When Chris Somerville arrived at UC Berkeley in early 2007 to run a new biofuels center, the program was embroiled in controversy. It was to be a wide-ranging scientific quest to help solve the global warming crisis. But the Energy Biosciences Institute had come under fire because it was funded by a $500 million grant from BP Energy. Critics accused the campus of selling its soul to the company once known as British Petroleum, and said that one of the world's great academic institutions should just change its name to "UCBP."
At the same time, the first generation of biofuels was coming under intense criticism from both environmentalists and human-rights activists — and for good reason. Biofuels derived from corn, soybeans, and palm oil have to be subsidized heavily because they're inefficient and costly. Plus, growing them for fuel means displacing food crops. Last summer, when oil prices spiked to record levels, the increased demand for ethanol and biodiesel was blamed for a worldwide food shortage. Critics also said that using valuable farmland for biofuels was forcing other countries to cut down forests and plant more crops, especially in the tropics, which only worsened greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the City of Berkeley cited those very concerns last month when it ended its seven-year experiment with using biodiesel in city garbage and fire trucks.
Although Somerville doesn't agree with all the criticisms of first-generation biofuels, he does not defend them either. He also recognizes that the growing backlash against plant-based fuels will be tough to overcome. Nonetheless, he and his fellow researchers are convinced that biofuels need not displace farmland or cause deforestation, and they're committed to developing more efficient, nonfood crops. He also defends the university's partnership with BP, arguing that it's naive to think that Big Oil won't play a critical role in developing the fuels of the future. "If you want to change the world, you have to work with these companies," he said during a recent interview.
Somerville also is realistic about the future role of biofuels. They won't be able to replace fossil fuels by themselves. Instead, he predicts that biofuels will be one of several renewable energy sources that can help wean us off oil, while reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
The director of UC Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute has some powerful political allies. His former boss, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, the onetime head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is now President Obama's energy secretary. And both Chu and the president are enthusiastic supporters of biofuels. Last month, Chu announced that the administration would use nearly $800 million from the president's stimulus package to fund biofuels research and help launch biofuel refineries. It was the Obama administration's single biggest investment to date in green technology. The administration also is working on a plan that would increase the cost of producing and selling fossil fuels, potentially giving a big boost to renewable energy sources. "Developing the next generation of biofuels is key to our effort to end our dependence on foreign oil and address the climate crisis," Chu explained in a statement.
But even with the backing of a popular president, the future of biofuels remains uncertain. On the political left, environmentalists are concerned about the potential use of genetically modified crops. And on the right, the Republican Party is dominated by global-warming deniers who want to drill for more oil and mine more coal. Meanwhile, huge agricultural interests are divided between those addicted to corn-ethanol subsidies and the cattle industry, which fears that growing biofuels will lead to a reduction in grazing lands or cause animal-feed shortages.
Somerville and his colleagues also face some significant technological hurdles, from bringing down the cost of refining biofuels to finding environmentally sustainable ways to produce them. Indeed, the battle over biofuels is not just a fight between scientists and entrenched interests, it's a struggle to uncover an eco-friendly solution to the coming global warming crisis.
Even for backers of biofuels, there's just no getting around the fact that the first wave of fuels — especially corn-based ones — have been a big disappointment. The process of turning corn into ethanol requires almost as much energy as it produces. And growing corn for fuel wastes valuable cropland. "I can't defend corn," Somerville said over a recent lunch on the UC Berkeley campus. "I'm not in favor of it."
Midwestern farmers, on the other hand, love it, and so do the politicians who represent them. In 2008, the United States produced 9 billion gallons of corn ethanol, and a Congressional mandate passed in 2007 means that corn-ethanol production will probably increase to at least 15 billion by 2022.
Biodiesel derived from palm oil is no less problematic. Vast acres of tropical forests, particularly in Indonesia, have been cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. And not only has the loss of trees depleted the planet's ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but churning up the soil and burning all those trees has worsened CO2 emissions.
Soybeans are inefficient, too. According to a report by the Energy Biosciences Institute, an average soybean crop only produces about 63 gallons of biodiesel per acre. By contrast, UC Berkeley scientists estimate that the next generation of biofuels could produce as much as 2,500 gallons of ethanol on the same-sized plot of land.
But the many drawbacks of corn, soy, and palm oil have cemented the view of some environmentalists that biofuel isn't the answer. "It's just not sustainable," said Anne Petermann of the Vermont-based Global Justice Ecology Project, one of the leading opponents of biofuels. "Growing biofuels requires enormous amounts of land. It impacts the food supply." Petermann and other opponents also prefer to call biofuels "agrofuels" because "biofuels" sounds too green-friendly. "From our perspective, this push for agrofuels is going down the wrong path," she said.
Opponents also contend that replacing gasoline with biofuels is impossible. In a paper earlier this year, former UC Berkeley geoengineering professor Tad Patzek, who is now at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that it would require about 8 million acres of switchgrass — a possible next-generation biofuel — to supply the Bay Area's 4 million vehicles. Yet, Patzek noted there are only 6.3 million acres of irrigated land in California's Central Valley. In other words, it can't be done.
But these arguments don't necessarily apply to the research being conducted at the Energy Biosciences Institute. For example, no one at Berkeley is contending that biofuels will replace gasoline. Somerville, along with several other experts, argued last month at a biofuels conference in San Francisco that plant-based fuels will have a limited role in supplying our future energy needs. They believe that it makes more environmental sense for the cars of the future to be electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.
The real role for biofuels, they said, will be as a potential energy source for large trucks and airplanes. Electric power isn't suitable for large, long-haul transportation vehicles because of the size of the battery needed to make them go. The batteries would have to be so big, in fact, that there would no room on trucks to haul goods and planes would never get off the ground. As a result, biofuels are a better green alternative for the "heavy lifters of the transportation sector," explained Lee Lynd, an environmental engineering professor at Dartmouth College, who also is the chief science officer at Mascoma Corporation, a start-up company attempting to develop next-generation biofuels.
Yet some environmentalists remain unconvinced, and adamantly oppose biofuels no matter what. "Our planet is headed for a complete collapse, and we need to look deeply into the future and decide what we really need," said Rachel Smoker of Biofuels Watch, another Vermont-based anti-agrofuels group. However, Smoker's preferred remedy is to completely eliminate truck transportation and airplane travel — a solution that most Americans are likely to find far from realistic.
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