Friday, February 10, 2012

Biofuels and Co-Localization

Years ago biofuel was viewed as the next step in reducing transport based emissions, but during recent years the principle feed source for biofuels, foods like corn, beats and sugar cane, have taken a beating with regards to how effective they are at actually reducing emissions. Currently very few individuals continue to believe that food-based feed sources should be pursued for expansion (of course this reality has not prevented the agricultural lobby from pushing for ethanol quotas from corn and other food sources). The loss of momentum for food-based sources appeared to open the door for algae feed sources to carry the biofuel banner. However, research has suggested that costs and environmental damage associated with algae feed sources could also eliminate its viability as a transportation alternative.1

To combat these detriments some within the algae biofuel community have suggested that co-localization is a necessary step to ensuring both profitability as well as the environmental footprint. Co-localization is viewed as important to the algae-based biofuel sector because while algae only requires water, CO2 and an energy source (typically sunlight) as inputs to produce the oils necessary for biofuels, efficiency rates are viewed as too low for large-scale production. Depending on the exact methodology of production adding additional elements like phosphorous and/or nitrogen increase yield rates. The process of co-localization is designed to take advantage of waste products from other industries like CO2 from coal plants, nitrogen run-off from certain agricultural process or wastewater from water treatment facilities and divert those elements to algae biofuel production at a reduced cost. Not only does this recycling reduce costs by lowering input costs it also reduces environmental waste as most of these byproducts from their associated industries are toxic and freely disrupt the local environment. Initially such a system design seems very effective and should be utilized whenever possible, however, there is an important consideration that must be taken into account, one which typically seems to be ignored in most analysis.

One must not forget that the original purpose of producing biofuels is to provide an alternative to oil or (if ever possible natural gas) as a transportation energy source in order to reduce carbon emissions. The reduction of transportation carbon emissions is only a part of the equation other emission reductions will be required to ensure the relevance of the transport reductions. Taking this reality into account demands that co-localization not only addresses the present, but also the future. For example while co-localization within a coal plant may appear attractive, the coal plant will need to be retired much earlier versus its natural time-derived retirement. Therefore, if production of the algae biofuel comes to rely on the byproduct feed from a coal plant or other heavy emission generating industry as an input stream the closure of said plant would create a production shortfall. This production shortfall would increase biofuel costs to both the company and the public as well as create inefficiencies in the transport infrastructure. Thus, individuals need to take into consideration the timeline associated with the elimination of the input providing industry.

The value of co-localizing heavily decreases if improper longevities are calculated both from a standpoint of corporate profits and societal efficiency. Therefore, it may be more practical for proponents of co-localizing to actually construct ‘biofuel parks’ that incorporate both biofuel culturing/processing centers along with a secondary industry built over a similar timeframe that would have an associated longevity period. While the initial capital costs would be higher it would guarantee both present and future synergy. Overall it is important that those individuals looking to reduce costs through co-localizing algae-based biofuel production take into consideration how those other facilities will change with time.

1. Clarens, et, Al. "Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks." Environmental Science & Technology. 434-924-7966.

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