Biofuels’ 10 scariest challenges: Part 1 of 2

August 20, 2013 |

wicked-queenUpstream, downstream, processing, policy, finance – opportunities and challenges abound in the bioeconomy – but which challenges are the most intractable and daunting of them all?

In today’s part 1, #10 through #6.

Part 2, #5 through #1, is here.

They use various aliases — naysayers, pessimists, The Party of No, doom-and-gloom’ers, realists, skeptics, and so on. For almost every aspect of a biobased supply chain or technology, there’s someone available with 15 reasons why it can’t work.

Why feedstocks will never develop at sufficient yield, or why land will never be available and affordable; why processing technologies are doomed to fail, from front end processing to final-step fuel finishing; why policies are bound to fail, or why finance will never appear.

In recent months and years, focus has fallen on financing — or the lack thereof. But, generally, financing is a creature of risk, or perceived risk, and the cost of capital is a consequence of how solvable other risks are thought to be.

10. Indirect Land Use Change — ILUC

Briefly stated, indirect land use change is a theory that the very success of bioenergy causes land owners in distant lands to change their planting habits in ways that release sequestered carbon. For example, rising soybean prices would lead to rising soybean acreage in southern Brazil, which would drive cattle ranchers to convert forest land to pasture, causing forest owners to move into the Amazon where they would release carbon by cutting rainforest.


The danger in the theory is that it has proven impossible to construct real-world data sets, thus far, to track such a phenomenon — theorists have been generally relied on global equilibrium modeling that was not constructed with ILUC in mind. Meanwhile, ILUC has been enshrined as a penalty factor in biofuels in the EU, for the US Renewable Fuel Standard, and in California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Why a scary challenge? ILUC’s proponents have been generally able to steer the debate such that difficult-to-procure hard data us not required to enshrine ILUC into policy, but is required to remove it. “Guilty until proven innocent”, as some might term it.

Open to manipulation? Well, consider this. We reported last week that in Belgium, a leaked document circulating among the European Commission shows that proposed sustainability criteria for biomass would be much weaker than that for biofuels. The draft would not include ILUC accounting or accounting for loss of carbon resulting from the use of forests. GHG targets are set at 60% in the draft. The policy is expected for release this fall.

In today’s Digest, follow the page links below for each Scary Challenge – and potential solutions.

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