The Big Picture for Biofuels: Page 2 of 3

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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.

Corny Ethanol

Speaking at a November 2010 green energy conference in Greece, former vice president Al Gore says his past support for corn-based ethanol had been just plain wrong. “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee,” Gore says, “and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.” Gore admitted that once subsidies are in place, it’s difficult to stand up to “the lobbies that keep it going.”

Gore is not alone in finally abandoning the cause of corn ethanol. In 2006, General Motors launched its “Live Green, Go Yellow” campaign, which pushed flex-fuel vehicles that can run on E85, a liquid blend made up of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. They’ve since focused on their new “green” vehicle—the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid car that works mostly like an electric vehicle. Why the shift? Besides the questionable energy benefits of corn ethanol production, drivers pumping E85 personally pay an economic penalty at the pumps: Ethanol has two-thirds of the potential energy of gasoline—meaning a reduction in mpg. Even if the price of E85 at the pump is cheaper than gasoline, using ethanol may not be less expensive in the end.

Moreover, gas stations offering E85 are few and far between. The Department of Energy lists more than 2,000 E85 stations in the United States, but most of those are in five states: Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The number of states offering E85 pumps is steadily growing, but to put things in perspective, there are more than 150,000 stations nationwide selling gasoline.

To make matters worse, since 1985, automakers have been allowed to assign flexible-fuel vehicles higher fuel economy ratings under the government’s CAFE fuel economy regulations. That’s regardless of whether or not the vehicles are ever filled with E85. The flex-fuel credit means the CAFE fuel economy number for a large SUV might get inflated. Ultimately, the E85 CAFE loophole puts more gas-guzzlers on the road, consuming extra gallons of gasoline than the use of E85 was intended to reduce.

Think Small & Local

Images of an oversized SUV with a corncob stuffed into its gas tank have been replaced with sleek photos of the Chevy Volt. In fact, the entire auto industry has shifted its green efforts to vehicle electrification, and has mostly resisted efforts to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline blends. That didn’t stop the EPA from giving the green light in October 2010 to increase the ethanol in our national gasoline supply from 10% to 15%.

At the E15 announcement, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled a $461 million program to pay up to 75% of farmers’ costs in growing and harvesting biomass for use in nearby cellulosic ethanol plants; funding for 10,000 new ethanol fuel pumps at a total cost of $250 million; and a call for sufficient federal assistance to build at least one new cellulosic ethanol plant in each region of the country in 2011.

Lobbyists and special interests aside, DeCicco says there is one type of biofuel still worth considering: fuels made from wastes that would otherwise be discarded, namely biodiesel. “That’s good news for the home-brew energy crowd,” says DeCicco. “If you brew it yourself from stuff that would’ve gone to waste, then it can be a net gain for the environment.” 

Craig Reece agrees. He is the owner of Berkeley, California-based PlantDrive, one of about a half-dozen companies that makes kits to convert diesel-engine cars to run on filtered, discarded vegetable oil. 

Reece is also a vocal advocate of producing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil (WVO). “That oil was already used for making french fries by the time we get our paws on it,” says Kumar Plocher, president of Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, California. His company is basically in the recycling business—collecting WVO from more than 1,100 restaurants in Northern California, processing it into biodiesel, and delivering it back to local users.

“I think that biodiesel, particularly if it’s made from waste vegetable oil instead of virgin soy, is very viable,” Reece says. If you get a diesel-engine vehicle and run it on biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil rather than virgin soy, you’re doing a whole lot for the planet, probably more than somebody driving a hybrid.”

Reece argues for those people who don’t want to spend $20,000 or $30,000 for a brand new EV, but who have time to pick up discarded restaurant oil and filter it, saying they “come out way ahead.” With the recent jump in fuel prices, there’s more competition for restaurant oil, but there’s still plenty to go around because of the economic recession. “There are fewer players now, because 2010 shook out a number of biodiesel companies,” Plocher says.

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