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The ‘holy grail’ of biofuels now in sight

Mark Clayton, Christian Science Monitor
Long-promised cellulosic ethanol is in modest production, but hurdles remain.

With one foot planted in a pile of corn cobs, Mark Stowers explains how agricultural waste, transformed into ethanol, will turbocharge the US economy, boost its energy security, and help save the planet, too.

This holy grail of biofuels, called cellulosic ethanol, has been “five years from commercialization” for so long that even Dr. Stowers admits it’s become a joke.

But now the research director for POET, the nation’s largest ethanolmaker, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., says that despite bad economic news and major obstacles, cellulosic’s time is near. Other scientists agree.

Corn-based ethanol, which many critics argue does not do enough to slow climate change, is nearing US production limits. In Washington, cellulosic ethanol is gaining political traction. And cellulosic technology seems ready for prime time – at last.
(13 February 2009)

Ethanol plants no panacea for local economies, study finds

Jan Dennis, University of Illinois
Just over a year ago, the U.S. ethanol industry was still in overdrive, fueling a wave of new factories to keep pace with surging demand for the corn-based gasoline additive.

But the boom has since stalled amid a deep economic downturn that has stifled demand, one of many threats to the fledgling industry that were forecast in a 2007 study by two University of Illinois researchers.

“Our research found lots of storm clouds that posed risks for ethanol plants, even though the industry was go-go-go at the time,” said Andrew Isserman, a professor of agriculture economics and of urban and regional planning. “The last 15 months have proven just how risky it is.”

Isserman and U. of I. doctoral candidate Sarah Low studied the ethanol industry in 2007 to gauge what areas might be good locations for ethanol plants and whether factories would provide an economic boost for towns that were then clamoring to hitch onto the ethanol bandwagon.

Their findings, first released in late 2007 on the campus’s Web site and which now appear in the current issue of Economic Development Quarterly, foreshadow an industry downturn that has seen dozens of plants shuttered or forced into bankruptcy as excess production capacity yields mounting financial losses.

The study found that plants are beset with a host of uncertainties, ranging from shifts in federal energy policy and global economics to changing technology that threatens the long-term viability of corn as an ethanol blend.

Although factory growth has been halted by a sour economy, the findings could help guide economic development decisions when the industry rebounds, said Isserman, a member of the U. of I. Institute of Government and Public Affairs, a campus think tank.

“Ethanol plants are a risky business, so communities need to be careful,” he said. “And even if a plant is a good fit, community leaders need to realize it’s not going to transform their economy.”
(16 February 2009)

Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?

Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch
… As we face the catastrophic impacts of climate change, efforts to “engineer” the climate are proliferating. Among these is a proposal to use soils as a medium for addressing climate change by scaling up the use of biochar. Unfortunately, like other such schemes to engineer biological systems, it is based on a dangerously reductionist view of the natural world, which fails to recognize and accommodate ecological complexity and variation.

Research on biochar is clearly indicating that there simply is no “one-size-fits-all” biochar solution, that many critically important issues remain poorly understood, and that there are likely to be serious and unpredictable negative impacts if this technology is adopted on a large scale. Yet proponents still do not hesitate to make unsubstantiated claims and to lobby for very significant supports to scale up their technology.

Thus far there has been little public awareness or debate over the large-scale application of biochar. The speed with which lobbying efforts are moving forward at national and international levels is alarmingly similar to the situation observed with agrofuels several years ago…
(February 2009)
From the Biofuelwatch website:
“Biofuelwatch actively supports the campaign for an EU moratorium on agrofuels from large-scale monocultures. Agroenergy monocultures are linked to accelerated climate change, deforestation, the impoverishment and dispossession of local communities, bio-diversity losses, human rights abuses, water and soil degradation, loss of food sovereignty and food security.”