The Future of Biofuels

By Robert Potts

First-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol have well-known shortcomings. A a global water crisis looms and corn is a water-intensive crop. As food prices rise globally, corn ethanol diverts food a food crop to fuel use. Add  deforestation and large-scale changes in land use and corn ethanol seems to be a poor substitute for fossil fuels. 

Some see “second-generation” biofuels as the future of the biofuels industry. Second-generation biofuels are synthesized from crop waste or fast-growing grasses rather than derived from human food sources. This improves the efficiency of the agricultural industry by removing waste. And it doesn’t affect food prices.

The production of second-generation biofuels requires complex and costly thermochemical processes such as gasification, pyrolysis and torrefaction. The average cost of cellulosic biofuels is around 40 per cent greater than the cost of corn-based ethanol.

But costs are falling. A new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that cellulosic biofuels will achieve cost parity with ethanol by 2016. Improved technology is lowering costs. For example, the cost of enzymes, one of the key cost components, has fallen by 72 per cent in the last four years. Analysts believe that if the industry attracts more capital productive capacity will grow and the relative costs of production will fall further.

Critics continue to argue that sourcing biofuels from non-food crops will cause large-scale land use change and increased water usage. The difficulty is that the volume of fuel created from biofuel production, or the “net energy yield per hectare of land,” is not sufficient to supply our economy in the long-term without creating further environmental impacts.

Some maintain that sugarcane ethanol, the biofuel widely produced in Brazil, would solve this issue. However, its wider proliferation is currently constrained by U.S. agricultural policy which mainly favors corn and by Europe’s climate, which does not support sugarcane production there. Its status as a popular crop also limits its long-term sustainability.

One area of biofuel production that might sustain the industry in the long-term is “third-generation” biofuels sourced from algae and bacteria. These fuels are still in the early stages of development and allow the modification of species of algae to produce yields of long-chain fatty acids. Should technology emerge to allow scientists to generate large volumes of fuel from these sources, they may be able to negate the problems encountered so far. In the meantime, first- and second-generation biofuels will continue to play a role in a world-wide energy industry that is highly dependent on a variety of sources of fuel.

Do you think biofuels are a sustainable form of fuel? Are you concerned about the long-term depletion of fossil fuels? Will new technology continue to support our energy usage? Let us know what you think, below, or via twitter @dschatsky

Robert Potts is the owner of RPM Fuels & Oil Pumps, suppliers of tanks and fuel transfer pump equipment to the fuel industry and RPM Fuels, supplier of a range of oil tanks and specialist equipment for biofuels and biodiesel.


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Could Zipcar Actually Be Bad for the Environment?

Zipcar, the popular car sharing service, and others like it are often lauded for their environmental benefits. After all, if you can borrow a car when you need one, then maybe you won’t buy one. And if fewer people buy cars, that’s good for the environment, right?

It might be, but it depends. It depends on how car sharing affects driving behavior. Some studies have shown that just one quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with passenger vehicles are produced in the manufacturing process. Most of the emissions occur in the process of driving it. Even if Zipcar reduces vehicle ownership a bit, it might actually increase the amount of driving people do. After all, if you can borrow a car whenever you need to, you might drive more. If this is the case, the environmental impact of Zipcar could easily be negative.

I’ve not seen any really good research on what Zipcar’s impact has really been. Zipcar recently commissioned a survey in which it asked consumers about their attitudes about driving and the environment. For some reason, it completely missed the opportunity to ask the simple question: “With Zipcar, do you drive more or less than you did before?” The closest the survey came was a question worded this way:

To what extent have transportation apps (i.e. taxi apps, car rental reservations, public transportation info, car sharing, ride sharing, etc.) reduced your driving frequency?

That’s just too broad to reveal the impact of car sharing. An earlier study commissioned by Zipcar showed that 18 percent new Zipcar members sold their cars within a year of joining the service. That’s likely because most rarely used their cars to begin with: only 38 percent took five or more trips a month before they joined Zipcar. It did show that the already small number of frequent drivers dropped further, to 12 percent.

But these surveys don’t capture a potentially important effect of car sharing services: increasing demand for cars among non-car owners, because they are cheap and easy to borrow when needed.

It is quite possible that car sharing services like Zipcar actually increase driving, by making it easier for people who don’t own cars to drive one. Anecdotally, that seems to be the impact in New York City, at least among some people I know.

If you know of a proper study on the impact of car sharing on driving, please let me know. If you would like to commission one, I can get it done for you.

What do you think?


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Incorporating Biomimicry Into Innovation Infrastructure

By Taryn Mead

Following my previous post, I’d like to dive deeper into the use of biomimicry within corporate innovation. Many companies that seek consultants in biomimicry “want to do biomimicry” or “be a biomimetic company” with only a cursory understanding of what this means. One way framing this conversation is to understand the sustainable innovation infrastructure of a company and how it can be leveraged for biomimetic breakthroughs.

