Five Positive Notes on Next-Generation Biofuels

In the previous essay, I discussed some of the challenges that next-generation biofuels face according to a recently released USDA report:

Next-Generation Biofuels: Near-Term Challenges and Implications for Agriculture

Here are five positive notes from the report:

1. Renewable Diesel Plant Capacity

“Next-generation U.S. biofuel capacity should reach about 88 million gallons in 2010…” This is primarily a result of the expected start-up of a next-generation renewable diesel plant. I have reported on this technology before, as well as the efforts of first-generation biodiesel producers to slow it down and protect their own interests. My guess is that unlike the ConocoPhillips project that was killed after Congress voted to deny them the full tax credit, this project will receive the same tax credit as a conventional biodiesel producer. On a level playing field, I believe the hydrocracking approach is superior to first generation biodiesel, but our political leaders will need to stop playing games with the tax credits in order for next generation diesel to realize its potential. (For a complete explanation of the different kinds of renewable diesel, see my Renewable Diesel Primer).

2. Competitive Race

Companies are taking a number of different approaches to coming up with next-generation solutions, increasing the chances that a dark horse will arise as a contender: “There are about 30 next-generation companies in the United States developing biochemical, thermochemical, and other approaches, and experimenting with a variety of feedstocks, some of which are directly linked to agriculture..”

3. Open for Business

The first next-generation plants are expected to come online in 2010: “Range Fuels and Dynamic Fuels are expected to complete the first commercial next-generation biofuel plants in 2010.” I have certainly given Range Fuels a hard time over their public statements – especially in light of recent reports which this USDA report also flagged: “According to the EPA, however, the plant’s initial capacity has been reduced from 10 million to 4 million gallons per year and initial output will be methanol.” However, readers should not mistake my position as hoping that they fail. To the contrary, I hope they succeed, because we are going to need a lot of successes. I am just skeptical that they will achieve commercial (unsubsidized) success, and unhappy that they sucked up a lot of taxpayer funds based on their initial promises that clearly did not materialize.

I would further note, however, that Range Fuels and Dynamic Fuels may be the first U.S. plants that could be classified as next-generation commercial plants (although as I have pointed out, we had commercial cellulosic ethanol plants in the U.S. by 1920), but such plants do already exist overseas. Neste Oil, in fact, has built several plants based on the same sort of technology that Dynamic Fuels is employing. There are also other overseas companies doing gasification (the Range approach) that are further along than Range is.

4. Algae Research

Just as there are many different approaches to next-generation fuels, there are many companies taking many different approaches to producing fuel from algae: “More than 30 U.S. companies currently are experimenting with different approaches to producing algae-based fuels.” Some of these approaches are unconventional: “Although the majority of algae-to-biofuel companies are focusing on producing algae oil for traditional biodiesel production, some companies are using algae to produce ethanol (Algenol), or petroleum-equivalent fuels (UOP and Sapphire).” The challenge of course will be to drastically reduce production costs, but the potential is too great to ignore.

5. Production Costs Decrease

Both production and capital costs for cellulosic ethanol are falling. The report noted “POET recently reported it had lowered production costs for cellulosic ethanol, including capital expenses, from $4.13 to $2.35 per gallon in a year as of November 2009 at its South Dakota pilot plant.” The report further notes that estimates for a 100 million gallon cellulosic ethanol facility have fallen from the $650 million to $900 million range (2004 estimate) to $320 million (2009 estimate). However, the report notes that these estimates should still be considered speculative, since “there are no actual cost data for commercial operations since none are yet operational.”

As a body of work, I highly recommend you read the USDA report if you are interested in the status of next generation biofuel facilities. It is a sober, objective assessment of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as next generation fuel technologies continue to develop.