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By Robert Rapier on Oct 2, 2009 with no responses

Cellulosic Ethanol Falling Short

The reason I spend time debunking wild claims is that I think they damage the entire bioenergy sector in the long run. People who issue press releases claiming they can produce fuel for $1/gallon – and by the way we can do it next year if you give us the money – may attract some funding, but in the long run if they can’t deliver, investors will shy away from the entire sector.

One of the things I have spent time debunking is the notion that we are going to rapidly scale up and produce massive quantities of cellulosic ethanol. I believe – for fundamental reasons of chemistry and physics – that it isn’t going to happen. I have said that I think the people who are getting money to build cellulosic ethanol plants will start coming up with a litany of excuses for the cash they burned through, and their failure to deliver. A year ago, I wrote:

The next few years will see a record amount of back-pedaling from most of the companies trying to establish a foothold in this space – and overpromising on their technology to do so. There will be the normal litany of excuses – such as ‘the oil companies are suppressing the technology’ – but in the end the chemistry, physics, and most importantly the capital costs and logistical challenges will catch up with them. Yes, excuses will be made, but those who know a little about the technology will know what really happened. It’s going to be TDP all over again.

Today a new article in Nature says that cellulosic ethanol schedules are slipping and prospects are dimming – partially because investors have gotten burned by rosy biofuel promises (which is exactly my fear). The article is:

Cellulosic ethanol hits roadblocks

The article is behind a pay wall, but I have access. So I can provide some excerpts:

In February 2007, the US Department of Energy selected BlueFire and five other companies to negotiate for up to US$385 million in funding for commercial-scale plants. And later that year, Congress issued a federal mandate to produce 61 billion litres of cellulosic biofuels annually for transportation by 2022.

As I have said on repeated occasions, I don’t believe the advanced biofuel mandates will be met, and I think you will start to see targets slipping next year (the first year the advanced mandate really phases in). I predicted quite explicitly a year ago that we wouldn’t come close to meeting the targets. The Nature article agrees:

According to ThinkEquity, an investment bank based in San Francisco, California, the United States will have the capacity to produce less than 13 million litres of cellulosic ethanol this year, and it will almost certainly fail to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) projection of 381 million litres of cellulosic biofuels in 2010. Two of the six companies selected by the Department of Energy to negotiate for commercial plant funding have dropped out of the programme, and several plants belonging to other companies have been delayed.

They also casually note more delays in Vinod Khosla’s Range Fuels project:

Range Fuels, based in Broomfield, Colorado, originally planned to complete the final phase of construction on a Georgia commercial plant in 2011 but has delayed that until late 2012, says chief executive David Aldous.

The reason I have criticized Vinod Khosla is that I believe he is out there making promises that he can’t deliver upon. But he is Vinod Khosla, so people (private equity and taxpayers) give him money to invest, potentially diverting it from ventures that make less noise, but have more real potential to deliver. And a lot has been invested into his Range Fuels venture. However, it is no surprise to me at all that the schedule has been slipping since the project was first announced.

I first covered the Range Fuels ground-breaking as one of my Top Energy Stories of 2007 (See #6). A year later, I covered the first announced delay in my Top Energy Stories of 2008 (again #6). The initial announcements from Range were that the first 20 MM gy phase is expected to be fully complete in 2008. Then that was delayed until 2009. Next it was scheduled to be completed by the first quarter of 2010, with the production of ethanol and methanol at a run rate of less than 10 million gallons per year to follow in the second quarter of 2010.” So now we see delays pushing into 2012. As some readers noted, this is the “final phase” they are talking about, but they need to start producing from the first phase before they have to worry about any final phases.

The article also discusses Iogen, and the fact that they “suspended operations on an Idaho plant to focus its resources on a possible plant in Saskatchewan.” Iogen has been producing for long enough at their pilot plant that they should have a good idea of what the economics really look like. That’s why I don’t expect them to build a plant, but instead to keep announcing that they are studying the issue.

The article also noted that researchers at Sandia National Laboratories had predicted that “cellulosic ethanol could compete with petrol in 2030 only if oil was $90 a barrel or higher.” Left unsaid is that this hinges upon technical improvements.

I find the entire issue very frustrating, because I have felt for years that our energy policy is being pushed by people with influence, but not necessarily people who are knowledgeable about energy. So what happens is that we waste years chasing dead ends and losing precious time as oil depletion marches on – and we spend our tax dollars because someone made a lot of empty promises.

These delays should also serve as a message to those who think the market will fix the problem of oil depletion by driving prices higher and making alternatives more affordable. The problem is that it takes years to bring these projects online, so you have to have a long-range plan for pursuing the right strategies. If oil prices are back to $150 next year, we will either pay up or do without. The energy business isn’t like a widget maker that can easily set up shop and compete for market share. It takes years and lots of money.

Note: I originally put this up in a hurry, and in reading it later I felt it came across as unnecessarily abrasive. In my haste I had also chopped off a quote that made it appear out of context. That was not my intention, but after viewing some of the comments I reread the story and I saw that this was the case. So I have corrected it.