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[1THING] Blog: Archive for April, 2014

[ Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia ]

The derailment of a CSX train carrying crude in Lynchburg, Virginia, is the latest in a series of accidents involving oil transport.

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[ U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard Should Be Informed by Environmental Impact ]

Estimated GHG

EPA’s change to the RFS will generate increased greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuel use over the next several years.

For the first time in the short history of the U.S. government’s Renewable Fuel Standard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to decrease the total amount of renewable fuel required as part of the national supply, with a 41 percent cut to the advanced biofuel category.

But a study recently published by our organization found that EPA’s proposed reductions in biofuel use in 2014 would automatically increase use of petroleum and increase the associated emissions of greenhouse gases. In order to achieve lower emissions in 2014, compared to 2013, EPA must ensure an increase in biofuel use.

Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?
Vote and comment at the Big Energy Question.

Our study, published in the Industrial Biotechnology Journal, examines the EPA’s proposed rules. It is available online and we invite responses.

If the EPA’s proposal undermines development of advanced biofuels—as we expect it will—the United States will forgo measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over many years. Advanced biofuels must demonstrate a reduction in greenhouse gases of at least 50 percent compared to a baseline of petroleum gasoline or diesel produced in 2007. But if EPA continues to use the proposed methodology for setting the annual RFS obligations in future years, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels will remain above the 2013 level for many years. (See related coverage: “Biofuels at a Crossroads.”)

The model we developed begins with Energy Information Administration projections of fuel use from 2013 through 2022. EIA predicts that diesel use will steadily increase over the time period and gasoline use will increase in the short term before continuing its long range decline. Gasoline use in the United States peaked in 2007, but has declined in recent years due to the economic downturn. Its use is expected to continue to decline as fuel economy standards that favor diesel use come into effect.

We next calculated the percentages of petroleum blendstock for gasoline and diesel, ethanol, biodiesel, advanced and cellulosic biofuels that would be used each year under various scenarios—the EPA’s newly proposed methodology, the statutory RFS rules, and a continuation of the past practice of setting the advanced biofuel volume obligation at the highest achievable level. The volumes of each portion of the fuel supply were then assigned GHG emission scores—measured in metric tons of CO2 equivalent—and an annual total was tallied for each scenario.

The greenhouse gas emission scores are drawn from a model that includes land-use change calculations for biofuels. This model also includes an updated emissions profile for petroleum fuels, since the United States now relies more on marginal sources of petroleum—such as Canadian oil sands—than it did in 2007. (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Biofuel.”)

However, our model allows for EPA’s estimates of emissions to be assigned to the volumes. Substitution of EPA estimates would not change the primary and secondary findings of our study. If we increase petroleum in our fuel mix over the next few years by decreasing biofuel use, that petroleum will most likely come from Canadian oil sands and include more lifecycle carbon emissions.

The study also demonstrates that increased fuel efficiency standards may not by themselves achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In the short term, economic recovery could unleash pent-up demand for transportation fuel. And over the next decade, fuel economy standards will continue to boost use of diesel fuel even while lowering gasoline use. Diesel fuel emits more carbon during its lifecycle. And, if the petroleum used also emits more carbon over its lifecycle, the impact of decreased use could be offset significantly. A combination of fuel efficiency and use of lower carbon fuels is needed to achieve year-over-year reductions in carbon emissions.

When making changes to the renewable fuel standard, EPA must evaluate the impact of its rules on the environment, including climate change; energy security; future commercialization of advanced biofuels; sufficiency of infrastructure to deliver and use biofuel; costs to consumers; and job creation, rural economic development, and food prices. We published this study as a contribution to the EPA’s evaluation of its rule and its impact on climate change. Our hope is that EPA incorporates it into its analysis of the final rule, due in June. (See my earlier post: “Why New Biofuel Feedstocks Deserve Investment, Incentives.”)

