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White House decarbonization report addresses biofuels, biomass

By Erin Voegele | November 16, 2016

The White House has published a mid-century strategy on decarbonization that addresses biofuels and bioenergy. On Nov. 16, the report was filed with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under the Paris climate deal. 

The White House committed to release the strategy, titled “United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization,” in March. At that time, the administration made a joint statement with Canada that indicated the two countries would work together to implement the Paris agreement as soon as feasible. In addition to implementing their respective Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, the leaders of both countries also committed to completing mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies pursuant to the agreement.  

The mid-century strategy spans more than 100 pages and lays out a national U.S. strategy to deeply decarbonize the economy by 2050, aiming to net GHG emissions reductions of 80 percent or more below 2005 levels by 2050. “The MCS demonstrates how the United States can meet the growing demands on its energy system and lands while achieving a low-emissions pathway, maintaining a thriving economy, and ensuring a just transition for Americans whose livelihoods are connected to fossil fuel production and use,” said the White House in the report. “It also shows how the momentum of technological progress created by global commitments to low-carbon innovation and policies will enable increasingly ambitious climate action from all countries.”

Regarding biofuels, the report notes U.S. government-funded research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) has played a foundational role in spurring technological advances throughout the last century. “With the full power of U.S. RD&D efforts unleashed on clean energy technologies, consistent with the Mission Innovation commitment to double clean energy RD&D spending, we can develop new technologies that will increase the pace and reduce the costs of decarbonization,” said the White House in the strategy. “In addition, potential high impact technologies such as CCUS, advanced nuclear, and second generation biofuels are in early stages of development or commercial deployment; to achieve meaningful scale by mid-century, deployment programs may be needed to bring the first set of commercial-scale facilities to market.”

The report also calls for increased support for public and private research, development, demonstration and deployment (RDD&D), noting that different sectors and technologies come with different priorities and needs with respect to RDD&D, as well as different approaches for government support. “For certain technologies at early stages of commercial deployment like carbon capture and storage, second generation biofuels, and emerging advanced nuclear energy, support programs can bring the first set of commercial-scale facilities to market, driving cost reductions through learning and economies-of-scale,” the White House said in the report. “Supporting a broad range of technologies is likely to lower the costs of decarbonization because we do not know today how technologies will progress over many decades.”

Specifically, the report finds RDD&D investment opportunities to reduce biofuel production costs, improve production efficiency, develop drop-in fuels, co-optimize engines with low-carbon fuel to maximize performance and greenhouse gas reductions, and ensure biomass is produced and used in ways that are carbon beneficial.

The report also addresses carbon beneficial forms of bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which is defined as any facility that combusts biomass for electricity or converts biomass to fuel and captures the resulting carbon dioxide for utilization or storage in underground reservoirs. The report notes BECCS can be utilized across power generation, industrial applications and biofuel production, and highlights once such project in Illinois that captures carbon dioxide from an ethanol plant and sequesters it underground. That project, known as the Decatur Project, captures pure CO2 from a nearby ethanol plant and stores it at pilot scale in a saline aquifer. The report also notes there are other examples of ethanol production plus carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) for enhanced oil recovery. According to the report, BECCS for power production has not yet been tested at scale and its full negative emissions potential depends on the upstream land carbon effects of biomass production.

Within the report, the White House notes a significant portion of the document is devoted to actions needed in the land sector, including the development of carbon-beneficial forms of biomass and negative emissions technologies because they have not received as much in-depth treatment elsewhere. Biomass is seen as playing a particularly important role in energy uses that are difficult to electrify, such as aviation, long-haul trucking, and heat production in certain industrial sectors. Overall, the report states that for the mid-strategy strategy, biomass production in the range of 1 billion dry tons could be produced while maintaining the strategy’s land sector objectives, such as carbon sink, wildlife habit and sufficient food production, assuming efficient land management. “Carbon accounting protocols based on the most up-to-date science can ensure carbon beneficial forms of biomass, or only those sources that result in net reductions of CO2 to the atmosphere, are utilized to support U.S. decarbonization,” said the White House in the report.

“An illustrative 2050 land use scenario consistent with [mid-century strategy] goals, which could entail 50 million acres of forest expansion and 40 million acres of biomass production from 2015 areas, would need to be managed carefully,” states the report. “However, these changes can be made ecologically and economically feasible by focusing on opportunities to deliver multiple products and services on the same acre, including agroforestry, precision agriculture, and bioenergy crop-pasture rotational strategies. For example, in Iowa alone, an estimated 27 percent of cropland, or 7 million acres, may not be profitable in commodity crop production but could be well-suited to perennial grasses or agroforestry (Brandes et al. 2016). Focusing nationally on such areas could minimize land use competition and help increase rural landowner incomes while delivering environmental benefits like improved soil health and reduced nutrient runoff.”

The report addresses several other factors related to the production of biomass and its use in several sectors. It also outlines several specific possible scenarios for the nation’s energy future. A fully copy of the report can be downloaded from the White House website.