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Cellulosic, sugarcane, and biodiesel all get bigger bumps as well

For environmentalists and those pushing for oil independence the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delivered mixed results, in its newly published 2012 alternative fuels targets.

I. New Mandatory Fuel Targets Land

The EPA has been granted the power by Congress to push alternative fuel targets under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), signed into law by President Bush.  The EISA set a hard target of reaching 36 billion gallons of production by 2022.

The EPA's proposed changes are seen below:


Yep, that's right the EPA is quietly bumping its corn ethanol production targets.  

II. Corn Ethanol Bump Sure to Produce Controversy

Of course the EPA also contains much larger increases for cellulosic ethanol/butanol (derived from woody plant waste); biomass-based diesel (e.g. refined spent cooking oil); and "advanced biofuel" (sugarcane ethanol, algal oil, etc.).  

It’s broadly known that corn ethanol both increases greenhouse gas emissions and increases food prices.  On the other hand it does provide a small shred of domestic security by removing some dependence on volatile foreign sources.

Corn ethanol
Corn ethanol is a contentious proposition. [Image Source: Cagle Cartoons]

Generally the mood is shifting against corn ethanol.  The EPA appears to be in the minority of remaining federal supporters.  Congress recently finalized the cut to corn ethanol's tax subsidy.

However, the corn ethanol industry will likely push the issue by simply raising prices to recoup their lost subsidy.  After all, for now the EPA has the right to force importers and refiners to use a certain amount of corn ethanol, regardless of how expensive it is.

III. Numbers Show Hope for Cellulosic Ethanol, Rising Promise of Algal Fuel

One interesting thing in the above figures to note is just how small the cellulosic ethanol market still is.  When the EISA was first proposed, the intended target for this type of biofuel was 250 million -- it's now orders of magnitude smaller.

Cellulosic ethanol
[Image Source: ASPO USA]

Cellulosic ethanol startup companies like Coskata seemed promising, but difficulty in establishing a solid food-chain to deliver biomass stock and finding the funding to scale laboratory work to production-scale designs has led to the great cellulosic ethanol fizzle.

That said, there's still hope for this novel technology, which generally earns praise for turning non-viable biomaterial (woody waste) into fuel.  Unlike the last few years, in 2012 the EPA is actually increasing the cellulosic ethanol target from the prior year (the last few years have been a series of declines).  That could signal the industry is turning the corner.

The steep rise in advanced biofuel also may be coming thanks to the U.S. Navy's deep investment in algal fuel, which cut costs from $424 USD/gallon last year to $26.67 USD/gallon this year.

Looking ahead, there's likely to be a brewing fight over the very large remaining corn ethanol requirement.  One can only hope that Congress doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater and ditch all of the requirements, including those that foster more fundamentally sound alternative fuel technologies like algal biofuel.

Sources: EPA [2012], [2011]

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RE: This statistic is really disturbing
By dgingerich on 12/31/2011 9:11:11 AM , Rating: -1
The fact of the matter is that we have more food producing land in this country than we can use. We're paying farmers to NOT grow food, decreasing our supply and increasing prices in order to keep people from losing their farms. If we can use that extra land for a better use, increasing demand and making full production more viable, like ethanol production, then we had better use it.

Another fact is that the only way we have to make any decent level of inexpensive ethanol is corn. There's no way around it. Cellulosic ethanol and Algal fuel are simply too expensive right now. We need to use corn based ethanol in order to have any alternative to gasoline.

You calling so many other people idiots just because you don't understand reality is not a way to prove you're superior. It just proves you're a bigger idiot than most.

RE: This statistic is really disturbing
By m51 on 12/31/2011 2:40:53 PM , Rating: 5
We do not have a surplus of agricultural land. Certainly not to waste on Biofuels.

To provide enough corn ethanol to fulfill our needs for vehicle fuel would require 6 times the total agricultural land area available in the US. Corn ethanol is very marginal in it's ability to produce fuel efficiently, it uses almost as much energy to produce the fuel as the fuel itself contains.Sugar Cane is 6 times more efficient than corn for ethanol production, but it will not grow in our temperate climate. Even if you could grow it here the land area required and the water needs are not possible to meet.

So it consumes enormous amounts of water and land, causes top soil loss and water pollution, puts an added burden on the tax payers for subsidies, increases vehicle maintenance costs, increases food costs almost across the board, increase fuel costs, all for no added advantage to the environment or the economy.

The only people winning out here are Archer Daniel Midlands corp and ConAgra. To the tune of $6 BILLION dollars a year of taxpayer subsidies. They wield very powerful political lobbies, the Ag-states are always the first to vote in elections and that early vote can be turned into significant political leverage.
The total impact on the economy is many 10's of billions of dollars for almost no discernible benefit.

Biofuels have a very low energy conversion efficiency, roughly around 0.5% of the solar energy is converted to extractable energy sources. We use an enormous amount of energy, to fulfill even a part of that with biofuels requires vast land areas and also enormous amounts of fresh water, which we do not have.

