Compare and Contrast Biofuel Predictions

From the Ethanol Producer Magazine:

For years, cellulosic ethanol has been five years away from commercial viability. With several companies making significant progress in 2010 towards groundbreaking and five expected to be in production, will 2011 be the year that cellulosic ethanol finally makes its commercial debut?

The U.S. EPA, which still projects volumes well below the initial targets, on Nov. 29, announced the final volume requirements for the 2011 renewable fuel standard, with the cellulosic biofuel volume set at only 6.6 million gallons. The EPA named DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC, Fiberight LLC, KL Energy Corp., Range Fuels Inc. and KiOR, a cellulosic diesel fuel producer, as the companies it expects to produce cellulosic biofuels in 2011.

From the chief technology officer of a renewable energy company:

So Congress mandated  in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that we would use 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2010, 250 million gallons in 2011, and then rapidly expand to 16 billion gallons per year by 2022. At the time, I saw a very appropriate analogy that summed up the situation: “It’s like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft. Except we don’t have hovercraft.”

I tried to bring a dose of reality to the debate in this blog. I have worked on cellulosic ethanol myself. I know first hand the challenges. Biomass has low energy density relative to fossil fuels, and thus a conversion facility must have easy logistical access. In most cases, this means that biomass must be sourced close to the facility. This puts some limits on the size of biomass facilities, so they suffer from the lack of economies of scale. I have harped on this logistical issue for years, and a newly released study from Purdue reiterates the points I have made: “Without solving the logistical issues, commercial production of second-generation biofuels will not take place.”

Conclusion – Technological Breakthroughs Can Not Be Mandated

Personally, I don’t believe large-scale commercialization of cellulosic ethanol will ever be viable due to the aforementioned fundamental issues with biomass conversion and efficiency, and will ultimately be relegated to the role of a niche fuel provider

There are still numerous logistical and technological improvements that will be needed before cellulosic ethanol can even be produced on a small scale. This is coming from someone who has worked in the industry for a long time (note to detractors: not an oil industry shill, etc.). The likelihood of ratcheting that production up to the 16 billion gallons eventually mandated by the RFS2 by 2022 (while absorbing some imports from Brazil) seems very small.

And is it worthwhile? The past few years have brought a huge shift against corn ethanol because of the food/fuel problem, environmental issues caused by excessive fertilization, reliance on fossil fuel inputs, debate over actual net greenhouse gas reductions, complications over increasing blends past E10, etc. If the non-ethanol folks are united against the subsidies for corn ethanol, might they realize that the RFS2 isn’t such a good idea either? If subsidies for corn ethanol aren’t a good idea, why are mandates?

Cellulosic ethanol indeed could reduce GHG’s in ways that corn ethanol cannot, though this hasn’t been shown to be possible on a large scale. And there is evidence that it might not be possible — cellulosic ethanol was discovered in the 1800s and commercialization has failed before. The government is conducting science experiments with our money. And when the science experiments don’t produce the intended results, the lobbyists stick around asking for more money and shifting the original expectations.

The ethanol industry is gearing up for battle in 2011. If the wide spectrum of groups have all realized that tax credits for corn ethanol is not a good idea, doesn’t it follow that building out infrastructure is an equally bad idea, if the end result is increased production of corn ethanol?

A take-away quote:

The key, says Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, is educating new legislators about ethanol. “We have to go educate people about the issue and the facts,” he says. “We think if the facts get out there, we win.”

Funny, I could have said the same thing one month ago.