The Science of Green: Leading the Sustainability Charge

Switchgrass
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Biomass companies want to stay one step ahead. The industry aims to develop a voluntary sustainability standard and certification program for biomass growers and energy producers — well before the market for such products fully develops.

The goal is to build consensus on sustainable practices, set this emerging industry on a course toward continuous improvement and avoid disputes over large-scale growing and harvesting of energy crops that will serve as feedstock for bioenergy facilities.

The draft standard is being developed by the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production (CSBP), an industry group that says it will publish the new standard during the first quarter of 2010.

CSBP members include businesses, conservation organizations, academics, government agencies and growers.

“Developing methods of biofuels production based on sustainability considerations is both socially responsible and may also be an important factor in determining the long-run profitability of cellulosic biofuels production,” says John Howe, a CSBP member and vice president of public affairs at Verenium. Verenium has partnered with BP Biofuels to build one of the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States.

“It is an exciting time in agriculture as we work to meet the challenge of both feeding and fueling the world,” says Bill Belden, also a CSBP member and consulting manager of Prairie Lands Bio-Products, a switchgrass growers’ organization in Iowa. Switchgrass is a biomass plant that can reach heights of 10 feet or more. Its high cellulosic content makes switchgrass a candidate for biofuel production as well as a combustion fuel source for power production.

First Steps

CSBP says the first portion of the draft standard will focus on the feedstock side of the full production cycle. Recognizing that biomass production systems are still very much under development, CSBP will assess the preliminary standard after the 2010 and 2011 growing seasons to determine if any adjustments are needed.

The CSBP plan is to develop a standard for bioenergy facilities, a document that will be reviewed and updated every three to five years, by December 2012.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s industrial and environmental section, was positive about the CSBP’s push to develop a sustainability standard.

“BIO recognizes the role of this standard in contributing to the growth of the biofuels industry,” Erickson says. “By committing to voluntary sustainability principles, biofuels producers are providing incentives to investors and consumers to purchase their distinctly sustainable products.”

But in comments released to CSBP, Erickson points out that as it is written now, the draft standard covers biomass only for biofuels and bioenergy. Biomass that goes toward biochemicals is not covered, he says, adding that “the next step for CSBP after the draft standard for biomass is for biorefineries.”

Some of BIO’s other concerns include:

  • The principles of CSBP may penalize crop residues based on the agricultural practices used to produce the primary crop. To attribute the load of growing the primary crop to the residue is in direct contrast with the ISO standard and the consequential life cycle assessment (LCA) approach favored by most U.S. authorities. Because many companies in the second generation of biofuels would rely on crop residues as the feedstock, not having language that addresses this issue may discourage these companies from participating in the CSBP standard.
  • There is a sense that energy crops will be more prevalent than other types of biomass being used for biofuels. Domestic standards as drafted could put domestic producers at a disadvantage to foreign producers.
  • If biomass feedstocks for energy use have certification requirements but biomass feedstock for other uses don’t, the added cost for energy use may limit availability.
  • The standard should not categorically exclude food crops. Ultimately, the biotech industry wants technologies that are economically viable; therefore, some will need to transition through food feedstocks until competitively priced lignocellulosic or other nonfood carbohydrate sources become available.