By 2022, the U.S. renewable fuel standard (RFS) calls for annual production of 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, and the USDA is trying to figure out how to get there.

In June 2010, the agency released a strategic report titled “A USDA Regional Roadmap to Meeting the Biofuels Goals of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) by 2022.”  Since then, USDA has collected almost 1,000 comments and conducted 57 stakeholder workshops to help determine whether agriculture and forestry can provide enough feedstock to achieve the RFS goals, provide an estimate of the relative contributions and type of feedstocks different regions could provide; and give an estimate of the financial investment required for advanced biofuel refineries.

This week, USDA released a report summarizing what they have learned from this stakeholder feedback. According to the report, key areas of common interest to all stakeholders included:

Policy Stability. Stakeholders encouraged a greater long-term commitment at the Congressional and Departmental levels to biofuel energy policy so that uncertainty and risks in steady private sector investment could be avoided. Stakeholders were also strongly in favor of complementary legislation and regulation policies, rather than apparent opposing policies. There is a need for clear policy direction, common definitions, and fewer conflicting programmatic and regulatory policies.

Market Development. Increasing consumer awareness and understanding of the benefits from bioenergy can help create demand pull and new markets. Addressing some of the misinformation regarding food and biofuel conflicts would benefit market development.

Complete Economic Analysis. A cost-benefit study for biofuels focusing on energy security, environment, and economic development should be conducted. This analysis would facilitate further development of bioenergy.

Additional Biomass Resources. Biomass for feedstock production can include sugar beets, industrial sweet potato, agricultural and industrial waste, fish waste, algae, municipal solid waste, agricultural waste from Tribal Lands, and other dedicated energy crops not included in the roadmap (e.g., guayule, and jojoba).

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Stakeholders expressed that not all CRP acreage is enrolled as non-productive or marginal lands. For productive lands: while there remains a strong commitment in preserving key conservation and wildlife goals of the CRP, there is room for allowing for penalty-free sustainable harvesting of energy biomass on a more than periodic basis.

Cropping Approaches. Stakeholders urged more analysis on double cropping, intercropping, reserve cropping, and reclaimed land cropping opportunities.

Local Energy.  Bioenergy policies should include a higher number of regionally-tailored approaches and receive federal attention that involves all of America and avoid energy markets dominated by single regions. Examples provided included smaller biorefinery facilities that could reduce the transportation distances of feedstocks and fuels to reduce transportation and delivery costs.

Wood. Stakeholders from major forestry regions of the country believed that a greater recognition of the role of both existing and new woody resources is merited. Interest was strong in ensuring that wood residues are sustainably harvested, and that potential disruption of existing markets be considered. Purpose-grown wood could also be a major contributor in some regions, and significant potential exists for use of wood from forest health and fuel reduction treatments for energy purposes.

Biomass for heat and power. Many stakeholders expressed support for a greater acknowledgement of solid biomass in replacing or displacing fossil fuels for heat and power. This creates additional and possibly competing demand for biomass.

During the stakeholder workshops, organizers asked participants a series of questions regarding different aspects of biofuel production and use. Among these, they asked what issues might deter farmers from growing biofuel crops. Common responses included market risk and the need for guaranteed markets for the crops, the “food versus fuel” issue and environmental protection, management issues and concerns over long-term viability of the biofuels industry.

Asked whether biofuels should be sustainable, about half said yes, with many others apparently unsure how to interpret the term “sustainable.” Asked to define it, most indicated it is the ability to maintain or increase levels of production/harvest for perpetuity. Several others defined it in terms of economic viability and others in terms of environmental quality.

A widely accepted framework for sustainability in agricultural production involves the “triple bottom line” of being economically viable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable. Whether biofuel production can meet those criteria while growing at the rates specified in the RFS remain to be seen.

Read the summary report from USDA.