PHILADELPHIA, July 26, 2016 - “Thirty million gallons of biofuel will be produced without consuming a single additional bushel of corn.”

That’s what Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, promised last October when DuPont launched its 30-million-gallon-per-year (MGPY) cellulosic biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa. As a chief author of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Congress passed to accelerate biofuels development, Grassley saluted the company: “You have achieved here what Congress hoped: new biofuels that were cleaner, greener and more efficient.”

The oil industry and its allies in Congress have pushed back by charging that the RFS has failed and should be repealed because it has taken years longer than expected to develop cellulosic ethanol made from crop residues rather than from food crops. Oil interests also argue that much has changed since the RFS was dreamed up and signed into law by President George W. Bush. They insist that the need to replace imported petroleum with domestic biofuels has disappeared because fracking has greatly expanded U.S. oil and gas production.

In response, Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council (ABBC), testified in a House Energy & Commerce Committee RFS hearing in June that “delay should not be interpreted to mean failure when it comes to the commercial deployment of the most carbon-reductive, innovative fuels in the world.” He also pointed out that today’s low oil prices and supply glut are the temporary OPEC-created preludes to an inevitable return to soaring oil prices and increased need for biofuels.

Coleman explained in an Agri-Pulse interview that cellulosic start-ups faced many obstacles. First, cellulosic and advanced biofuels were only added to the RFS in 2008 and EPA took another two years to complete program rules. The next obstacle was “a 100-year recession that froze most lending and, of course, project finance.” Then, he says, “EPA stopped enforcing the law – literally did not have annual blending requirements – from 2013 until late 2015.”

Despite the opposition and obstacles, Coleman emphasizes that cellulosic ethanol is being produced at commercial scale today. POET/DSM’s Project Liberty plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, has already produced and shipped railroad tank cars of cellulosic ethanol and plans to be producing at its 20 MGPY rate by the end of this year.

Along with POET/DSM and DuPont, the third leading force in the U.S. cellulosic industry is the Cellerate plant operated by Quad County Corn Processors and Syngenta in Galva, Iowa. The joint venture boasts that its unique processing is turning corn kernel fiber wastes from Quad County’s conventional corn ethanol plant into cellulosic ethanol at the rate of two MGPY. The biggest boast is that this ethanol cuts toxic greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100 percent compared to gasoline.

Along with the breakthroughs, there have been continuing setbacks. DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol plant is far enough behind schedule that after years of stockpiling corn stover to turn into ethanol, it has canceled any stover harvesting for this year, a blow to local farmers. And Abengoa’s 30 MGPY cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kansas, has been shut down. Coleman points out, however, that the Spanish parent company’s bankruptcy “had nothing to do with its bioenergy business unit.”

Coleman says what’s important is that despite challenges, “we are deploying the technology at commercial scale” even if not “at the rate we anticipated before the recession and failed RFS implementation.” He insists that there’s still “the opportunity to lead globally on cellulosic biofuels.” Much will depend, he says, on whether the Obama administration’s final RFS rule due to be released by Nov. 30 demonstrates a strong commitment “to commercializing the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world right here in the United States” rather than surrendering to oil industry demands to water down or repeal the RFS.

Coleman adds that after major advances in technology and an 80 percent reduction in enzyme costs, the major challenge now is that “motor fuel markets are not free markets. We therefore need policy to make the oil companies blend better fuels.” Without full RFS implementation, he warns, the U.S. risks losing its biofuels leadership to China and Brazil. He says despite current achievements, “companies like POET didn’t get into cellulosic to build one plant. POET could build a couple dozen Project Liberty’s in the United States. That’s how important it is to get the RFS back on track.”

Coleman, in a June 22 House Energy & Commerce Committee RFS hearing stated, “U.S. and global liquid fuel markets are not free markets . . . the fossil fuels industry enjoys the benefit of a number of unique federal tax allowances – unavailable to renewable fuels – that de-risk and lower the cost of the ongoing development of oil and gas resources relative to other sources of liquid fuel. For example, a recent study estimates that fossil fuels received 70 percent of U.S. federal energy subsidies between 2002 and 2008, to the tune of more than $70 billion during this time period.”

POET/DSM public relations director Matt Merritt looks forward to adding Project Liberty’s cellulosic production process to more of POET’s fleet of 27 first-generation ethanol plants as well as to plants outside the POET network. He explained in an Agri-Pulse interview that “our goal with cellulosic ethanol is to make it competitive with corn ethanol.” He says with the advances in technology and cost savings achieved in the Project Liberty plant, “we’re confident that cellulosic ethanol is going to be able to be profitable long term.”

Merritt points out that the RFS has created a guaranteed 16 billion-gallon-per-year market for cellulosic ethanol. The size of this market opportunity – and the importance of enforcing the RFS to protect this market – explains why POET/DSM, DuPont and Quad County submitted joint comments to EPA on July 11. They charged that EPA’s flawed rulemaking “has stifled the growth of the renewable fuels industry, including the advanced sector, in comparison with the promise of the statute.” They pointed to the importance of advancing both corn starch ethanol and cellulosic because “coupling cellulosic ethanol production with corn starch ethanol production allows for economies of scale that make future expansion of the cellulosic ethanol market feasible.”

What’s most important, Merritt says, is “to remember why we’re doing this and some of the benefits that cellulosic ethanol brings, particularly on the environmental side.” He says that by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 to 95 percent, POET/DSM’s cellulosic ethanol is “uniquely positioned to make some incredible changes to the environmental footprint for liquid fuels . . . the impact is enormous for our environment.”


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