Engineering Management & Systems Engineering;
School of Engineering & Applied Science

GW Students Participate in Conference on the Ecological Dimensions of Biofuels

A number of GW environmental management students participated in conference on the ecological .dimensions of biofuels that was held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC on March 10, 2008. The conference, hosted by the Ecological Society of America, featured presentations by leading scientists on sustainable development and the use of biofuels, as well as the social, biogeographic, land use, and biodiversity considerations involved in biofuels use.

The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Jose Goldemberg, Co-President of the Global Energy Assessment (GEA) Council .and Professor at the Universidade de Sao Paulo. Dr. Goldemberg recently served as Secretary for the Environment of the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dr. Goldemberg and other speakers addressed the ecological dimensions of alternatives for crop selection and production, harvest and transport of the product to refineries, and called for the assessment of the sustainability of alternative biofuel production systems, in order to maximize the potential for developing truly sustainable scenarios.

Other speakers indicated that supplying the emerging biofuels industry with enough biomass to .meet the U.S. biofuel energy target – replacing 30 percent of the current U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels by 2030 – will have a major impact on the management and sustainability of many U.S. ecosystems. Biofuels have great potential, but the ecological impacts of their development and use must be examined and addressed if they are to become a sustainable energy source.

Biomass extraction and the byproducts of biofuel manufacturing will directly affect ecosystems in many ways. Much of the biomass needed for biofuel production will be supplied by croplands. Marginal croplands will be farmed more intensively and previously unfarmed areas will be brought into production.

As this happens, the U.S. landscape will change. Current technologies emphasize use of annual and perennial grains. However, crop “leftovers,” such as corn husks and wheat straw, and fiber from perennial crops such as switchgrass are likely to contribute as well. The exact mix will depend on a number of factors including emerging technologies, market prices, and policy incentives. That mix will have a major impact on both the long-term sustainability of the biofuel enterprise and on the underlying health of U.S. ecosystems.

Speakers emphasized need to carefully examine the tradeoffs of the impacts with the benefits associated with biofuel development to avoid damage to soil and water resources.