Purdue to lead second-generation biofuels impact analysis

By Kris Bevill | November 11, 2009
Report posted Nov. 24, 2009, at 4:37 p.m. CST

Purdue University has been awarded a $933,000 USDA grant to conduct analysis of the global impacts of second-generation biofuels. According to Tom Hertel, ag economics professor at Purdue University and project co-investigator, the team's research will be a continuation of previous work conducted on policy alternatives and global land use impacts of first-generation biofuels.

"Our work on first-generation biofuels was quite controversial," he said. "We were too small on some numbers for the environmentalists and too big for the industry, so we probably got it about right. [But] it's important that we bring the best science to the question and that's our goal here."

The two-year project, titled "Analysis of the Global Impacts of Second Generation Biofuels in the Context of Other Energy Technologies and Alternative Economic and Climate Change Policy Options," will be jointly conducted by Purdue, the University of Illinois and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

According to Hertel, the first objective of the project is to determine how second-generation biofuels compare with other energy technologies in terms of water demand. "One of the important things about second-generation biofuels is that water demand can become quite important," he said. "Dedicated fuel crops, for example, can be quite thirsty. So far, we've only focused on competition for land, that the idea that there might be competition for water is additionally quite important."

The second project goal is to evaluate the technical and economic potential of second-generation biofuels compared with other technologies under alternative policy regimes, such as carbon pricing, government subsidies and mandates. Third, researchers will estimate how feedstock production could affect food and feed crop production and prices.

The research team plans to integrate three analytical models into its project. Purdue will contribute its Global Trade Analysis Project model, which is a tool used to estimate global trade and land use impacts. Brookhaven will provide its energy technology perspectives model to compare the various technologies considered in the project. Finally, the University of Illinois has developed a global water simulation model that can be used to simulate water supply and demand constraints.

Project leader Wally Tyner, ag economics professor at Purdue, said this will be the first time an integrated analysis of biofuels will be attempted. "This research is quite unique as no one has ever attempted to build an integrated framework for biofuels analysis encompassing land, water, detailed specification of alternative technologies, and global production, consumption and trade," he said. "The results will provide true systems analysis of biofuels options and how they compare with other energy pathways."

Tyner states in the project proposal that the team will evaluate alternative biofuels policy alternatives as well as current policies, which could prove to be one of the project's most critical research contributions. "It appears that second-generation biofuels likely will not emerge in the current policy environment," Tyner stated. "Thus, to achieve the economic and environment benefit promise of second-generation biofuels, it will be necessary to have a new set of policies that will reduce market uncertainty sufficiently to induce the required private sector investment for the industry to become established and develop."