Best of the West: Biofuels take off; A new wildland fire strategy; Commercial-scale geothermal lithium extraction; Gene-edited meat; and mountain lion gardeners

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 1, 2023. (Photos courtesy of NASA/JPL).

Biofuels have long been billed as a sustainable substitute for liquefied fuels like gasoline and jet fuel, but the market has been slow to adopt them. However, recent commitments from major airline companies and power utilities looking to reach their zero-emission goals have caused many western states to ramp up production. Some have even invented entirely new means of production.   

After signing deals with Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, Gevo is about to complete its first commercial-scale sustainable aviation fuel facility, Net-Zero 1, in Lake Preston, South Dakota. Every year, the plant will use around 38 million bushels of corn to produce around 60 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, 800,000 gallons of renewable diesel, and 4.4 million gallons of renewable naphtha. The plant will also produce low-carbon protein, feed, and vegetable oil. Green Plains, a Nebraska-based biofuels company, signed a similar partnership with United Airlines to develop and commercialize Sustainable Aviation Fuel that uses ethanol as a feedstock.

Par Pacific Holdings, Inc., the parent company of oil refinery Par Hawaii, announced plans to invest $90 million to develop Hawaii's largest liquid renewable fuels manufacturing facility at its Kapolei refinery. The project — slated to be commissioned in 2025 — is expected to produce approximately 61 million gallons each year of renewable diesel, sustainable aviation fuel, renewable naphtha, and liquified petroleum gases, according to the announcement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted $3 million to Washington-based Tidewater Transportation and Terminals Inc. to develop a major biodiesel production and distribution hub at its Snake River terminal in Pasco, Washington. The new biodiesel hub not only will help farmers lower carbon emissions while harvesting wheat, barley, and potatoes, but also provide fuel to gas stations for diesel freight trucks and construction equipment. Tidewater also plans to make fuel available to BNSF Railway to reduce its emissions. Once complete, Tidewater will have a dedicated truck bay for biodiesel blending and neat (pure, unblended) biodiesel, plus a biodiesel pipeline serving BNSF’s Pasco rail yard.

But biofuels are about more than just transportation.

Hat Creek Bioenergy broke ground on a first-of-its-kind power generating facility in California that will burn wood waste from the surrounding forest to generate electricity for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The $25.7 million plant will generate about 3 megawatts of power, enough to power about 3,000 homes.

In the hope of incentivizing similar projects, lawmakers in Washington have voted to reinstate tax breaks for Washington businesses that use or sell hog fuel, a mixture of wood waste that is burned to produce energy.

The industry is also starting to make biofuels from all kinds of different organic materials, which could make it even more sustainable.

Divert is building a food waste recovery plant in California that will turn unsold food from supermarkets, retailers, restaurants, and manufacturers into natural gas that can be used to power homes and businesses. The company is working to tackle the 30% to 40% of food produced nationally that winds up in landfills. Once fully operational, the Turlock plant should process some 100,000 tons of wasted food each year. The company has partnered with PG&E, and once up and running, the Turlock plant should make enough natural gas to fuel about 3,000 homes per year.

Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory genetically engineered duckweed plants to produce seven times more oil per acre than soybeans—currently the most commonly used biodiesel-producing plant. Duckweed is among the world’s most productive plants per acre, and the researchers suggest it could be a game-changing renewable energy source due to the fact that it grows in water, o it wouldn’t compete with food crops for prime agricultural land and can thrive in agricultural pollution from, say, pig and poultry farms—potentially cleaning up some of the nitrogen and phosphorus such farms release into the water.

Wildland Fire Management Strategy: The Wildland Fire Leadership Council released an addendum update of its National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy that includes a new vision and goals, as well as four new critical emphasis areas and five new key implementation challenges. 

Geothermal lithium extraction: Controlled Thermal Resources, which has been operating a small geothermal plant on the Salton Sea in California, said it has boosted efficiency to the point where it will now begin construction on one of the first commercial-scale geothermal lithium extraction plants in the world.

Better weather forecasting: Researchers at Colorado State University will lead a NASA mission to provide never-before-seen data that should make weather forecasting more reliable. The mission is called the Investigation of Convective UpdraftS (INCUS) and will be will use radar to observe thunderstorms worldwide and watch how air and water particles interact in the upper atmosphere to create them.

Gene-edited meat: Washington State University is the first university to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to produce gene-edited meat for human consumption. Head researcher Jon Oatley called it a landmark for introducing biotechnologies into animal agriculture, which is essential for producing more resilient protein sources in the face of climate change and a growing human population.

Mountain lion gardeners: A recent study conducted south of Yellowstone National Park by scientists from the big cat conservation group Panthera, shows how mountain lions provide nutrients to the soil by killing large ungulates. “We estimated that each mountain lion in our study system created approximately 482 ephemeral hotspots of nutrient rich soils over a 9-year lifespan, and that each year, 12 resident mountain lions produced 101,736 kg (224,290 pounds) of carrion, a mass comparable to that of a blue whale.”

“This study really does an amazing job revealing yet another layer displaying the importance of mountain lions to ecosystem function,” Munson said. “This also reminds us to value the mountain lion more, as it is often regarded as potential threat to ungulates or a nuisance animal instead of the ecosystem engineer that it is.”

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