The Big Picture for Biofuels

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Inside this Article

Intro Graphic.
Switchgrass growing.
Ethanol can be made from high-cellulose plants like switchgrass. But will it be financially or environmentally viable?
Commercial ethanol manufacturing.
Huge industrial ethanol plants transform corn and other feedstocks into biofuel.
Biofuel and ethanol filling station.
Ethanol (and biodiesel) pumps are few and far between.
Jars of biodiesel.
Homemade biofuels made from locally sourced waste vegetable oil or other feedstocks are a viable but small part of the alternative fuel solution. Below, biodiesel produced from used cooking oil (left) and virgin canola oil (right).
Intro Graphic.
Switchgrass growing.
Commercial ethanol manufacturing.
Biofuel and ethanol filling station.
Jars of biodiesel.

Once hailed as revolutionary fuels, are ethanol & biodiesel delivering on their proponents’ promises?

It’s been more than four years since George W. Bush told the country that we would soon be using wood chips and switchgrass to fuel our automobiles. Unlike corn-based ethanol—widely considered a disaster for its negative net energy and its effect on global food prices—fuels grown from grass and weeds are more promising. Feedstocks for these newfangled fuels can be grown anywhere—like on highway roadsides instead of precious farmland. According to Bush, 75% of foreign oil imports could be replaced with renewable fuels by 2025.

South Dakota-based POET, the world’s largest ethanol producer, makes even bigger claims—that fuel from biomass can entirely replace all gasoline from imported oil. Yet, POET’s commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant—which aims to produce a relatively modest 25 million gallons of ethanol per year from corn cobs, leaves and husks—has faced delays. (Compare this to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed each year in the United States, and you can understand that’s it’s just a drop in the bucket.) Opening of the plant, dubbed “Project Liberty,” has been delayed, rescheduled for 2012 at the earliest. A half-dozen other high-profile cellulosic ethanol projects, once thought to be imminent, are similarly stalled due to technology challenges or lack of financing.

“This is a hard problem, but that doesn’t often get communicated,” says Jamie Cate, associate professor of chemistry and molecular cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Cate’s research is affiliated with the BP-sponsored Energy Biosciences Institute, which brings together economists, climate scientists, plant biologists, and biochemists to explore the future of sustainable biofuels. Cate’s background is in biomedicine, but after becoming concerned about climate change, he shifted his scientific research to unraveling the mysteries of biofuels.

Biding Time

“We’re doing fundamental science research,” Cate says. “Discoveries that we’re making in the lab now, if they’re useful, are going to take several years to scale.” Cate believes that cellulosic ethanol will just begin to reach commercial scale in five to 10 years. “It could be faster, but I’m not going to bet on it,” Cate says.

The federal government’s timetable for next-generation ethanol is starting to reflect the same sober reality. The Renewable Fuel Standard—created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as the first renewable fuel volume mandate in the United States—called for 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol production for 2010. But when push came to shove, the EPA changed the requirement to 6.6 million gallons per year beginning in 2011. Now, even that goal seems beyond reach.

Not Even Green, As Far As We Know

While we’re waiting for cellulosic ethanol to materialize, the U.S. government continues its support of corn-based ethanol. Between 2005 and 2010, the United States provided more than $22 billion in tax credits for blending ethanol with gasoline, according to The Economist magazine. Trying to figure out what we got for that expense is no easy task.

“Are biofuels green or clean or low-carbon or sustainable or whatever other slogan is popular to attach to them?” asks John DeCicco, senior lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, where he teaches and leads research on sustainable transportation energy and climate issues. “No. The vast majority of biofuel now produced is no greener than the vast majority of current resource-intensive production of any other fuel.”

DeCicco says the big problem is that there’s no systematic tracking of the pollution from either growing corn and soybeans, or from refining those crops into ethanol and biodiesel. DeCicco believes that renewable fuel standards at the federal and state levels are “delusional policy.”

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