The Future of Biofuels and GHG Emissions with Dr. Tyner

Our Luminext team recently did a Q&A with Dr. Wallace E. Tyner, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. Dr. Tyner has years of working experience in energy economics that encompasses oil, natural gas, coal, oil shale, biomass, ethanol from agricultural sources, and solar energy.

We discussed his views on lowering greenhouse gas emissions and the role of biofuels in our energy future. Those who keep themselves apprised of the latest research and news related to biofuels might already be familiar with Dr. Tyner's work and views. Still, we decided to start with a few general questions that will slowly lead us in the main discussion subject.

Dr. Tyner, as a strong supporter of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, where do you see the place of biofuels in today's renewable oriented world?

Biofuels are one way, but certainly not the only or even the largest way, of reducing our carbon footprint. We need a multi-prong approach to reducing carbon emissions.

How much do biofuels actually help in terms of lowering carbon emissions? -Some have gone as far as claiming that they are carbon neutral, but what would be the most realistic assessment?

The emission reductions from biofuels depend on the feedstock (e.g., corn, sugarcane, cellulosic energy crops (miscanthus, switchgrass), crop residues, etc.) and the conversion pathway to produce the biofuel. Generally cellulosic feedstocks reduce carbon emissions more but at a higher cost, while corn ethanol reduces emissions less at a lower cost.

Since electric cars are making fast progress on the market, can biofuels actually compete or are they simply facing the same extinction threat as regular gas?

Electric vehicles today are not competitive on a market basis. Electric vehicles receive a federal subsidy of as much as $7,500 per vehicle plus state subsidies in some states. They do reduce GHG emissions but at a higher cost than biofuels at present.

Even with the electric car available, biofuels can still find their place as an energy source in air travel and marine transportation. Can we expect more companies from that sector to start using biofuels soon?

I think the brightest future for biofuels is in aviation. On the ground, one can use electric vehicles or compressed natural gas (CNG), but in the air, biofuels are the only fuel that can reduce emissions.

Dr. Tyner quote on drop-in fuels

Is there enough supply to satisfy their demands?

Supply is not the issue -it is cost. Biofuels that can be blended directly with fossil fuels with no performance issues (called “drop-in” fuels) generally cost 2-3 times what fossil fuels cost.

Air travel is a cutthroat business. How can we expect airlines to use biofuels if there's such a difference in price? Also, how can companies like United Airlines actually afford to use them right now?

The international airlines have for several years been under tremendous pressure from the EU to reduce their GHG emissions. The EU threatened to impose takeoff and landing taxes on carbon emissions. But now the International Civil Aviation Organization (a UN organization that works with the airlines) has agreed to design a market based system that would provide incentives for airlines to reduce their emissions. In other words, this would be a system in which all the airlines are playing by the same rules, so it is a level playing field. Yes, reducing emissions will increase costs, but it also reduces the carbon load on the atmosphere with all the damages associated with that.

When we say biofuels, it usually refers to the popular ethanol kind -what about hydrogen biofuel and vegetable oil biofuel as options? Can they be used by ships and planes cost-effectively?

The drop-in biofuels convert feedstocks (often cellulosic feedstocks) directly into bio-gasoline, green diesel, or renewable jet fuel using a thermochemical conversion process. Much of the research and development today is focused on improving conversion efficiency and lowering conversion cost using these processes.

Biodiesel uses an entirely different and quite simple conversion process to convert waste fats and oils, soybean oil, and other oils directly to biodiesel.

It takes a lot of effort to sustainably produce biofuels. Would a sharp increase in demand actually affect the quality of biofuels or disrupt their sustainable model?

No, I don’t believe so. Biofuel plants are much smaller than petroleum refineries, so scores of plants could be built in different locations around the country.

Dr. Tyner quote on GHG and biofuels

What are biofuels missing to become more popular? Crude oil became quite cheap lately, so how can biofuels compete?

Biofuels cannot compete with $40 crude oil except for corn and sugarcane ethanol. But we also need to consider the value of reducing GHG emissions to our society. Once we factor that in, biofuels, electric vehicles, and other emissions reducing technologies become more attractive.

Does this mean that we need a biofuel tax credit program similar to the solar one? In this race to lower carbon emissions, how soon can we expect such a program?

Ethanol was subsidized in the US through 2011. Biodiesel and cellulosic biofuels are still subsidized today. Most economists would suggest that a uniform carbon tax is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions, but, so far, government has not acted. Thus, instead of an incentive that targets emissions directly, we have a piecemeal system that provides different types of incentives for many alternatives.

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