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Political roadblocks for cellulosic ethanol?

Growth of a new ethanol made from switchgrass and fast-growing trees could be limited by competition from corn growers, ethanol experts said.
/ Source: Reuters

Growth of a new ethanol made from switchgrass and fast-growing trees could be limited by competition from corn growers, ethanol experts said.

The fuel, called cellulosic ethanol, is not yet commercially available, but has been touted by President Bush, environmentalists, and venture capitalists as an efficient low-carbon fuel.

The Bush administration has rolled out nearly $1 billion in funds to research and build new refineries to ethanol producers, including for cellulosic fuel, in an effort to cut reliance on foreign oil as well as greenhouse emissions.

The White House wants to boost U.S. production of biofuels by nearly five times current levels by 2017.

At the beginning stage, at least, cellulosic ethanol can cost as much as double to produce as traditional U.S. ethanol, currently mostly made from corn. Even if costs fell over time, cellulosic producers could face heavy competition from corn growers because of U.S. incentives to make traditional ethanol.

“It’s hard to imagine growers have spent 25 years nurturing members of Congress to support tariffs and blenders credits... in order to give this game away to grass,” C. Ford Runge, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, told reporters at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The U.S. puts a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imports of ethanol from Brazil, which makes the fuel mostly from sugar cane, and gives comparable ethanol blending credit for producers of the traditional fuel.

Ethanol made from sugar cane is much more efficient than corn-based ethanol because it requires far less inputs such as fertilizer and insecticides.

The U.S. incentives keep corn ethanol so attractive that cellulosic ethanol producers could have a hard time finding enough land to grow significant amounts of the fuel, Runge said. High motor fuel prices have prodded U.S. farmers this year to plant the largest corn crop since World War Two, according to the Department of Agriculture.

“We are going to have to find reasons to tell people to plant switchgrass and not corn,” said Runge. “As long as we have the structure of corn subsidies and ethanol subsidies that’s driving demand for corn-based ethanol, that’s not going to happen.”

A spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry group in Washington, said corn and cellulosic can co-exist, because cellulosic fuel can be grown on marginal lands, or be made from corn crop waste.

Several members of the group, such as Archer Daniels Midland Abengoa, that have long been producers of grain ethanol, are also looking at cellulosic ethanol.

David Rothkopf, the author of a recent green energy report for the Inter-American Development bank, agreed that it could be hard for cellulosic ethanol producers to compete for land to make significant amounts of the fuel. He said experiments with growing algae in water to make biofuels hold promise.