By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.
On January 13, 2020, U.S. Representative Cindy Axne announced that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has responded to a bipartisan letter submitted by members of the House Biofuels Caucus (HBC) requesting an investigation into misuse of small refinery exemptions (SREs) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Submitted in August 2019, the bipartisan letter requested that GAO examine EPA’s review and approval of SRE waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). HBC’s letter also included a request for inspection of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) viability scores for SREs reviewed in 2018. HBC’s concerns were mostly related to the economic consequences to rural communities due to the exemption of approximately four billion gallons of fuel from the RFS in 2018. In addition to the aforementioned requests, HBC members asked that GAO also consider the following questions:
- Has DOE changed the criteria, the interpretation of the criteria, the methodology, or any other significant aspect of how it makes its recommendations to EPA for SREs?
- Other than the viability score provided by DOE, what other factors are being considered by EPA in awarding SRE waivers? How has this changed since the previous Administration?
- Since the development of DOE’s 2011 methodology, what percentage of applications that received a disqualifying viability score from the DOE were granted?
- How many times has DOE recommended a partial waiver for a refinery?
- Has EPA granted a partial waiver?
- Does EPA or DOE consider the economic viability of the parent refiner company when considering an application from an individual refinery?
- Does DOE take Renewable Identification Numbers (RIN) into account when assessing relief petitions?
On January 10, 2020, GAO responded to the bipartisan request, agreeing to review matters related to the approval of SRE waivers and stating that it will begin its work shortly. Mark E. Gaffigan, Managing Director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment, and his staff will be in charge of the investigation.
In August 2019, Axne had also submitted a letter to EPA’s Acting Inspector General (IG), Charles Sheehan, requesting an investigation of this matter. In its response letter to HBC, GAO stated that it will be in contact with the cognizant IG’s office to ensure that efforts are not duplicated.
By Kathleen M. Roberts
Researchers at the DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are seeking responses to a survey on biorefinery operations. Yimin Zhang, an environmental engineer at NREL, and Marshall Goldberg, a subcontractor for NREL, developed the brief survey to improve the NREL’s understanding of the next generation biofuel industry and its contribution to the local, state, and national economy. Industry stakeholders in the planning, construction, or operation stage of a biorefinery are asked to complete the survey by March 8, 2018. The aggregate data will be used to report the survey results. Individual responses will not be published.
By Kathleen M. Roberts
On January 4, 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the University of Tennessee a $2,994,429 grant to improve biorefinery technologies through the Integrated Biorefinery Optimization (IBO) program. The project aims to develop and commercialize solvent fractionated lignins to polymeric products for their potential market in building and construction sectors. The overarching goal of the research is to develop integrated pathways for the extraction of value-added polymeric products from lignin waste/under-valued stream from biorefineries. The IBO program is coordinated between NIFA and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and funds biorefinery technology development projects that aim to reduce costs and improve performance of integrated biorefineries to enhance U.S. energy security. Funding for the project comes from NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which addresses challenges in food and agricultural sciences through research, extension, and education.
By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.
On October 19, 2017, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), an Associate member of the Biobased and Renewable Products Advocacy Group (BRAG®), announced that it and its member companies sent a letter to the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture requesting the reauthorization of the Farm Bill’s Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Manufacturing Assistance Program (Section 9003). According to the letter, “[s]everal renewable chemical startups and mature chemical companies are waiting to build their first-of-a-kind manufacturing facilities in the United States from homegrown biomass and technologies and will do so with the proper federal policy support.” The letter explained that renewable chemicals provide economic stability for the construction of a biorefinery, since such products generate a higher value than biofuels. Beyond supporting the U.S. manufacturing industry, manufacturing renewable chemicals in the U.S. helps to improve the trade balance, maintain U.S. leadership in renewable energy while reducing dependence on foreign oil, provide value-added crop for products, and create thousands of high quality jobs. BIO and its member companies concluded by urging the Committees “to provide stable mandatory funding for all the core energy title programs that will continue the development of biorefineries, positively impacting the biobased economy and creating thousands of rural jobs.”
By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.
On September 20, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that DOE selected eight projects related to the optimization of integrated biorefineries (IBR) to negotiate for up to $15 million in DOE funding. The projects aim to solve critical research and developmental challenges encountered for the successful scale-up and reliable operations of IBRs, to decrease capital and operating expenses, and to focus on the manufacture of advanced or cellulosic biofuels and higher-value bioproducts.
The eight projects focus on one or more of the following topic areas:
- Robust, continuous handling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks, biosolids, and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and feeding systems to reactors under various operating conditions;
- High-value products from waste and/or other undervalued streams in an integrated biorefinery;
- Industrial separations within an integrated biorefinery (no projects have been selected from this topic area); and
- Analytical modeling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and reactor feeding systems.
