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What the World Resources Institute Doesn’t Know About Algae—And Why It Matters.

In a new report, the World Resources Institute attempts to make the case that biofuels should be phased out because using agricultural land for energy will eventually mean we won’t be able produce enough food for growing populations.

The authors, Timothy Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich, examine a number of bioenergy technologies, including algae. Their dismissive findings about algae in no way reflect the realities of today’s algae industry, or its potential to solve the very problems the authors seek to address.  Even worse, they cherry-picked data from other research to draw their own, faulty, conclusions.

The result of these inaccuracies and misreported research make the paper useless to anyone who is in a position to make policy today.  Let’s look at where the researchers got it wrong.

Here, we took a look at the authors’ statements about algae:

WRI is wrong about the sustainability of algae

What they wrote:

“As a recent U.S. National Research Council report concluded, using microalgae to meet just 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel demand ‘would place unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients with current technologies and knowledge.'”

What the report they cite actually said:

“The committee does not consider any one of these sustainability concerns a definitive barrier to sustainable development of algal biofuels because mitigation strategies for each of those concerns have been proposed and are being developed.”

When the NRC report was released ABO detailed how these very challenges were being overcome.

WRI is wrong about water usage

What they wrote:

“One estimate found that twice the present use of U.S. irrigation water would be needed to produce enough biofuel from microalgae to supply 28 percent of present U.S. oil consumption for transportation.”

What the report they cite actually said:

“Assuming that the numerous technical challenges to achieving commercial-scale algal biofuel production can be met, the results presented here suggest that adequate land and water are available to meet a significant portion of the U.S. renewable fuel goals.”

Most importantly, algae can be cultivated on non-arable land and grow in saltwater, so there is a limited impact on valuable freshwater supplies that other forms of agriculture might incur.

WRI is wrong about land use

What they wrote:

“One recent optimistic estimate concluded that “only” 49 percent of total U.S. nonarable land would be needed to replace 30 percent of U.S. oil demand with algae, even assuming no water, nutrient, or carbon dioxide constraints. This is not an encouraging figure.”

What other research shows:

In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that WRI cites we find a statement that offers a different interpretation of their findings:

“A scalability assessment that leverages geographic information systems data to evaluate the current productivity potential from microalgae with global fuel consumption and land availability shows that microalgae can have a positive impact on the transportation energy portfolios of various countries.”

Furthermore, the PNAS study notes that some countries could replace 30% of their petroleum fuel by using less than 2% of their non-arable land. WRI should have noted this fact given that the global oil market is, well, global.

WRI is wrong about co-products

What they wrote:

“Another issue with the use of algae for bioenergy is that it fails to take advantage of the high protein content of many algae or the special properties of algal fats. Although technological breakthroughs might change the prognosis, algal production holds larger potential to produce fish oil substitutes and high protein animal feeds, which take advantage of these properties of algae.”

The facts:

With this statement Searchinger and Heimlich completely ignore a growing number of companies in the algae space, including Cellana, BioProcess Algae, Heliae, Solazyme and many others who are producing algae-derived products for a variety of end markets in food, human health, animal feed and fish feed. Or the fact that the US DOE is funding research and commercialization of integrated biorefineries that can produce food, feed and fuel. And let’s not forget research into cheaper treatments for diseases like cancer.

WRI is wrong about the cost of algae-based fuels

What they wrote:

“If produced in the desert with closed-loop systems or in saline ponds, as some entrepreneurs are pursuing, algae would be able to produce biofuels without competing with carbon storage or food, but at a cost. They might therefore eventually contribute to the supply of low-carbon aviation fuels, but are not likely to be cheap. They are therefore possible energy strategies for the future rather than strategies to pursue at scale today.”

The facts:

WRI uses outdated cost-estimate for algal biofuels of $300-$2,600 per barrel. That was five years ago, and ignores the fact that small investments in algae technology have rapidly brought costs down. The National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and BioProducts (NAABB), a research consortium tasked with advancing technology in algae biofuels reduced the expected cost of a gallon of algae derived fuel from $240 per gallon to about $7.50 in just three years with an investment of less than $70 million. One would expect researchers interested in a fair discussion would have been able to find and cite this research.

WRI is misleading about efficiency

What they wrote:

“Fortunately, a competitor to most applications of bioenergy, solar PV, is already more than 100 times more efficient per hectare at converting sunlight

into energy on most of the world’s land, including the less fertile land that can plausibly be spared from being used to meet other human needs.”

The facts:

It’s ironic that the authors showcase one renewable energy success story in an effort to quash another. It took the solar industry decades and billions of dollars of public and private investment to reach the scale it is today. You simply can’t compare the two industries. It makes us wonder what Searchinger and Heimlich would have reported about the first solar panels decades ago?

 

Regardless, transitioning the 1 billion cars worldwide to electric power will take many decades. By suggesting that we drop our pursuit of sustainable biofuels, these authors implicitly recommend we rely solely on fossil fuels for transportation.

Algae derived gasoline, diesel, ethanol and aviation fuel can work with existing infrastructure, and come with significant advantages that can’t be ignored. Algenol Biofuels’ technology has been shown to reduce greenhouse gases by 69% when compared to gasoline. Sapphire Energy has shown their technology can achieve reductions in the 50-70 percent range.

A wrong, disingenuous and ideologically-motivated report

WRI and the authors are playing a dangerous game by masquerading their personal opinions and biases about biofuels into a trope that purports to be research. As a global research institute, WRI should be embarrassed by the authors’ use of selective facts, omitted counterpoints and incomplete or outdated data. Based on the numerous comments from others who have identified similar errors and omissions in different sections, the veracity of this whole report should be called into question.

The thousands of men and women working in labs, in the field, on the production floor every day to contribute to a more sustainable world deserve more than the shoddy work put forth by WRI. No policy maker should consider this to be a sound and solid policy recommendation.

WRI did not contact the Algae Biomass Organization for a discussion on the state of the algae industry and how it can be leveraged to address the world’s pressing problems. We would welcome that conversation, and look forward to providing information, access to the innovators working hard to commercialize these new technologies, as well as the research community so that the next iteration of WRI’s biofuel report can better inform those that must draft the regulation and legislation that will have an enormous impact on our future.

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