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Biofuels: learning from Obama

The US president’s directive on advanced biofuels – and its implementation by government departments – sends an important message to China’s energy planners, write Zhang Jinyuan and Xu Dingming.

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[Produced in association with Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative]

On May 5, 2009, United States president Barack Obama signed a presidential directive on developing advanced biofuels. The US department of energy (DOE), department of agriculture (DOA) and the environmental protection agency (EPA) then followed suit with plans and measures to implement this directive. These moves – described by some commentators as historic – have been watched closely. Analysing the directive and the departmental plans that followed could inform China’s own energy stimulus package and its energy policies.

The directive supports advanced biofuels: cellulosic ethanol, green biodiesel and other new, low-carbon biofuels – which are different from starch- or sugar-based ethanol and not simple replacements for traditional liquid fuels. According to DOE figures, traditional ethanol production provides only 26% more energy than is required in its production, as opposed to 80% more for cellulosic ethanol. Meanwhile, greenhouse-gas emissions reduction is between 10% and 20% for traditional ethanol, but between 80% and 100% for cellulosic ethanol.

With the right standards in place, the entire production process for cellulosic ethanol could be made carbon neutral, since the energy crops consume carbon dioxide while they are growing. Non-cellulosic ethanol can also provide heat during production, making the process self-sufficient in terms of energy. Data from the DOA show that planting biomass crops, such as willow and miscanthus – a common genus of grass in Asia – on land that is not used for traditional crops, can reduce soil erosion by 90%. Herbaceous crops also increase the organic carbon content of poor soil, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigating climate change.

According to a 2005 survey from the DOA and DOE, the 1.3 billion tonnes of cellulosic biomass that is produced by the United States could replace 37% of that country’s crude oil consumption, with no major impact on the agriculture and forestry sectors.

In the same year, a report from the energy bureau at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planners, found that China could collect between 800 million and one billion tonnes of biomass from regular agricultural and forestry activities: cutting back bushes, thinning forests and pruning fruit trees, as well as waste from the lumber industry. Aside from this, China has 460,000 square kilometres of land suitable for forestry, and a further 10,000 square kilometres that is unsuitable for agriculture – all of which could be used to plant energy crops. By 2020, China would be able to reap an annual estimated harvest of two billion tonnes of biomass. Using this to produce advanced biofuels would not only replace a significant proportion of crude oil consumption, but also slash carbon dioxide emissions and energy use in the process of fuel manufacturing. However, the completion of such a huge project would require cross-departmental cooperation from China’s energy bureau, ministry of agriculture, ministry of environmental protection and forestry bureau.

The US plans from the DOA, DOE and EPA all focus on commercialising mature or nearly-mature technologies. In 2007, the DOE funded six cellulosic ethanol plants at a cost of US$385 million. New plans will see a further US$480 million provided to between 10 and 20 pilot and demonstration bio-refineries. In response to the financial crisis, US$175 million of follow-up funding will be given to at least two of the projects funded in 2007, which brings government funding for these projects to 60% or more of the total cost. The DOA, meanwhile, has been instructed to use the 2008 farm bill to provide loan guarantees or funding for demonstration projects currently under construction.

China already has the foundation it needs to commercialise cellulosic ethanol production. China was previously a world leader in acid and enzyme hydrolysis. At the end of 2006, the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO) built a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in Heilongjiang province, northeast China, with annual production capacity of 500 tonnes. Over two years of operation, the majority of working techniques were optimised. A feasibility study for a larger plant producing 10,000 tonnes a year was completed and found that the production costs would be 6,500 yuan (US$951) per tonne of ethanol. Taking into account initial stage subsidies for corn ethanol of 1,800 yuan (US$263) per tonne, the fuel would break even when the retail cost of petrol (excluding fuel tax) is 4.10 yuan (US$0.60) per litre. However, the economic outlook – and uncertainties about policies that favour cellulosic ethanol – caused COFCO to push back the start of construction on the larger plant to 2011, with its completion planned in 2012. Jilin Fuel Ethanol Co. made a similar decision.

