New Research Underscores Emission-Reducing Benefits of Biofuels

There are some incredibly exciting developments in research that show the benefits of biofuels in reducing carbon emissions are being seriously undervalued by federal and state regulators.

It’s the kind of data that could – and likely will – change the debate over federal policies that encourage the development of biofuels in an oil-dominated market. It would be extremely difficult to give any credence to calls for reducing biofuel blends under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, given the vast environmental payoffs that the latest research shows would be provided by domestically produced, sustainable transportation fuel.

For example, there is research being compiled in South Dakota where a university team has measured over five years the change in soil carbon from 120,000 plot points in continuously grown corn. The measurements have been taken from fields with different yield levels and different residue removals.

The findings? The models are telling the researchers that that modern, high-yield continuous corn grown using conservation tillage or no-till is sequestering more carbon each year than prairie grasses. This research is still a year away from peer review and publication. But it’s an astonishing revelation of how new, more accurate research models are being developed that show the climate change benefits of biofuels and the feedstocks from which they come are being short-changed in the ongoing policy debate.

Another group of researchers, including Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, and Michael Wang, with the Argonne National Laboratory, recently told a White House gathering that new processing technologies, as well as updated life cycle models and databases accessed by computable models, have significantly advanced the carbon intensity (CI) assessments of biofuels over the last 10 years.

The CI of biofuels is the mass of carbon dioxide equivalent of not only CO2 but also nitrous oxide and methane, emitted per energy unit of fuel. The CI of a fuel is determined by adding the emissions incurred along its path of production, including the origins of the fuel’s feedstock (drilling, mining, corn growing, as examples), the conversion of feedstock at refineries, and its combustion in the vehicle. Mueller notes that for biofuels, in particular, the land requirements for feedstock production can also produce emissions and/or sequestration effects from carbon stock adjustments.

So, what has the updated research methods of the past decade shown? Published studies now show a significant reduction in the predicted magnitude of carbon emissions resulting from direct and indirect land-use change, the concept by which land is directly converted to produce a biofuels feedstock plus land that is indirectly converted to compensate for displaced food crops. The downward trend in predicted emissions from land-use change is due to several factors that have improved research models, including a better understanding and improved availability of data on land types, Mueller and his team report.

The use of fossil energy at the biorefinery is a significant contributor to the CI of ethanol, the researchers noted, adding that published industry surveys show that ethanol plants constructed in 2008 use 30 percent less energy to convert corn to ethanol than plants built earlier in the decade. The energy required to produce ethanol continues to drop as process design advances and producers implement new technologies to save energy.

The team also demonstrates that emerging agricultural practices and technologies are further reducing land demands and emissions from biofuel feedstock and biofuel production. Among the most noteworthy are the application of nitrification inhibitors which stabilize nitrogen fertilizer inputs (a market that has seen 20-percent year-over-year growth for the last 5 years), advanced hybrid seeds and precision agriculture.

And the researchers cite analyses done by Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET (Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation Model) modeling group that show corn ethanol life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are anywhere from 19 percent to 48 percent lower than conventional gasoline, or a mean of 34 percent. That 34-percent CI reduction per gallon resulted in greenhouse gas savings from corn ethanol of approximately 38.6 million tons in 2012, or about 2 percent of all transportation related emissions.

What this new research is showing is that biofuels are a viable, cheaper and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, and should be recognized for the contributions they make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that impact our climate. It’s critical that regulators, whether at the federal level at EPA, or at the state level, like at California’s Air Resources Board, give full consideration to this new data and give U.S. agriculture a full opportunity to offer home-grown solutions to a pressing national challenge.

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