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Next-gen biofuels in 2012: Another mandate missed (and by a lot)

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Cellulosic ethanol made from non-food crops and plant waste was supposed to hit the 500 million-gallon production mark in 2012. It won't. But refiners will still have to pay for it anyway.

Another year, another missed renewable fuel production mandate.

The Environmental Protection Agency released this week its 2012 targets for renewable fuels and once again next-generation biofuels will fall far short of the production volume mandated by Congress. Total ethanol production is expected to reach 15.2 billion gallons next year -- a 9 percent increase from 2011, according to the EPA. And nearly all of it will come from corn- and sugarcane-based ethanol.

Meanwhile, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of renewable fuels produced next year will come from cellulosic ethanol -- the transportation fuel panacea expected to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and end the use of food crops like corn for fuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production was supposed to hit 500 million gallons in 2012. Instead, the EPA says it will be 8.65 million gallons -- or 0.006 percent -- next year. The upshot? The U.S. will continue to rely on sugarcane- and corn-based ethanol to meet the national mandate for renewable fuels in 2012.

Unfortunately, this annual ritual of missing mandated production targets is likely to continue. A National Resource Council report released in October said it's unlikely the U.S. will meet specific biofuel mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard by 2022 unless innovative technologies are developed or policies change. What's more, the report questions whether the U.S. should even try because the environmental and economic benefits might not be there.

It's likely that even the 8.65 million production target won't be met this year.  As of October, not a single gallon of qualifying cellulosic ethanol was produced, according to the EPA. Not a single commercially viable biorefinery exists for converting cellulosic biomass to fuel, the NRC said.

Refiners, meanwhile, are still on the hook to "buy" cellulosic ethanol even if a single drop isn't available commercially. The renewable fuel standard requires refiners to either purchase cellulosic ethanol or buy waivers. In other words, refiners have to spend money to meet mandates that can't be met.

Photo: Flickr user jurvetson, CC 2.0

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure