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Renewable Fuel Standards Fall Far Short Of Non-Corn Ethanol Goal


Big square baler harvesting wheat straw for production of cellulosic ethanol

Big square baler harvesting wheat straw for production of cellulosic ethanol

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The Environmental Protection Agency released its 2012 Renewable Fuel Standards on December 28, a month after they were due and with a drastically lower target for the amount of ethanol derived from non-corn sources than Congress originally called for four years ago.

The new renewable fuel standards anticipate the production of 8.65 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be blended with other, petroleum-based transportation fuel in 2012. Cellulosic ethanol is derived from inedible plant matter such as switchgrass, wood chips and wheat straw, producing at least 60 percent less greenhouse case emissions than petroleum-based fuels.

But while the 2012 standards may sound like they call for a significant amount of cellulosic ethanol production, at 10.45 million ethanol equivalent volume, it is nowhere close to the 500 million ethanol-equivalent gallons of cellulosic ethanol outlined for 2012 by Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

“We are indeed projecting the volume of cellulosic biofuel production for 2012 at significantly below the statutory applicable volume of 500 million gallons,” the EPA comes right out and admits in its full report on the standards.

Congress sought to have 3 percent of the nation’s total renewable fuels come from cellulosic ethanol in 2012, but now the EPA says the industry will only be able to produce enough over the course of the year to account for 0.006 percent.

Corn Ethanol Pump

Corn Ethanol Pump

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The move was scarcely a surprise given that the EPA has revised its projections for cellulosic ethanol downward significantly every year for the past three years, as the advocacy organization the Environmental Working Group pointed out in a blog post blasting the decision.

“As the hope for a future of truly sustainable biofuels fades, King Corn has a firm grip on the US biofuel throne,” wrote the Environmental Working Group’s Sheila Karpf.

Indeed, Congress felt comfortable enough with the state of the corn-based ethanol industry to adjourn for the year without renewing a 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit on corn-based ethanol production.

Meanwhile, the EPA blames the cellulosic ethanol shortcoming in 2012 on “individual producers’ production plans,” and includes in its assessment “all potential production sources by company and facility…sources that were still in the planning stages, those that were under construction, and those that are already producing some volume of cellulosic ethanol, cellulosic diesel, or some other type of cellulosic biofuel.”

To be fair, the EPA’s assessment only found six total sources of domestic cellulosic biofuel production in the U.S. The most productive of them, KiOR in Columbus, Mississippi, is anticipated to produce 4.8 million gallons of ethanol-equivalent cellulosic gasoline and diesel in 2012, accounting for nearly half of the EPA’s total.

Biofuel crops (photo: Texas A&M University biofuels research alliance)

Biofuel crops (photo: Texas A&M University biofuels research alliance)

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KiOR in February sought a $1 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy for a new facility under the same program that backed Solyndra, but withdrew its application several months later, saying it would be able to find funding from the private sector in 2012.

Still, the EPA patted itself on the back for coming up with a way to make up the difference of 490 million gallons less in cellulosic ethanol by substituting other “advanced biofuels” — all other renewable fuels not produced from corn, including biomass-based diesel and sugarcane ethanol.

“We continue to believe that there will likely be sufficient volumes of advanced biofuels to meet the need for 490 million ethanol-equivalent gallons,” the EPA stated in its report.

However, the EPA also admits that a majority of this difference will likely be made up by imported sugarcane ethanol from Brazil, totaling 2 billion gallons of advanced biofuels in 2012, the same amount called for by Congress in 2007.


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