Growing our gas


How cool would it be if we could turn wood trimmings, straw, or other common plant products into gasoline?  It's possible -- the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol has been proven, but scaling it up commercially hasn't happened yet, in large part because we haven't figured out how to create large quantities of the stuff cheaply.

Miscanthus is a grass native to subtropical and tropical areas of Africa and southern Asia and could be important in the production in cellulosic ethanol.Image from the Power Plant Garden at the National Arboretum, courtesy USDA.

That's where a relatively little-known federal program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, comes in. Called the Renewable Fuel Standard, this program may finally make cellulosic ethanol and other, more advanced alternative fuels a commercial reality.

Under the renewable standard, which began in 2006, the EPA creates targets for alternative fuel production that the fuel industry -- fuel blenders, fuel importers, and large refiners, a group that includes giants like Chevron, B.P. and ConocoPhillips-- have to meet. Industry usually meets this obligation by letting ethanol or biodiesel companies produce the renewable fuel. They then buy the credits for that alternative fuel (and sometimes the fuel itself) from those companies.

The fuel industry's (required) demand for renewable fuel credits has thus kick-started many alternative fuel producers, while also serving to reduce our production of climate changing gases. (It's worth noting that it has also allowed agribusiness giants to make a killing in the ethanol game.)

While at first the Renewable Fuel Standard was focused largely on corn ethanol, which is controversial since it props up the already-profitable corn sector and doesn't do much to cut greenhouse gases, the policy was designed to become increasingly more progressive, boosting the production of more advanced fuel alternatives as time goes on.

For example, on Thursday the EPA announced (PDF) it would require the nation to use 14 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2013. Cellulosic ethanol, according to agency calculations,  produces 60 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fuels. (The EPA estimates that corn ethanol produces 20 percent fewer.) The agency also bumped up its biodiesel (which has half the greenhouse gas emissions of standard fuel) requirement from a billion to 1.28 billion gallons. While the quantities of cellulosic fuel and biodiesel are growing, corn ethanol still gets the lion's share of the gallon requirement; in its Thursday announcement EPA said it will require 16.55 billion gallons of corn ethanol this year. Over time, though, the standard ratchets the required quantities of cellulosic and biodiesel ever higher, while corn ethanol levels out. By 2022, 21 billion gallons of fuel produced must qualify as "advanced" biofuels, which means they have to reduce emissions by at least 50 percent.

The increased cellulosic requirements did not come without their share of controversy. Last year, the EPA, suffering from a massive case of wishful thinking, set a cellulosic ethanol standard of 8.65 million gallons. Only 500,000 gallons were produced. Petroleum companies, (who dislike the renewable standard anyway and frequently try to get it repealed in Congress) unable to purchase the targeted amount of cellulosic ethanol, sued the EPA -- and won on that point, with the court saying the EPA standards did not realistically reflect the available supply. This year, however, a number of new cellulosic operations will come online, and the agency, as well as the renewables industry, believes its cellulosic standards will be met.

One glaring omission in the Renewable Fuels Standard is a requirement for an algae-based biofuel. Fuel from algae was not written into the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which updated the standard to include biodiesel. Algae producers, who want the business boost that comes with government renewables requirements, have lobbied for the law to mandate requirements for algal biofuels. Their point is fair -- the standard, by requiring certain types of fuels and not others, effectively picks winners in the renewable energy game. Algae, which has a lot of potential as an alternative fuel, is currently missing out on the kick-start the program has given both the ethanol and the biodiesel industries.

Yet opening up the law for amendments comes with other problems, says Timothy Slating, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies the renewable standard.

"The fear from the biofuels industry is that if any changes are made, there are probably more changes that will be made that they do not like."

Some of those worries include reducing the targeted quantities of alternative fuels, loosening of the standard to include liquefied natural gas, and upping the corn ethanol percentage allowed.

That the Renewable Fuel Standard, which has huge potential for greenhouse gas reductions (transportation makes up 29 percent of our total carbon emissions seems like this should be much earlier), even became a reality was because of an unusual constellation of factors. In 2005 and 2007, when the laws setting it up were passed, a surplus of corn meant that producers were trying to find a new market -- this accounts for the standard's early reliance on corn ethanol. Climate change had not yet become the polarizing issue it is today, and the twin prospects of energy independence and job creation made the bill attractive to a wide swath of legislators, says Slating.

Were the bill to be brought up for revision today, who knows? Because of this quirk of legislative history, algae fuel alternatives may just have to wait.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.