Juergen Eckhardt Forbes
Biofuels Will Be A Key Part Of The Net-Zero Solution
April 22, 2024
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  • Imagine a world where jets fly around the planet on fuel sourced from plants, replacing fossil fuels at cost parity, all without displacing huge amounts of forest land and animal life.

    Today, such a fantasy probably seems as distant as Mars. Biofuel, which is a type of renewable energy made from living matter, makes up just 10% of U.S. gasoline, mostly in the form of ethanol. Ethanol made from corn provides the equivalent of about 1 million barrels of oil per day, according to Daniel Schrag, a professor of public policy, environmental science and engineering at Harvard University. It’s far from enough: the U.S. uses 20 million barrels of oil per day.

    “But you can’t grow 20 times as much corn to actually eliminate oil from our energy system,” Schrag points out. While many motor vehicles will become electrified in the long run, “what you need is oil for the rest of the demand, such as from trucks, ships, and airplanes. There’s a big debate about what that winning technology will be.”

    Environmentalists contend that the fuel of the future should be green hydrogen energy, which is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity and is neutral in carbon emissions. However, the costs are too high to be competitive with fossil fuels for the foreseeable future and experts acknowledge it is not an immediate next step in transitioning the economy to a cleaner fuel source.

    “If we’re going to replace petroleum and avoid really catastrophic climate change, biofuels will be part of the solution,” Schrag says. “The challenge is to make biofuels with the lowest cost and the lowest land use footprint.”

    To realize the vision of carbon-neutral aviation, there are outstanding questions that must be solved: What’s the best organic source material of the fuel? Wood chips, agricultural waste, crops? What’s the yield, and at what cost? And what’s the final product?

    While there’s still a long way to go, the good news is that innovative companies are working on the problem and making progress.

    A Shift Underway

    An established player in the space is Poet, the largest producer of ethanol in the world. A privately held company, Poet, based in South Dakota, buys about seven percent of the industrial corn grown in the U.S. and produces three billion gallons of ethanol annually. They have 34 bioprocessing facilities in eight states that produce ethanol, animal feed, and other products.

    Doug Berven, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Poet, sees “tremendous potential” for agricultural products like ethanol to underpin a significant shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

    The current blend rate – the percent of ethanol per gallon of gasoline – is 10% in the U.S. That reduces the price per gallon roughly 40 cents, while also reducing particulate emissions in the air. Berven says it’s possible to scale up to 15% without planting any more corn. That’s because advances in seed technology and farmer tools are allowing for greater yield, even as climate and growing conditions are less than ideal.

    Not that anyone expects ethanol to replace or eliminate fossil fuels – but more biofuels per gallon are beneficial for both the planet and consumers. Berven says that a 15% blend rate would reduce the price at the pump another 10 cents to a dollar per gallon as well as secure a dependable domestic market for America’s corn farmers.

    Berven sees the latter point as key for scaling biofuels in developing countries. Right now, it’s cheaper in Kenya, for example, to import corn rather than grow it. However, by enhancing agricultural practices with better seeds and practices, Berven says, they could increase their yield up to nine times and service an “untapped” market for ethanol with their excess grain.

    “Biofuels are a catalyst for successful agriculture, and successful agriculture is the key to solving the globe’s most pressing issues with hunger and energy,” says Berven.

    Another company tapping into an agricultural resource for biofuel is CoverCress Inc. (CCI), which was originally a Leaps portfolio company that later became majority owned by Bayer together with Bunge and Chevron. CCI, which just won recognition as a BloombergNEF Pioneer in the category of net-zero fuels, uses plant breeding to improve yield and maturity and gene-editing to modify the oil and fiber composition of a common winter weed. Through these product development efforts, CCI has created CoverCress®, the first rotational cash crop of its kind. It grows well in the Midwest during the winter without requiring new land, and its grain can be crushed to make an oil that is an ideal feedstock source for producing sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel. Meal, the other co-product produced when the grain is crushed, is a high-protein animal feed.

    The first commercial crop was planted last fall on 3,000 acres and will be harvested in late spring. It’s a win-win for farmers, who get paid $175 per bushel under contracts with CCI for harvested CoverCress® grain grown between their traditional corn and soybean rotation. CCI will initially sell the harvested grain as an ingredient for broiler chicken feed and in the future the grain will be sold to a crusher, who turns the grain into an oil and animal meal product.

    “We need to take every step we can to lower our carbon emissions,” says CEO Mike DeCamp. “I’m a big believer that it takes a village to get that done. For the role that renewable fuels will play, you need sustainably produced feedstock sources to make that work. I know we’ve got a product to do that.”

    Countering Objections

    To be sure, those who are critical of biofuels as an alternative fuel source worry that growing the plants needed for wide scale risks harming biodiversity.

    “In Malaysia,” Schrag acknowledges, “a quarter of land is deforested for palm oil plantations. That’s been an ecological disaster. You don’t want to do that on steroids. So that’s the challenge: Pursue conservation strategies while pursuing biofuels. With innovation, yield can be improved. Find the most efficient plants that grow the most in the smallest land area with the least inputs.”

    Schrag is excited by pyrolysis, a technique that heats the plant biomass without air and turns it into charcoal and liquid that could be turned into a form of crude oil — but isn’t ready to call a winner.

    “Whether it’s woodchips, agricultural waste, or energy crops, whatever the feedstock, we don’t yet know the right technology. It’s too early to say. We need to let early-stage research and demonstration play out.”

    As far as the deforestation concerns, Berven of Poet contends that more land is not necessary. “We are completely against cutting down trees,” he says. “We need to manage the land that is available properly.” He points to recent scientific reports that one billion acres of former farmland around the world are now abandoned.

    Berven believes the biggest challenge to a broader market for biofuels is not land availability, but rather what he views as the oil companies’ monopoly on fuel. Yet those companies are also conscious of their greenhouse gas emissions and are investing in alternatives. In fact, Chevron is a minority stakeholder in CoverCress.

    “The only solution for them to reduce their emissions is to put additional cleaner fuel into the marketplace,” Berven says. “Existing and emerging biofuels are the best path forward to reduce transportation emissions around the globe.”