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Biofuel Industry – No Money, No Respect

For the moment, the price at the pump is reasonable. A spike in demand or a terrorist disruption, however, will quickly remind us that we are desperately dependent on oil as we continue to consume 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Even in these recessionary times of moderate demand, we are running out of easy to extract oil from dessert sands. We are turning to sources of unconventional oil, such as tar sands in Canada, to produce oil with ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

For a while corn ethanol looked like a promising way to end our addiction to oil. Now we are like the character in a Woody Allen comedy who explains, “I used to be a heroin addict; now I’m a methadone addict.” At a time when a billion people go hungry, many as a result of disappearing water on this heating planet, fuel from food is not the answer.

Needed is fuel from wood and waste, not food and haste. Some of the world’s best minds are focused on fuel from cellulosic and waste sources, in some cases from biological sources that remove CO2 from the air and enrich depleted soil. I am writing this article from the 31st Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals sponsored by NREL. 800 global bioscientists have gathered in San Francisco to share their research and showcase their progress.

Many at the conference expressed concern and discouragement. Companies that were once darlings of Wall Street have gone bankrupt. Dozens of ethanol plants have closed as oil prices dropped. Many promising second generation plants cannot get built due to lack of project financing. People with the money see the risk as too high.

There continue to be zero commercial scale (20-million gallon per year and bigger) cellulosic ethanol plants, despite past glowing press releases that declared that they would now be running.

The biofuels industry is also under attack due to food-from-fuel and land use issues. Over one billion people are hungry or starving. Agricultural expert Lester Brown reports, “The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year.” Scientific American: Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

Europe, now California, and soon many U.S. states, now insist that land use must be considered in evaluating biofuels.

During the middle of the conference, a workshop for the media was held. The theme of the workshop quickly became clear – the industry problems were the fault of regulators and we the press.

Professor Bruce Dale, Michigan State University, dismissed corn/soy land use change as an “emotional issue.” He continued, “The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard is intellectually bankrupt.” To demonstrate the flaw of land use, he stated that replacing a gasoline powered vehicle with an electric vehicle would only increase the demand for coal power and therefore do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases.

The example is quite flawed. Automakers consistently tell me that their gasoline powered vehicles are about 15 percent efficient and their electric vehicles are 60 to 70 percent efficient. EVs need much less energy. Even if you could find an EV powered purely with coal, it would produce less lifecycle emissions than a comparable gasoline or corn ethanol fueled vehicle. According to the latest figures published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), non-hydro renewable sources of electricity enjoyed double-digit growth during the past year while coal was down by 1.1 percent. Incremental demand for electricity is bringing more renewable energy on-line.

In fact, the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is based on the peer-reviewed work of scientists using Argonne National Labs GREET model. The work, industry comments, and findings are all available at http://www.arb.ca.gov/fuels/lcfs/lcfs.htm

The LCFS encourages the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy delivered to the wheels of vehicles. The scientific analysis behind the LCFS includes these examples of grams of CO2e emissions per mega joule of energy:

Ø Gasoline Oil Refined 92
Ø Diesel ULSD Refined 71
Ø Diesel Coal-to-Liquid 167
Ø Biodiesel Midwest Soy 30
Ø Ethanol Corn with Coal Electricity 114
Ø Ethanol Cellulosic from Poplar Trees -12
Ø Electricity California Average 27

If the biofuels industry sees a future in biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, the industry should be encouraged by the findings of the scientists contributing to the LCFS. On the other hand, if the industry is only betting its future on corn ethanol, then the regulation is a threat.

LCFS will not help the expansion of E85 stations for flexfuel vehicles. For the 2009 model year, the best rated car running on E85 in the United States was the Chevrolet HHR, with a United States EPA gasoline mileage rating of 26 miles per gallon, and an E85 rating of only 19 miles per gallon – and that’s the best from Detroit with mileage on all other U.S. flexfuel vehicles being worse. In other words, if you passed on using E85 and drove a hybrid with good mileage, you would double miles per gallon and produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than any U.S. flexfuel offering. Top 10 Low Carbon Footprint Four-Door Sedans for 2009

While the press was being scolded and air regulators were being metaphorically burned at the stake, most conference attendees had an afternoon to enjoy San Francisco. Many traveled using electric-powered buses and the hydro powered BART rapid transit system that carriers 100 million riders annually. So much for the press conference dismissing electric powered transportation as not being feasible.

Although attacking regulators, environmentalists, and advocates for the hungry will not save the biofuel industry, the federal government may save it. As the conference unfolded in California, a major announcement was made in Washington, DC, by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu when he announced that $786.5 million would be made available to accelerate advanced biofuels research and to help fund commercial-scale biorefinery demonstration projects.

