be improved through sustainability.  Bioenergy can be a force for good.

Time for Change

My friend, Bob McNally wrote in his salient book, “Crude Volatility”, that we are in for an extended period of wide fluctuations of oil prices.  There is no longer a swing producer, like the Texas Railroad Commission, to vary production to stabilize prices.

But, in a world awash in oil and gas, old-style geopolitical threats to oil supplies paradoxically appear to be growing.  Witness the flash points near oil fields or ocean shipping lanes in the Middle East, Venezuela and the South China Sea.  Military clashes or escalated unrest at any one of these places could destabilize oil markets on which so much of the world will depend for two or three more decades, at least.

Simultaneously, the world’s climate is warming and changing, much of which is caused by mankind’s modern life-styles.  The scope of this problem means we need massive change on a lot of fronts, especially in the lagging industrial and transportation sectors.

Meanwhile, another global environmental crisis is brewing too in our rivers and oceans, but given much less attention.  Mind-jarring amounts of petro-plastic wastes are building up faster, threatening global food and water supplies.  The Washington Post recently reported on scientists discovering over 400 million pieces of plastic on just one remote Indian Ocean island – – and evidence is mounting that’s far from an isolated sighting.  The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050 plastic wastes in oceans will outweigh the fish in them!  By the way, EVs are heavily dependent on petro plastics to keep their weight down:  it’s estimated that by 2020 the average EV will use over 770 pounds of plastic in hundreds of parts.

The world’s population continues to grow, adding billions more souls before plateauing around the middle of this century.  That growth is coming from the developing world where their desire for better lives will strain conventional resources and the environment.  Their demand for more food, feed, fiber, fuels,  jobs and a better life will explode in years ahead.

Bright lights over the horizon

But, it’s not a bleak and forlorn future by any means.  I wrote in Biofuels Digest that the world needs more bioenergy, but just doesn’t know it yet.  While international experts at the IEA and elsewhere broadcast their conclusions, policymakers, the press and voters don’t really know that biofuels are the only commercially-available alternative to oil that can reduce greenhouse gases emissions from transportation in the short–to-medium term as well as insure against catastrophic oil shocks, boost traditional industries like pulp and paper, and help modernize developing agriculture sectors.

Bio-based products also have a golden opportunity to expand production of bio-degradable plastics and other consumer good or to help recycle existing waste.  Every day there is a new story about new companies or their amazing new products from plants.  And, consumers, especially the young, are ready to open their pocketbooks for innovative products with demonstrably lower carbon and environmental footprints.  Bioenergy’s “Back to the Future” qualities can capture the popular imagination.

But, we need a concerted, global approach:  more collaborative research across the whole value chain; more encouragement of entrepreneurship; more private-public partnerships; more acceptances by environmental groups; more market growth of sustainable products, especially in developing countries; and, more global champions with consistent, clear messages.  Each one of those topics are worthy of deeper discussion but are certainly achievable.

I personally believe that media communications will be the most critical task.  The public and politicians everywhere need to hear over and over again that trees are one of nature’s key blessings to the planet and an abundant resource for humankind that can be used responsibly.   Sustainability certification regimes now taking root can help in public persuasion.

The raw materials, the basic feedstocks for these new industries are clearly available and sustainable, especially wood for energy.  In the U.S., we are taking a new look at the opportunities for woody bioenergy in our drive for healthier and safer forests.  There is new interest from both Democrats and Republicans in re-examining forest management practices frozen for the last few decades, which have probably actually increased the odds of forest fires and hindered progress against invasive insects.  President Trump and California’s new Democratic Governor Newsom each have issued executive actions.  The President called upon his Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to actively managing our forests to improve conditions, reduce unnecessary fuel loads and reduce wildfire risks.  He emphasized new actions to enhance biomass and biochar opportunities.

In Congress, members from both parties are expressing similar interests.  Last spring funding legislation signed by the President contained congressional direction and emphasis of the U.S. forest sector to the nation’s energy needs.  Specifically, Congress directed the Departments of Energy and Agriculture as well as the Environmental Protection Agency to establish clear and simple policies that reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy; encourage private investment throughout the forest biomass supply chain; and encourage better forest management.  Those agencies later publicly agreed with that direction, noting that their interagency approaches will be guided by an appreciation that forests are managed to provide multiple benefits, including energy, and detailed their specific actions.

Recently, Senators from Oregon, Idaho and Maine introduced a bipartisan bill to reform the current mandate to allow biomass from certain federal lands for advanced biofuels.  If passed, it will change current legal roadblocks to the use of trees from federal property for those fuels.  (The federal government owns almost half of Western lands.)  The bill would generate new opportunities to use small diameter trees, limbs, hazardous fuels, debris and even mill sawdust to create new fuels and lower fire risks.  It also explicitly protects old growth trees on federal property, a key environmental concern.

And, my advisory Committee issued a detailed set of recommendations about reforming the Renewable Fuels Standard to open up markets for advanced biofuels, with a particular focus on unleashing the woody biofuels sector.  We will also devote our last meeting this year to a summary of our findings for changes in the government’s research, policies and regulations to promote woody bioenergy sustainably, as better and safer forest management starts to become a reality.

We particularly want to draw on experiences from other countries to enrich our advice.  I will take back with me with me lessons I have learned at this fair and in our meetings with exciting Swedish bioenergy companies.  My experiences during the Bush Administration promoting new international collaboration gave me a strong, favorable impression of Sweden’s consistent support for bioenergy; I have learned much since about the leading Swedish role in modern forest management.

In Canada, the private sector is making its voice heard.  The Bioindustrial Innovation Canada recently released that country’s first national Bioeconomy Strategy and called on Ottawa to develop its own for the national government.  More than 400 industry representatives recommended action to their government on four priority areas:  creating agile regulation and government policy; establishing biomass supply and stewardship; building strong companies and value chains; and, building sustainable innovation ecosystems.  The strategy focuses on commercializing innovations to grow larger companies and to have Canadian products and processes adopted into global value chains.  The recent announcement of a new factory capable of processing one hundred million tons of pulp & paper biomass into woody biobased products is a signal of that country’s potential.

Friends, the world is once again on a pathway for expanded use of trees and other biological sources for a sustainable energy future.  I personally believe that we are on the verge of realizing President Bush’s dream of ending our addiction to oil and ushering in a Golden Age of Bioenergy.  It’s high time to unleash our foresters, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs  There’s a lot of work to do and the clock’s a’tickin’!

How fast we get there, at what cost and who the winners and losers will be are all yet to be determined in this complex and fast-moving international saga.  Ultimately, the sustainability of woody bioenergy will be won by solid science, business success and open debate over many years.  Sweden clearly has a leadership role to play and that’s why Elmia Wood 2021 will be such a critical milestone in this global journey.  Thank you.

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Category: Thought Leadership

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