Low-Carbon Cellulosic Ethanol Lags Far Behind Projections as Auto Fuel

The federal government’s complex set of rules meant to spur a renewable fuels industry has fallen behind on one of its main goals: cut greenhouse emissions from gasoline.

Nearly a decade after the rules were drafted, low-carbon fuels have yet to arrive in the quantities established by original goals.

On May 29, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a cut to the amount of corn ethanol oil companies are required to blend with gasoline, as well as ambitious targets for low-carbon cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from grasses and other inedible parts of plants.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), as the ethanol rules are called, mandates oil companies use certain levels of biofuels.

The proposed standard for 2016, the EPA says, amounts to 1.5 billion more gallons of total renewable fuels than the volume actually blended into gasoline in 2014. Still, the proposed level is far short of the levels required by the original mandate passed by Congress.

USDA grass researcher Rob Mitchell inspects a patch of switchgrass planted to produce ethanol. Switchgrass is perennial and drought tolerant, which makes it a good option for areas where it is difficult to grow corn or soybeans.

Grant / Gerlock

USDA grass researcher Rob Mitchell inspects a patch of switchgrass planted to produce ethanol. Switchgrass is perennial and drought tolerant, which makes it a good option for areas where it is difficult to grow corn or soybeans.

Almost all ethanol made in the U.S. currently is produced from corn. But to grow more grain, farmers plowed up a lot of pasture, which has led some researchers to say the carbon savings have been cancelled out.

Initially, corn ethanol was meant as a bridge to low-carbon fuels like cellulosic ethanol. The new proposal cuts the amount of corn ethanol required in the RFS, a controversial proposal in Corn Country. For that reason, the National Corn Growers Association decried the proposal.

Wally Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, said that while corn ethanol industry has hardly missed a beat, at least up until now, cellulosic ethanol is losing investment.

“Put yourself in the position of an investor. The only thing that makes your investment viable is a government mandate for that product,” Tyner said. “Are you willing to put $400 million on the line that that government mandate is always going to be there?”

The problem with the mandate is that oil companies say they can’t use as much ethanol as the law requires. They’re lobbying the EPA to cut the RFS, while ethanol companies are fighting to keep it intact. Meanwhile, the drama is scaring off investors.

In 2014, the U.S. produced just a fifth of the cellulosic ethanol originally called for by the RFS.

Large-scale plants in Iowa have come online to make cellulosic fuel from corn stalks. One in Kansas uses wheat straw. All in all, however, the renewable fuel that was supposed to tip the scale on greenhouse emissions barely registers today.

“We’re not there yet, technically or economically,” Tyner said, “but if there is to be growth, that’s where the growth will be.”

Investors could bolster support for cellulosic ethanol. Analysts say that is only likely to happen if they’re given firm assurances from the EPA about the direction of federal ethanol policy.

Jeremy Martin with the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks investors will come back if they know what they were dealing with. Clear EPA policy goes a long way.

“Even if it’s not what they’d hoped for, at this point, you just need to know where you stand so you can make decisions about how to move forward,” Martin said.

That’s not good enough for Michael McAdams of the Advanced Biofuels Association. He says the law will never go beyond corn unless Congress rewrites it to favor lower carbon fuels.

“I mean, if what we were trying to do with this policy in 2007 was encourage this advanced industry, the current policy’s not doing the job and the numbers reflect that,” McAdams said.

There have been proposals in Congress to change the RFS, and a few that would repeal it entirely, but none of them appear to be going anywhere soon.

That leaves the EPA’s RFS mandates as the signal the industry is looking for. With a vote of confidence for cellulosic ethanol, energy crops other than corn may find traction.

Rob Mitchell, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher working on crops for cellulosic ethanol, sees an industry in transition. He studies the use of switchgrass for energy.

“The unknown is, ‘Where do you sell it?’” Mitchell said. “The market for cellulosic ethanol just isn’t there yet. If you want a farmer to do it, it’s got to pay the bills and we’re fully aware of that.”

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Inside Energy’s Emily Guerin contributed to this report.

One thought on “Low-Carbon Cellulosic Ethanol Lags Far Behind Projections as Auto Fuel

  1. There is a pretty significant error in the numbers reported when you say “In 2014, the U.S. produced just a fifth of the cellulosic ethanol originally called for by the RFS.”
    The RFS originally called for 1.75 billion gallons of cellulosic bio fuel. In 2014 there were 683,643 gallons of Cellulosic ethanol – or about 0.04% of the cellulosic ethanol envisioned. Even if one includes the newly approved “Renewable natural gas” (not envisioned under the original RFS-2) – brings the total (with cellulosic ethanol) to 32,984,942 Cellulosic Biofuel (D3) RINs – or 1.88% of the cellulosic biofuel originally called for by the RFS.

    A far cry from “just a fifth of the cellulosic ethanol originally called for by the RFS”.

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