Letter to the Advanced Bioeconomy: Advance off the Beach

July 27, 2020 |

There was always going to be a point when the advanced bioeconomy reached the end of the “R&D years” and transitioned into “the years of deployment”, and if you read the Biden plan here or the latest pushback from the bioeconomy here against the alleged misdeeds of the Trump Administration, you might realize that we have reached the point where the industry can no longer support itself on public goodwill  regarding the industry’s potential and must transition more aggressively towards deployment.

Electrify Everything vs Green Nothing

The Trump Administration is focused on creating US energy dominance by unlocking oil & gas resources. A prospective Biden Administration is focused on an “electrify everything” strategy in which direct tailpipe emissions are curbed through electric motors and then indirect power gen emissions are eliminated by the expansion of solar and wind power. And the development of a carbon removal industry thereafter to address the problem of all the emissions that piled up while the electric vehicles and renewable power projects were under construction.

Leaving the advanced bioeconomy with a role to play in niches such as materials and nutrition, but no role in transport at all, excepting some transitional activity primarily aimed at long-range trucking, marine and jet.

A Tale of Two Monopolies

We’re not a fan of entire platforms like transportation dependent on a single sector for its energy. Electricity will eventually re-create problems that came with oil & gas. Perhaps not the climate crisis, but there will be some other crisis relating to ownership of assets, monopoly behaviors, freezing out of future alternatives, resource wars. The problems that always come with monopolies.

But, we can read the writing on the wall. Right now, it’s a tale of two monopolies, take your pick. We’d rather see more about energy freedom, diversity and equal opportunity, and less about choosing between one monopoly or the other.

Scale now, Pilgrim

So, what’s the advanced bioeconomy to do? To get a seat at the table, more scale is needed. Scale that comes from clear goals and focused, co-operative effort. True, there is more collaboration across the scientific field now than ever before, but less coordination. There are so many R&D projects around the world right now, it feels like the Holy Roman Empire broken up into hundreds of weak fiefdoms.

Many sectors have scaled very well — renewable diesel, RNG, conventional biofuels such as corn or sugarcane ethanol, and biodiesel. For some, the record has been spotty but not without triumphs — renewable chemicals has seen real accomplishment in bio-based BDO and BG, for example, and commercial scale-up is underway for biobased aromatics and a couple of plastics technologies. Jet fuel has been disadvantaged by the advantages in producing diesel. Cellulosic ethanol is making progress in Eastern Europe and India especially. A couple of plant-based foods are doing quite well, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat are triumphs, Clara Foods and Perfect Day are emerging fast.

More is needed.

In the United States, there’s a Billon Ton Study produced by DOE, and some 70 billion gallons of advanced products could be produced from those resources, and would be the supply for perhaps 2,000 biorefineries. And there will be a debate around the world about the balanced use of the land from which those Billion Tons might be secured. That debate will take time, and will not be won by a tiny industry dependent on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard for survival and consisting of some 2-30 scaled-up advanced biorefineries.

Right-sizing the target

The industry needs, say, 100 biorefineries, now, not in 2030. To prove viability, to provide a platform for growth, to justify the support of communities across the country, to show a sustainable future to the oil & gas industry and automakers, and to provide the wherewithal to effectively engage in the debate over land use that will surely come.

100 biorefineries that use up something like 50 million tons of feedstock. composed entirely of waste materials that are readily available.

Waste is the Thing that Makes Haste

You see, waste is the thing we agree on, all sectors of society, no one is for waste, and the bioeconomy can deal with it by converting it from landfill or forest hazard or bug-heaven or pools of swill into useful products. Doesn’t matter whether 100 biorefineries will save the world, they will establish an industry and justify future investment, and if they use waste they will be easier to finance and more popular with the general public, and more deserving of public support, because no matter what impact they have on climate, they will have an impact on landscape.

50 million tons of waste, 100 biorefineries. Around the world.

Putting 50 million tons into context

Let’s put this in context. Each year, in the United States, some 139 million tons of waste are dumped at the landfill. So, we’re not talking about scouring the bottom of the barrel.

