Five years ago, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands joined Gov. Terry Branstad at a biofuels plant in northwestern Iowa to inaugurate commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol. This week, the owner of that facility announced it would no longer produce the so-called “second-generation” renewable fuel at the plant.
The Trump administration proposed a Renewable Fuel Standard of 20.04 billion gallons for 2020, meaning no change in corn ethanol's share of the gasoline market for cars and light trucks, while the share of that market going to cleaner-burning cellulosic ethanol, made from grass and woody plants, will increase by 120 million gallons. Farm groups and biofuel makers, who opened the summer with a celebration that higher-blend E15 was approved for year-round sale, said the EPA bowed to Big Oil.
In another sign of trouble for so-called advanced biofuels, the newly created giant corporation DowDuPont stopped operations at its $225 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa, and hopes to find a buyer for the plant with a 30-million-gallon-a-year capacity, said the Des Moines Register. Last December, Abengoa Bioenergy sold its cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kan., for pennies on the dollar as part of a bankruptcy liquidation of assets.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt quelled midwestern protests over a potential change in course by the Trump administration, saying there would be no additional cuts in the biofuels mandate proposed for 2018. But two groups, the National Biodiesel Board and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the government ought to raise the target for biodiesel.
In 2007, Congress set a goal of mixing 36 billion gallons of biofuels, the bulk of it coming from second-generation "advanced" fuels, into gasoline annually, beginning in 2022. Economist Jonathan Coppess of the University of Illinois says the "actual, effective floor" for biofuels will be 20 billion gallons, based on the recent U.S. appellate court ruling that clarifies the EPA's power to adjust the so-called Renewable Fuels Standard.
The EPA erred when it set the target for biofuels use in 2016 below the levels specified by Congress, said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a decision that vacated the regulation and ordered EPA to try again. The three-judge panel said EPA improperly interpreted the "inadequate supply provision" that allows it to waive the statutory targets for renewable fuel use.
The fuel industry will be obliged to use 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in 2017, said the EPA. It was the first time the agency has set the target for the biofuel at the maximum allowed by the 2007 energy law. The 500-million-gallon increase in the ethanol mandate comes at a time when U.S. gasoline consumption is rising and making it easier to consume larger volumes of biofuels.
Despite millions of tons of available feedstock, ranging from corn stover to switchgrass and wood waste, only a trickle of cellulosic ethanol is being produced. "Cellulosic fuels' main hurdle seems to be economic," says Scientific American in sizing up the second-generation biofuel that has failed to live up to expectations for a cleaner-burning fuel that doesn't compete with the food and feed sectors.
The Advanced Biofuels Association called for changes to the Renewable Fuels Standard, which guarantees a share of the gasoline market to renewable fuels, so the sector can expand from demonstration plants to full-scale commercial operations.