Friday, April 1, 2011

Obama's Pipe Dream: Cellulosic Ethanol

"Another substitute for oil that holds tremendous promise is renewable biofuels – not just ethanol, but biofuels made from things like switchgrass, wood chips, and biomass."---President Obama March 30, 2011

Let's look back and see how we did with our mandated cellulosic ethanol production last year. According to a January 2011 Reuters article, "Congress initially set 100 million gallons as the 2010 target for cellulosic biofuel, but the EPA cut that to 6.5 million gallons. It appears that the industry might have produced less than 1 million gallons last year."

That's right. The EPA reduced the mandate by 94% for 2010. Then we produced about 15% of that greatly reduced amount, if that.

You can't mandate technology.

In the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the goal was to produce 250 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels in 2011. That number, too, has since been reduced by the EPA to 6.6 million gallons.

Earlier this year, we were told that Range Fuels, a Vinod Khosla and Broomfield, Colorado based enterprise with a plant located in Georgia was closing. After receiving millions of dollars in funding, with a goal of producing 20 million gallons of fuel in 2009 followed by 100 million gallons per year after that, what was supposed to be the first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant here in the U.S. was shuttered without ever producing the product. The technology wasn't there and they needed more money. Always more money.

The Tennessee government got behind subsidizing a cellulosic ethanol plant in 2007. While investing $70 million in the demonstration plant, in 2009 it was producing 250,000 gallons of fuel a year instead of the expected 5 million, much to the disappointment of hopeful government leaders.

This week Ethanol Producer magazine tells us another story with a similar theme about the proposed cellulosic ethanol plant project in Spiritwood, N.D. The original plant was to have produced 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year and the feasibility study revised that goal, turning the project into a glorified corn ethanol plant, which is to produce 50 million gallons of corn ethanol per year, and at some point in the future hopes to add 8 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol.

The new revamp greatly lowered expectations for the cellulosic production citing logistical problems, storage problems, potential technological problems and implied cash flow problems.

Construction is to begin later this year.

Plans for a proposed cellulosic ethanol plant at Spiritwood, N.D., located near Jamestown in south-central portion of the state, have been revamped following the completion of a comprehensive feedstock supply and marketing study. The facility was originally planned to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol but now is expected to be a hybrid plant, producing 50 million gallons of corn-based ethanol and 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol.
Area farmers readily participated in the study and are interested in supplying feedstock to the plant but they expressed “little to no interest” in purchasing the equipment necessary to harvest and transport the feedstock. A short harvest window means a large fleet of equipment, including power units, balers, stackers and trucks, will be required, as well as increased labor hours. “The magnitude of the effort to bale, transport and store approximately one million bales of feedstock within a 30- to 45-day window is a major factor,” the study noted.

According to Great River Energy, the hybrid ethanol plant will be constructed in two phases, producing corn ethanol first.

The feedstock study originally had a goal of using cellulosic feedstock from a 100-mile radius of the plant to provide 480,000 tons annually. They concluded that 192,000 tons, or 40% of the original project's goal might be doable. In addition to drastically reducing tonnage, they also decided to use corn stover in addition to wheat straw to "mitigate risk", and to make satellite storage hubs to reduce fire risk.

The North Dakota plant is to use Denmark’s Inbicon A/S technology, which has not yet been tested on corn stover. A team of North Dakotans have been to Denmark to visit Inbicon. State Representative Craig Headland and State Senator Terry Wanzek reported that the trip to Denmark "had revealed that a cellulosic ethanol plant would not work in the current market."

Then, there's the question of whether corn stover should be removed from fields at all. University of Nebraska-Lincoln farm experts say that residue is even more valuable to the farmer by adding nutrients and lending structure to the soil than it is for use as energy.

But, it's worth continuing to work on it, because it will be good for the climate, you say. Not so fast. A 2009 Reuters article reported on the carbon emissions aspect of advanced biofuels:

A new generation of biofuels, meant to be a low-carbon alternative, will on average emit more carbon dioxide than burning gasoline over the next few decades, a study published in Science found on Thursday. Governments and companies are pouring billions of research dollars into advanced fuels made from wood and grass, meant to cut carbon emissions compared with gasoline, and not compete with food as corn-based biofuels do now.

But such advanced, "cellulosic" biofuels will actually lead to higher carbon emissions than gasoline per unit of energy, averaged over the 2000-2030 time period, the study found. That is because the land required to plant fast-growing poplar trees and tropical grasses would displace food crops, and so drive deforestation to create more farmland, a powerful source of carbon emissions.

An oft-repeated line we have heard to justify producing corn ethanol today, is that it is the gateway to advanced fuels production. The taxpayer who funds these projects needs to stay informed about the reality of that statement.

As I wrote here yesterday following Obama's energy speech, "And, no, cellulosic, switchgrass and biomass are not the answer, either. You can't mandate technology. And try moving those energy denseless masses around, and storing them, without fossil fuels." Even if the technology weren't always somewhere over the rainbow, there's that darned cellulosic ethanol problem of logistics.
K. McDonald