Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Robert Rapier on Sep 15, 2007 with no responses

USDA Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check

I was getting some traffic from Grist, and I tracked it back to this story by Tom Philpott:

The USDA goes all lukewarm on cellulosic ethanol

Now this is good stuff. The same outfit that has exaggerated corn ethanol is now downplaying expectations for cellulosic ethanol:

For decades now, the USDA has been dumping cash into cellulosic ethanol research (most recently through a joint venture with the DOE).

So the USDA’s analysts should know something about the prospects for mass production of cellulosic ethanol, hailed by its boosters as a panacea that can wean us not only from oil, but also from corn as an ethanol feedstock.

So what’s the latest from USDA analysts on this miracle fuel? From a report released last week:

“Although cellulosic-based production of renewable fuels holds some longer-term promise, much research is needed to make it commercially economical and expand beyond the 250-million-gallon minimum specified for 2013 in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

Heh. Some “longer-term promise.” This in contrast to Vinod Khosla’s “We are going to produce cellulosic ethanol for $1 a gallon and run the country on it.”

Tom then cuts right to the point I have been trying to drive home:

What the researcher is saying is that six years from now, in 2013, cellulosic still won’t be economically viable. For decades now, cellulosic boosters have been promising a major breakthrough within five years. And the future cellulosic utopia keeps receding ever-further into the future.

I will be the first to say that we really need cellulosic ethanol, or some kind of economical petroleum alternative to work. But there is a disconnect between reality, and the perception in the minds of the public and of our politicians. They think that because we need economic cellulosic ethanol, we will get it. Of course that perception is bolstered when Vinod Khosla appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and tells them that cellulosic ethanol is the cure to our ills. All the government has to do is to mandate it and throw money at it, and we shall have it. You know, while they are at it, I wish they would mandate a cure for cancer.