Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, West LaFayette, Ind., co-chaired a committee tasked by the National Academy of Sciences to produce the study.
The Renewable Fuel Standard requires that 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol, 1 billion gallons of biodiesel and 16 billion gallons of cellulosic fuels be produced annually by 2022. According to the report, the corn ethanol numbers and biodiesel can be achieved, but the cellulosic goals probably cannot.
Tyner said that is because the corn ethanol industry has been working for more than 30 years while the cellulosic industry is still very young. There are no commercially viable biorefineries for cellulosic ethanol today.
"We have more than 200 corn ethanol plants producing more than 14 billion gallons of ethanol today. It took 30 years to get there. We have 11 years to reach even higher numbers for cellulosic biofuels," Tyner says. "We would need a build rate three times that of corn ethanol. And with corn, we had the technology; we had the feedstock, and prices for corn were relatively low. We don't have any of that with cellulosic."
Another problem, according to the report, is that the amount farmers would need to make a profit on raising cellulosic feedstocks is more than ethanol producers are willing to pay for those feedstocks. In most cases, the gap is larger than the federal subsidy that goes to federal producers, which may leave investors nervous about getting into the cellulosic ethanol industry.
The report also raises questions about the environmental impact of cellulosic biofuels. Tyner says it is uncertain whether some cellulosic fuels would lower greenhouse gases because of the emissions that would be released when new land is cultivated.
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