Where will biofuels and biomass feedstocks come from?

Feb 2008

When it comes to biofuels we have a few choices and options – we can do it poorly, with short-run approaches with no potential to scale, poor trajectory, and adverse environmental impact, or we can do it right – with sustainable, long-term solutions that can meet our biofuel needs and our environmental needs. We do need strong regulation to ensure land use abuses do not happen. A recent report published by the Royal Society (also available on the database) highlights some of the factors that need to be balanced – they note that some changes in land use (such as clearing tropical forest or adapting peatlands for crop cultivation) can do more harm than good. To counter these potential abuses, Mr. Khosla suggests that each cellulosic facility be individually certified with a LEEDS (international certification program for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, a green building rating system).
He believes that given reasonable assumptions on technologies, biofuel yields, and adoption of better agronomic practices, most of biofuel needs can be met with fairly limited land usage. From a technology perspective, the advances and continuing research into thermochemical processes offers potential far exceeding that of standard biochemical approaches. From an agronomic perspective, a greater understanding about the benefits of crop rotations and conservation practices combined with an ability to use generally underutilized land offers us the ability to vastly increase our biofuel producing abilities without cultivating additional land. In particular, Mr. Khosla thinks that the potential for winter cover crops as a biofuel source has been greatly understated, and that even modest yield assumptions would allow them to meet a significant portion of our biofuel needs. In the long run, the combination of these multiple factors (an example of the innovation ecosystem at play) could allow us to sever our dependence on oil – for good. Hybrid vehicle technologies will help but not materially on a worldwide basis at current costs.
He believes that a sustainable biofuel needs yields of at least 2,000 gallons (ethanol equivalent) per acre in the long run to meet the worlds oil replacement needs on a manageable amount of land.
None of the “food/feed crop” based biofuels (corn or sugar based) or classic biodiesel sources (vegetable oils) comes close to these targets.
How could be such a fantasy possible? Part I covers sources of biomass, Part II will cover agronomy practices for yield, biodiversity, water and chemical efficiency, and Part III discusses the rationale of yield assumptions that lead to 2,500 gallons per acre. Khosla’s calculations show that if we can increase engine and automobile efficiency significantly at the same time, we will need no additional land for biofuels.

By: V. Khosla (Khosla Ventures)

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