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Report Predicts Shortfall in Cellulosic Biofuels Production

Report Predicts Shortfall in Cellulosic Biofuels Production

Experts say the absence of refineries, low feedstock volumes and federal subsidies for corn-ethanol producers are roadblocks to increased output of cellulosic biofuels.

The U.S. biofuel industry will not meet the cellulosic production requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard without significant advancements in technology or investment, a new report says.

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires that 15 billion gallons (56.8 billion liters) of corn-based ethanol, 1 billion gallons (3.78 billion liters) of biodiesel and 16 billion gallons (60.6 billion liters) of cellulosic fuels be produced annually by 2022.

The report by a National Academy of Sciences committee says the corn-ethanol numbers and biodiesel can be achieved, but the cellulosic-ethanol goals probably cannot.

Purdue University professor of agricultural economics Wally Tyner, who co-chaired the committee, says this is because the corn-ethanol industry has existed for more than 30 years, whereas the cellulosic industry is still very young.

There are no commercially viable biorefineries for cellulosic ethanol today.

“We have more than 200 corn-ethanol plants producing more than 14 billion gallons (53 billion liters) of ethanol today,” Tyner says in a statement.

“It took 30 years to get there. We have 11 years to reach even higher numbers for cellulosic biofuels.

“We would need a build rate three times that of corn ethanol. And with corn, we had the technology, we had the feedstock and prices for corn were relatively low. We don't have any of that with cellulosic.”

The report says another problem is that the amount farmers would need to make a profit on raising cellulosic feedstocks is more than ethanol producers are willing to pay for those feedstocks.

In most cases, the gap is larger than the federal subsidy that goes to producers, which may leave investors nervous about getting into the cellulosic-ethanol industry.

The report also raises questions about the environmental impact of cellulosic biofuels.

Tyner says it's uncertain whether some cellulosic fuels would lower greenhouse gases because of the emissions that would be released when new land is cultivated.

“There are conditions in which you could see us meeting the renewable-fuel standard for cellulosic biofuels, but they require major leaps in technology, substantial increases in oil prices and/or very large subsidies,” he says.