Bio fuels along with solar are rapidly becoming one of the twin cylinders of the Cleantech industry. Jim Fraser on the Energy Blog has a very interesting blog this week triggered by Washington Post article about the availability of biofuels feedstocks as a limiting/contributing factor to bio fuels growth.
My belief is that if the economics work, the market manages to push the envelope a lot further than a resource availability study would have predicted, and if the economics do not work, nothing happens anyway. Private industry proves to be extremely more innovative and resourceful than the study can ever predict.
So I never feel that these types of analyses add a huge amount of value beyond initiating a debate. We did an earlier blog about an NREL analysis questioning whether the ethanol industry would have to move towards cellulosic technologies as too much of the US corn crop was needed for animal feed. Our analysis, the current superior economics and lower switching costs of corn based ethanol will win out. Farmer’s are smart, the substitute rather rapidly when the economics are in their favor. We expect to see signficant subsitution of corn into fuel crop use over feed at much lower prices than others have. The real drivers keeping corn ethanol afloat over cellulosic will be sheer process economics (most cellulosic process are not only more costly, the feedstock has severe transport issues), and ease of switching costs (relatively high with new crops like switchgrass, and very low with corn).
The Energy Blog’s response to this debate is to champion fuel diversification, PHEVs, EVs, fuel blends, bio fuels, etc., as the solution. With this I wholeheartedly agree. The idea of fuel diversification and fuel switching as a core part of the US energy strategy and the Cleantech debate needs a lot more attention.