Cellulosic Ethanol Goals Unlikely to be Met, Study Says

On October 7, 2011, in Ethanol, by Maggie Ernst

The federal goals for “cellulosic” ethanol–made from corn cobs, wood chips, and other “biomass”– are almost impossible to achieve unless dramatic technological breakthroughs occur and massive federal subsidies are offered, according to a study by the National Research Council (NRC).

“Absent major technological innovation or policy changes, the . . . mandated consumption of 16 billion gallons of ethanol-equivalent cellulosic biofuels is unlikely to be met in 2022,” said a study by the research council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

The technology for producing fuel from sources such as corn stover has so far failed to scale up to commercial levels despite the ambitious goals set by Congress in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS and RFS2), the study said.

“No commercially viable biorefineries exist for converting lignocellulosic biomass to fuels as of the writing of this report,” it said.  “The capacity for producing cellulosic biofuels to meet the RFS2 consumption mandate will not be available unless innovative technologies are developed that unexpectedly improve the cellulosic biofuels production process.”

Producing ethanol and other biofuels from sources other than grain such as corn is so difficult and expensive.  It would be economically feasible without subsidies only if petroleum costs far more than it does now, perhaps as much as $190 a barrel, the study said.  At lower petroleum prices, “no cellulosic feedstock market is feasible without policy incentives” such as subsidies, the study noted.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack denounced the report, saying it was based on outdated data.  Previously he had announced that USDA was pumping $136 million in grants into various biofuels companies across the country.