DOE's Duff warns that Asian industrial buildup threatens "our way of life" if US does not reduce oil consumption

March 17, 2011 |

DOE’s Biomass Program Lead Engineer warns that, when it comes to biofuels, “it’s the economy, stupid”.

In Georgia, DOE Biomass Program Lead Engineer Brian Duff, keynoting the BioPro Expo in Atlanta, said that “dependence on oil is a throttle on the [US] economic engine, with the impact of oil reverberating throughout the economy, raising the prices of goods and services across the economy. ” He said that oil dependence was causing a massive trade deficit, turning the US economy into a captive market, held hostage to hostile regimes and volatile prices.”

Duff laid out the economic rationale behind the DOE’s Biomass Program, which he said has added $53 billion in annual GDP to the US economy through the ethanol program, which he said now represents as much as three percent of the overall value-add manufacturing in the US economy.

The China, India problem

Duff warned that “as China and India go through their industrial revolutions, our ways of life [in the US] is in serious jeopardy”, noting that the US economy uses 25 percent of the world’s oil, and noted that the fast-growing and industrializing Chinese and Indian nations have, combined, ten times the population of the US. He warned that there will be, inevitably, a ruinous competition for energy unless alternatives were developed.

“We need every arrow in our quiver, every tool in our toolbox, and biofuels are one.” He described ethanol as a “transitional fuel, not the silver bullet, but it is something that we can do today,” and said that “electrifying the fleet doesn’t address the real problems facing the country unless you are producing renewable power.”

Displacing the entire barrel of oil

At the same time, Duff said that it was not enough to develop alternatives to liquid transportation fuel for cars and trucks. “In addressing liquid fossil fuels replacement, we have to displace the whole barrel of oil, of which 40 percent goes towards gasoline,” with the remainder is for diesel, jet fuel and biochemicals. Otherwise, he warned, there would be serious gluts and shortages in other markets besides car and truck fleets that depend on the current configurations of the US oil refining industry. He said that the DOE integrated biorefinery strategy was designed to accomplish that total displacement.

Serious constraints on biomass

In looking at biomass, he reflected that a number of years ago, it was thought that there was so much biomass available that there would be more than enough to meet virtually every need and opportunity. But rising demand and a closer look at available biomass by the research community had revealed that there are serious limits on available biomass, and scarce resources “dictate the highest value and most utilitarian uses,” noting that “electricity has other options, with solar, wind, geothermal, wave and ocean energy,” while “for liquid transportation fuels “there really is no other option”.

Chicken-and-egg problems in “every avenue”

Duff noted that the “chicken and egg” barriers had cropped up in every avenue of biofuels development. “Crop growers want to know why they should grow, if there is the risk that there is no plant to buy the crop. Banks want to know why they should finance first-of-kind projects for which there is no performance guarantee, and when offtake agreements are being structured to last no more than two or three years.”

He noted the fluctuating price of oil offered no surety in offtake pricing, that federal and state incentive programs for energy were subject to change and expiration. He also noted that there were 29 projects that were receiving DOE assistance through grant programs since 2006 (2 R&D, 12 pilot, 9 demonstration and six commercial scale) but that none had yet provided the complete operational data and proof of performance at scale that would unlock the project finance market.

Mythmaking on biofuels and environmental benefits

He criticized the myth that biofuels do not provide environmental benefits, in terms of mitigating carbon and other emissions, though noting that the 20 percent GHG reductions offered by corn ethanol were far short of the potential of other advanced fuels. He said that the 61 percent reductions available with sugarcane ethanol, 70 percent available with switchgrass-based ethanol, and even carbon-negative fuels in some configurations of switchgrass-based biofuels were examples of how “biofuels can reduce risks and damage to the environment.”

Duff said that “the mission is not done,” but candidly admitted that the kind of funding seen in the Recovery Act was unlikely to be seen again. He said that “we need hundreds of these plants” and said that the nation had to continue investing in “pioneer plants” to demonstrate the technical readiness, develop the metrics, and document the true lifecycle and sustainability benefits.

Broader engagement with existing industry needed

He called for a broader engagement with existing industries for near-term market entry opportunities. He said that breweries, pulp and paper mills, oilseed crushers, corn dry mills, petrochemical refineries, material recover facilities and landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and contract fermenters associated with the pharmaceutical industry were the kinds of facilities that had to be engaged in the scale-up of biofuels.

Turning to the pulp and paper industry, he described numerous advantages, starting with the fact that the pulp and paper industry had been working with biomass for more than 100 years. “The infrastructure is in place, there is a history of costs and cost management, there are sustainable practices that have been established, there are multiple feedstocks whether it is virgin wood, hog fuel, bark or other residues, or waste streams. There are multiple sites already developed, the staffs are up to speed, there are co-location opportunities to reduce the cost of operation, and the pulp & paper industry already has a system to aggregate the feedstocks. Besides, most biofuels processes are in many ways derivative of processes that were developed for, or used every day in, the pulp and paper industry.

“Son of Billion Ton” release imminent

In the Q&A that followed his keynote, Duff was asked about when the revised “Billion Ton biomass study” would be published. He said that “Son of a Billion Ton” was written, and was wrapped up in USDA and DOE review since January, but that he hoped it would be released soon.

California’s greenhouse gas models “antiquated”

Asked about low carbon fuel standards and greenhouse gas models, he described the California’s model as “antiquated”, and said that the application of those models would result in the virtual embargo of Midwestern corn ethanol from California’s markets. He noted that there was significant risk associated with the adoption of the California model by a number of other states, and again urged that the data be corrected and updated as soon as possible.

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