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[ Will Newer Wind Turbines Mean Fewer Bird Deaths? ]

As wind areas such as California’s Altamont Pass replace old turbines, research suggests that newer ones may not be any better at preventing bird deaths.

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[ Prescribing parks: physicians recommend wild lands for health ]

Doctors in Washington, D.C. are beginning to write prescriptions for their patients to spend time in parks to improve their health.

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[ Canadian College Teams, Midwest High Schools Win Big in Race for Fuel Efficiency ]

A winning vehicle designed by students in a race for fuel efficiency can travel from New York to Los Angeles on one gallon of gas.

After a last-minute scramble for qualifying runs by many of the 126 student teams, Shell* Eco-marathon Americas ended Sunday with nearly a dozen first-place winners in different vehicle and fuel categories.

Canadian college teams and Midwest high schools picked up many of the trophies that night after dominating all weekend on a downtown Houston track.

Overcoming friction problems in their gas-powered Alérion Supermileage vehicle, Quebec’s Université Laval secured the top spot with a run of 2,824 miles per gallon.

But the University of Toronto team gave the longtime winners a run for their money with second-place success in the same category.

“We’re the only team from Americas to build their own engine,” said team leader and fourth-year mechanical engineering student Jonathan Hamway.

It’s a huge advantage but also a lot of work, Hamway said.  The team logged in 5,000 man-hours over the past eight months on the project. The work paid off with two off-track awards for technical innovation and tribology.

Bow-tied science and engineering students perform the Cuban Shuffle dance Sunday night in Houston after concluding a nail-biting race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

Bow-tied science and engineering students perform the Cuban Shuffle dance Sunday night in Houston after concluding a nail-biting race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

Canadian counterparts Université de Sherbrooke won an off-track ward for their spirit and perseverance. Sporting cowboy hats and green bandanas, the students also danced and celebrated their way to the stage to accept a first-place award in the UrbanConcept battery electric category.

Shell* Eco-marathon Technical Director Norman Koch said the category was much tougher this year, with students having to make their own motor controllers, or the heart of an electric motor.

But the Sherbrooke students captured the spirit of collaboration when helping teams who struggled with the technical requirement.

“You’re doing the things we really love to see: applying engineering to innovation and collaborating,” said Hugh Mitchell, Shell Corp.’s chief human resources and corporate officer. “Science and engineering depends on collaboration, and you’re all bringing it.”

A move next year to the Motor City put the spotlight on several Michigan teams this weekend.

With two prototype vehicles in the gas- and battery-powered categories, The University of Detroit Jesuit High School didn’t pick up any on-track awards, but team leader Jacob Byrd said the students didn’t walk away empty-handed.

“It’s less about competing against other teams,” he said. “We’re trying to beat our personal goals and make personal strides.”

Anything is possible next year as the race for fuel efficiency moves to their backyard. While taking a break Sunday from nail-biting safety and technical inspections, Koch said to expect more challenges.

The Detroit course will have uphill and downhill portions and left and right turns, which will test all parts of the student-built vehicles, Koch said.

“That’s why I’m excited about Detroit,” he said. “From a mobility point of view, it is much more of a realistic track that you and I drive every day in our cars, and that’s what the students should get used to.”

PROTOTYPE WINNERS

Gasoline fuel: Université Laval in Quebec, Canada, with a run of 2,824 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Alérion Supermileage.

Diesel fuel: Sullivan High School in Sullivan, Indiana, with a run of 1,889.3 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Easy on Gas.

Battery electric: Mater Dei High School in Evansville, Indiana, with a run of 537.2 miles per kilowatt hour with their vehicle, Mater Dei Supermileage 3.

Hydrogen: The University of Colorado Denver with a run of 37.4 miles per kilowatt hour with their vehicle, Archetype.

Ethanol: The University of Colorado Boulder with a run of 1,771.4 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Ralphie 2250.

Mater Dei High School won gas-powered UrbanConcept category with  a run of 901.5 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Elroy, last weekend at the Eco-marathon. Photo courtesy of Eco-marathon.

