“Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country” was the warning delivered by concerned scientists yesterday at a UN meeting in Germany. Scientists from the Global Invasive Species Program (GISP), the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature all warned that bioenergy crops could prove ecologically and economically disastrous, as many of the proposed energy crops are in fact invasive species.
This warning could easily be aimed at entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and be read as: “Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your business plan/investment.” Indeed, while Coskata and other cellulosic biofuel startups are stressing “non-food feedstocks,” perhaps the real next step is “non-crop feedstocks” — to that end, many biofuel startups are targeting garbage, waste and leftovers as feedstocks that are both low-cost and low-risk.
In their new report, “A Risk Assessment of Invasive Alien Species Promoted for Biofuels,” GISP lists 28 plant species already being cultivated for biofuel use that are classified as invasive. And “invasives,” as defined by the National Invasive Species Council, can be subject to stifling federal and state regulations.
This is a serious potential regulatory monkey wrench for the biofuel startups depending on America’s cropland being quickly converted to green waves of energy grasses. But it could be a boon for startups focusing on using waste products as biofuels. Agricultural wastes, like corn stover and sugarcane bagasse, are being targeted in the U.S. by startups like Mascoma and Coskata and in Brazil by Brenco and KiOR.
Coskata’s first biorefineries will use currently available feedstocks — wood chips, sugarcane waste and municipal trash. The company estimates that municipal waste could be used to produce 8-10 billion gallons of fuel annually. The untapped market of industrial waste could double that. “Industrial waste gases off of steel mills could provide another 10 billion gallons,” said Wes Bolsen, Coskata’s chief marketing officer and VP. “Those gases are exactly what Coskata’s microbes could eat. They’re burning bug food. Coskata is actively approaching steel producers to turn those gases into fuel.”
But Coskata still believes there’s a place for sustainably and safely grown energy crops. “The energy crop market is a few years away,” Bolsen told us. “We’re going to wait and see it develop in a sustainable way before we decide to build a $400 million biorefinery dependent on any one of those crops.”
The logical conclusion of this progression is Craig Venter’s much-vaunted “fourth-generation biofuels.” Venter has said that by next year, his startup, Synthetic Genomics, will be producing octane from the ultimate waste product – carbon dioxide.
GISP recommends risk assessment and information gathering before any country moves full-steam ahead with energy crop plantations. That might be a little late as both the U.S. and the EU have already passed legislation mandating increases in non-food biofuels. In the mean time, we haven’t seen anyone raise objections to using garbage as a feedstock…yet.
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