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.

When Chris Somerville arrived at UC Berkeley in early 2007 to run a new biofuels center, the program was embroiled in controversy. It was to be a wide-ranging scientific quest to help solve the global warming crisis. But the Energy Biosciences Institute had come under fire because it was funded by a $500 million grant from BP Energy. Critics accused the campus of selling its soul to the company once known as British Petroleum, and said that one of the world’s great academic institutions should just change its name to “UCBP.”

At the same time, the first generation of biofuels was coming under intense criticism from both environmentalists and human-rights activists — and for good reason. Biofuels derived from corn, soybeans, and palm oil have to be subsidized heavily because they’re inefficient and costly. Plus, growing them for fuel means displacing food crops. Last summer, when oil prices spiked to record levels, the increased demand for ethanol and biodiesel was blamed for a worldwide food shortage. Critics also said that using valuable farmland for biofuels was forcing other countries to cut down forests and plant more crops, especially in the tropics, which only worsened greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the City of Berkeley cited those very concerns last month when it ended its seven-year experiment with using biodiesel in city garbage and fire trucks.

Although Somerville doesn’t agree with all the criticisms of first-generation biofuels, he does not defend them either. He also recognizes that the growing backlash against plant-based fuels will be tough to overcome. Nonetheless, he and his fellow researchers are convinced that biofuels need not displace farmland or cause deforestation, and they’re committed to developing more efficient, nonfood crops. He also defends the university’s partnership with BP, arguing that it’s naive to think that Big Oil won’t play a critical role in developing the fuels of the future. “If you want to change the world, you have to work with these companies,” he said during a recent interview.

Somerville also is realistic about the future role of biofuels. They won’t be able to replace fossil fuels by themselves. Instead, he predicts that biofuels will be one of several renewable energy sources that can help wean us off oil, while reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

The director of UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute has some powerful political allies. His former boss, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, the onetime head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is now President Obama’s energy secretary. And both Chu and the president are enthusiastic supporters of biofuels. Last month, Chu announced that the administration would use nearly $800 million from the president’s stimulus package to fund biofuels research and help launch biofuel refineries. It was the Obama administration’s single biggest investment to date in green technology. The administration also is working on a plan that would increase the cost of producing and selling fossil fuels, potentially giving a big boost to renewable energy sources. “Developing the next generation of biofuels is key to our effort to end our dependence on foreign oil and address the climate crisis,” Chu explained in a statement.

But even with the backing of a popular president, the future of biofuels remains uncertain. On the political left, environmentalists are concerned about the potential use of genetically modified crops. And on the right, the Republican Party is dominated by global-warming deniers who want to drill for more oil and mine more coal. Meanwhile, huge agricultural interests are divided between those addicted to corn-ethanol subsidies and the cattle industry, which fears that growing biofuels will lead to a reduction in grazing lands or cause animal-feed shortages.

Somerville and his colleagues also face some significant technological hurdles, from bringing down the cost of refining biofuels to finding environmentally sustainable ways to produce them. Indeed, the battle over biofuels is not just a fight between scientists and entrenched interests, it’s a struggle to uncover an eco-friendly solution to the coming global warming crisis.

Even for backers of biofuels, there’s just no getting around the fact that the first wave of fuels — especially corn-based ones — have been a big disappointment. The process of turning corn into ethanol requires almost as much energy as it produces. And growing corn for fuel wastes valuable cropland. “I can’t defend corn,” Somerville said over a recent lunch on the UC Berkeley campus. “I’m not in favor of it.”

Midwestern farmers, on the other hand, love it, and so do the politicians who represent them. In 2008, the United States produced 9 billion gallons of corn ethanol, and a Congressional mandate passed in 2007 means that corn-ethanol production will probably increase to at least 15 billion by 2022.

Biodiesel derived from palm oil is no less problematic. Vast acres of tropical forests, particularly in Indonesia, have been cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. And not only has the loss of trees depleted the planet’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but churning up the soil and burning all those trees has worsened CO2 emissions.

Soybeans are inefficient, too. According to a report by the Energy Biosciences Institute, an average soybean crop only produces about 63 gallons of biodiesel per acre. By contrast, UC Berkeley scientists estimate that the next generation of biofuels could produce as much as 2,500 gallons of ethanol on the same-sized plot of land.

But the many drawbacks of corn, soy, and palm oil have cemented the view of some environmentalists that biofuel isn’t the answer. “It’s just not sustainable,” said Anne Petermann of the Vermont-based Global Justice Ecology Project, one of the leading opponents of biofuels. “Growing biofuels requires enormous amounts of land. It impacts the food supply.” Petermann and other opponents also prefer to call biofuels “agrofuels” because “biofuels” sounds too green-friendly. “From our perspective, this push for agrofuels is going down the wrong path,” she said.

Opponents also contend that replacing gasoline with biofuels is impossible. In a paper earlier this year, former UC Berkeley geoengineering professor Tad Patzek, who is now at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that it would require about 8 million acres of switchgrass — a possible next-generation biofuel — to supply the Bay Area’s 4 million vehicles. Yet, Patzek noted there are only 6.3 million acres of irrigated land in California’s Central Valley. In other words, it can’t be done.

But these arguments don’t necessarily apply to the research being conducted at the Energy Biosciences Institute. For example, no one at Berkeley is contending that biofuels will replace gasoline. Somerville, along with several other experts, argued last month at a biofuels conference in San Francisco that plant-based fuels will have a limited role in supplying our future energy needs. They believe that it makes more environmental sense for the cars of the future to be electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.

The real role for biofuels, they said, will be as a potential energy source for large trucks and airplanes. Electric power isn’t suitable for large, long-haul transportation vehicles because of the size of the battery needed to make them go. The batteries would have to be so big, in fact, that there would no room on trucks to haul goods and planes would never get off the ground. As a result, biofuels are a better green alternative for the “heavy lifters of the transportation sector,” explained Lee Lynd, an environmental engineering professor at Dartmouth College, who also is the chief science officer at Mascoma Corporation, a start-up company attempting to develop next-generation biofuels.

Yet some environmentalists remain unconvinced, and adamantly oppose biofuels no matter what. “Our planet is headed for a complete collapse, and we need to look deeply into the future and decide what we really need,” said Rachel Smoker of Biofuels Watch, another Vermont-based anti-agrofuels group. However, Smoker’s preferred remedy is to completely eliminate truck transportation and airplane travel — a solution that most Americans are likely to find far from realistic.

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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