Sustainable America Blog

The Future of Biofuel

The future of biofuels remains uncertain. While many hail the advent of advanced biofuels or second-generation biofuels, the reality is that many of the newer forms of biofuel have yet to be proven viable outside of the laboratory. Jim Lucier of Capital Alpha Group in Washington DC, a policy expert highly versed in biofuel policy, explains that the mandate for conventional biofuel (corn ethanol) is legislated to peak in 2015 at 15 billion gallons for the year. After that, the conventional wisdom holds that second-generation advanced biofuels and cellulosic ethanol are supposed to pick up the slack. But currently technologies for utilizing these next generation fuels are not developed to the point of being marketable.

The corn ethanol lobby believes that in the absence of technology capable of utilizing more advanced biofuels now or in the foreseeable future, corn ethanol will remain in high (and increasing) production. Most importantly, this could have an effect on the food vs. fuel debate that has been going on in food policy circles: when corn is grown for fuel, that means less corn is grown for food. This may not have as big of an impact in America as it does in some developing nations, but as corn is a major source of feed for livestock, the trend could lead to higher food prices. Lucier also points to the reality that, “Barring some new innovation, the Green Revolution that defined the last half century in places like South Asia seems to be petering out. This suggests that growing demand for food will increase competition for grain stocks between food and fuel in the future.”

The mandate in charge of all this policy wrangling is known as RFS-2. RFS stands for Renewable Fuel Standard, a regulation managed by the EPA whereby all fuel sold in America is mandated to have a certain minimum amount of renewable component (ie: non fossil-fuel). The original Energy Policy Act (EpAct) of 2005 mandated for RFS-1, which required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012. RFS-2 increases the mandated amount of renewable fuel in gasoline, but may not be enough to get us to the energy independence that America needs for financial and energy security.

The graph below shows the peak of conventional biofuel (corn ethanol) at 15 billion gallons per year in 2015, with other forms of advanced biofuel slated to fill the growing need for alternatives:

As Lucier explains, “I don’t see Congress rolling back the current mandate for conventional ethanol but I think it has reached its natural limit … The new priority is to set realistic goals for advanced biofuels before the off-ramps in RFS-2 come into play after 2016 … The conventional part (corn ethanol) of RFS has been a success. Let’s give the advanced fuels a chance too. This will probably involve dialing back the top line mandate to some degree but also putting advanced biofuels first in line to meet demand growth and eventually to compete with conventional ethanol on a more equal footing across the entire scope of the mandate.”

Advanced biofuels are those fuels made from materials that are considered “renewable biomass”. It will take more research and development of these types of biofuels to fill the mandate and the growing need for renewable fuel into the future beyond corn ethanol.

Capital Alpha Partners provided a more detailed descriptions of materials that are classified as “renewable biomass” under the RFS-2 mandate:

  • Actively managed/harvested crops and crop residue
  • Trees and tree residue from actively-managed tree plantations on non-federal land cleared before enactment
  • Animal waste/byproducts
  • Slash and pre-commercial thinnings
  • Algae
  • Separated yard waste
  • Food waste (incl. recycled cooking/trap grease)
  • Biomass at risk from wildfire “obtained from the immediate vicinity of buildings and other areas regularly occupied by people, or of public infrastructure”
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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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