About a million years ago in South Africa, a Homo erectus cave dweller used fire on purpose, and some charred bones at the site suggest it may have been for cooking.
Thus was born the biofuels industry — and also the first known barbecue.
The name of that cave, Wonderwerk, means “miracle” in the Afrikaans language, and indeed biofuels were a miracle. From cooking to heating and light, fire aided the evolution of the human race. The biofuels industry even preceded Homo sapiens and anatomically modern humans by about 800,000 years.
Over time, barbecue techniques made steady progress, achieving ultimate perfection in South Carolina pulled pork. However, despite their importance and a few innovations like fireplaces and metallurgy, biofuel technologies tended to stagnate for about 999,000 years. In the developed world, biofuels were eventually dwarfed by fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, and challenged more recently by solar, nuclear, wind and even wave energy.
Now, we’ve come full circle.
Biofuels are back, hotter than ever, the source of billions of dollars in new investments. From corn ethanol to biodiesel and now forest products, biofuels are often touted as a sustainable fuel source that will lessen our dependence on imported oil and provide domestic jobs. It’s ideally seen as win-win, and researchers all over the world are trying to perfect new technologies, increase efficiency and make biofuels more cost-effective.
It has also been proposed that biofuels could help mitigate climate change — that substituting them for their fossil-fuel counterparts would reduce “greenhouse gas” emissions into the atmosphere — but that assumption is facing challenges both locally and globally.
This is not your caveman’s biofuel. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program that was announced last year will bring $80 million to Pacific Northwest industry and universities, $9.8 million of it to Oregon State University, for a diverse program of research and education to create aviation fuel out of tree plantations and low-value wood products. Through the miracle of cellulosic ethanol, some jets of the future will fly on fuel made from Pacific Northwest trees.
“We could take material that isn’t now being used and create a new billion-dollar industry in the Pacific Northwest,” says John Sessions, a distinguished professor of forest engineering at Oregon State and principal investigator working on the Northwest Aviation Renewables Alliance.
“At the same time, we could help thin forests that are unhealthy and overcrowded, benefit wildlife habitat, reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and provide some badly needed jobs in communities that have lost their historic base in timber production,” Sessions says. “This won’t solve all of the nation’s energy concerns, and we shouldn’t say that it will. But it could make an important contribution.”
Sessions is quick to point out that “not all biofuels are created equal” and that thinning forests will cost substantially more than just using residues from existing logging operations — although the cost issue would look much better if commercial timber from small trees were harvested along with residue. One of OSU’s primary roles in the new initiative is to identify ways to get wood out of the forests more efficiently, and Sessions says that cutting logistical costs by 30 percent or more is a reasonable target.
However, questions about the modern biofuels industry have been raised almost since its inception, and as the debate enters the forest-products industry, it’s getting more intense. Cost is a big issue. So is what many ecologists consider the single most serious environmental threat in the world today — global warming, or the greenhouse effect.
Some early proponents of biofuels suggested that they could be “carbon neutral” or even better, meaning they will not compound concerns about greenhouse warming and might even reduce it. Since they are produced from crops or trees that “sequester” carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, the theory was that sequestration would offset most or all of the carbon they release when they are turned into one type of fuel or another.
“Different sides in this debate tend to pick the numbers that best support their arguments,” says Mark Harmon, a professor of forest science at OSU and one of 18 researchers in the nation advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on biogenic carbon. “The truth is more nuanced.”
The bottom line, Harmon says, is that almost any harvest of existing forest trees will cause a net increase of carbon to the atmosphere and that it may take decades or even centuries to “pay it back” with future tree growth. For global-warming concerns that are real and immediate, that’s a problem.
“This is a dilemma, and there won’t be any magic fix,” he says. “Forests are renewable, but only over very long time spans. Biofuels from tree harvesting would create a carbon debt that would be very difficult to pay back, like borrowing on one credit card to pay off another. The enthusiasm for them may have gotten ahead of the science.”
Harmon has estimated that, in an Oregon Coast Range stand, if you removed solid woody biofuels for the reduction of catastrophic fire risk and used them to produce cellulosic ethanol, it would take 339 years to reach a break-even point in carbon sequestration.
