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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 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!

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