Yes, the US has a plan to get to 36 BBGY biofuels by 2022

By Jonathan Eisenthal

With the USDA as the principal driver behind the federal government’s Biofuels Interagency Working Group, the federal government has developed a plan to get to 36 billion gallons per year of biofuels in the US transportation vehicle fuel market. In addition to US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Energy and the director of US Environmental Protection Agency are also prominent members of the Biofuels Interagency Working Group, or BIWG.

Corn ethanol is expected to produce 12 billion gallons (BBGY) this year, and has a total capacity exceeding 13 BBGY. This grain-based fuel is expected to reach its mandate of 15 BBGY in the next few years, leaving 21 billion gallons per year capacity yet to be built.

These new gallons will be comprised of what the Renewable Fuels Standard II calls advanced biofuels.

RFS II calls for the development of 16BBGY advanced cellulosic biofuels capacity, where the baseline requirement to be considered an advanced fuel is 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, compared to gasoline.

One question is how much of the required cellulose-based ethanol will be produced by today’s grain ethanol plants, retrofitted with front end, or parallel processing facilities that can render the cellulose of corn kernels, corn cobs, corn stover or other cellulosic materials into ethanol fuel.

The BIWG biofuels roadmap, issued in June, estimates that 5.5 billion gallons per year can come various agricultural sources, naming in particular corn stover and bagasse (the cellulose remains of processed sugar cane).

“We applaud the USDA and other members of this working group, but we emphasize that in all this planning, our government should not forget the farmer,” said Jerry Ploehn, chairman of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council. “We need to make sure that the cellulose ethanol industry develops a sound economic model that offers the appropriate price to motivate our agricultural producers to collect and transport cellulose to these fuel plants. Let’s not forget that farmer-owned energy production, known as the Minnesota Model, gives the most bang for the buck in renewable energy production–we feel this will continue to be true for cellulose ethanol, just as it has been for corn starch-based ethanol.”

According to the BIWG biofuels development roadmap, switchgrass and other dedicated energy crops would produce 7.9 BBGY. ARS estimates that a conservative total supply of energy crop feedstock could deliver enough raw material to make 13.4 billion gallons of fuel a year. The roadmap assumes soy biodiesel and corn oil-based biodiesel or ethanol would comprise another 1.34 BBGY of the total 21 BBGY of advanced fuels. The other major sources of advanced biofuels would be 2.6 BBGY from municipal solid waste and another 2.2 BBGY from imported advanced biofuels. Though algae shows promise, the BIWG allows for only modest development over the next decade, calling for 100 million gallons (MMGY) by 2022.

About 43 percent of the anticipated growth in biofuels is expected to arise in the region the USDA biofuels roadmap refers to as “Central Eastern”–essentially the midwest, with the addition of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

USDA “assumes biomass may be grown on defined agriculture cropland,” and under this assumption it will take 27 million acres to grow enough biomass to produce the feed stock for 13.4 BBGY of advanced biofuels, according to USDA Agriculture Research Service. RFS II does not allow advanced biofuels feedstocks to be gathered from rangeland or land cleared after Dec. 19, 2007–it may be drawn from the 309 million acres of actively harvested cropland, from the roughly 35 million acres of pastureland and various other categories that make up the 406.4 million acres of defined US cropland.

The needed 27 million acres constitutes about 6.5 percent of the inventory of 404 million acres of US cropland. Interestingly, this is similar to the acreage required to produce the 15 BBGY of grain-based ethanol fuel.

Among the assumptions underpinning the report is a capital cost of $8 per gallon of production capacity for advanced cellulosic biofuels, though the report notes that the first plants may be more expensive. USDA-ARS offers its best guess that 40 million-gallon-per-year will be the typical size of this first generation of cellulose biofuel refineries. At an average cost of $320 million per palnt, it will take approximately $83 billion to build the 263 plants, at 40 MMGY, needed to reach the RGS II goal.

To read the full BIWG biofuels development roadmap report go to:

http://www.growthenergy.org/images/reports/USDA_Biofuels_Report_6232010.pdf

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