The Battle Over Biofuels 

As plant-based fuels are increasingly criticized from both left and right, UC Berkeley's Chris Somerville is leading the effort to perfect them.

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The arguments by the environmental left also fail to account for those on the political right. For example, the national Republican Party's energy plan, released last week as a counterpoint to Obama's, completely denies the existence of global warming while calling for more offshore oil drilling, oil-shale projects, coal-to-liquid projects, and the development of "clean coal." As one Daily Kos diarist put it: "Dick Cheney could just as well have tapped out this plan on his laptop in the spring of 2001 while the good old boys from the oil giants lounged around in his office dictating the wording."

Chris Somerville is certainly no good old boy. In any place but the East Bay, the former Stanford University biochemistry professor would be a charter member of the Left. Like Al Gore, he's passionate about renewable energy. And his eyes light up when he talks about the future of turning plants into fuel.

Somerville and his colleagues at the Energy Bioscience Institute are particularly excited about the potential for Miscanthus, a wild grass with tall stalks that grows quickly in dense thickets and can withstand cold winters. It also has enormous, deep roots that allow the plant to extract considerable amounts of carbon from the air and store it in the ground.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, Berkeley's partner in the BP-funded project, have been growing a stand of Miscanthus for eight years, and they've discovered several other advantages. "It's never been irrigated, and it doesn't need fertilizer, or pesticides, or insecticides," Somerville explained. As a result, Miscanthus doesn't produce runoff pollution. And its deep roots funnel nutrients back into the soil.

Moreover, Miscanthus and other second-generation biofuel crops also produce far more ethanol than current ones. Processing corn into ethanol, for example, uses only the starchy portion of the plant and employs essentially the same fermentation process as making alcohol. But in second-generation crops, scientists mash up the entire plant — except for the roots — to make what's known as "cellulosic ethanol." Miscanthus can produce up to 2,500 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per acre, far outpacing the 400 gallons of traditional ethanol that corn typically generates per acre.

Institute researchers also are examining the potential of plants that can thrive on marginal land. One is Spartina, a salt-tolerant coastal plant. Somerville said Spartina could be suitable for cropland abandoned because of salinization, a by-product of heavy irrigation that afflicts growing portions of the Central Valley. Another promising plant is agave, a desert species that needs almost no water and has high sugar content. Mexicans have used it for years to make tequila. "It's kind of like sugar cane," Somerville said. "And the beautiful thing about agave is it will grow where nothing else will."

Most importantly, Somerville and other biofuels experts believe, such second-generation biofuels crops won't have to displace farmland currently in use. Somerville notes that the federal government pays US farmers to not grow crops on about 32 million acres. The program, whose roots go back to the Great Depression, is designed to prop up farm income. If farmers started growing crops on those 32 million acres, it would cause a significant drop in prices, putting many of them out of business. New biofuels crops, on the other hand, would have no such impact.

Somerville also points out that about 60 million acres of former US farmland are no longer in use. Typically, the cropland wasn't fertile enough or is located in areas where the weather is less suitable for farming. But such cropland could be fine for hearty, fast-growing crops such as Miscanthus.

In all, Somerville estimates that close to 100 million acres of land in the United States alone could be made available for second-generation biofuel crops. "We could meet the national goals on those acres," he said, referring to the US government's stated ambition of producing 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. Worldwide, a recent study by Stanford University ecologists estimated that there is more than 1 billion acres of abandoned cropland that could be used for biofuels. "So is land in short supply?" Somerville asked rhetorically. "The answer seems to be no."

But turning Miscanthus, Spartina, or agave into cellulosic ethanol is not without its challenges. For starters, it's expensive. A commercial biorefinery can cost $200 million to $300 million to build. As a result, cellulosic ethanol is not yet price-competitive, although it doesn't appear to be that far off. To date, only test facilities have been built, but at last month's biofuels conference in San Francisco, several companies said they were ready to build commercial refineries and predicted that they will be producing cellulosic ethanol for less than $4 a gallon in five to ten years — if they can bring down construction costs. Gasoline was selling for about $3 a gallon late last week in the East Bay, but was more than $4.50 last summer.

In addition, the Obama administration is working on a proposal that could further level the economic playing field. A so-called "cap-and-trade" plan would effectively put a price on carbon for the first time by forcing companies that refine or sell fossil fuels to lower carbon dioxide emissions or buy "credits" from greener businesses, such as biofuel producers. "Basically, oil has been getting a freebie by not being charged for the CO2 it produces," explained Doug Cameron, chief science officer for Piper Jaffray, an investment bank that focuses on renewable energy and clean technology. Cameron and other biofuels experts at the conference said they believe a carbon price as low as $10 a ton could be enough to make biofuels competitive. Biofuels presumably would be exempt from the carbon tax because the amount of carbon dioxide they release into the air when burned is less than what plants remove from the atmosphere — as long as they're grown, harvested, and refined without generating more CO2 emissions.

At Berkeley, researchers are attempting to lower the costs of refining by finding better ways to break down plant material. Currently, the production of cellulosic ethanol requires pouring hot sulphuric acid on plants to soften up their hard outer layer so that microbes can convert the cellulose into fuel. But the process is inefficient and environmentally troublesome. Somerville and his colleagues are researching more innovative and sustainable ways to solve the problem. Specifically, they're looking at how cow and termite guts break down cellulose, and hope to replicate that process on a larger scale. "BP has asked us to get out in front of the science," he explained. "They're not interested in tinkering."

Institute researchers also are examining whether they can modify crops genetically so that they can be broken down more easily. The research is in its early stages, but if Somerville and his colleagues ultimately go down this path, they'll have to deal with the legitimate concerns raised by using genetically modified plants in large-scale biofuels farming.

They also have to solve the problems presented by ethanol itself. It's corrosive and soluble in water, so it can't be pumped through existing fuel pipelines and instead has to be shipped in tanker trucks. Somerville views ethanol as a transitional biofuel that will ultimately be replaced. One possible solution, he said, could be butanol, another alcohol-like fuel that doesn't share the same drawbacks.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for biofuels to overcome will be the battle against the corn and cattle industries. Both are entrenched and politically formidable. "Our goal is to replace corn," Somerville said. "But it's going to be a hard fight against the corn growers. And the cattle industry is already mobilized against us."

In fact, the real battle over the future of biofuels may be with meat lovers. After all, 90 percent of the nation's arable cropland is currently used not to feed humans directly, but rather to feed animals. And as long as we continue to use so much farmland to supply our meat habit, the space we have to grow renewable energy will be limited. As Bruce Dale, a biofuels expert at Michigan State University, put it: "It's really steaks and burgers versus fuel."

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