December 15, 2015

Biofuel Production: Is it an Option for Specialty Crop Growers?

In this country, biofuel production has been typically associated with corn, although biofuels can be produced from different feedstocks, including crop residues, manure and others.  During a recent webinar hosted on biofuel production, Dr. Stephen Kaffka shared key information related to the current policy, opportunities and challenges of producing biofuel in California.  One of the take-aways from his presentation is that as producers look into exploring additional means of revenue and efficiency, biofuel production shouldn’t be overlooked.
In a 2014 report prepared by the California Biomass Collaborative (CBC) for the California Energy Commission (CEC), the authors suggested that opportunities for crop-based biofuel businesses in California are overlooked.  The CBC is a statewide collaboration of government, industry, environmental and education groups coordinated by the University of California, Davis.  The goal of this effort is to enhance the management of biomass in California for the production of renewable energy, biofuel and products.  Anyone interested in exploring biofuel production as a business opportunity should be aware of this effort to better understand diverse biofuel issues including, but not limited to technology research, standards development, extension and public outreach.
The United States is currently using corn grain for ethanol and vegetable oils from crops like soybeans and canola for biodiesel production.  However, the use of other crops and residues is being researched because of their availability and diversity, in particular in California, where most biofuel facilities are biodiesel manufacturers using residual fats, oils, greases and some vegetable oil.  There are a few large ethanol facilities that use imported corn grain primarily.  Although there are challenges related to the best crop or source for biofuel production, the best conversion technology, future public policies, future global supply and price of biofuel, opportunities exist.
Biofuel production has taken a big shift in the last few years because of the adoption of global warming policies, such as the AB 32 law in California that determines responsibilities and requirements to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  California has extensive biomass sources from agriculture, forestry, urban, residues and dedicated crops; therefore, biofuel production could offer an excellent opportunity to enhance resource management and other potential social, economic and environmental benefits.  Most of the feedstocks utilized in California are imported, suggesting a great potential to utilize existing resources and efficiencies.
Regardless of individual and collective position on climate change, the biofuel industry is highly influenced by politics.  This, of course, is creating implementation challenges but is also encouraging technology and innovation.  One important policy is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which requires a 10 percent reduction in fuel carbon intensity by 2020.  This policy was influenced by increasing CO2 emissions since the 1990s and is now encouraging in-state biofuel production and transition to low carbon fuels.  Based on the California Air Resources Board (CARB) predictions, biofuel production trends from 2016 to 2020 suggest that, while the use of corn ethanol will decline, sugarcane ethanol, biogas, waste-derived biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol will increase.
Specialty crop producers may benefit from these trends, in particular if they grow winter cover crops as part of a rotational system in land that may not be suitable for specialty crops.  Some biofuel crops like camelia are less water intensive, provide coverage to reduce soil erosion, control weeds and bring pollinators.  For example, they may be grown in orchard and vineyard middles as cover crops to reduce erosion or grown during the winter season because of lower water and nutrient demands.  Fortunately, University of California researchers lead by Dr. Kaffka have developed a model, the Crop Adoption Model (CAM), to predict where in the state it will make economic sense to grow biofuel crops.  This model is based on land use patterns derived from pesticide use data over multiyear periods, which is provided by California Department of Pesticide Regulation.  This model has great utility as it considers data about the production choices, locations and factors in determining such decisions.
Currently, carbon credits and economic incentives to produce biofuel crops are in place in California: the lower carbon intensity of the biofuel, the bigger the incentive.  As we move into the future, new developments in this industry continue to be influenced by policies and research.  This may bring more opportunities for specialty crop producers interested in providing feedstocks to generate low carbon intensity biofuels.  If you are interested in the potential benefits of biofuel production in your current farming system, join this conversation by providing your comments and feedback in our blog: