Clean Energy News

Algae, wood chips and switch grass make up the feedstock for the next generation of biofuels — a sector poised for rapid growth, according to a recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

The study, “Next-Generation Biofuels: Near-Term Challenges and Implications for Agriculture,” by William T. Coyle also says next generation biofuel production capacity should reach 88 million gallons in the United States, just a fraction of the 10.8 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol consumed in 2009. Coyle says the sector is expected to surpass 350 million gallons in 2012.

One of the more intriguing is algae. A past SJVCEO post mentioned an algae-biofuel-powered dirigible. The algae-biofuel concept has attracted more than 30 U.S. companies experimenting with different approaches.

Coyle says algae has high potential yield and can be cultivated on marginal land, something the parched central San Joaquin Valley has no shortage of. “Interest in algae as a feedstock is driven by algae’s high potential yield per acre. Some companies grow algae in photo-bioreactors and others in open ponds, with yields potentially greater than 5,000 gallons per acre, by far the greatest potential of any feedstock for conversion to biofuels.”

Despite high costs — from $9 per gallon to $35 per gallon, compared with less than $3 per gallon for cellulosic ethanol — many believe cost competitiveness can be achieved for algae-based fuels and those made from other materials.

University of California Merced Professor J. Elliot Campbell received nationwide attention for a study completed during his postdoctoral appointment at Stanford, concluding that the United States could meet up to 6 percent of its energy needs with biofuels produced on “marginal” ag land.

“It’s been suggested that biofuels production on prime agricultural land could accelerate global climate change,” Campbell said in a statement. “We looked at what we call marginal land – for example, farmlands in the Eastern U.S. that were abandoned as the center of agriculture shifted west.”

Cellulosic ethanol, produced from material like grass and sticks, also is moving forward to commercial production. The ZeaChem Inc. plant in Boardman, Ore. opened last week.

The Valley has a number of features that make it perfect as a center of alternative energy production — laser-flat land, sun-drenched days and proximity to power transmission lines.

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to improving our region’s quality of life by increasing its production and use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley.

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