New industries are always risky; it is no surprise that businesses that need to turn a profit are wary about this field. This is why the US government, despite the financial crisis and the budget deficit, is providing such strong support to demonstration projects. In China, commercial biofuel production would receive a significant boost if the government would provide half of the funding for the two projects mentioned above – around 160 million yuan (US$23.4 million) – less than the maximum US DOE funding for a single pilot project – and issue preferential policies as a matter of urgency.

In accelerating the development of biofuel energy, China must coordinate on a national level and concentrate on two aspects.
First, while commercialising mature technology as soon as possible, China should also strengthen basic research in key fields. The US DOE plans to invest US$110 million (751.5 million yuan) in conversion technologies, including more effective catalysts, microbes and feedstocks. A typical example of this type of research is the partnership between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Danish firms Genencor International and Novozymes to research cellulosic enzymes such as the cellobiohydrolase family, which have reduced the cost of enzymes to one twentieth of the cost in 2002, making acid enzyme hydrolysis technology commercially viable. This new spending on catalysts will do the same for thermo-chemical methods. Meanwhile, research on algae will push forward a new generation of biofuels and help to realise a true green energy revolution.

China has a good foundation in biofuels research, but there is a lack of clear direction and low-level research is being reduplicated. In particular, research into commercialisation is weak. At the moment support is needed in proprietary brand micro-organism preparations,such as cellulosic enzymes and semi-cellulosic yeasts, catalysts for thermal decomposition and quality large-scale feedstock crops. These would reduce the cost of biofuels and thus increase their commercial viability.

Second, while supporting commercial demonstration projects, industry need to coordinate development of upstream production, such as large-scale sustainable feedstock, and downstream issues, such as transport and sales infrastructure and the optimisation of vehicles for use with E85 alcohol fuel mixture. Legislation, such as standards for environmentally friendly vehicles and low-carbon fuels, must be put in place. This will ensure the materials, the market and the regulations that are needed to meet our targets.

China can do more to support advanced biofuels. Policymakers see the commercialisation of biofuels as an alternative source of energy, but they should also be aware about the strategic significance of addressing climate change and protecting the environment, land resources and water. Zhang Guobao, deputy chair of the NDRC and director of the energy bureau, said that China should learn from painful experiences developing certain industries in the past. If we do not adopt a higher-level view of the development of new energy sources, in 10 years we may find we have been left behind again.

An ancient peasant saying goes: “Waste a minute of the land’s time, and it will waste a year of yours.” The opportunity will not wait for China; that is the message of Obama’s new biofuels strategy.


Xu Dingming is an adviser to the State Council. He has been deputy chair of the office of the national energy leading group and director of the NDRC’s energy bureau, where he oversaw China’s first mid- to long-term energy plan. Since 2003, he has overseen mid- to long-term national planning for electricity, coal, natural gas, renewable energy and oil reserves.

Zhang Jinyuan is president of Pacitec, Inc. He has worked as an engineer and general manager for the China region at Halliburton Energy Services, as well as deputy chief engineer at Shanghai Marine Geology Bureau. He was previously a research student in electromechanical engineering at the University of Houston, Texas.


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发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

前景是很好!

您所说的是第二代生物燃料,目前看起来是很有前景,但关键问题,技术是否能解决。在技术还没有解决的情况下就大力发展,欠妥当。

Very good prospects

The second-generation of biofuels that you mentioned looks to be very promising at the moment. However, the key issue is whether the technology is up to it. Rushing to develop this kind of thing before the technology is there seems like the wrong way to go about it.

Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为生物燃料种树

种植园的社会和环境成本常常为生物燃料支持者所忽略, 但对于以此维持生计的当地人来说,这对他们意味着重大的影响。

比起森林来,种植园更易受到火灾的影响。

他们消耗的大量水资源会加重气候变化问题,原因在于下游的水量减少。

在中国,大面积的“不适宜农业”的土地可能已经被当地人们开发利用,特别是牧民们。另外,这些土地也可能被作为种植园——由于远离纤维素乙醇的使用地,所以运输成本十分高。
与其依赖于生物燃料,还不如把精力放到更简单、更经济和更明智的节能工作上面。

(田亮翻译)

Growing trees for bio-fuel

The social and environmental costs of plantations are usually neglected by their proponents, but are very substantial, particularly to the people whose land and livelihoods are taken.

