A cellulosic landmark
Production has begun at rates deemed commercial by two US makers of cellulosic biofuel. Mute
the trumpets, though. Volumes still won’t be great
enough to meet the Environmental Protection
Agency’s 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard requirement for the material, which is a fraction of what
Congress envisioned for this year when it passed
the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
If anything, the start-ups show how flawed the RFS
truly is—and how greatly it needs to be scrapped.
INEOS Bio on July 31 said it had begun producing cellulosic ethanol at commercial scale at a
plant in Vero Beach, Fla., and would make its first
shipment in August. The plant can produce 8 million gal/year of ethanol-equivalent by converting
plant waste—biomass—into syngas, which it ferments into ethanol with naturally occurring bacteria. At the beginning of 2013, EPA identified it as
one of two US facilities likely to produce cellulosic
biofuels commercially this year.
The other facility, operated by KiOR Inc. at Columbus, Miss., also is starting up. It uses a process similar to fluid catalytic cracking to convert
biomass into “biocrude,” which it upgrades into
gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Capacity of the KiOR
plant is about 11 million gal/year.
When EPA set RFS levels for 2013, it projected more
output from the plants than either will deliver. It
assumed INEOS Bio would produce 6 million gal
of ethanol-equivalent at Vero Beach. If the plant
produced at capacity rates for the rest of the year,
however, total production would be slightly more
than half that amount.
For the KiOR plant, EPA estimated 2013 pro-
duction of 8 million gal of ethanol-equivalent fu-
els. In a July 1 press release, the Pasadena, Tex.,
company said its Columbus plant had completed
its first uninterrupted 30-day run and on June
28 made its first shipment of cellulosic gasoline,
which was the first fuel shipment of any kind since
March. KiOR said the June 28 shipment was the
start of regular deliveries of gasoline and diesel. As
with INEOS Bio, therefore, production by KiOR at
capacity rates for the rest of the year would leave
the total well below EPA’s projection.
Problems with the RFS program and the law underlying it don’t end with injudicious requirements for
nonexistent substances, of course. If production of
cellulosic biofuel came close to meeting lawmakers’
ingenuous expectations, the market wouldn’t have
room for the ethanol component of it. Although the
RFS requirement for conventional ethanol hasn’t
yet peaked, the stagnant gasoline market has absorbed about all the ethanol it can under current
blending limits. One miscalculation by Congress
thus counteracts part of the damage caused by another. Both mistakes, however, are huge. Americans
shouldn’t tolerate them.
Commercial production of cellulosic biofuel is
a landmark, to be sure. But it says far more about
faulty governance than it does about energy supply. That’s not something to cheer.