Fuel From the Farm

The Green Future of Biofuels in Agriculture
Written by Karen Hawthorne

Mention the word “farm,” or “farming” and a quaint, stereotypical image of a barn, fields, maybe cows and a tractor likely comes to mind.

Well, that’s about to change. Farms are now associated with sources of fuel that can help power vehicles and even towns and cities. Hardworking farmers are future-proofing the planet with alternative energy.

It makes sense in a lot of ways for agriculture and renewable sources of fuels to go hand in hand. After all, the concept of biofuel has been around for quite a while. For instance, ethanol, which is far and away the largest source of biofuel, has been produced in the U.S. for more than 40 years, dating back to the Energy Policy Act of 1978. Ethanol is proven to reduce carbon emissions by almost 40 percent in vehicular emissions – one of the largest culprits of greenhouse gas emissions.

The connection between ethanol and agriculture is that, by and large, most of it is produced from corn, with a small portion coming from sugar cane. In fact, ethanol is actually the same type of alcohol that is found in our adult beverages.

And, like the alcohol found in that tasty margarita, the process of creating ethanol is achieved through fermentation. After it is processed, what you end up with is a fuel that is measured at a gasoline gallon equivalency of 1.5. So it takes a gallon and a half of ethanol to produce the same amount of energy that a gallon of gas does.

Since its introduction in the 1970s, ethanol usage has grown to the point that now nearly all of the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains about 10 percent ethanol. Not only that, but an ethanol blended 98 octane is the official fuel used by NASCAR. And, in 2019, NASCAR drivers hit a cumulative total of 15 million miles using the high performance biofuel blend.

Other crops like soybeans and canola can also be dual purposed. However, there are increasing challenges with using these kinds of crops, known as feedstock, for fuel – primarily, the growing demand for food and animal feed from these crops. The result is that what were once components of biofuel production are quickly becoming too pricy to be viable.

“As many of the world’s governments continue pushing to a greener future, the energy transition is colliding with another challenge facing the world as it struggles to emerge from the pandemic: skyrocketing food prices,” says Yahoo Finance.

So there is a real challenge when looking to feedstock as potential sources of clean energy.

As a possible solution to this, research into the use of carinata and camelina crops, also known as false flax, is being explored.

In a Reuters article, Jerry Steiner, executive board chair at CoverCress Inc., a St. Louis company that converts native field pennycress to improve yields, fiber and oil composition for fuel production, says, “The solution to this feedstock problem is going to come from a whole lot of sources.” The company is aiming to plant up to 1,000 acres this fall, and ramp that up to 3 million acres by 2030.

Likewise, Yield10 Bioscience in Massachusetts is also working with camelina to produce a high-value crop that can be used for fuel production.

“One of the goals of Biden’s climate plan is to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent by 2030, which he will need help from farmers to achieve. Farming produces roughly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency,” Oliver Peoples, CEO of Yield 10 Bioscience, told Forbes.

There is a lot of potential in using these types of plants as they naturally pop up across North America on their own, so farmers need to put less work into them and they can be ultimately cheaper to produce. And not only are these easier to grow, they can be used as what’s called a cover crop, which farmers can grow outside of their primary growing seasons to store carbon and protect the soil from nutrient loss.

The process for converting biomass into energy begins when these crops are harvested from a farm. Next, they’re transferred to a power plant. The materials are then burned to heat water, and the steam that is produced turns the turbines to produce power.

As a side note, biomass materials not only come from specifically planted crops; other by-products that come out of industries like agriculture, forestry and construction can also be converted to energy. Think of the dead wood in managed forests, the trimmings of vegetables that are sold for food, and what’s left over from construction sites. Ultimately, what this does is take the materials that would otherwise end up in landfill and convert them into energy that can help power a grid.

While it may seem like a slam dunk for the environment and for farmers to just start converting these crops and by-products into sources of alternative energy, there are challenges that are part of the bigger picture of biofuels. The first issue is the cost of producing biofuels. As mentioned before, while feedstock sources to this point were cost-effective for use in fuel production, they are quickly increasing in price because of growing global demand, pushing the related costs beyond feasibility.

And ironically, while these alternate fuels are based on naturally occurring sources, there is still an environmental footprint, from growing to transporting them, as well as the larger amounts of materials needed to achieve the desired results. Plus, there could also be significant impacts to land use and water sources to grow these crops.

But the tipping point for all of these alternate sources of fuel could well be happening now, with a renewed emphasis on finding alternate sources of power.

As economies around the globe emerge from the pandemic, there is a renewed sense of urgency about environmental change and what can be done to slow it. Not only has the U.S. set new goals for reducing the impact of climate change, so have the Group of Seven (G7) countries.

As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Biden and six other leaders of the Group of 7 nations promised to cut collective emissions in half by 2030 and to try to stem the rapid extinction of animals and plants, calling it an equally important existential threat.”

To meet these new goals, these governments are going to have to look to a number of sources for biofuels, including the agriculture sector. Europe has already increased production of biodiesel (a process similar to ethanol blended gasoline) with more than 14 million tons consumed yearly.

In turn, this has led to significant growth to agricultural and rural economies. In addition, 25,000 jobs are also directly linked to the production of biodiesel. And beyond that, 220,000 jobs are connected to the biofuel industry as a whole in Europe. Europe is expected to increase these numbers in order to meet its emission-reduction goals.

In the U.S., the government will also likely face an increasing need to rely on agriculture and farmers to help reduce emissions and increase alternate sources of fuel to help achieve its new, ambitious goals.

As Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, sees it: “The fundamental truth about biofuels is more important than ever: They are helping reduce our emissions and play an important role in agriculture’s sustainability story. As the Biden administration focuses on climate, farmers stand ready to provide the crops needed to produce more biofuels and help achieve clean energy goals, in addition to our climate-smart farming practices.”



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