A recent study that contends algae-based biodiesel is no more environmentally friendly than conventional row-crop feedstocks has generated some controversy, as well as quite a few comments. And even the algal-biofuel industry seems to be split on the issue.
As you might remember from my story last week, University of Virginia researchers have concluded that algae’s environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops, and the environmental impact of algal-based biofuels needs to be better studied before major investments in algae production are made.
The Algal Biomass Organization has taken exception with the study with the group’s executive director, Mary Rosenthal, pointing out several concerns about the report:
· Assumptions about algae growth systems. The report uses a first generation, raceway-style pond system as its benchmark. Many leading algae companies abandoned that approach years ago and have a variety of more advanced cultivation systems, some of which are unrelated to the methods the authors sought to assess.
· Assumptions about co-location. By assuming the production facility is not co-located with a large CO2 emitter, calculations for sourcing CO2 are flawed, resulting in a higher attribution of CO2 for algae plants. Most commercial-scale algae projects are being developed alongside major emitters in order to beneficially reuse CO2 that will take the place of equivalent carbon emissions from petroleum fuels.
· Assumptions about water use. The study assumes fresh water and non-potable salt water are equal. A sustainable industrial algae production model uses non-potable, non-agricultural water in the process of making liquid fuels.
While agreeing with ABO’s contentions with the study, Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of algae-biofuel maker Origin Oil, says the research does prove that the old way of turning algae into biodiesel is not a valid method anymore. And it’s not a method his company practices.
“It basically puts a tombstone on those earlier approaches [to algal-biodiesel production].”
Eckelberry says the Virginia study confirms earlier research that OriginOil did that found you need to co-locate algae-growing operations with other CO2 producers, you can’t use vast amounts of land, and non-potable water must be used, among other things. But Eckelberry says the algae industry has done a poor job getting that word out, with his own company’s research all but ignored months ago. He hopes this will serve as a wake-up call for the algae industry’s advocacy group.
“I think they’ve been looking for a focus and some traction as an organization. And from the e-mails I’ve received and forwarded [from the ABO's Rosenthal], I think they’ve found it.”
Eckelberry says he’s forwarding his information to the ABO in hopes the industry can work together to show that algae-based biofuels are truly the greenest fuels on the planet.
You can hear my entire conversation with Riggs here:
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