USDA Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check

I was getting some traffic from Grist, and I tracked it back to this story by Tom Philpott:

The USDA goes all lukewarm on cellulosic ethanol

Now this is good stuff. The same outfit that has exaggerated corn ethanol is now downplaying expectations for cellulosic ethanol:

For decades now, the USDA has been dumping cash into cellulosic ethanol research (most recently through a joint venture with the DOE).

So the USDA’s analysts should know something about the prospects for mass production of cellulosic ethanol, hailed by its boosters as a panacea that can wean us not only from oil, but also from corn as an ethanol feedstock.

So what’s the latest from USDA analysts on this miracle fuel? From a report released last week:

“Although cellulosic-based production of renewable fuels holds some longer-term promise, much research is needed to make it commercially economical and expand beyond the 250-million-gallon minimum specified for 2013 in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

Heh. Some “longer-term promise.” This in contrast to Vinod Khosla’s “We are going to produce cellulosic ethanol for $1 a gallon and run the country on it.”

Tom then cuts right to the point I have been trying to drive home:

What the researcher is saying is that six years from now, in 2013, cellulosic still won’t be economically viable. For decades now, cellulosic boosters have been promising a major breakthrough within five years. And the future cellulosic utopia keeps receding ever-further into the future.

I will be the first to say that we really need cellulosic ethanol, or some kind of economical petroleum alternative to work. But there is a disconnect between reality, and the perception in the minds of the public and of our politicians. They think that because we need economic cellulosic ethanol, we will get it. Of course that perception is bolstered when Vinod Khosla appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and tells them that cellulosic ethanol is the cure to our ills. All the government has to do is to mandate it and throw money at it, and we shall have it. You know, while they are at it, I wish they would mandate a cure for cancer.

8 thoughts on “USDA Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check”

  1. If Vinod wanted any sympathy from me, he wouldn’t have started dissing Priuses, especially with BS numbers:

    But hybrid electric cars won’t succeed, he said in an interview. You have to pay $5,000 more on a Prius in order to save half a ton of carbon a year, which is more than most consumers will go for, he explained. Buying hybrids “is mostly about personal guilt trips.” It’s like wealthy investors giving money to “art museums instead of to starving people” in Africa, he said.

    There is no Prius-equivalent that I could have bought for $22.4K – 5K = 17.4K

  2. Actually where I live you can get a Nissan Altima for $17.4K. $20K if not bare bones, though.

    Instead of buying Priuses and hoping biofuels will work some day, my family has cut down to 1 car, a Honda Civic, and I bike or take the bus to work.

    It’s great having the extra money freed up by getting rid of a car!

  3. Interesting, the Altima is ranked as a midsize, and that would put it more in line with the Prius than the typical Corolla comparison.

    FWIW, I think the Ford Focus Wagon would be the nearest equivalent for me, if it had Toyota reliability, and if they still made ’em(?).

    (I enjoy it when I can cut down on driving and ride bikes, but right now I’ve got a job that like my physical presence, 20 mi from home. I’m not enough of rider to do 40 mi per day, every day.)

  4. RR has bashed ethanol enough to convince me that it is a dubious proposition, save perhaps the E3 plant.
    But I have one cavil: RR says the feds are “dumping cash” into cellulosic ethanol research.
    We are dumping cash, but it is into Iraq. $10 billion a month.
    Maybe ethanol won’t work out. But anything is better than more foreign adventures in oil-land. And, if by luck we get an ethanol breakthrough, or more likely, a series of little steps that make it worthy, all the better.
    There are some reasonable avenues in ethanol. The E3 plant is one, and looking into less energy intensive ways of separating ethanol and water is another.
    Subsidizing ethanol makes sense if our option is an expensive military which must be deployed for years on end in various oil regions of the world. And that is before the human cost, or the human plsu of creating jobs in the USA.

  5. Odograph said: “There is no Prius-equivalent that I could have bought for $22.4K – 5K = 17.4K.”


    Yes, there is: A turbo-diesel with a manual transmission. I have a 5-speed VW Jetta TDI and routinely get almost 50 mpg. (I paid about $23,000 for mine new in 2005.) There are several turbo-diesel cars of Prius-like size available in Europe that get as much as 60-70 mpg.

    When you condsider the high amount of embodied energy in the Prius battery, you would actually come out ahead with one of the European turbo-diesels.

    It’s a shame our EAP won’t let them into the U.S. The amount of energy they save more than compensates for the slight increase in emissions of a diesel.


    Gary Dikkers

  6. They won’t let us have (new) diesels in California, as you say.

    A reliable diesel would be a contender, though watch out … some makes rack up in repairs what they save in fuel.

  7. BTW, the BEST thing about diesels from my perspective right now is that they can give you fuel economy AND towing capacity.

    That makes them much more flexible as “big car” or SUV replacements.

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