The innovation infrastructure of a company is the processes by which new ideas make it to consumers. Add “sustainable” to that and it is the process by which new ideas that supports values of sustainability make it to consumers. After several years of consulting with companies from various sectors, I have noticed a general blurriness around internal innovation processes, making it difficult to recognize where new innovations are most possible and most likely. One of my primary goals as a biomimicry consultant is to bring some clarity and definition to a company’s sustainable innovation infrastructure where biological strategies can provide insights.

When approached with the question “How can we do biomimicry?” the team must first analyze where biomimicry can possibly play a role. By defining the scope of the problem and the potential scope of the solutions, we can have a productive conversation about what we are trying to accomplish and what limitations there are to our progress. The leverage points, as Donella Meadows put it, must be at least partially defined as a team. Is the entire team trying to solve the same problem? And if so, what are the collective goals?

It can be very helpful to visually map the options for biomimicry to move through the product development process as the engagement begins. Perhaps nature’s strategies can inform material development and selection or the form and function of a new product. Perhaps it will lead to advances in the production process or the creation of a waste-to-raw-material network with partner organizations.

Each company will have a unique pathway for assimilating biomimicry and sustainability within their existing processes and environmental criteria and it is best that is best defined at the outset of an engagement with the entire project team engaged. And at the end of the process, with new innovations in hand, team members can tell the story of the day that nature helped them see things differently.

Taryn Mead is a biologist, sustainability strategist and Certified Biomimicry Professional who has consulted with over 30 corporate, municipal and nonprofit clients using biomimicry as a tool for innovation and sustainability. She is the founder of Symbiosis, a biomimicry consultancy.

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Biomimicry: An Increasingly Popular Sustainability Strategy

By Taryn Mead

First in a series

Companies that are trying to improve their environmental performance and create greener products are increasingly exploring biomimicry, also called bio-inspired design, biomimetics or bionics.

Biomimicry is the study of biological models, processes, systems and chemistries that can be emulated for sustainable solutions to human design challenges. The premise of biomimicry is that the other 30-100 million species that live on planet earth have been adapting to thrive here for 3.85 billion years and there is an immense amount that humans can learn from these other organisms. In light of the environmental challenges that lie before us, the rise of biomimicry as a design and innovation framework is timely.

So what does this mean, in practice? It’s really quite simple. People notice patterns in biological systems and then apply those patterns to a human system. The most frequently cited example is Velcro which was developed by an engineer named George de Mestral. Legend has it that he was out for a walk in the Swiss Alps when he noticed the structure of the seeds of the burdock plant as they stuck to his dog’s fur. Upon further examination with a hand lens, he realized that there was a fantastic loop and hook attachment strategy at work. He found a manufacturing partner and the resulting material is Velcro.

A more recent example is product called Ornilux, a insulated structural glass panel. Many bird deaths in urban areas are the result of bird collisions with the glass panels of highrise buildings. Arnold Glas, a German glass manufacturer, sought a solution to this by mimicking the strategy of some species of spiders that incorporate strands of silk that reflect ultraviolet light into their webs. The silk is a warning to birds and other large organisms that may run into the web and destroy it, but are invisible to the spider’s prey and to the human eye.

The examples of biomimicry are endless and date back for centuries. As we move into the future, this process of listening to natural systems is merging with our use of technology to produce some very interesting results. Stay tuned for more on what this means for companies seeking innovation strategies for sustainability.

Taryn Mead is a biologist, sustainability strategist and Certified Biomimicry Professional who has consulted with over 30 corporate, municipal and nonprofit clients using biomimicry as a tool for innovation and sustainability. She is the founder of Symbiosis, a biomimicry consultancy.

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Leveraging Hunter-Gatherer Instincts for Successful Green Marketing

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Few aspects of human nature are as challenging to green marketers as the human bias to value the present over the future. This trait developed over millennia to serve survival needs, and remains deeply entrenched despite its tendency to lead us into behavior that over the long term may be destructive of ourselves and our species. For example, researchers show that asking people to consider the needs of coming generations as well as their own is largely ineffective. And our brains are just not wired to respond to slow-moving, novel dangers: for example, climate change doesn’t get us moving the same way that large animals do. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

So where are the leverage points for getting those instincts to work for, rather than against us? One is “life history theory,” which suggests that people who live in a dangerous, unstable environment tend to be more impulsive and discount the future more than those in more stable and predictable environments. The implication: Don’t paint pictures of a scary, unpredictable future if you want people to act responsibly. In the face of uncertainty, people will reach for the short-term payoff (for example hoarding, and increasing resource use) over their long-term interests. This implies that strategies emphasizing a recognizable future are more likely to encourage behavior that takes the needs of the future into account.

