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For analyzing sustainability of algal biofuels, we identify 16 environmental indicators that fall into six categories: soil quality, water quality and quantity, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and productivity. Indicators are selected to be practical, widely applicable, predictable in response, anticipatory of future changes, independent of scale, and responsive to management. Major differences between algae and terrestrial plant feedstocks, as well as their supply chains for biofuel, are highlighted, for they influence the choice of appropriate sustainability indicators. Algae strain selection characteristics do not generally affect which indicators are selected. The use of water instead of soil as the growth medium for algae determines the higher priority of water- over soil-related indicators. The proposed set of environmental indicators provides an initial checklist for measures of biofuel sustainability but may need to be modified for particular contexts depending on data availability, goals of the stakeholders, and financial constraints. Ultimately, use of these indicators entails defining sustainability goals and targets in relation to stakeholder values in a particular context and can lead to improved management practices.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aims to displace 30% of the 2004 gasoline use (60 billion gal/yr) with biofuels by 2030 as outlined in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which will require 700 million tons of biomass to be sustainably delivered to biorefineries annually. Lignocellulosic biomass will make an important contribution towards meeting DOE’s ethanol production goals. For the biofuels industry to be an economically viable enterprise, the feedstock supply system (i.e., moving the biomass from the field to the refinery) cannot contribute more that 30% of the total cost of the biofuel production. The Idaho National Laboratory in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of California, Davis and Kansas State University are developing a set of tools for identifying economical, sustainable feedstocks on a regional basis based on biorefinery siting.
The DOE Biomass Program recently implemented the Biofuels Initiative, or 30x30 program, with the dual goal of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil by making cellulosic ethanol cost competitive with gasoline by 2012 and by replacing 30 percent of gasoline consumption with biofuels by 2030. Experience to date with increasing ethanol production suggests that it distorts agricultural markets and therefore raises concerns about the sustainability of the DOE 30 X 30 effort: Can the U.S. agricultural system produce sufficient feedstocks for biofuel production and meet the food price and availability expectations of American consumers without causing environmental degradation that would curtail the production of both food and fuel? Efforts are underway to develop computer-based modeling tools that address this concern and support the DOE 30 X 30 goals. Beyond technical agronomic and economic concerns, however, such models must account for the publics’ growing interest in sustainable agriculture and in the mitigation of predicted global climate change. This paper discusses ongoing work at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies that investigates the potential consequences and long-term sustainability of projected biomass harvests by identifying and incorporating “sustainable harvest indicators” in a computer modeling strategy.


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