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Sustainable biofuels are ready for prime time
March 28, 2014

Cellulosic biofuels derived from biomass are no longer “phantom fuels” as dubbed by Congress. We are seeing the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants commissioned in the United States: Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels in Emmetsburg, Iowa; Abengoa Bioenergy in Hugoton, Kansas; and DuPont Industrial Biosciences in Nevada, Iowa. At the same time, green diesel is emerging as a key biofuel, potentially a game-changer for sustainable advanced fuels. Further, municipal solid waste is showing significant promise as a key biofuel feedstock, and rapid advances in oils produced from algae continue to attract attention and investment.

Climate Solutions is working hard to put a Clean Fuels Standard in place in Washington and defend the standard in Oregon because they will both lower the carbon intensity of fuels and drive the market for advanced fuels. 

Green diesel is a potential game changer

Boeing has set a goal of achieving 1 percent biofuels by 2020. In January, the company announced that green diesel, a renewable fuel already used in ground transportation, is a potential game changer in the quest for sustainable advanced jet fuels. Green Diesel could create a sizable new market for existing biofuel production facilities and help the airline industry with attaining its carbon reduction goals.

Advanced Biofuels from unrecyclable trash - Enerkem Biorefinery in Edmonton

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A new generation of projects to turn garbage into fuel is designed to complement recycling and composting, not displace them. Instead of simply incinerating mixed garbage, they function as “biorefineries” to transform hard-to-recycle trash into liquid fuels and other chemicals. Enerkem, a Canadian company, has built and is commissioning such a biorefinery in Edmonton Alberta

Learning Biofuels from the termite

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Professor Shulin Chen of Washington State University is studying what termites do with an eye toward adopting similar processes to make biofuels from crop residues and woody materials. There is much we can learn from termites about setting up biorefineries that will break down crop residues and woody materials economically and in a way that doesn’t harm the environment

It has been just over two years since the USDA invested $80 million to facilitate the development of a sustainable wood-to-biofuels and co-products industry in the Northwest. This investment created the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) and Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB): two projects with multiple partners focused on softwood and hardwood feedstocks respectively.

Spirit of St Louis continues to inspire innovation 

Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, sees parallels between barnstorming in his grandfather’s time and current efforts to develop electric aircraft. Both efforts employ bold and daring demonstrations to expand the realm of the possible. Charles Lindbergh carried the message that flight was safe enough for passengers. Erik Lindbergh's message is that flight has a bright and sustainable future if we encourage innovators and entrepreneurs to develop the flying machines of tomorrow

The Port of Seattle's eGSE (Electric Ground Support Equipment) Program 

SeaTac is installing electric vehicle charging stations across the airport and working with airlines to electrify their their ground support fleets. (Click here for a video report on the initiative.) Grants from the U.S. Department of Energy funded-Western Washington Clean Cities Coalition and the Federal Aviation Administration are helping to pay for the charging stations and purchase of new electric vehicles. Alaska Airlines has led the way, converting to a fleet of 204 electric vehicles at SeaTac Airport. Alaska’s conversion to electric vehicles is the equivalent of taking 360 passenger vehicles off the road for a year, or a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 1,000 tons a year.

We are seeing incredible movement in the development of Sustainable Advanced Biofuels with new technologies using a broad variety of feedstocks to create fuel. Sustainability and climate assessments are increasingly rigorous and continue to respond to this emerging industry. The volumes of fuel we need and hope for won’t come overnight, but Sustainable Advanced Fuels are a reality today. Far from “phantom fuels,” the investments in new fuels are showing tangible results in biorefineries coming online across the world.

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Author Bio

Clark Gilman coordinates our Sustainable Advanced Fuels Program, working to accelerate the development of low carbon alternatives to petroleum fuels and advocate for sustainability standards in the emerging advanced fuels industry. He previously managed the Harvesting Clean Energy program for Climate Solutions.

Prior to joining the Climate Solutions team, Clark worked as a leader of a regional construction labor organization. He built a successful monthly newspaper for over 20,000 households in the Pacific Northwest and led initiatives to improve affordable housing construction. Prior to that, he worked for the Labor Education Center at The Evergreen State College and at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy helping to explain complex and divisive public policy issues to a broad variety of audiences.

Clark has construction and market gardening experience and received a BA in Ecological Agriculture from The Evergreen State College.