Commercialization of Cellulosic Biofuels: Is 14 million gallons per year really unreasonable?


In January 2013, the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia nullified last year’s cellulosic biofuel mandate that 8.7 million gallons be blended into gasoline.   The ruling came as a result of only 20,069 gallons being produced and eliminated the need for petroleum producers to purchase waivers for not selling a virtually unavailable commodity.

Then, the EPA upped the ante by raising the minimum for 2013 to 14 million gallons. Additionally, the EPA announced the mandate for other advanced biofuels is also now even higher at 2.75 billion gallons. The EPA defines the advanced biofuels as any biofuel derived from anything except corn starch that results in less than 50% the greenhouse gas emissions of an equivalent amount of fossil fuel gasoline or diesel.   In 2012 over 582 million gallons of this type of fuel were produced.

Is there any chance of the industry meeting such a mandate for cellulosic biofuels (from the fibrous, sugar-containing, yet non-edible part of the plant), since there still is virtually no production?

One common concern is that cellulosic producers are still working to further engineer their systems before scaling to production.  The technology exists today for cellulosic biofuels production.  The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) on UC Berkeley’s campus has demonstrated this ability with numerous publications.

Despite current technology, producers tend to constantly want improve their technology before committing to a multimillion-dollar production facility that might be obsolete within only a couple years.  Could we build plants now to meet the mandate?  This seems very likely given that from EPA’s calculations, the 14 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel represents only 0.008% of the gasoline it would replace.

The technology is progressing to make these biofuels cost competitive with gasoline so that there might actually be a market for the 14 million and 1st gallon of cellulosic biofuel.  A subsidy could allow for additional cellulosic biofuels, by bringing their cost down to the cost of gasoline.  A carbon tax could allow biofuels to become cost competitive by making fossil fuels more expensive, but proposed carbon taxes of $33/ton of CO2 (which would go into effect if the Proposed Climate Protection Act were to pass) would only amount to at most 29 cents per gallon, given the EPA’s calculations of 0.00892 tons of C02 per gallon of gasoline.

University and industrial research are working to make cellulosic biofuels cost competitive in the absence of mandates and subsidies.   This would be an “everyone wins” scenario where the environmental impact is mitigated without hurting consumers.

Cellulase enzyme cost is seen as one of the major barriers to cellulosic biofuels.  These are the enzymes that produce sugar from the cellulose.  Countless universities, including UC Berkeley, Department of Energy labs, including the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, and companies such as Dupont Industrial Biosciences, Novozymes, Iogen, and BP Biofuels are researching, applying, and even piloting methods for making cellulosic biofuels cost competitive with fossil fuels.  Once this happens, expect to begin seeing these fuels, likely not just as ethanol, at the pumping stations!