Cellulosic Biofuel Production Continues, But Remains Under Target

Difficulties in financing, technology add hurdles to cellulosic biofuels' expansion

Published on: Feb 28, 2013

The Energy Information Administration highlighted the path of cellulosic biofuels to commercial scale this week, releasing a map of planned cellulosic projects and detailing hurdles to advancement.

Some of those hurdles – from technology issues to financing – have limited the expansion of cellulosic biofuels and illustrated that original estimates set forth by the 2007 Energy Security Act may have been a bit generous, EIA shows.

The original timeframe and volume goals set forth in the Act included 500 million gallons by 2012, 1 billion gallons for 2013 and 16 billion gallons by 2022. However, by the end of last year, commercial-scale production of cellulosic biofuel generated only about 20,000 gallons.

Difficulties in financing, technology add hurdles to cellulosic biofuels expansion
Difficulties in financing, technology add hurdles to cellulosic biofuel's expansion

EIA says a realistic timeline for a production capacity of 250 million gallons may be around 2015 – much different than the original target levels. And though there is significant growth potential over the next several years, EIA points out those volume discrepancies show the path to commercial cellulosic fuels hasn't been easy.

A number of biofuels projects, including one from BP Biofuels in Highlands County, Fla., have been canceled before starting major construction. In addition, many projects have experienced delays in their commercialization attempts.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Several reasons underpin slow growth in the commercialization of biofuels, EIA notes, including difficulties obtaining financing in the aftermath of the debt crisis, technology scale-up difficulties at startup companies, and strategic corporate shifts because of increased availability of low-cost natural gas.

Hurdles, yes, but there is promise

EIA's map of upcoming projects, however, detail those that offedesigned to produce ethanol or fuels that are direct replacements for petroleum-based gasoline or distillate fuels (drop-in biofuels) as well as steam. Using technology known as combined heat and power, EIA says, this steam can both be consumed internally as a process-heat source and used to generate power. The power can also be used internally to operate pumps and other electrical equipment or sold to the electrical grid, giving these projects the potential to consume no fossil fuels.

Cellulosic Biofuel Production Continues, But Remains Under Targets

A number of the projects shown on the map may also generate a solid co-product with the potential for use as a fertilizer. To the extent that feedstock for these processes are waste products and little-to-no fossil inputs are required for their conversion, greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as 80% to 90% below those of petroleum products on a life-cycle basis.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

EIA finds previous estimates generous

All EIA forecasts and projections made since the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 anticipated large shortfalls between the renewable fuel standards targets and the volumes of cellulosic biofuels sold. Despite this, EIA says its forecasts and projections to date have proven to be too optimistic, as volumes have been below expectations.

Looking forward, important challenges remain for cellulosic biofuel production, EIA says. Total production costs for many of these first-of-a-kind projects remain higher than the cost of petroleum-based fuels on both a volumetric and energy-content basis. Cellulosic ethanol also faces the same market and regulatory challenges to increasing its share of the fuel market that is faced by other types of ethanol.

But, EIA says, over the medium to long term, technologies to produce intermediate chemicals from cellulosic biomass have the potential to increase business margins and diversify revenue sources.