Cellulosic ethanol falls short
This week a report for the National Academy of Sciences predicts that the mandate for using 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022 will likely fail. Among the reasons: short of a big breakthrough, it will cost more to make than corn-based ethanol. And there’s a big gap between the prices farmers want for feedstocks like corn stover or switchgrass, and how much plants will pay.
"We have more than 200 corn ethanol plants producing more than 14 billion gallons of ethanol today. It took 30 years to get there. We have 11 years to reach even higher numbers for cellulosic biofuels," said Wally Tyner, a Purdue University agricultural economist who co-chaired the committee that made the report. "We would need a build rate three times that of corn ethanol.”
The 2007 energy law’s renewable fuel standard doesn’t give investors much confidence, Tyner told Agriculture.com, since EPA’s power to grant waivers adds uncertainty.
“Overlay on top of that, the current financial crisis,” and investment in cellulosic ethanol likely will remain inadequate to meet the 2022 deadline, Tyner said.
Congress requested the report, Renewable Fuel Standard: Potential Economic and Environmental Effects of U.S.Biofuel Policy. The 650-page report cites hundreds of scholarly papers on the subject, all reviewed by peers of experts.
“Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know,” said Tyner.
Some, including the Environmental Working Group, have used the report to attack biofuels.
"This report highlights the severe damage to the environment from corn-based ethanol," said Sheila Karpf, EWG's legislative and policy analyst. "It underscores just how misguided and U.S. biofuels policy has become. It catalogs the environmentally damaging aspects of corn-based ethanol and also casts serious doubt on the future viability of so-called 'advanced' biofuels made from other sources."
Tyner called that statement “cleverly worded.”
The EWG statement lumps together the report’s findings that corn ethanol can pose environmental disadvantages—although much depends on where and how the corn is grown. But the doubts about the viability of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol are more economic than environmental.
Anyone who digs deeper into the report will see that there are really three sources of ethanol:
The first, ethanol made from corn starch, has questionable environmental effects due to indirect land use changes.