Mater Dei High School won gas-powered UrbanConcept category with a run of 901.5 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Elroy, last weekend at the Eco-marathon. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

URBANCONCEPT WINNERS

Gasoline fuel: Mater Dei High School with a run of 901.5 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Elroy.

Diesel fuel: Alden-Conger High School in Alden, Minnesota, with a run of 458.7 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Superbird.

Battery electric: Université de Sherbrooke in Sherbrooke, Canada, with a run of 202 miles per kilowatt hour with their vehicle, E-Volve.

Hydrogen: The University of Alberta in Alberta, Canada, with a run of 18.4 miles per kilowatt hour with their vehicle, Steve.

Ethanol: Granite Bay High School in Granite Bay, California, with a run of 102.3 miles per gallon with their vehicle, Green Grizzly Machine.

 

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains authority over content.

 

 

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[ Students Reflect on Shipping, Travel Costs During Last Leg of Race ]

Tucked tightly into their self-built prototype vehicles, drivers slid on sunglasses, adjusted helmets took deep breaths Sunday morning before their last chance for a qualifying run.

With only had only three hours left to compete in the prototype category of Shell* Eco-marathon’s race for extreme energy efficiency, students had to make this time around the downtown Houston track count.

Inside a bustling paddock area, a college team from Guatemala struggled to fix a sticky clutch on its green ethanol-powered streamliner after a long weekend of fits and starts.

The Universidad del Valle de Guatemala students traveled more than 1,000 miles – the distance some Eco-marathon prototypes traveled on the equivalent on one gallon of gas — to take part in the annual competition.

A logistics company offered to send their vehicle for free this year, but engineering teacher Andres Hernandez said the school spent more than $4,000 on shipping costs last year and couldn’t afford to send it home.

“We had to leave it here,” Hernandez said.

Some student teams used crates to drive or ship their vehicles to Houston for the annual Shell Eco-marathon race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy of Eco-marathon.

Some student teams used crates to drive or ship their vehicles to Houston for the annual Shell Eco-marathon race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Shipping is an extra expense for a team that regularly spends $10,000 to build a prototype from scratch, he said. That’s because of pricier parts in the Latin American country, he said.

“Manufacturing and materials are more expensive because we have to import everything,” Hernandez said.

Shell officials and student teams only reported a handful of shipping snafus—an engine stuck in customs and missing boxes of tools here and there. A team from Alaska in the past designed their vehicle to fit in airplane carry-on luggage, according to Eco-marathon Technical Director Norman Koch.

But many teams in the continental United States and neighboring countries found it easier and cheaper to drive team members, vehicles and tools to Houston. For one Canadian student team, it took nearly two days of non-stop pavement time to arrive at the competition.

While wheeling out their shiny white and green battery-powered UrbanConcept vehicle to the track Sunday afternoon, the Université de Sherbrook engineering seniors threw out a ballpark figure for entire project: $100,000.

That’s why the cowboy hat-wearing students were nervous about making the roughly 1,700-mile trek from Québec—even with a traveling stipend, said Sherbrooke senior Patrick Dubois. The team spent a day packing to make sure nothing would move.

“We had get down anyway, so having a trailer behind us wasn’t that much different as an expense,” Dubois said. “Every fuel stop—every, like, three hours—we would open the trailer and make sure everything was in its place.”

 

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains authority over content.

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[ Student Teams Share Tools, Advice Off the Track During Eco-marathon ]

A race for fuel efficiency might be dog-eat-dog on the track, but student teams are willing to lend a helping hand back in the paddock.

Shell* Eco-marathon Americas gives more than 1,000 students the chance to showcase their science and engineering skills in Houston each year. (See related photos: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55.”)

The goal: Construct a vehicle in one of two categories—prototype or UrbanConcept—using one of six fuel types and test its energy efficiency in a race around Houston’s downtown park.

