Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Thoughts on Sustainability

Today on the Biofuels4Oregon listserve their has been a vigorous debate brewing about what constitutes sustainable biofuels. A good email on the subject came from Brent Searle from the Oregon Department of Agriculture which actually inspired me to contribute to the exchage. Below is Brent's thoughts and then my response.

BioFuels Network

Sent: Tuesday, May 06, 2008 1:54 PM
Subject: [biofuels4oregon] Sustainability>

Here is my list of Sustainability Objectives for any fuel, keeping in
mind the question of "Can We Have it All?" There is no perfect fuel; they all have trade-offs.

Does the fuel (biofuel or any other) contribute in a positive way to:

1. The development of systems to deliver feedstock at “economically sustainable” prices to all players in the value chain over time?
2. Developing the infrastructure and capacity to consistently deliver quality fuel products in a market over time?
3. Economic development of rural communities, job creation, and local ownership models -- in the US?
4. Helping meet local, national, and world food needs?
5. Keeping ag lands in ag use?
6. Reducing carbon output, increasing sequestration, etc.?
7. Improving returns on energy and other inputs?
8. Stabilizing fuel costs?
9. National security: minimize military role/cost?
10. Energy security: diversified & resilient fuel supply?
11. Generating and enhancing environmental benefits (air, water, soil quality, wildlife, etc.).

There is no silver bullet. It will take lots of different strategies, fuels and biofuels, efficiencies and conservation, transportation shipping mode changes (more barge/rail, less truck), etc., etc.

Brent Searle
OR Dept. of Agriculture

My Additional thoughts and response to Brent's email:

I would also add to that the concept of "Does the technology/fuel/energy in question have longer term development opportunity?" I.e. - does it offer an upside potential of a long stream of value added products from initial investments.

Biofuels have a huge future for other value added products out of the same biofuel manufacturing facility. As for petroleum, the future of petroleum will likely be hydrocracking (i.e. converting) cheaper non petroleum products to the same spec as petroleum.

Developing new agricultural products or feedstocks for both ethanol and biodiesel have a huge potential for this. The leaders in these newer industries will be outside traditional energy and therefore will provide a good deal of value outside of our traditional marketplace. This is exciting stuff and rarely covered if ever.

The real story behind petroleum isn't the versatility of the input (the crude oil). Its the focus the petroleum industry has put into developing value added products from the crude. The real story of biofuels is similar - not developing the mainstream product (ethanol or biodiesel) but instead other value added products with unique niche markets.

Being that to dump any part of petroleum is noticeable and polluting. Its been the case since the very beginning of the petroleum refining industry there has been good deal of money invested to develop something from every last drip of crude oil. The major oil companies grew up niching certain products from their refining process. Everyone knows the stories of refineries in the rust-belt dumping lighter end products in rivers, flaring off natural gas, and others. We hear these stories because people in these communities were upset even in 1925 long before the Clean Air and Water acts. The early success found a way to get paid for their "waste" as a product instead of a pollution.

There is no reason why Agriculture won't follow that same development pattern as petroleum refining technology. Up until recently the main focus of US agriculture has been food grade products. The upside of biofuels is the research money is on a much wider focus of product development.If we have a floor for production to move to that can handle a diverse number of crops. This is a whole new paradigm for the US. Sustainability to me is more products from more acres with less water, fertilizer, and energy input. Sustainability to me is this trend for the next 100 years.

Anything that moves towards this trend of newer, better, cleaner technology is progress. Those green washing the same old practices are not.

Today unsustainable agriculture is a ten cylinder 57 Chevy. Something you can be sentimental about but not a breakthrough in technology for the time it was produced. Compare this 57 Chevy to the gamble represented by the 2002 Prius scale up. The Toyota Prius was cutting edge experimental technology outside the box of any market expectation. Over the next decades hybrids will become as standard as anti-lock brakes and electric windows and therefore so will our fuel economy expectations.

That's sustainable progress and therefore Sustainability.

Mark Fitz

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