The project winners include:
- Thermochemical Recovery International Inc., which will study and improve feedstock and residual solids handling systems targeted to commercial pyrolysis and gasification reactors;
- Texas A&M Agrilife Research, which will work on achieving a multi-stream integrated biorefinery (MIBR), where lignin-containing IBR waste will be fractionated to produce lipid for biodiesel, asphalt binder modifier, and quality carbon fiber;
- White Dog Labs, which will use the residual cellulosic sugars in cellulosic stillage syrup to produce single-cell protein (SCP) for aquaculture feed;
- South Dakota School of Mines, which will demonstrate the cost-effective production of biocarbon, carbon nanofibers, polylactic acid, and phenol from the waste streams generated from the biochemical platform technology;
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which will leverage and extend state-of-the-art modeling and simulation tools to develop integrated simulations for feed handling and reactor feeding systems;
- Clemson University, which will develop analytical tools to identify an optimal IBR process design for the reliable, cost-effective, sustainable, and continuous feeding of biomass feedstocks into a reactor;
- Purdue University, which aims to develop strong, innovative computational and empirical models that rigorously detail the multiphase flow of biomass materials; and
- Forest Concepts, which proposes to develop robust feedstock handling modeling and simulation tools based on systematic analysis.
According to Secretary Perry, “[t]hese projects have the potential to increase the efficiency of producing biofuels and bioproducts, enabling the United States to better utilize its abundant biomass resources, boost economic development, and advance U.S. competitiveness in the global energy market.” The funding opportunity is supported jointly by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
On February 27, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) announced the publication of the Biorefinery Optimization Workshop Summary Report. The report provides an overview of the discussion on industry challenges and opportunities that took place during the October 2016 Biorefinery Optimization Workshop in Chicago, Illinois. The workshop, which comprised a combination of presentations and breakout sessions, focused on feedstock and materials handling; process scale-up, intensification, and cost reduction; and co-product and waste stream monetization. Discussions from the breakout sessions include key findings on best practices, lessons learned, challenges, potential solutions, and resources needed to overcome current challenges.
On January 6, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and USDA announced a $22.7 million funding opportunity to support integrated biorefinery (IBR) optimization, with DOE providing up to $19.8 million and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) providing up to $2.9 million . To date, there are only a limited number of pioneer-scale commercial IBRs in the early stages of start-up and production, due to the technical and non-technical challenges associated with the reliable and continuous operation of IBRs. The funding opportunity will be jointly managed by the DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and USDA-NIFA to address the barriers impeding the wider deployment of highly efficient IBR facilities, including increased capital, operational expenses, and scale-up complications. Projects will be selected from the following topic areas:
|Robust, continuous handling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks, biosolids, and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and feeding systems to reactors under various operating conditions;
|High value products from waste and/or other under-valued streams in an IBR;
|Industrial separations within an IBR; and
||Analytical modeling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks, and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and reactor feeding systems.
The submission deadline for concept papers is February 6, 2017, and the submission deadline for full applications is April 3, 2017.
On July 25, 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published a notice in the Federal Register soliciting applications for Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program (the Program) funding. The Program provides guaranteed loans for projects developing, constructing, or retrofitting commercial scale biorefineries and biobased product manufacturing facilities. The developments must use eligible technology, including new commercial scale processing and manufacturing equipment. There are two application cycles for this notice, with the first application cycle closing on October 3, 2016, at 4:30 pm (EDT), and the second cycle closing on April 3, 2017, at 4:30 pm (EDT).
On June 23, 2016, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) announced $2.4 million in funding to support the development and construction of a biocrude and biofuel laboratory in Queensland. The $5.3 million project is expected to be completed in the spring of 2019 and will be Australia's first biorefinery producing renewable diesel and jet fuel from plant material. Australian companies have produced biocrude in the past but there is currently no commercial scale process to refine the biocrude into useable biofuels. The project by Southern Oil Refining (SOR) will help the Royal Australian Navy follow through on an agreement to explore utilizing more environmentally friendly fuel. Ivor Frischknect, CEO of ARENA, stated of the project: "SOR will carry out testing and reporting to produce valuable knowledge for Australia's bioenergy industry. New protocols for the conversion of biocrudes to drop-in fuels will also be established." This project will inform the future construction of a commercial scale biorefinery.
On March 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's (EERE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) announced a Request for Information (RFI) on integrated biorefinery optimization. The RFI covers information on the technical and financial challenges that biorefineries run into in order to run continuously and reliably. BETO is primarily interested in stakeholder input on systems that use between one and 1,000 dry tonnes per day of feedstock in order to:
- Understand scale-up and mitigate operational risks and challenges;
- Develop robust handling of variable solid materials;
- Improve pre-processing methodologies;
- Advance process intensification focused on simplification; reduce cost through innovative fabrication and construction methods; and/or develop efficient water management techniques;
- Address unique process issues and pathways; and
- Develop strategies to lower capital expense costs by reducing technical risks and ensuring minimum modifications.
The full RFI is available on the EERE Exchange website and responses are due by 5:00 p.m. (EDT) on April 6, 2016.