But the task is easier said than done, with student teams working into the night to fix sticky clutches, stalled engines, steering-wheel collapses, brake failures and tire blowouts before the next day’s run.

This race to pass inspection plays out each day in the George R. Brown Convention Center, where 126 student teams work out of paddocks, or workstations that hold their vehicles. More often than not, it’s a place to share tools and solve problems before earning a spot on the track.

“Clearly the teams are here to win, and they are really competitive,” said Niel Golightly, Shell Corp.’s vice president of external affairs. “But if there’s a team having a problem – lost a tool, missing a part or they can’t figure out a technical problem — you see teams help each other out.”

Ruston High School's gas-powered prototype races through the Houston streets Saturday. Photo courtesy of Eco-marathon.

Ruston High School’s gas-powered prototype races through the Houston streets Saturday. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Two Louisiana schools competing in different categories this year have paddocks on opposite ends of the convention center. Back home, they’re just a few blocks from each other.

Senior Ty Oakes said Ruston High School’s two prototype vehicles were built solely by the young students, but it’s nice having Louisiana Tech University engineers—and experienced Eco-marathon teams—so close. (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

“There’s a definitely a sense of being in a different league than they are, but at the same time, we’re working alongside them,” Oakes said. “We’re building a car, too. We’re not just watching the pros; we’re all doing the same thing.”

Ruston High School started competing two years ago after hearing the success of Louisiana Tech, which showed the budding engineers the ropes of the competition.

The university used to hold mini-workshops for nearby teams to explain the race’s rules and procedures, said Heath Tims, faculty adviser and associate processor of mechanical engineering.

“One of the things we really stress is to set standards and do something attainable,” Tims said as his students fixed some unexpected problems with two UrbanConcept cars Saturday evening. “If they can get out there, that’s what matters.”

Ruston’s diesel-powered prototype made it just a couple of laps around the track Saturday when its tires blew out. After returning to their paddock, Oakes said students discovered a problem with the vehicle’s alignment.

Just next door, a Mexico City college team worked through a shipping snafu to get their hydrogen-powered prototype ready for the road.

When the much-needed tools failed to arrive, Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey student Maria Jose Sanchez said nearby teams offered up their own.

“People are so helpful here,” she said.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains authority over content.

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[ Detroit Teams Look to Innovation and the City’s Future ]

An inner city Detroit high school’s high-tech electric streamliner hit the Houston streets Saturday in a race for extreme energy efficiency. (See related photos: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55.”)

But unlike most futuristic vehicles competing in the annual Shell* Eco-marathon Americas competition this weekend, the battery-powered prototype tapped the latest smartphone technology to display battery life and collect data for future test runs.

Mentor and professional test engineer Paul Wright called this kind of innovation second nature for students of University of Detroit Jesuit High School, who engineered detachable steering wheels and Dr. Pepper-bottle pressurization systems. (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

“With the young people we have here, they don’t know what previous generations thought was impossible,” said Wright, who later pointed out the Electric Motor City Cub’s iPhone speedometer application. “This is absolutely amazing, and they don’t think of it as anything out of the ordinary.”

The Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition is moving from Houston to Detroit next year, bringing thousands of student engineers to the heart of United States motor industry.

“For Shell to invest in Detroit is a signal of confidence in a scrappy city that has been through some hard times but is coming back strong,” said Niel Golightly, Shell Corp.’s vice president of external affairs. “As bad a rap as Detroit gets sometimes, it has a long history of innovation. That legacy is going to carry on, and we want to be there, be a part of it and help it along.”

University of Detroit Jesuit High School team leader Jacob Byrd tinkers with the battery-powered Electric Motor City Cub prototype Saturday at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

University of Detroit Jesuit High School team leader Jacob Byrd tinkers with the battery-powered Electric Motor City Cub prototype Saturday at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Wright hopes the competition builds a new generation of workers with a knack for science and engineering.

