Can’t Do Without Biofuels, Scientists Tell California

Skepticism about biofuels and their value in tackling global warming abounds in the scientific community, but a new report commissioned by the California Energy Commission says the state won’t be able to do without them if it is to meet aggressive 2050 emissions goals.

Even with “optimistic efficiency, electrification, and implementation of other renewable energy sources,” the report says, “substantial amounts of low-carbon biofuels would be required” to meet the continuing need for liquid fuels.

california biofuels

California could need more plants like this corn-to-cellulosic migration project recently developed in Visalia (image via Edeniq)

As with so many such reports, this one, authored by scientists at the Energy Biosciences Institute, hinges to a great degree on the assumptions it builds into the scenarios it spins out. One of those assumptions here is that the state can and will exercise good stewardship in producing the plant matter that will be turned into fuels (particularly important since state policy requires 75 percent of its biofuels come from in-state resources). From the report:

The concerns about and benefits of biofuels in California can be appropriately managed through proper choice of species and production criteria for feedstocks and fuel conversion technologies in any given region. Examples include: the use of arid-tolerant feedstocks and water-minimal conversion technologies for lands with limited water supplies; the use of grasses that sequester soil carbon and recycle nutrients combined with nutrient recovery from processing; and the use of plants that can tolerate and ameliorate poor or damaged soils, allowing use of land not suitable for food or feed production.

“The concerns” about biofuels range from mixed ability to actually result in lower carbon emissions when analyzed through an entire lifecycle, to their impact on land use and food production. These concerns have only intensified as biofuels in the United States have been slow to evolve from their food-crop-devouring forms to more sustainable next-generation fuels, made from leaves and stems and the like, as well as from perennial energy grasses like switchgrass. Algal biofuel, too, is much talked about, but studies have cast doubt on how it might upscale sustainably. The new California study assumes advances on at least some of those fronts in the coming years.

California is aiming to reduce its GHG emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (even as its population and economy grow). This study, which is available online as a PDF, is part of a series of reports undertaken by the California Council on Science and Technology, with backing from the California Energy Commission, intended to help guide the state toward success in that goal.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.