Summary

This briefing was the third in a series on alternative transportation fuels. Previous briefings focused on fuels from liquid coal and tar sands and oil shale. The next briefing will focus on electricity, with details posted at www.eesi.org/briefings as they become available.

On May 12, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing to examine the economic, energy security, climate, and other environmental issues associated with biofuels—liquid fuels derived from plant, animal, or other organic matter (biomass). Expanded biofuels production in the United States and abroad presents several questions regarding the appropriate scale, direction, and regulation of biofuels development. This briefing discussed the current state of biofuels technologies in order to better understand the full range of potential benefits, costs, and impacts associated with these fuels.

  • Biofuels represent a rapidly evolving and improving class of transportation fuels, with enormous potential to improve further. Advanced fuels made from next generation feedstocks promise to require less water and energy inputs and significantly reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
  • While commercialization of second generation biofuels made from algal oils and lignocellulosic biomass is years from completion, significant progress is being made developing “bridging feedstocks” such as camelina, jatropha, and halophytes.
  • A benefit of using camelina is its ability to grow on land left fallow by farmers as part of three and four year crop rotation cycles.
  • In preliminary research, algal oils have produced as much as 3500 gallons of oil per acre, as compared to only 500 gallons for palm oil. However, algal-based biofuels have yet to be produced on a commercial scale.
  • Researchers have conducted three successful flights using jet fuel derived from renewable sources since December 30, 2008.
  • CAAFI, an organization currently composed of 45 stakeholders in the aviation industry, foresees dramatic progress in biofuels used for aviation within the next 18 months, including approval of up to four processes it sees as promising.
  • Assuming historical trends in increasing corn yields continue, the United States will be able to meet the maximum 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol under the national Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) without additional land use.
  • Although competition between food and fuel production is an inherent consequence of land scarcity, the relationship(s) between biofuel production, food prices, and human well-being are complex and dependent on a number of additional factors, including oil prices, changing diets, climate change, and the benefits of high commodity prices for farmers.
  • While current processes for producing advanced biofuels are not yet cost-competitive, scaling up to commercial-scale production will be critical to reducing costs. Inefficiencies can be identified and fixed.

Speaker Slides