More than a decade after the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act imposed mandatory biofuel requirements on the American economy, even biofuel apologists acknowledge biofuels are falling far short of industry promises.
Last week the MIT Technology Review, an unabashed cheerleader for renewable energy, profiled the ongoing failure of biofuels ( see https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610915/the-scientist-still-fighting-for-the-clean-fuel-the-world-forgot/). In an article profiling prominent biofuels researcher and advocate Jay Keasling, the Review acknowledged “the field is in shambles.”
“U.S. companies are producing only a sliver of the cellulosic fuels called for under renewable-fuel standards put in place at the end of the last Bush administration, and much of that is ethanol derived from agricultural leftovers like corn stalks,” the Review explains. “Given that shortfall, the Environmental Protection Agency simply issues waivers for advanced biofuels each year….”
In other words, renewable energy advocates mandated cellulosic or other fuels under federal law, but no technologies exist to feasibly produce such fuels. Democrats and liberal Republicans received praise from environmental activist groups and their media allies for passing pixie-dust renewable fuel mandates, even though the law is impossible to comply with.
So far, the Review observes, the best and most economical biofuels developed by the federal Joint BioEnergy Institute would sell at $35 per gallon, or more than 10 times the price of gasoline.
“Producing cheap advanced biofuels simply ended up being a far harder problem than expected,” the Review noted. “For starters, you have to plant, harvest, dry, and ship massive volumes of crops, in as clean and sustainable a way as possible. And then the hard part begins. Teasing out fuels from stems and leaves requires separating the energy-packed carbohydrates in the plant’s cell walls from the woody lignin molecules that bond tightly around them, typically using acids, pressure, and heat. Then you need microbes that can consume those carbohydrates, mostly cellulose, and poop out fuels. But no naturally occurring bugs are known to produce the type that can directly fill the tank of existing cars, so scientists need to genetically engineer ones that can.”
So developing cellulosic biofuels or similar “renewable” fuels is an environmentally suspect process, requires new applications of genetic engineering, has received hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies, and still cannot produce gasoline at less than 10 times the cost of gasoline. Ten years after passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act, cellulosic ethanol and other products of renewable energy wishful thinking appear farther away from reality than ever.