Verbio North America says it will more than double the capacity of its plant in central Iowa to produce renewable natural gas from corn stover, and it plans to begin production of corn ethanol in the final months of the year. The facility was the first of three plants in the nation to return to biofuel production after faltering as a producer of cellulosic ethanol, made from grasses, woody plants and crop residue.
During the ethanol boom of the early 2000s, Congress set an ambitious target of quadrupling the amount of renewable fuel mixed into gasoline for America's cars and pickup trucks. But while corn ethanol has lived up to its part of the plan, cleaner-burning "advanced" biofuels have been slow to come to market — two factors for the EPA to consider as it faces a regulatory reset of the Renewable Fuel Standard in the new year.
Even as larger-scale producers of cellulosic ethanol shutter their plants, a handful of small-volume producers are staying the course. One of them, northwestern Iowa’s Quad County Corn Processors, has been using its distinctive distilling method to make cellulosic ethanol since 2014.
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.
The White House is taking a break from biofuels policy, at least temporarily, after two meetings with President Trump at the table failed to find consensus between the oil and ethanol industries. The only agreement, according to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was part of both meetings, "was to look at economic studies" about the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard and possible changes.
Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass often grown as a biofuel, is now planted on six military sites, from Kansas to Kazakhstan, in a three-year NATO-run effort to clean up contaminated soil. At a conference earlier this month at Kansas State University, researchers reported that the grass stabilizes contaminants in the soil, preventing them from escaping into the air and water, and then gradually absorbs them.
Corn ethanol represents the first generation of biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, made from grass, woody plants, and crop debris, was supposed to be the second generation.
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.
Farm-state officials played their Trump card six weeks ago, calling in White House support to quash potential cuts in the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets U.S. targets for biofuel consumption.
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.
In hopes of expanding sales of gasoline with a 15 percent biofuel blend, ethanol trade groups are putting pressure on the EPA as well as Congress, says DTN. Their immediate goal is approval by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee of a bill to waive a fuel volatility rule, which would allow the sale of E15 during the summer.
A U.S. bankruptcy judge approved the sale of Abengoa Bioenergy's 25 million-gallon-a-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan., to newly formed Synata Bio for $48.5 million, or 12 cents on the dollar, says Ethanol Producer Magazine. The Hugoton plant, which opened in October 2014, is one of three commercial-scale cellulosic plants in the country.
Rep. Eric Swalwell led five additional California House members urging the EPA to put the Renewable Fuel Standard program "back on track by finalizing blending targets that are in line with Congress’ original intent." In a letter to the EPA, the lawmakers said the tepid rise in the RFS announced earlier this year falls short of the statutory volumes set by Congress and "sends a chilling signal to biofuels investors."
Advisers for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sought advice from California regulators on ways to revamp U.S. biofuel mandates, said Reuters. Corn-based ethanol is popular in the Midwest so the possibility of change in the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard could hurt her in corn states "like Iowa, where she faces a tough battle against Republican rival Donald Trump in the Nov. 8 election."
Fertilizer runoff could be reduced significantly if row crops such as corn and soybeans are replaced with perennial grasses harvested for biofuel production, say researchers from four Midwestern universities. Nitrogen runoff in the Mississippi River basin, blamed for creation of a "dead zone" each summer in the Gulf of Mexico, could drop 15-20 percent if switchgrass or miscanthus were planted on a quarter of the land now devoted to row crops, according to computer simulations.