Studies look at cellulosic ethanol from different angles

By Sarah Smith | May 09, 2008
Although having different focuses, two studies released in March found that cellulosic ethanol's contribution to reducing worldwide energy independence needs tremendous impetus to be a significant contributor in the future.

Context Network LLC looked at the consumption mandates set in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 and concluded that corn-based ethanol will best fulfill the requirements unless there are major technological developments to hasten cellulosic development. The Context study projected EISA's impact on agriculture over the next 14 years, and found that biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol as boutique fuels can't contribute significantly to meeting the mandate unless government support, funding and the economy improve.

Context author Jim Murphy took a three-phase approach. In the short-term, between 2008 and 2010, he determined that all required biofuels will come from agricultural commodities and the completion of plants under construction. In the medium term, from 2011 to 2015, there will be a transition period when commodities-based biofuels production will peak, and cellulosic ethanol and production from other feedstocks will begin. In the long term, from 2016 to 2022, new production capacity from cellulosic plants and alternative feedstocks will be crucial to meeting the mandate.

The second study, conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, examined the cellulosic ethanol industry from a feedstock perspective, finding that switchgrass is cost-competitive with traditional corn as a feedstock. However, farmers who participated in the study indicated they couldn't find accessible markets for their crops, so the lower production cost of switchgrass would be offset by higher transportation costs, according to researcher Richard Perrin, an agricultural economist.

Perrin's study looked at switchgrass production costs in three states over a five-year period. Farmers with more experience were able to lower their costs to $39 per ton. The average cost for the producers in the study was $60 per ton. However, finding markets was a challenge, Perrin said, noting that some corn-based plants are turning toward cellulosic feedstocks, which may be the market farmers need. "At least they're thinking about this, but it's going to take more than thinking to produce cellulosic ethanol," he said. "Clearly, we'll be able to meet the mandate in 2010, but it keeps doubling, so we've got to have many more plants under construction, and they haven't turned many spades of dirt toward it yet."