One irony for the biofuel industry is that as oil prices increase, their economic model improves, but consumer demand for fuel moderates as consumers drive fewer miles, use more public transportation, and soon switch in growing numbers to electric vehicles. For decades, however, fuel will be in demand for many passenger vehicles, heavy-vehicles, long-distance goods movement, ships and airplanes. The opportunity is ripe for delivering fuel with lower lifecycle emissions. Promising cellulosic biofuel companies will be covered in my next article.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report. He is the author of a new book about the future of transportation – Save Gas, Save the Planet.

A Better Strategy for Detroit: Electric Drive not Flexfuel

In 2006, Detroit held high hopes of being profitable by selling millions of flexfuel vehicles. The vehicles are named flexfuel because they can be fueled with either E85 ethanol or with gasoline. It cost little extra to make these flexfuel vehicles. The flexfuel modifications were not made to all engines. They were made in bigger engines for SUVs, trucks, and big cars with better profit margins, but subpar fuel economy. Millions of flexfuel vehicles were sold.

Thousands of E85 stations appeared, primarily in corn growing states. A federal law was passed requiring production of 36 billion gallons of biofuel to be produced by 2022. Executive orders gave preference to buying flexfuel vehicles for the fleet of 4 million federal, state, and local vehicles. As food prices soared, one billion people struggled to afford food. The law was modified to requiring 16 billion of the 36 billion gallons to be from cellulosic sources. Biofuel 2.0

Recently at the Los Angeles Auto Show, I saw flexfuel vehicles extensively displayed in GM and Ford booths. They are also pilling-up in at auto dealers throughout the nation. These flexfuel vehicles fail to delivery the fuel economy that people are now demanding.

Although Detroit automakers sell flexfuel vehicles with good mileage in Brazil, in the United States, the best EPA mileage rating for a vehicle using E85 is 19 miles per gallon.

As we approach 2009, transportation is beginning a major shift away from the internal combustion engine to electric drive systems. Just as downloadable music disrupted CD sales, just as mainframe computing gave way to distributed computing, transportation is shifting to a new electric-drive paradigm.

At the Auto Show crowds were excited by new electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Crowds surrounded BMW’s Mini E, the freeway-speed battery electric version of the Mini Cooper with a 150 mile range. Nissan was showing off its Cube and talking about making 100 mile range battery electric vehicles in volume, with fleet quantities in 2010. Mitsubishi’s iMiEV was shown as is being put into trail at the electric utility SCE.

Big automakers were also displaying fuel cell vehicles that extend the range and speed the fueling time for electric vehicles. Chevrolet, Daimler, Honda, and Toyota are each putting over 100 of their hydrogen vehicles into daily fleet and personal use. Toyota also has big plans for plug-in hybrids. Look for new announcements in Chicago this coming February.

GM continued to generate excitement with its Chevy Volt, a beautiful sporty sedan with a range of 40 miles in electric mode and hundreds of added miles using a small gasoline engine to extend range.

Chrysler was demonstrating four different electric vehicles at the L.A. Auto Show. The popular low-cost battery electric Chrysler GEM has now passed 38,000 in use in the United States, with sales continuing to do well. Although it is limited to 25 mph and a 40 mile max range, the bigger new Chyrsler ENVI electric vehicles get from 0 to 60 in as little as 5 seconds with EVs and plug-in hybrids that include Jeeps, mini-vans, and sports cars. Chrysler Details

The full transition to electric transportation may take 40 years, but it is unstoppable. The fuel of choice is shifting from foreign oil to our own renewable energy resources. Over 40,000 people now drive electric vehicles in the United States. Most are the 25 mph types, not the $100,000 Teslas, but in 2010 several affordable freeway speed choices will be offered by Nissan, Chrysler, GM, Toyota, and dozens of exciting smaller companies.

Although millions of electric vehicles will displace cars with gasoline engines, the internal combustion engine will be with us for decades in hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and heavy-duty trucks. Using new biofuel blends in these engines will help us achieve energy security. Biofuels from cellulosic sources will help moderate damaging greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels are not a panacea; rather, they are an important transitional solution for the next decades.

Currently, 142 billion gallons of gasoline are consumed annually in the United States. In ten years, consumption could moderate to 120 billion gallons annually, even with population growth, due to these factors: CAFÉ fuel efficiency standards, replacement of some gasoline engines with more efficient turbo diesel, growth of electric vehicles, growing use of commute programs, growing use of trains and transit, and reduced vehicle miles traveled.

Fuel refiners and engine manufacturers could agree on standards so that 20 percent of gasoline could be from ethanol and other approved next generation biofuel. This 20 percent would be 24 billion gallons annually of fuel from biomass, not from petroleum. Flexfuel vehicles that deliver under 30 mpg are not needed. A new E85 infrastructure is not needed.

The United States can regain its world leadership in transportation by investing in future solutions, not the failed strategies of the past. Millions of jobs can be created in public transportation, high-speed rail, electric cars, hybrid electric heavy vehicles, renewable energy, and next generation biofuels that can be blended with existing gasoline and diesel.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. His new book, Save Gas, Save the Planet, goes on sale March 25.