Planet Gore

When Exactly Was Ethanol a Savior?

Headline in the New York Times yesterday:

Ethanol, Just Recently a Savior, Is Struggling

Maybe in the minds of the Left and flex-fuel proponents.
And it’s not just corn ethanol that’s in trouble. An excerpt from the piece on more advanced ethanol products:

Congress hoped that advanced biofuels would overcome the longstanding controversies associated with corn ethanol, including the contention that its production raises food prices. Congress started small, decreeing that industry produce 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels next year and 250 million gallons in 2011. But it is becoming clear that even these modest targets will not be met.

Producing the advanced fuels entails breaking down a tough material, cellulose, that is abundant in corn cobs, wood chips and other biological waste, then converting it to liquid fuel. While scientists have proven it can be done, the cost is still high, and little if any cellulosic ethanol is being produced at commercial scale.

Carlos A. Riva, president and chief executive of Verenium, a company working to produce ethanol from sugar cane waste, said that solving the technological hurdles for this type of fuel was “not a slam dunk.” But he and other executives say they are optimistic the challenges can be overcome, and the 2011 and 2012 targets may be met a few years late.

Small, mostly private companies that go by names like Range Fuels, Poet and BlueFire Ethanol have built pilot plants and hope to move into commercial production. But private investment in advanced biofuels has plummeted since the economy went sour late last year, and it is unclear if the industry can scale up. “Cellulosic ethanol is something that is always five years away and five years later you get to the point where it’s still five years away,” said Aaron Brady, an energy expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm.

With gasoline consumption declining even as federal mandates for ethanol are increasing, demand for cellulosic ethanol may be insufficient anyway.

Energy experts project that national gasoline consumption in 2009 and 2010 will be 6 percent or more below the 2007 level, and future ethanol production targets could represent more than 10 percent of gasoline production. Since regulations set a 10 percent blend limit for ethanol in most gasoline, there would be no place for ethanol production to go.

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