“If we get more Michigan high schools involved, we are going to grow an employee base that’s important for bringing Michigan back from financial crisis,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild Detroit, let the young people who will be living there in the future design it.”

Moving the competition to school’s backyard also frees up financial resources for the vehicles, said Wright, who got involved when his son competed in past competitions and still lends a helping hand. This year, more than a dozen students – aptly named Ignatian Ignition — engineered both gas- and battery-powered prototypes for the race.

“There’s not a kit for these cars—everything is built from scratch,” Wright said. “Students are designing parts. You’d be amazed at the quality of work they’ve done.”

Students of the inner-city school reflected on the renewed spirit of the city while making last-minute adjustments to their vehicles Friday night.

“Detroit is a blank slate,” said junior Zachary Lewandowski, who will likely go out of state for college but return to find a job.

Team leader Jacob Byrd, who must trade his maroon and white jumpsuit for University of Michigan colors next year, sees new young thinkers and talent returning to Detroit.

“It’s part of the whole revival of car companies and atmosphere in the city,” Byrd said.

The University of Michigan UM Supermileage team makes last-minute adjustments to their Cypress II gas-powered prototype in their workstation Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

The University of Michigan UM Supermileage team makes last-minute adjustments to their Cypress II gas-powered prototype in their workstation Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

As the sunset on the energy city Friday, University of Michigan competitor John Rockwell and his team tested the breaks on their bright yellow Cypress II prototype, hoping to get 2,300 miles per gallon this year.

“I could imagine more auto industry involvement because the competition is going to be downtown,” Rockwell said. “Everyone is going to want to come down and watch.”

Moving the competition to Houston five years ago from California changed the energy of the event, said Ignacio Gonzalez, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

“It was the first time in an urban environment with spectators—that really changed the ballgame,” Gonzalez said. “But we really wanted to move the journey to where the cars are being made and give Detroit a new layer of automotive innovation.”

A recent trip to the Motor City impressed Golightly, who remembers visiting the annual auto show at Detroit’s COBO Center as a kid.

“I can’t think of anything more appropriate than moving Shell Eco-marathon from the global capital of energy to the global capital of mobility,” he said.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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[ Shell Eco-marathon Americas Heats Up in Houston as Student Teams Test Prototypes ]

A group of cowboy hat-wearing New York teenagers is one step closer to pushing the boundaries of energy efficiency after hours of tinkering with their battery-powered prototype.

More than 1,000 high school and university students from five countries are competing this weekend in the annual Shell* Eco-marathon Americas competition in Houston.

Two student teams from Newburgh Free Academy in New York stand out of the crowd with bright yellow T-shirts and cowboy hats with red bandanas. But like other teams, their futuristic prototype must pass inspection before hitting the streets of Houston.

Drowning out the sounds of buzzing drills, clanking tools and roaring engines, senior and team leader Marley Brackett took a break from fidgeting with fuses to share his thoughts on the team’s progress.

“Stressed is a good adjective to use,” Brackett said with a smile. “Getting it on the track with a successful test run is a top goal.”

The students got a taste of the track Friday morning after pushing their colorful creations to Houston’s Discovery Green for the opening ceremony, where the 126 student teams stood in a sea of matching T-shirts.

“What you do here is fun, but it can change the trajectory of the future,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker before waving the green flag to start the competition.

Shell Vice President of External Affairs Niel Golightly congratulated the students for their innovation, which could be seen in fuel-efficient vehicles of all shapes and sizes lining of the grass of Discovery Green.

“For anybody that’s worried about the ability of the millennial generation to really take on and solve some of the challenges we see facing society — whether it’s climate, energy or mobility – you need to be here and see this event,” he said.

The race around Houston’s downtown park officially starts Saturday, but it’s less about speed and more about distance.

Students can enter two categories – prototype or UrbanConcept – and use one of six fuel types, including internal combustion fuels or electric energy. The real test is how far the vehicles can go given a limited energy supply; last year’s winner, Universite Laval in Quebec, traveled 3,587 miles on one gallon of gas.

