February 24, 2006

NRDC: Simultaneous Ethanol R&D and Deployment

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a guardian of the environment and an advocate for policies that will have lasting impact on quality of life around the world. In July 2005 (before the latest fuel price spikes) the NRDC published a lengthy, footnoted position paper exhorting politicians to support policies that would bolster R&D and deployment of new conversion technologies. Below are some key pronouncements that give a flavor of the full document.


Bringing Biofuels to the Pump
An Aggressive Plan for Ending America's Oil Dependence

Principal authors: Nathanael Greene and Yerina Mugica

The United States does not have to rely on oil to drive our economy and quality of life. We can replace much of our oil with biofuels—fuels made from plant materials grown by American farmers. These fuels, especially those know as cellulosic biofuels, can be cost-competitive with gasoline and diesel, and allow us to invest our energy dollars at home. They can also slash global warming emissions, improve air quality, reduce soil erosion, and expand wildlife habitat.

• Biofuels could virtually eliminate our demand for gasoline by 2050.
• Biofuels could be cheaper than gasoline and diesel, saving us about $20 billion per year on fuel costs by 2050.
• By 2025, producing the crops to make these fuels could provide farmers with profits of more than $5 billion per year.
• Biofuels could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year – equal to more than 80% of transportation-related emissions in 2002.

To make biofuels affordable and sustainable, we recommend a package of policies with the broad goal of developing a cellulosic biofuel industry by 2015 that is cost-competitive with corn ethanol and moving rapidly toward cost competitiveness with petroleum fuels. To achieve such an aggressive commercialization schedule, research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RD&D) will need to be pursued on nearly parallel tracks.

RD&D must focus on three areas of greatest technological challenge:
1 - Overcoming the recalcitrance of cellulosic biomass: converting cellulosic biomass into a more usable source of energy through technologies such as pretreatment, biological processing, and gasification is the greatest and most important challenge.
2 - Coproducts: enabling biofuel plants to diversify the range of products they produce along with biofuels, such as additional fuels, animal feed protein, and chemical, improves economics and efficency.
3 - Feedstocks: getting greater crop yields and making other advances in feedstock production will reduce the cost and the environmental footprint of biofuels.

Compared to the ever increasing national security and environmental costs of our oil addiction, increasing our R&D funding for biofuels to $1.1 Billion is an extremely reasonable investment.

Demonstration projects should be pursued in a range of geographic areas using a range of feedstocks.

Where appropriate, demonstrations should take advantage of existing biofuels infrastructure.

RD&D should increase the amount of ethanol produced from each ton of dry biomass from current levels of about 84 gallons to about 105 gallons. At the same time, the amount of excess electricity produced should nearly triple. These changes, along with major reductions in the cost of raw material handling and processing capital and operations, should reduce the cost of a gallon of ethanol from about $1.26 currently to about $.63 from advanced technologies (see also NRDC's Growing Energy report).

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