And I hear the cries about opening up more forest resources. That can only happen when forest owners step forward and join the conversation, aggressively, as corn farmers do. For too long, forest owners and conventional biorefiners (i.e. pulp & paper mills) have taken a passive stance. Forest owners will sell you their wood, but they won’t invest in biorefining (with some significant and laudable exceptions such as UPM). But that’s only a part of the problem; worse, they don’t use their considerable communication resources to shape the message around the future of forestry. They expect the tiny advanced biorefining industry to do the shouting, and to beat down every NGO in the world that makes good money frightening people about the use of forest resources.

There are reasons for the public to demand that forestry must be sustainable. And, some are conducting a reasonable dialogue. Some are not. The advanced bioeconomy does not have the resources to win that debate at the international, national, state, county and local level, all at once.

Where feedstock owners remain on the sidelines, that feedstock must remain on the sideline

Feedstock owners have to come in, they have to carry the debate, not await the results and sell product to the victor. That’s what corn and soy farmers have known for decades, they have been the Rock of Gibraltar for conventional biofuels, active in investment, policy, messaging, and project engagement.

Waste feedstock owners have done much, too. Look at Suntory’s leadership on plastics, Waste Management’s leadership in using landfill for diesel and jet, and steel mills like Arcelor Mittal and Baogang Group have led on waste carbon monoxide. There’s much to commend. The takeaway is clear — no feedstock is feasible unless and until the feedstock owners are vitally engaged on every policy and financing front.

It is not enough to have a conversion technology. Because an economy is three things.

The Economy of 3 Things

It is a group of feasible designs and technologies, a supply of raw materials and support from the owners of same, and the encouragement from the general public to proceed based on the perception of a positive balance of needs vs. consequences (becoming direct sales for B2C companies, or freedom to operate for B2B outfits). That’s what an economy is, that’s what a bioeconomy must be.

Seen through that lens, the oil & gas industry is running into headwinds because the public’s perception of negative consequences is on the rise. Solar & wind is on the rise because the feasibility of the technologies has improved in a material way. Solar always had public encouragement and oil & gas always had the feasible technologies. Change has come.

Where the bioeconomy has all three things, it thrives, same as in every other sector. It is a new century, but the Laws of Economics did not cease to operate because of climate change.

All things are possible with scale, because scale brings a seat at the table to define the larger vision. For now, the industry must proceed with singular focus to reach scale, using those technologies, raw materials and perceptions that are available now. It does not require “as big as petrochemical scale”, it requires “obviously, this is something important and valuable, now” scale.

Some priorities for the here and now

Things to consider:

Note to the US Department of Energy. Industry is asking for a pivot to supporting integrated pilots and demonstrations, which are essential to deployment and the hardest to finance in the Valley of Death.

Note to Oil & Gas. Consider that the advanced bioeconomy has more to offer refining than a world of Electrify Everything. That’s a note to the bioeconomy, too, make love, not war.

Book & Claim. Learn to deploy everywhere but produce at the lowest point of carbon intensity and cost, by using book & claim systems to sell carbon attributes and energy, separately.

Go West Until You’re East, Young Man. Opportunity has gone west to reach Silicon Valley, in this case you’ll need to look farther west, as Columbus dreamed, towards Asia and Eastern Europe.

Use tangible examples. You can’t make solar yoga pants, so that’s an elegant and obvious way to make vivid what a bioeocnomy does.

Build a co-operative Brand. The USDA started one with BioPreferred, the idea’s right, the funding is small. DuPont will build Sirona, the industry has to build the bigger story with a single brand, now, that says Made from Waste.

Biology, solver of the Waste Problem and the Rural Problem

Yes, technologies will advance, future feedstocks will emerge both technically and politically, and public perceptions will change with the times. But that is then, this is now, nothing comes without the seat at the table that comes from a belief that the bioeconomy offers a means to deal with the waste problem and the rural problem, and may in the future be a material player in addressing the carbon problem. 100 biorefineries, 50 million tons of feedstock. Nothing is perfect now, but nothing good will come of waiting for perfect to arrive.

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