The Superbird, #34, Prototype, running on Diesel, competes for team Alden-Conger Supermileage from Alden-Conger High School, Minnesota, United States, on the track during day 2. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

The Superbird, #34, Prototype, running on Diesel, competes for team Alden-Conger Supermileage from Alden-Conger High School, Minnesota, United States, on the track during day 2. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

Fuel efficiency depends on vehicle design, driving efficiency and creativity, said Ignacio Gonzalez, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

“It’s amazing how competitive they are in areas I wouldn’t even think about,” Gonzalez said.

A walk through the George R. Brown Convention Center — where teams keep their vehicles in paddocks — showcases of all these talents, including a working knowledge of science, technology and engineering. (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

The Newburgh Free Academy prototype vehicle has a custom shell – most shells are made of lightweight carbon fibre materials — but the inside work was designed and built by students with the help of parent chaperone.

Teacher and team adviser Frank Wolf called likened the hands-on experience of determining design and function to a game of dominos.

“Everything has to relate to every other part. Who thinks of that kind of stuff. We all take it for granted. The kids go through it step by step,” Wolf said.

Inspiring young people to pursue scientists and engineers is one of the goals of competition, and for Brackett, who will graduate this year, working on prototypes for the past three years has inspired a career in computer science. (See related photos: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55.”)

Newburgh Free Academy students cheer during opening ceremonies. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-Marathon.

Newburgh Free Academy students cheer during opening ceremonies. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-Marathon.

Brackett’s teammate Bryan Feigal, a 16-year-old sporting sunglasses, wants to pursue a career in industrial design. Competing in the Eco-marathon is family affair for Feigal, whose two older brothers also worked on vehicles in high school.

“It’s an amazing experience,” he said. “You get a feel for if you would like something like that – the stresses, pressures, what the rewards are at the end, if it’s worth it to you and dealing with all the things along the path.”

Student teams must pay for their own vehicles, which Gonzalez said brings out additional skill sets: fundraising and marketing projects.

Winners in both categories each win $2,000 for their school. “Off-track” awards include a people’s choice aware, eco-design award, technical innovation award and communications award, according to Shell.

“The prize is not everything,” Gonzalez said. “It’s more about the experience, the journey here and what they get from it.”

By the numbers:

– 1,000 plus students

– 126 teams and vehicles

– 36 high schools

– 48 universities

– 5 teams from Brazil

– 11 teams from Canada

– 4 teams from Mexico

– 1 team from Guatemala

– 106 teams from the United States

– 94 prototype entries

– 32 UrbanConcept entries

 

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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[ New Study on Corn Waste Biofuel’s Emissions: Worthy Topic, Flawed Conclusion ]

A recent study in Nature Climate Change is attracting a lot of attention because of its headline grabbing claim that cellulosic ethanol made from crop residues produces higher carbon emissions than gasoline. (See related blog post: “Corn Waste for Biofuel Could Boost Emissions, Study Says.”)

Professor Adam Liska of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who led the study, is absolutely right to focus on soil carbon in the lifecycle of corn based biofuels (taking crop residues off the ground, Liska concluded, keeps them from trapping carbon in the soil and allows that carbon to escape into the atmosphere).  (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Biofuel.”)

Regrettably, the narrow framing of his analysis set the debate up as a choice between pursuing cellulosic biofuels or calling off the whole project and driving home in our gasoline-powered cars.  The real solution is biofuels that reduce carbon in the atmosphere while protecting the carbon in soils.

Oil remains the problem, not the solution

As Peter Frumhoff’s blog last year makes clear, oil is the primary climate problem in the transportation sector.  So just because we find that oil-saving solutions are not easy does not mean we can afford to stick with the status quo. Instead of writing (yet another) obituary for cellulosic biofuels, we should use this new research to improve and refine our quest for clean fuels.

Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?
Vote and comment at the Big Energy Question.