Disregarding intangible concerns is another leftover from our hunter-gatherer past. Our brains evolved when behaviors and consequences were clearly linked (hunt all the game in the area and go hungry, eat something bad and become sick or die). But today our actions are almost entirely divorced from the environment, and our senses are not involved with the consequences of those actions. For example, when we purchase something made from wood harvested with unsustainable logging practices, we don’t feel the effects of deforestation. We feel the attractive price point.

However, if tangible evidence that affects the senses can be harnessed to let people know when their actions are leading to detrimental outcomes, they may change their behavior. The authors of the paper linked to above cite the standard use of an added noxious odor to natural gas to cue people to the fact that they are being poisoned, and suggest that adding a colorant to harmful air emissions to show their levels might lead to changed behavior. This makes perfect sense in the abstract, but I’m not sure that adding colorant to air pollution is likely to happen. I’m curious about what other, smaller cues might be created to bring people closer to their part in the cause and effect cycle. How might we involve the senses to make environmental problems feel real?

Finally, the innate human appreciation for natural beauty may be the greatest asset available to shape positive actions for the environment. The authors suggest exposing urban children to animals, nature, and the outdoors as a way to foster a long-term commitment to the health of the planet. This may be the best green marketing of all.

Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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Book Review: Creating a Sustainable Organization

I am finally getting around to posting a review of Creating a Sustainable Organization, by Peter Soyka. I apologize for the delay to my readers and to Peter. The book is well worthwhile.

An effective sustainability strategy is not crafted or executed in a silo. Sustainability strategy must have strong ties to corporate strategy; sustainability practice must be integrated into the full range of company processes. It is this perspective, forged in the author’s many years of experience, that makes this book’s treatment of corporate sustainability distinctive and valuable. I highly recommend it to sustainability practitioners and executives alike.

Books on sustainability can often seem to be written on a blank slate, as if the concept is a new one. This book, by contrast, is rich with historical perspective and insights gained from practical experience. Indeed, the author’s introduction states that his approach “is firmly grounded in the practices that have been developed within and by the EHS profession during the past 15 years or so.” The book also has a valuable review of the history of environmental, health and safety and social equity laws and regulations, which should be enlightening to those who have not studied this history before.

I have read dozens of books on corporate sustainability in recent years. None has done as good a job rooting the topic in the real-world context of corporate environment, health and safety practices; the finance function; and the perspective of institutional investors. Sustainability practitioners who understand this context will have an edge when it comes to developing strategy, defining programs, and communicating with the diverse set of parties who claim a stake in a company’s mission, its performance and its sustainability stance.

One weakness of the book is its rather heavy, pedantic style. It is common to find whole paragraphs composed almost entirely sentences 25 or more words long. But that didn’t prevent me from reading the book cover to cover.

The book is especially valuable to relative newcomers to the field of sustainability. But I expect that even experienced professionals will find the book helpful in crystallizing and articulating the insights they’ve accumulated along the way.

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Yogurt Maker’s Sustainability Approach Has a Different Flavor

Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm recently revealed that it had calculated the carbon footprint of 150 of its products, three quarters of the items it sells. (Disclosure: some of those items are in my refrigerator right now.) If you are interested in how companies account for and manage their environmental impacts, you should take a look at Stonyfield Farm. Here are three things worth noting:

Over half of the carbon footprint comes from milk production. That means cows passing gas and cow manure. In other words, the biggest source of emissions are verdant pastures, happy bovines, not belching factories. Research is underway to reduce the footprint of milk production. But my point is that most people don’t think of basic agricultural processes can have such a big environmental impact. They can.

Data is updated daily. Most companies that calculate their carbon footprints do so yearly. That’s because the processes most companies use are very labor intensive. There is still little automation of carbon accounting. The system Stonyfield Farm uses calculates product footprints daily and allows continuous monitoring of the company’s performance versus its goals. That should give the firm an edge in meeting its targets by enabling it to make mid-course corrections and improvements as it learns.

Focus on greenhouse gases rather than energy consumption. Many companies that talk about reducing their carbon emissions are actually focused on reducing their energy consumption. There are two reasons for this. First, consumption of non-renewable energy is a pretty good proxy in many cases for greenhouse gas emissions: the more you consume, the greater your emissions. And second, and more importantly, energy costs money while emitting carbon is still free in much of the world. So companies manage energy consumption, aiming for cost reductions and reaping emissions reductions as an added benefit. Stonyfield Farm focuses on greenhouse gas emissions rather than energy partly because a lot of their emissions don’t come from energy use (they come from cows) and they don’t come from their own operations (only 13% of the footprint is attributable to manufacturing).The link between costs and greenhouse gas emissions is much looser for them. So they are directly managing for environmental benefits, not just cost.

Stonyfield Farm has long staked out a leadership position in its commitment to environmental stewardship and its use of that commitment to boost brand value. The company’s approach to managing and tracking its carbon footprint is part of that tradition.

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