Last week the EPA dismissed a petition by the American Petroleum Institute seeking relief from the cellulosic ethanol mandate, which requires that oil refiners blend 8.65 million gallons of ethanol into the fuel supply by the end of 2012:
“In all cases, the objections raised in the petition either were or could have been raised during the comment period on the proposed rule, or are not of central relevance to the outcome of the rule because they do not provide substantial support for the argument that the Renewable Fuel Standard program should be revised as suggested by petitioners,” EPA told API, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, Western States Petroleum Association, and Coffeyville (Kan.) Resources Refining & Marketing on May 22.
“EPA’s mandate is out of touch with reality and forces refiners to pay a penalty for not using imaginary biofuels,” Bob Greco, API’s downstream and industry operations director, said on May 25. “EPA’s unrealistic mandate is effectively an added tax on making gasoline.”
Greco said the Clean Air Act requires EPA to determine the mandated volume of cellulosic biofuels each year at “the projected volume available.” However, in 2011 EPA required refineries to use 6.6 million gal of cellulosic biofuels even though, according to EPA’s own records, none were commercially available, Greco said.
EPA has denied API’s 2011 petition to reconsider the mandate and continues to require these nonexistent biofuels this year, he indicated. Greco called the action “regulatory absurdity and bad public policy.”
As regular readers of this blog will know, the whole problem with the EPA’s non-flexible mandate is that there is no commercially available cellulosic ethanol, thus making it impossible to meet the mandate. The EPA’s justification for this policy is that they need to maintain an incentive for companies to begin producing cellulosic ethanol, despite many past failures. The oil refiners are also required to purchase these cellulosic ethanol waivers, effectively giving the government money instead of purchasing the non-existent fuel.
How much progress have we made on cellulosic ethanol? Robert Rapier points out that the companies promising the “first commercial cellulosic plant” are about a century too late:
But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945).
To put that in perspective, Iogen claimed in 2004 that they were producing the world’s first cellulose ethanol fuel from their 1,500 gallon per day plant. (While 1,500 gal/day is their announced capacity, if you look at their production statistics they have never sustained more than 500 gallons per day over the course of a year; 2008 production averaged 150 gal/day).
Many companies are in a mad rush to be the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The next time you hear someone say that they will be the first, ask them if they plan to invent the telephone next.
When reading about the potentials of cellulosic ethanol, I find very few optimists who are not financially tied to the industry and the government support that the industry relies on. The timing of government’s attempt to create both supply and demand for a new product was unfortunate, as the mandate began to ramp up significantly during the recession. However, we only have about 10 years until the Renewable Fuel Standard ceases increasing, and we have yet to produce any cellulosic ethanol at all. If you allow for some successes in the next 2-3 years, these will still be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount the government had “mandated” be produced. At the same time, the mandate continues to direct capital towards projects that aren’t competing on the merits of the technology, but are competing for guaranteed returns promised by our government.
It seems that there is little chance that cellulosic ethanol will have a significant effect on our nation’s fuel supply absent unforeseen breakthroughs in their effectiveness. It will still take massive amounts of land to produce the inputs necessary to create cellulosic ethanol, and these inputs must be cheap enough such that they make it into the market place. Check out the rest of Robert Rapier’s post for a back of the envelope calculation on land use with cellulosic ethanol production:
But then Jerry Taylor, who is the co-founder of MFA Oil Biomass provided a follow-up answer: “It takes 1,000 acres even at 12 tons an acre that we produce to produce 1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol based on the known conversion rates today.”
Taking his biomass yield assumptions of 12 tons an acre at face value (I doubt you can consistently get 12 dry tons per acre at large scale; commercial hay production is only around half that), we can do an interesting calculation. One million gallons of cellulosic ethanol has the same energy content as half a million gallons of crude oil. (Ethanol contains 2/3rds the energy of gasoline, but a barrel of crude also produces diesel, jet fuel, and fuel oil). U.S. oil production is presently 6.1 million barrels per day. That is 256 million gallons per day, 10.7 million gallons per hour, or 1 million gallons every 5.6 minutes.
Therefore, taking his yield assumptions at face value, 1,000 acres of land planted in Miscanthus giganteus over the course of a year could produce the energy equivalent of under 3 minutes of U.S. oil production. Of course U.S. oil production does not come close to meeting our needs, so to put it in terms of total U.S. oil demand of 18.7 million bpd, 1,000 acres of Miscanthus would cover 55 seconds of U.S. oil consumption. Since that doesn’t take into account the petroleum that will be required to produce the cellulosic ethanol (e.g., running trucks and tractors), the net number would be even lower.