Remember that “Beyond Petroleum” TV ad with the pudgy farm boy who wondered if biofuels were the future of fuel (or some such nonsense)? Well, the answer is looking like, “no.”
Amid an article entitled “No eureka moments in long U.S. campaign to crack cellulosic code,”, Greenwire reports,
… [BP] broke ground this year on its first cellulosic ethanol refinery in Highlands County, Fla., using a relative of sugar cane that is light on the sugar and thick in the stem. (They call it “energy cane”; the crop is already planted.) The facility will produce 35 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year beginning in 2013, BP says…
[But even a] new yeast strain, which eliminates a whole step and cuts enzyme costs by a third, won’t make BP’s Florida plant profitable. BP has accepted that it will lose money on the biorefinery, which is “almost certainly not going to work well,” [biofuels expert Chris Somerville] said. And it will be expensive.
“They’re putting down $400 million for only 35 million gallons a year of capacity,” Somerville said. “Let’s call that $10 per annual gallon. That’s about two to three times as high as the corn ethanol guys.”
Somerville expects that BP’s second plant could work quite well, though it is unlikely to come online until later this decade. Perhaps by 2020 the field could be profitable. While this is not a reality that the government and media are eager to hear, some caution is justified.
“You got to understand that it’s a big new industrial process,” he said. “It’s a really expensive proposition to put that much steel in the ground. And once you put it in the ground, it’s there. You can’t just pick it up and put the money somewhere else.”
No doubt all this would have failed sooner but for mandates:
Several years ago, overconfident researchers and policymakers predicted that they would soon develop tools to cheaply break down plant walls, creating “cellulosic” ethanol. These predictions begat policy, with congressional biofuel mandates, passed in 2007, calling for 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be used this year, rising to 500 million gallons in 2012.
It didn’t happen. This year, the government lowered its cellulosic mandate to 6.6 million gallons, and in late June U.S. EPA proposed requiring between 3.5 million and 12.9 million gallons of the fuel for 2012, making up less than 0.010 percent of the country’s fuel supply (Greenwire, June 22). Despite mandates and subsidies, science can only be pushed so quickly. It is a recalcitrant problem, said Steve Koonin, DOE’s undersecretary for science, at a meeting earlier this year.
Yes… science isn’t dinner; it just can’t be ordered.