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To meet goals, biomass fuel plants need to get going now

The clock is ticking on the Obama administration’s promises to speed development of the next generation of biofuels.

There isn’t a commercial-scale plant making ethanol from crop residue and other types of plant cellulose, the stuff that’s supposed to replace corn as the feedstock of the future for biofuels.

Biomass fuel isn’t economical yet, and there are obstacles to overcome, including how to harvest, transport and store the huge amounts of biomass required.

But biorefineries will have to be built at a relatively fast rate in the coming decade if there will be sufficient quantities to meet congressional-imposed mandates, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.

By 2013, 10 plants, each capable of producing 40 million gallons a year, would need to be built.

By 2018, the industry needs 20 such plants a year, each with an average annual production capacity of 100 million gallons.

That’s the pace needed to produce 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2022, the consumption level Congress required in the 2007 energy bill.

It can’t be done, given the lack of available capital and relatively low oil prices that the industry faces, said Robert Brown, director of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute.

The mandate “was ambitious even when petroleum was selling for $150 a barrel and money was available for new technologies,” he said.

The environmental agency analysis provides a look at where cellulosic plants would be, based on where the cornfield residue, forestry waste and other feedstocks are likely to be.

Iowa, with its expanse of corn production, is likely to be the No. 1 producer in cellulosic ethanol in 2022, according to the agency’s forecast.

The agency sees Iowa producing 1.7 billion gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol, ahead of Illinois, Indiana and Louisiana. (Iowa’s corn ethanol plants can now produce about 3.3 billion gallons a year, and the environmental agency sees that capacity rising to 3.8 billion gallons by 2022.)

For now, the question isn’t so much where they will be built, but when, or even whether they’ll be built.

Getting the industry started will require heavy federal financing in the form of loan guarantees, said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the New Fuels Alliance, an advocacy group for next-generation biofuels.

A cellulosic ethanol plant would cost an estimated $5 to $7 per gallon of capacity to build, compared with $1 to $2 a gallon for a corn ethanol facility.

“If the government wants to do this, they’re going to have to stand back and say, ‘If it doesn’t work, we’ll help you out,’ ” Coleman said.

The Obama administration last week pledged to accelerate the use of loan guarantees to refinance existing plants and build cellulosic facilities.

One reason investors don’t want to finance plants is the lack of cars capable of running on ethanol and the lack of pumps for dispensing the fuel.

“The Obama administration has to realize that they’re running their (biofuels) train into what is a wall in the marketplace,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the attention that policymakers are giving to problems in the corn ethanol industry are deflecting attention from advanced biofuels and delaying their introduction.

There’s one way around some of these obstacles: Burn the biomass in power plants and use the electricity to run plug-in hybrid cars rather than turning the biomass into ethanol.

A recent study published in the journal Science says cars would get 80 percent more mileage per acre of biomass when it’s used to generate electricity than making ethanol. And greenhouse gas emissions are lower because electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines.

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. E-mail: pbrasher@dmreg.com

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