The National Academy Offers a Bracing Assessment of the Renewable Fuel Standard

October 4, 2011 | 3:46 pm
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

Today is an inspection day for U.S. clean energy, as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued an assessment on the progress we’ve made in supplanting fossil fuels with domestically produced biofuels. I was surprised, taken aback and impressed by the frankness of the report, which NAS prepared at the request of Congress.

They not only labeled the elephant in the room, they put a saddle on it and rode it around the dining room table. They came right out and said that we’re unlikely to meet the mandate for cellulosic biofuels production by 2022.

The United States has gone all-in on biofuels in recent years, and the policy backbone of that investment is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates the consumption of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 (16 billion of which must be cellulosic).

Not short on biomass

I’ve written before about how cellulosic biofuels produced from fast-growing non-food crops, agricultural residue or landfilled waste can deliver real environmental and economic benefits while reducing our oil dependence. Yet as today’s report makes painfully clear, we’ve thus far failed to produce any of this advanced fuel and are rapidly falling off the pace to meet our long-term targets. The problem, the study authors say, is not our capacity to produce biomass, but the lack of facilities:

Although the United States can likely produce adequate cellulosic feedstock to be converted into biofuels to meet the 16 billion-gallon-consumption mandate in 2022, there are currently no commercially viable biorefineries to convert such plant matter into fuel.

What we don’t know

But what really stands out is how much we simply don’t know – and can’t predict – that has a huge bearing on whether or not these advanced biofuels can compete in the market: future crude oil prices, feedstock costs and availability, and more. From the preface of the report:

There are no commercial cellulosic biofuels plants in the United States today. Consequently, we do not know much about growing, harvesting, and storing such feedstocks at scale. We do not know how well the conversion technologies will work nor what they will cost.

While I agree we are unlikely to go from zero to 16 billion gallons in a little more than a decade, our underlying motivations to get off oil—price volatility, political instability and especially climate change—have only intensified in the 4 years since the RFS was passed.

The billion gallon challenge

We should stop bellyaching about what we don’t know, and get to work learning.  Rather than looking sadly at the receding 16 billion gallon target for 2022, we should focus on meeting the Billion Gallon Challenge in the next five years. The Billion Gallon Challenge is our policy roadmap for getting biofuels back on track.

The chairman of the NAS panel, Wally Tyner, was quoted by USA Today saying “Everybody in the industry wants to build the fourth or fifth plant. Nobody wants to build the first.”  That is precisely why  the smart investment is in the first facilities.

We can get the first 20 cellulosic biorefineries in the ground  and the industry up to commercial scale by providing loan guarantees and tax credits (we lay this all out in the Billion Gallon Challenge report linked above). It will cost about $1 billion a year, far less than the $6 billion a year we have been spending on wasteful biofuels tax credits in recent years.  In the process, the information we will gather will help resolve the uncertainties that stymied the NAS panel.

Trash is cheap

One last thing I can’t let pass:  the report’s failure to highlight the role of garbage as a potential fuel.  They devote a lot of space in the summary to a table showing how much future sources of biomass may cost, but fail to include the cheapest feedstock of all, garbage, which people will pay you to take off their hands.  Buried in the depths of the report they suggest this feedstock will come later, after cleaner, but more expensive, feedstocks pave the way.  Next week I will write a post explaining why that is simply not what is happening on the ground, so stay tuned.