Based on our analysis, there are real opportunities to make low carbon biofuel from agricultural residues such as corn stalks (also called corn stover and shown in the image).  These non-food-based biofuels are a key element of our overall strategy to cut oil use through efficiency, electrification, better biofuels and other oil saving solutions described in our Half the Oil plan. When we assessed the scale of the opportunity to use agricultural residues as fuel we paid very careful attention to protecting soil carbon, excluding residue sources that would lead to losses in soil carbon or increases in erosion. (See related story: “Squeezing Gasoline from Plants.”)

Preserving soil carbon: An agricultural issue not limited to biofuels

There are a lot of problems caused by the way corn is grown, not least of which are the problems corn farming causes for water quality.  If the future of biofuels is just growing ever more corn, and harvesting not just the grain, but the whole stalk as well, we are going to make bad problems even worse.

In the near-term, use of residues must be accompanied by changes in crop rotations and incorporation of cover crops (some of these practices are discussed in this fact sheet).  To their credit, Liska and his team mention this crucial opportunity to replace lost soil carbon, though it is not getting much attention in the press. (Share your thoughts: “What Breakthroughs Do Biofuels Need Now?“)

While agricultural residues raise concerns about soil carbon, other cellulosic feedstocks are major soil-carbon winners. Perennial bioenergy crops store a great deal of carbon in the soil. The emphasis Liska’s work places on soil carbon points to the other large potential opportunity for bioenergy to play a productive role in agriculture, which is to shift from an emphasis on corn to perennial grasses and other crops that build soil carbon, improve water quality and deliver other benefits even as they can provide a low carbon source of biofuel.

Residues do address the food versus fuel and land use issues

Much of the enthusiasm for using crop residues for fuel is to limit competition between biofuel uses of corn and other uses (primarily as animal feed) and also to avoid expanding the global footprint of agriculture at the expense of forests.  Nothing in this analysis refutes that crucial motivation.  That’s why it’s important to take the lesson of Liska’s analysis that a status quo approach to corn farming is not sustainable, and to make sure we avoid the soil carbon loss his analysis describes.

The fine print

As I mentioned, it’s important to be mindful of the narrow focus of this study. Two key factors that fell outside the study boundaries have a major bearing on the final implications:

  1. The paper neglects the lifecycle impact of an important electricity coproduct. By Liska’s own admission, a portion of the crop residue used for biofuel can be burned to produce electricity, saving emissions that would otherwise be generated, in some cases, by coal. The effect of this electricity offset, according to Liska’s calculations, could be enough to reverse the conclusion that corn stover biofuel can’t meet the 60 percent reduction in carbon pollution required by the U.S. government’s standard.
  2. Time is another crucial factor, and the five or ten year period examined in the study is pretty short.. I have had a long-running argument (beginning on this blog, and continued in the letters and replies in the International Journal of Lifecycle Assessment) ) with some other experts on the need to be transparent in choosing a time interval for biofuels lifecycle analysis.  In that case I was arguing that using a 100-year timeframe obscured the real magnitude of land use emissions, particularly when making comparisons with other studies that were based on a 30-year timeframe.  In this case Liska made a controversial choice to focus on just a five- and ten-year timeframe, which amplifies the impact of soil carbon emissions changes.  There may be good reasons to focus on five to ten years, but the paper would have been stronger if it had included a discussion of how the results changed over 30 years or even a century, together with whatever argument the authors have for considering five to ten years the right timeframe to consider.

After making these two technical corrections I doubt that the emissions from soil carbon would disqualify corn stover-based cellulosic ethanol from qualifying as a cellulosic biofuel under the Renewable Fuels Standard, and the overall  emissions would certainly be lower than gasoline.  However, that doesn’t make protecting soil carbon any less important.  The broader point is that when studies like these highlight challenges on the road to cutting oil use, we need to meet the challenges rather than turn back, because the status quo is not a smart option for either transportation or agriculture.

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