In addition to get high productivity out of the land requires intensive tilling, which causes top soil loss. This is a finite resource, losing 1 inch of topsoil every 5-10 years when it takes 500 years to replace that is not sustainable. We would be sacrificing our future food growing farmland to make biofuels now.

If biofuels are to fill a significant fraction of our energy needs it seems the only scalable and workable direction lies in seawater based algae approaches. Agriculturally farmed biofuels just don't add up in so many ways.

RE: This statistic is really disturbing
By dgingerich on 12/31/2011 3:53:09 PM , Rating: 1
1. I don't believe your "would require 6 times the total agricultural land area available in the US" part. That's totally nonsense.

2. The US Navy seems to be doing so well with Algal fuels at $27 a gallon. I sure don't want to pay that for my car fuel. It's just not feasible right now.

3. do you have a reasonable suggestion, something that preferable costs less than $10 a gallon? The only things we have for this are regular gasoline and corn based ethanol.

4. Greenpeace and The Sierra Club each spend more than twice the money on lobbyists what Conagra and Midlands spend combined. They aren't so powerful. Sure, they get huge subsidies, but they don't spend that much to affect the politics.

When technology catches up, there will be other choices, and they will get there. The market, what people buy and demand, will tell what we use for fuel. When alternatives are available, they will be used, and produced at the rate the market demands. (BTW, suppliers currently have a huge surplus of corn based ethanol because people aren't buying near as much as most people think. It will eventually fail in the market to a better alternative, but not today.)

By Cerin218 on 1/1/2012 10:22:25 AM , Rating: 2
If you understand how business and economy functions, you will realize that business does things for profit. If there isn't a profit, no point. With ethanol, the Fed is paying 6 BILLION dollars a year. If they didn't pay, this wouldn't be done because business has already realized that ethanol is a loss. The environment doesn't win either because ethanol is barely break even on it's environmental impact, most cases it's actually worse then gas. There is NO energy source that has the energy potential, cost, or portability of gas. Period. All of you alt energy people need to realize, that alt energy works great in small things, but is too cost prohibitive large scale. Yes it's fun to experiment, but that's all you are doing is playing around. The business sector has already realized that there isn't a profit in alt energy. You already said that the market and demand will choose. It already has, ethanol is a failure. if it weren't for the 6 billion they get, it would be dead and buried already. When the market wants it, and can sustain it, then we will see alt fuels. Ask Solyndra about alt energy. Alt energy should be explored, but not mandated like the government is doing. You can't artificially create demand for an inferior product.

RE: This statistic is really disturbing
By Solandri on 1/2/2012 1:11:11 AM , Rating: 3
1. I don't believe your "would require 6 times the total agricultural land area available in the US" part. That's totally nonsense.

From the chart in the above article, the U.S. produced about 12 billion gallons of corn ethanol last year.

Close to 40% of the corn produced in the U.S. goes to ethanol.

Corn fields represent about 25% of U.S. agricultural land.

U.S. gasoline demand is about 9 million barrels/day = 138 billion gallons/yr.

Ethanol has about 2/3rds the energy per gallon as gasoline, so replacing 138 billion gallons of gasoline would require 207 billion gallons of ethanol. That would mean increasing current corn ethanol production by 17.25x.

17.25 * 40% of current corn production = 690% of current corn production. That means 6.9x as much land as we use to grow corn today would be needed to produce enough corn ethanol to replace gasoline.

6.9 * 25% = 1.73x all agricultural land would have to be converted into corn ethanol in order to meet the country's gasoline demand with corn ethanol.

I am all for biofuels (it's more practical than PV solar IMHO). But corn ethanol ain't it. Corn ethanol began because the U.S. produces an oversupply of corn. The government doesn't want there to be starvation and food riots if there's a crop failure like in the 1930s. So they deliberately encourage farmers to overproduce via subsidies and price fixing.

Due to the overproduction, there's always lots of corn left over every year. We ship a lot of it overseas as foreign aid. Some government heads were thinking of what else we could do with all that excess corn, and someone said why don't we turn it into ethanol? It's a great idea as long as it's limited to excess corn which would just rot in silos before being disposed. The moment you start producing corn for the explicit purpose of turning it into ethanol, the economics all fall apart. The excess corn has zero opportunity cost - it's free because it'd otherwise be thrown away. But growing corn for ethanol has not just the cost of the corn, but the opportunity cost of not growing other food crops.

Unfortunately, several corn-producing states and company lobbyists got a hold of this. Under the pretense of helping wean us off foreign oil, they've turned this into exactly what it wasn't supposed to be - subsidies for producing corn for the explicit purpose of making ethanol.

By tastyratz on 1/4/2012 9:00:01 AM , Rating: 2
someone who backs up with facts and sources, I think I like you.
If only I could give this post a 7. Sadly environmentalists seem to not be bothered by silly things like facts/math/statistics (unless in their favor)

I hope you don't mind but I am going to share this, good work!

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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