Plantations are more susceptible to fire than forests.

The large quantities of water which they consume will compound the problems which climate change will cause by lowering water tables downstream.

Concerning China, the large areas of land "unsuitable for agriculture" is probably already used and valued by local people, particularly pastoralists. Other "unsuitable areas" are probably unsuitable also for plantations - and so remote from where the cellulosic fuels would be consumed that transportation costs are likely to be prohibitive.

It would be much easier, cheaper and wiser to reduce energy consumption than rely on bio-fuels.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

新生物能源真的环保吗?

生物能源会产生一个新的绿色产业。
但是,我从一本书中了解到,生物能源对气候改变总的影响并非是积极的。有人能在评论中对比一下第一代和新一代的生物能源吗?它真的“绿色”吗?

-本评论由李异翻译

is it really good to have this 2nd generation biofuels?

Biofuels can produce a new industry for green money. However, I read from a book that the total effect related to biofuel to climate change may not be positive. Will anyone comment on this 2nd generation biofuels compared to the 1st one? Is it really green in the overall effect?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环保政策需要各部门的配合

不管是发展新能源,还是实施环保政策,这些都离不开政府各部门的配合。一个好的政策,如果在执行时相关部门死守着自己的利益不放,不去认真地配合国家的大战略,那么这个政策的结果注定是失败的。

这些年来,各种环境污染事故频发的一个重要原因就是,政府部门明知有些开发项目对民众生活有害,却对项目的环境成本视而不见,积极追求所谓的“政绩”,直至最后酿成难以挽回的灾难。

The Implementation of environment policy requires the cooperation of all government departments

It doesn't matter whether it's the development of new energy sources, or the implementation of environmental policy, nothing can be done without co-operation between government departments. A good policy will be doomed to fail if related departments all defend their own interests and resist falling in line with overarching national strategy.

This is the reason incidents of environmental pollution are so frequent. Some government departments obviously knew that certain development projects would harm public health, but they pressed ahead anyway, ignoring the costs in pursuit “political achievements.” This attitude ultimately leads to an irrevocable set of catastrophes.

Translate by Catlin Fu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回应3号

关于这个,可以看一下网站上之前的相关文章。

所谓第一代生物能源,就是将玉米、甘蔗、高粱等粮食作物转化为乙醇,或是把大豆、油棕榈和油菜籽等油类作物加工为生物柴油。

而第二代生物能源,是把植物中的木质纤维素转化为燃料。由于第一代生物燃料存在与人争粮食的矛盾,因此第二代生物能源的市场前景更好,不过还只是处于研究中。

Response to No.3

As far as this question is concerned, it's worth having a look at the related articles section on the website.

So-called first-generation biofuels include ethanol produced from food crops such as corn, sugarcane and sorghum, and biodiesel from oil-bearing crops such as soybeans, oil palm and rapeseed.

"Second generation" biofuels refer to fuel produced from lignocellulose in the plant.

Since the production of first-generation fuels conflicts so readily with food produced for human consumption, second-generation fuels have better market prospects. However, they're still very much at the research stage.

Translated by Tian Liang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回应2号评论

同意。首先,最重要的应该是大力节能,因为减少能耗比起一代代的新能源研制可谓事半功倍。

中国有大量低收入人群,他们会愿意去收集、运送第二代生物燃料,这也是可行的。 我觉得,一个有趣的问题是:如果拿土地来种植生物燃料是有利可图的,中国会不会面临大范围的肥沃土地流失?

(translated by Fangfang CHEN)

For comment 2

I agree, first of all, #1 should be reduction of energy consumption because cutting consumptino in half is better than doubling your generation fleet.

