Algae industry counseled on sustainability objectives at summit

By Tom Bryan | September 26, 2012

The algae industry’s ambition to build a global industry that is fundamentally sustainable, safe and responsible was the chief topic of discussion on day two of the 2012 Algae Biomass Summit in Denver.

Keynote speaker L. Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, delivered a thought-provoking message about the role of renewable energy in mitigating global climate change. It was a fitting backdrop to the sustainability focus imbued throughout the ABS program. 

Following Lovins, Jennie Hunter-Cevera of Hunter & Associates outlined the scope and purpose of a yet-to-be-released report on the sustainability of algae biofuels. The report, produced by a multidisciplinary committee of the National Academy of Sciences, attempts to identify potential concerns and unforeseen sustainability challenges for a range of approaches to algal biofuels production. It also explores ways to address those challenges, and suggests appropriate indicators and metrics that can inform future sustainability assessments of algae-derived fuels. “It’s never trivial when you focus on the words sustainability and environmental impact,” said Hunter-Cevera, explaining that the report—two years in the making—is expected to be released this fall. 

Following Hunter-Cevera’s update, Algae Biomass Organization Executive Director Mary Rosenthal moderated a timely discussion on the industry’s resolve to develop responsibly. Joining Rosenthal and Hunter-Cevera were Barbara Bramble of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels; Tony Haymet of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Robert Harriss of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Houston Advanced Research Center.         

Haymet, a physical chemist by training, said he is disappointed with the lack of mobilization by industrialized nations to mitigate climate change. “What we’re up against now is ever more compelling,” Haymet said. “We’re over a 30 percent increase (in ocean acidity) now. Basically there is nothing we can do can stop it from going to a 100 percent rise.”

Haymet said he predicts global tensions to rise over climate change that scientists believe is largely the result of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels in the northern hemisphere. “The geopolitical ramifications of what we’re facing shouldn’t be underestimated,” he warned. “There is increasing discontent worldwide about how the northern hemisphere is killing our atmosphere.”

Bramble characterized a decade of efforts to get Americans and the politicians they elect to care about climate change as “spectacularly unsuccessful,” but she and the sustainable biofuels certification initiative she represents remain intent on effecting change. The RSB is an international initiative that has developed a third-party certification system for biofuels sustainability standards, encompassing environmental, social and economic principles and criteria through an open, transparent and multistakeholder process.

“We require third-party independent certification,” Bramble said. “We don’t qualify anything as good or bad. Even fuels made from corn, palm oil and soy oil are welcome to seek certification. Nobody gets a pass and nobody is prohibited or even discouraged from applying and attempting to gain certification.”

Hunter-Cevera said algae producers should think about sustainability in two different ways: from the standpoint of algae organisms and biology, and from the standpoint of the industry as a whole system. “Whatever is done to the organism should not have an impact on this or future generations,” she said. “And, more broadly, if this industry is going to really be sustainable, I think we need to expand [the sustainability parameters] we’re looking at.”

For algae to achieve its fullest potential, the panelists agreed, today’s producers need to continue to think globally. Particularly, algae production may be a good fit for developing nations that have abundant sunlight but a scarcity of food, feed or fuel. “Clean water, clean air and food: if you have those things, the economy starts to develop [in regions of the world with emerging economies],” she said, referring to the symbiotic roles of sustainability and microbiology in increasing crop yields while using less water and fewer inputs. 

Likewise, Harriss encouraged algae producers to consider technology integrations with existing programs in developing nations such as the cooperative renewable energy concept being developed in northern Africa called Desertec. “It may be possible to bring in algae as a fuel and, more importantly, a source of animal feed. It could be an opportunity for a large-scale integration of an algae system.”

The algae industry is faced with the double-edged sword of fast-growth potential. The panelists told Rosenthal that producers will need to capitalize on growth opportunities as they emerge, but avoid costly missteps that could cause project development delays, or worse, black eyes for the entire industry. “Show that water use is under control, show that invasive species are under control, show that management plans are in place and illustrate where [algae nutrients] are going to come from,” Bramble said.

Haymet agreed, saying that climate change mitigation and renewable energy have suffered undeservedly from minor mistakes that have been effectively magnified by their opponents. “We live in a difficult political climate,” Haymet said. “This industry can’t afford mistakes.” 


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