Steve Kaffka paints an optimistic picture of the future of California biofuels production.

Weather, water availability, and state and federal policies, Kaffka says, will help determine if California agriculture one day serves as a larger biofuels energy producer to help the state achieve a less petroleum-based, renewable energy future.

Kaffka is director of the California Biomass Collaborative, a statewide association of government, industry, environmental groups, and educational institutions administered for the state by the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).

The Collaborative works to enhance the sustainable management and development of biomass in California for the production of renewable energy, biofuels, and products. Kaffka also wears the hat of UC Cooperative Extension agronomist.

Kaffka shared his biofuels insight with Imperial Valley farmers, pest control advisers, and industry members in April. The group stood between experimental plantings of sugarcane and jatropha, several crops under UC testing for biofuels production.

The event, the 2010 Alfalfa, Forages, and Biofuels Field Day, was held at the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in El Centro, Calif.

Kaffka gives the Imperial Valley high marks as a potential site for expanded biofuels production.

“Available solar energy and water make the Imperial Valley one of the prime places in the world where renewable fuels could be produced,” Kaffka said. “The Valley has abundant levels of photosynthetically active radiation and reasonably robust water rights; crucial necessities for biofuels production.”

Federal and state actions are opening the door for biofuels expansion in California. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 passed by Congress requires the annual production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels in the United States by 2022, as quantified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard 2.

“This is a federal mandate; not an option,” Kaffka explained. “Biofuels will play a major role in achieving the nation’s new renewable fuel standards. The federal government will require fuel providers to make renewable fuels available to fuel suppliers."

Of the total U.S. biofuel requirement, Kaffka says corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel could provide 16 billion gallons. The 20 billion balance could come largely from advanced biofuels, deriving ethanol from crops including grasses, jatropha, and sugar crops utilizing cellulosic processing technology.

California will require future fuels that release less carbon into the atmosphere when burned compared to gasoline. Californians use 20 billion gallons of fuel annually; 95 percent is gasoline.

A state objective calls for 20 percent of the fuel for California engines be grown in state by 2020. This swings the door open for California farmers if state policies and politicians back the standard.

An issue that also could spur Golden State biofuels production is the adoption of a California formula which considers the total carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol. It casts an unfavorable eye on the total environmental impact of Midwest-produced corn ethanol.

Some argue that corn removed from the food market for ethanol use has a larger actual carbon footprint than once thought. The viewpoint suggests that corn ethanol’s total carbon footprint must include the carbon required to develop new acreage in the world to grow the corn removed from the food supply by ethanol.

According to a flier handed out by Kaffka, Midwestern corn ethanol has a slightly higher total carbon footprint than gasoline.

“Average Midwestern corn ethanol is essentially identical or even worse than gasoline based on this carbon calculation,” Kaffka said. “You couldn’t blend it with gasoline in California since it doesn’t reduce the greenhouse gas intensity. Midwest corn ethanol would be of no use in California.”

California is the only state in the nation with this regulation.

Kaffka supports California-grown biofuels as a partial answer to the state’s energy needs. He foresees new opportunities for energy crops in the Golden State.

“There is a California public policy desire to develop more California businesses for jobs and other reasons,” Kaffka said.

The Imperial Valley is a good location due to agronomics and weather, says Kaffka, plus a strong rural infrastructure and talented agricultural people.

On the opposing side of the issue lie these questions:

• Would California-grown biofuels would actually lower greenhouse gas emissions?

• Would local biofuel market prices be competitive against other low-carbon energy options including electricity.

• Could farmers make a profit from raw energy crops.

These questions are not yet fully answered, Kaffka says.

Another touchy issue is the ongoing ‘food versus fuel’ debate. Should California, the nation’s top agricultural producer with $36 billion of food and fiber grown annually, shift more acreage from food production to biofuels?

Dan Putnam, UCCE Cooperative Extension forage specialist, says keeping an open mind is important.

“We have to challenge our thinking on agriculture in a globalized economy with big pressures,” Putnam said at the field day.

The world population will increase by one-third, from 6 billion to 9 billion people, in the next 50 years.

“This will have a phenomenal influence on how we use energy and the demand for food,” Putnam said. “We will we have more people in the world and they will seek a good standard of living. They want to have televisions and automobiles. The energy use per person will increase worldwide.”

Putnam says these new demands will challenge agriculture in a new way.

email: cblake@farmpress.com