Since there are enough low-income Chinese who I think would be willing to collect the 2nd generation biofuels and transport them, this may prove effable. I think there raises an interesting question; if it becomes profitable to unnecessarily trim back ground cover for fuel generation, might China face a wave of wide-spread top-soil erosion?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回应6号

在《世界商业报道》上,有一篇文章对生物燃料产业的发展概况做了介绍,
http://www.bionews.com.cn/Chinese/news/content/view/1307/39/.

首先,中国有着很多没有利用的边际性土地,土质不高,并不适宜用来种粮食,比如山地、盐碱地。在这些土地上,人们可以种上各种能源作物,如甜高粱、木薯等。

其次,出于粮食安全的考虑,政府不会选择牺牲粮食和肥沃的农田来生产新能源,在今后,非粮作物,像甜高粱、木薯、秸秆将会成为生物燃料发展的重点。

Response to comment No.6

An article in "World Business Report" introduces the development of the biofuel industry in China. http://www.bionews.com.cn/Chinese/news/content/view/1307/39/

First of all, China has plenty of un-used marginal field, such as mountainous region and kaline soil. The soil of these fields is not of high quality and not suitable to grow grain crops. However, it is possible to grow energy crops like sweet sorghum, cassava etc in these fields.

Secondly, Chinese government will not sacrifice grain crops and fertile farmlands for the produce of new energy, considering the security of food. In the future, energy crops like sweet sorghum, cassava and straws will become the priority of biofuels in China.

Translated by Catlin Fu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一个前景看好的方法

目前一些科学家开始研究在废水中种植海洋微藻,然后从中提取生物燃料。这样既能减少CO2,也能降低污染,政府应该支持这种研究。

there is another promising method

Now some scientists are conducting research on obtaining biofuel from microalage, which can be cultured by wastewater. That will be beneficial for both CO2 and pollution reduction. So the government should encourage such research.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

生物能源竞赛

政府不仅仅要制定生物燃料标准,还要分配生物电和液态生物燃料之间的生物量。有发现称,从能量消耗的角度来看,用生物量来产生生物电比制造生物燃料更有效。当然,从能源安全的角度出发,我们需要生物燃料。中国政府应该确定生物量转为生物电能和生物燃料的比率(暂且不看它们的代)。还有,地方政府应该严格规划这类工厂的建造,以确保这类设备的商业可行性。在中国,可以看到很多地方政府批建的生物发电厂两两相邻……而其中任一电厂都无法得到足够的生物质原料。
-下节继续 罗伯特

bioenergy competition

Not only does government have to generate standards for biofuels, it also needs to allocate biomass between bioelectricity and liquid biofuels. It has been found that using biomass to generate bioelectricity is more efficient than creating biofuel, from an energy consumption standpoint. Yet, biofuels are needed from a transport energy security standpoint. Governments in China need to make decisions about what ratios of biomass should go towards biomass electricity, and biofuels, regardless of what generation they are. Furthermore, local governments need to closely regulate the construction of such factories in order to ensure local business viability of these facilities. There have been several cases in China where local governments approved the construction of two biomass power plants in close vicinity to each other...neither of them could get enough biomass to remain viable.

Continued in next message...Robert Earley, iCET 罗伯特

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

生物能源竞赛(2)

最后,生物质需要建立价格机制。生物质不是免费的。农民们得收集它。假如价格没有达到农民们的期望,他们更愿意让这些生物质腐烂在田间(这是有经验可循的)。生物质能的利润实在是太低了,以至于生物质能的高价会导致生物质能项目难以为继。这几点需要文中提到的参与者与商业等非政府机构进行认真、全面的考虑,同时也是这次政府似乎难以掌握的。
Robert Earley , iCET 罗伯特

bioenergy competition (2)

Finally, a pricing mechanism needs to be determined for biomass. Biomass is not free. Farmers need to collect it. If the price does not meet farmers' expectations, they would rather let it rot in the field (this is based on experience). Yet the margins on biomass energy are so low that a high biomass price can make bioenergy projects difficult.

These major issues require serious systematic attention from all the players mentioned in the article, as well as non-governmental organizations such as business. Yet this is attention that government cannot seem to muster at this time.

Robert Earley, iCET 罗伯特