Nature’s Blueprint for Renewable Energy

Posted on January 30th, 2015

Energy is important to society, and we have accomplished a lot by harnessing energy in beneficial ways. It is even impressive what we have accomplished in the singular pursuit of energy, itself. From immense floating oil rigs that drill thousands of feet below the sea floor to hydraulic fracturing techniques that literally pulverize the bedrock beneath our feet to release ancient stored methane; we have focused a lot of innovation exploiting a single form of energy – that being fossilized carbon. As we begin to understand the global environmental consequences of reliance on fossil fuel, it behooves us to step back and consider other energy options that are available to us.

As we observe the natural world, we actually find a world of abundant energy above ground without the exploitation of fossil fuels. The natural world is powered predominantly by the sun. The sun powers the wind and the weather. The sun powers the hydrologic cycle, the rain, and ultimately powers all of the rivers on Earth. All life on Earth is powered by the sun. Plants convert solar energy into stored energy in biomass. All the energy consumed by animals comes from plants or other animals that ate plants, and it all comes from the sun. The amount of solar energy that falls on planet Earth each day is thousands of times more energy than we consume. The energy is abundant. We merely need to get better at harnessing that abundant energy.

nbb_blog_natures-blueprint_300x420_01We are making inroads to capture solar energy using photovoltaic, thermal, wind, wave, hydroelectric and other methods. The challenge facing these forms of energy capture is how to store energy, particularly for mobile uses. As it turns out, nature has a solution to that, too. Nature has given us a blueprint for storing solar energy. That blueprint is best exemplified in a plant. Plants invest in seeds. A seed contains a protein packet including genetic material to grow a new plant. Seeds also contain an energy supply to power the seed to grow into a new plant. Once mature, that new plant will use leaves and photosynthesis to capture its own energy from the sun, but until those solar-collecting leaves are operational, it needs its own onboard source of energy. The survival of the species depends on a mobile storage device for solar energy. Each species has evolved with its own method of storing energy. Every seed has its own onboard fuel tank. Some plants store energy in sugars or starch. Plants that store energy in oil are interesting to us, because these oils are very similar to the oil upon which we base our conventional transportation fuel.

Nature has done most of the work for us in producing oilseeds for use as energy. But that’s not all. We have long ago learned how to harness the power of plants to grow food. What we grow for food depends largely on local growing conditions, but also on which plants produce an economically valuable crop. The most valuable crops are those that overproduce the commodities we desire. Sometimes we find value in fibrous parts of plants, but often it is the seeds that are valuable because of their rich stores of protein and energy. While plants evolved individually to satisfy the survival of their own species, we have harnessed plants for own needs. It just so happens that the ratio of protein to energy in an oilseed crop like soybeans is different than the ratio of protein to energy that we require as food for humans or for livestock. So, when we harvest a soybean crop, we satisfy our demand for protein; we satisfy our demand for food energy; and we have energy product left over.

This was the genesis of the biodiesel industry. Soybeans came into popularity in the US as a rotational crop in the middle of the last century. By the 1980’s soybean production in the US had gotten so efficient, that the surplus of oil was readily becoming apparent and problematic. The need to diversify markets and find new uses for this surplus oil spawned the US biodiesel industry. The US biodiesel industry has proven to be a very effective safety valve to rid the markets of excess oil. This actually makes protein food cheaper, because protein consumers don’t have to pay for the production of unwanted oil.

While soybean production worldwide continues to increase to satisfy demand for protein, it does not make sense to grow more soybeans solely for energy production. Doing so would oversupply the protein market and quickly become uneconomical for everyone. The answer to our energy crisis is not specifically growing more soybeans. The answer is following this blueprint in as many instances that make sense. Many of these are yet to be discovered, but may be just over the horizon if we continue to innovate in renewable fuels. Soybeans provide an excellent case study, because they are a very efficient crop that fix their own nitrogen. They have a mature industry that optimizes yield and distribution, and they produce protein at a 4-to-1 ratio to energy. Other oilseeds can compete in regions where they are best suited to local growing conditions or to meet specific markets for slightly different oil or protein characteristics. Nor is this blueprint limited to oilseeds. Sugars and starches can also be turned into transportation fuel with slightly more processing, and optimism abounds that we will soon be able to convert fibrous cellulosic material into fuel, as well.

nbb_blog_natures-blueprint_300x225_01We can learn from the natural world that solar energy abounds and lies waiting for us to discover how to use it more effectively. We also learn from the natural world the value of diversity. The natural world does not consist of just one kind of plant. The food chain is actually a food web. And so, diversity must also be part of our blueprint for energy. The biodiesel industry is following this blueprint by growing through diversification. We have put out the call for more diverse feedstocks. Emboldened by our success producing biodiesel from surplus soybean oil, we are seeking other fats and oils that we can use to displace fossil fuel. Innovators and researchers are already responding. Every year the biodiesel industry grows, we grow by increasing the diversity of feedstocks. 2013 was a record year for the biodiesel industry. According to USEPA, more than 1.8 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel participated in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. This represented 55 percent growth over the previous record production years. While soybean oil utilization increased 14 percent, the utilization of wastes and other new feedstocks increased by 85 percent. These include used cooking oil, animal fats, and a new product called distillers’ corn oil.

Distillers’ corn oil offers a perfect example of how successful policy to pursue renewable fuels results in innovation. Distillers’ corn oil did not exist as a product on the market prior to biodiesel industry growth. This oil is now being extracted from the distillers’ grain byproduct of ethanol production and constitutes 15 percent of US biodiesel production.

The US biodiesel industry set a goal to displace 5 percent of US diesel fuel by 2015. We have proven that goal to be achievable, and have set our sights on displacing 10 percent by 2022. We invite other industries to follow nature’s blueprint for energy and help us bring more diversity to our energy portfolio. Society has a dire need for sustainable energy. We have proven that we can accomplish great things through the use of energy and in pursuit of energy. Let’s focus our innovation on harnessing the abundance of solar energy.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.

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