Bad News For U.S. Biofuels Mandates?

Back in 2007 Congress, through the Energy Independence and Security Act, amended the Renewable Fuel Standards to encourage development and commercial production of cellulosic biofuels made from wood, grasses and other non-edible plants. The U.S. is on schedule to meet mandates for conventional biofuels and biodiesel. But, according to a new report from the National Academies; whether and how the U.S. will meet its goal of consuming 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels is another story.

According to the report, there are currently no commercially viable biorefineries for making cellulosic biofuels. Therefore, unless, by some miraculous improvement in technology, biofuel producers can ramp up production in the next few years; the U.S. will fall far short of meeting this goal.  Although the mandate guarantees a market for biofuels produced, policy uncertainties are discouraging investors from this high-cost sector. The committee concluded that achieving the renewable fuel standard will require increased federal spending on grants, loans, loan guarantees–an unpopular prospect in the current economic climate.

cellulosic ethanol plant, abengoa

image via Shutterstock

In addition, the report reveals that the standard may be an ineffective in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and that it could have mixed economic and environmental effects. The environmental impacts of bio-based fuels are highly dependent on site-specific factors, such as the types of feedstocks and management practices for land and water use. While biofuels production has been shown to have both positive and negative effects on water quality, soil, and biodiversity; air-quality modeling suggests that the production and use of ethanol is likely to increase air pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur oxides.

The National Academies consist of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).