CURRENT INCENTIVES FAIL—WE NEED A NEW POLICY TO CREATE MARKETBREAKTHROUGH FOR ADVANCED BIOFUELS.
, Editor of Technololgy Review, “The price of biofuels: making ethanol from corn is expensive. Better biofuels are years away from the gas tank. Farmers are reluctant to change their practices. But do we really have anyalternative to biofuels?” Technology Review, Vol. 111 No. 1, January 1, 20
But back in the Midwest, there is a "show me" attitude toward suchblue-sky projections, and there are lingering questionsabout just how the nation's vast agricultural infrastructure will switch over to biomass. If Khosla's projections prove out,"then wonderful," says the University of Minnesota's Runge. "Meanwhile, we're stuck in reality
." Perhaps the mainpoint of contention, Runge suggests, is whether corn ethanol will in fact lead to new technologies--or stand in theirway. "It is my opinion that corn ethanol is a barrier to converting to cellulosics," he says, pointing to the inertiacaused by political and business interests heavily invested in corn ethanol and its infrastructure. Runge is notalone in his skepticism. "Unless the cost is reduced significantly, cellulosic ethanol is going nowhere," says WallyTyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Making cellulosic ethanol viable will requireeither a "policy mechanism" to encourage investment in new technologies or a "phenomenal breakthrough"--and"the likelihood of that is not too high
," Tyner says.
Farmers and ethanol producers currently have no incentive totake on the risks of changing technologies, he adds. There is "no policy bridge" tohelp make the transition
The status quo won't do it
Despite the sharp differences of opinion, there's still some common ground between people like Khosla, whose unbridled faith in innovation has been nurtured by the successes of Silicon Valley, and theMidwesterners whose pragmatism was forged by the competitive economics of agriculture.
In particular, mostobservers agree that annual production of corn-derived ethanol will level off within a few years. After that, anygrowth in
biofuel production will need to come from new technologies. But if cellulosic biofuels are to beginreplacing gasoline within five to ten years, facilities will need to start construction soon
This fall, Range Fuels,a company based in Broomfield, CO, announced that it had begun work in Georgia on what it claims is the country's firstcommercial-scale cellulosic-ethanol plant. The Range facility, which will use thermochemical technology to make ethanolfrom wood chips, is scheduled to reach a capacity of 20 million gallons in 2008 and eventually increase to 100 milliongallons a year. Meanwhile, Mascoma has announced several demonstration units, including a facility inTennessee that will be the first cellulosic-ethanol plant built to use switchgrass. But t
hese production plants are federally subsidized or are aresult of partnerships with state development organizations;
attracting private investment for commercial- scale production will be another matter
. Indeed, ramping up the capacity of cellulosic-ethanol production will bea huge and risky challenge, says Colin South, president of Mascoma. "When people talk about cellulosic ethanol as if it isan industry, it is an unfair portrayal," he says. "
There are a number of pilot plants, but none of them have gotten out of the pilot scale. We still need to show we can actually run these in the form of an operating chemical plant