Another study last year at OSU, the largest and most comprehensive yet done on the effect of biofuel production from West Coast forests, echoed these concerns. It found that an emphasis on bioenergy would increase carbon-dioxide emissions from these forests at least 14 percent, if the efficiency of such operations were optimal. Harvest increases, for any reason, would result in increases in greenhouse emissions.
An analysis just published in the journal Global Change Biology/Bioenergy raised even more doubts, if forest biomass were to reach its ultimate potential. The authors, who included Beverly Law, a professor of global change forest science at OSU, wrote that a major global commitment to forest-biomass energy “would result in a reduction of biomass pools that may take decades to centuries to be paid back by fossil fuel substitution, if paid back at all.”
Reported emission savings from forest bioenergy are based on erroneous assumptions, they added, and a large biofuels industry would push forest management to ever-shorter rotation lengths, with depleted soil nutrients and fertility, increased erosion and flooding, and degraded fish habitat in streams. Even the economics may become more difficult, according to this analysis. In Europe, where bioenergy is subsidized, the cost of woody biomass from conifers surged in price from 300 percent to 600 percent between 2005 and 2010.
“Based on review of the literature, the paper concluded that large-scale bioenergy production from forests is neither sustainable nor greenhouse-gas neutral,” says Law, who is also a co-author of the National Research Council report on methods for quantifying and verifying greenhouse-gas emissions. “These issues have not been thought out very fully.”
By the Numbers
That’s about the same perspective held by William Jaeger, an OSU professor of agricultural and resource economics who has studied the economics of biofuels for the past five years.
“Biofuels were being seriously promoted before two main areas were thoroughly analyzed,” Jaeger says. “Those areas are net carbon analysis and economic constraints. People looked at this somewhat superficially. They said, ‘We can grow our own energy; why buy it from Saudi Arabia?’”
Biofuels, he says, were seen at first as such a win-win by most groups that they engendered almost no opposition. Political leaders loved them, environmental groups went along, jobs were being created and crop prices went up for farmers.
Under Jaeger’s analysis, however, the facts are less rosy. He analyzed ethanol produced from crops and switchgrass cellulose, including some approaches that are simpler and even less costly than the current move toward forest-based cellulosic ethanol. Jaeger concluded that existing policies have been very costly, produce negligible reductions in fossil fuel use and increased greenhouse-gas emissions.
His bottom line?
For complex reasons, the growth of a biofuel industry is doing almost nothing to reduce use of fossil fuels. And if you wanted to reduce gas consumption by 1 percent, U.S.-produced biofuels would cost 20 to 31 times more than energy-efficiency improvements. Meanwhile, the cost of taxpayer subsidies for some of these programs is extraordinary: Current ethanol subsidies to operate a 100-million-gallon ethanol plant translate to about $1 million per job, per year. Depending on the type of biofuel, there are risks of local pollution, heavier demands on land use and higher food prices for the poor.
Will some of the research being done around the world, and in the Pacific Northwest, change that? Some researchers believe it will. At least incremental improvements in efficiency and cost are probable. Whether they will be enough to offset the huge obstacles is more problematic. But while subsidizing a whole industry right now is questionable, even Jaeger points out that investment in research often has a very high payoff.
“Until we work on them, we really won’t know what improved technologies will be able to do,” says Claire Montgomery, an OSU professor of forest resources. “And some of these costs have to be kept in perspective. We’re spending billions of dollars to protect our access to fossil fuels, and the cost of fire suppression in the U.S. has tripled since the mid-1990s to $1 billion a year.”
Wood or Oil?
The research cited here shows what some of those consequences, good and bad, might be when we
transform wood, a carbohydrate renewable over a scale of years to centuries, into heat or fuel.
Other issues aside, Montgomery says, Pacific Northwest forests and rural communities are struggling. Decades of fire suppression have led to overcrowded forests, insect and disease epidemics are increasing, rural communities have high unemployment levels, and there’s little money to do anything about it. A biofuels industry could help all of these.
In her research, Montgomery is trying to identify where a supply of wood that could fuel an industry most closely matches up with the communities that need help. “Displacing fossil fuels is good,” she says. “Creating jobs is good. Helping rural communities is good.”
But a biofuels industry is not simple, certainly not as simple as once envisioned. And the issues of greenhouse warming, high societal costs and other environmental concerns are not easily dismissed.
Biofuels still make for a great barbecue. But it’s safe to say the caveman who invented this industry a million years ago had no idea, before it was all over, just how complicated the business might get.