Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ambitious biofuel mandate may do more harm than good

An article in this week’s Nature pokes holes in the biofuel mandate included in last year’s Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) on the basis that the mandate “intended to convince technologists that a substantial market was guaranteed.” In reality, it seems the mandate was so aggressive that biofuel investors, seeing the overstretch and expecting the US to make modifications to the mandate, are reluctant to proceed throwing their cash around. The mandate, as we know, called for production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. Beginning in 2016, 3 billion of those gallons are to come from ‘advanced’ sources (cellulose, wood chips, algae, pixie mucus, etc.) and ramped up quickly to 21 billion gallons by 2022. Also included in the EISA were instructions to the EPA to develop regulations assigning each alternative fuel source a specific lifecycle greenhouse-gas emission reduction value over traditional fuels. The specific target for cellulosic ethanol was set in the EISA at a value of 60 percent lower emissions and, apparently, meeting that target rides completely on how the EPA will calculate carbon emissions. Will they include potential indirect land-use impacts from agricultural expansion and other unintentional, yet detrimental, effects to carbon reduction?

Traditional corn-ethanol production, of course, has been booming – 11 or so billion gallons this year and 13 billion or so by 2009. By 2010, corn-ethanol will have already saturated its maximum (14 billion gallons) called for in the EISA. Cellulosic ethanol is essentially nonexistent at the moment, technologies are still in their infancy, industrial-scale ‘advanced’ plants are still in the distant future and will require massive investment, and biofuel investors are cautious to make strides until hearing the EPA’s verdicts. Until then, many expect a refining of the original biofuel mandate and don’t expect the cellulosic mandate to be met anytime soon.

Ho ho ho,


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