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Report Offers Roadmap to Cleaner Biofuels from Non-Food Sources

Almost 200 corn ethanol refineries across the country, but still not a single cellulosic ethanol plant

By Stacy Feldman

Aug 25, 2010

Cellulosic biofuel was once widely heralded as the key to cutting United States' dependence on foreign oil, without the adverse environmental effects of corn ethanol.

But the dream is on the verge of going bust.

The U.S. has set itself a goal of getting one billion gallons of home-grown fuel from corn stalks, wood chips and other non-edible waste by 2013 and 16 billion gallons by 2022, under the (RFS).

But for now the cellulosic sector is delivering close to nothing, and it could be as much as four years behind RFS targets, according to Department of Energy estimates.

Its failure to launch has ignited a summer campaign by the (UCS), an environmental group that claims the government can get advanced biofuels back on track for a cost of $4 billion. The money would fund a 30 percent investment tax credit and loan guarantees.

According to the "," as the suite of policies is called, the U.S. can bring the first 10 to 20 commercial facilities online with those perks – enough to send one billion gallons of cellulosic fuels to market.

The plan would also replace the existing system of biofuel tax credits with a new "biofuels performance tax credit" that would provide more dollars to fuels with smaller carbon footprints.

Cellulosic ethanol is seen as a promising alternative fuel because feedstock does not compete with food and can be grown on marginal lands that don't require much water. It is also perceived as a low-emissions substitute to corn-based fuels.

Scale Up Needed 'Right Away' 

The UCS roadmap is one of the most detailed efforts to work out the nuts and bolts of a shift to fuels from non-food sources.

Jeremy Martin, author of the and a senior scientist in UCS's clean vehicles program, said there is an urgency to scale up.

"If we're to have any hope of realizing the ambitions of the RFS to significantly replace oil with domestically produced low-carbon bio fuels, then we need to get those cellulosic biofuels up towards scale right away," Martin told SolveClimate News.

Martin has spent much of August trumpeting his work in corn-country Iowa and other Midwestern states, in part to sway those who fear an advanced biofuels boom would come at corn ethanol's expense.

"There's general support for next-generation biofuels [in these states]," he said, "but also a kind of a skepticism."

Ed Hubbard of the , a trade group, described the "Billion Gallon Challenge" as "destroying a successful sector of the industry in an effort to promote newer technologies."

"In making its case for the acceleration of next generation biofuels, the Union of Concerned Scientists and its cabal of corn ethanol opponents continue to misstate or ignore the advances and successes achieved by the existing ethanol industry," Hubbard wrote in .

50 to 100 Facilities

Martin said that the goal of the report is to get the cellulosic industry to five billion gallons of annual production capacity, with 50 to 100 commercial facilities churning out cellulosic fuels.

That would bring the industry to where corn ethanol was in 2006, the report explains, and help to even the playing field.

solution already exists

The solution to this problem already exists; it just hasn't been implemented yet. The Department of Energy has a loan guarantee program designed to help cellulosic ethanol producers get those first plants off the ground. Once they approve a couple of the projects that have applied, the industry will be up and running strong without sacrificing the current ethanol industry in the process.

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