U.S. Senate Energy Panel Goes to School on Biofuels

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 2, 2007 (ENS) - Current government incentives focus too much on corn-based ethanol and must be retargeted toward technologies that produce ethanol from biomass like switchgrass and agricultural waste, energy experts told a Senate panel Thursday.

Without such a shift in support towards cellulosic ethanol, the country is unlikely to be able to boost its production of alternative fuels, witnesses said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.


Fuel containing ethanol is found increasingly at filling stations across the United States. (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
Lawmakers also must give close consideration to the environmental impacts of emerging biofuels, experts said, and direct scarce federal resources toward technologies that reduce dependency on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The day-long biofuels conference, which featured more than 30 speakers, offered a sobering view of the feasibility of the Bush administration's desire to increase the annual domestic production of alternative fuels five-fold over the next decade.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act calls for a production target of 7.5 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2012. As he said in his State of the Union address last month, President George W. Bush wants to further increase that mandate to 35 billion gallons by 2017.

The United States currently uses about 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year.


America's amber fields of grain produce fuel as well as food. (Photo by Jim Yost courtesy NREL)
Virtually all of the nation's current biofuel production is corn-based ethanol, which has experienced a massive boom in recent years thanks to tax breaks and high oil prices.

Corn-based ethanol production is expected to reach six billion gallons this year and more than 70 new ethanol refineries are under construction.

About 45 percent of gasoline sold in the United States is currently blended with small amounts of ethanol from corn.

But there are concerns about corn ethanol, primarily its affect on corn prices, the diversion of corn from food supplies to fuel, and the amount of energy it takes to create the fuel.

And there simply is not enough corn to meet the President's goal.

David Conover, counsel at the National Commission on Energy Policy, said the upper limit to conventional corn-based ethanol production is "at most 15 billion gallons annually and is far below what would be a significant contribution to displacing petroleum."

Corn-based ethanol is "certainly better than gasoline," Conover said, but cellulosic ethanol, which can be produced from virtually any biomass avoids "the fuel versus food debate we are heating today."

The head of the U.S. ethanol industry trade association bristled at some of the criticism of corn-based ethanol, citing in part its role in boosting the economies of some rural farm communities.


Bob Dinneen is president of the Renewable Fuels Association (Photo courtesy 25x'25 Work Group)
"To try to demonize corn-derived ethanol is to miss the bigger picture," said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a industry trade group. "We need to be doing everything possible to promote all biofuels."

"Bioefuels in general are going to be better than gasoline," Dineen said. "We need to crack the code to produce cellulosic ethanol, but it is not going to happen tomorrow, is not going to happen next year I don't ever think there is going to be a situation when cellulosic ethanol replaces corn-based ethanol."

But a 2006 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon estimated that 35 billion to 55 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol could be produced domestically without taking land currently used for food crops out of production.

The costs of producing cellulosic ethanol are still more than double corn-based ethanol, but that is in part due to the more than $1 billion in subsidies given by the federal and state governments to ethanol producers.


Ethanol can be produced from the fibrous cellulose in corn stalks and husks or other agricultural or forestry residues. (Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy NREL)
Cellulosic ethanol "can compete, but not on a level playing field with corn ethanol," Conover added. "It is not a matter of demonizing corn. It is a matter of where you need to spend the federal dollars."

Congress should restructure incentives for corn-based ethanol on "a sliding scale" to reflect market conditions and increase federal loan guarantees to help the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, said Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance of business, labor and environmental groups.


Reid Detchon is executive director of the Energy Future Coalition (Photo courtesy NEP Initiative)
Detchon criticized the concept of using coal to make alternative fuel, something that has attracted the attention of the Bush administration.

"Liquid fuels from coal are a dead end street," he told the committee, after stressing that the alternative fuels strategies must focus on "minimizing the role of oil in our economy" and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"If we deal with them together, the transition to cleaner, more secure energy technologies will create a new wave of economic growth and job creation just as the computer and telecommunications revolutions did before," Detchon said.

One interim step the government can take is to boost fuel economy standards, said Detchon, who also suggested greater encouragement for plug-in electric vehicles.

"We are moving toward electricity being the fuel of choice for vehicles," Detchon said, "and using liquid fuels to recharge the battery as we go along. If you get clean electricity from the grid, supplemented with clean biofuels, then petroleum is out of the picture completely and your greenhouse gas profile is very good."