Cellulosic Future Hangs in Balance

Source: By Todd Neeley, DTN/Progressive Farmer • Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2017

The future of cellulosic biofuels, such as that produced using corn stover, could depend on the ability to expand the ethanol market. (DTN file photo)
The future of cellulosic biofuels, such as that produced using corn stover, could depend on the ability to expand the ethanol market. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) — The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee considered testimony Wednesday from a number of witnesses on a bill changing a federal regulation that forbids the sale of E15 from June 1 to Sept. 15. The bill would extend the waiver for Reid Vapor Pressure, or RVP, to E15. Currently, E15 sales are restricted in nearly two-thirds of the country during the summer months because of ozone concerns.

Ethanol and gasoline are both low volatility. When the two fuels are mixed, the volatility spikes, but only at blends just below E10. As more ethanol is blended with gasoline, the vapor pressure decreases, which essentially means E15 reduces vapor pressure.

Janet Yanowitz, an engineer with EcoEngineering, Inc., told the committee E15 can help reduce ground-level ozone through reductions in volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

“Fuel effects on motor vehicle emissions are difficult to quantify because different vehicles can behave quite differently,” she said.

Yanowitz summarized the results of a number of studies on ethanol and ozone.

The addition of 10% ethanol to gasoline, she said, results in an increase in vapor pressure.

“The addition of 15% ethanol to the same blendstock results in almost exactly the same impact on the vapor pressure,” Yanowitz said.

“Nonetheless, it can be concluded that replacing E10 with E15 that benefits from the same 1 psi waiver is a small change, with minimal emissions impacts, according to the best-available emissions test data.

“On average, the total tailpipe organic emissions and the ozone-forming potential of those organics will be expected to decrease or stay the same, and nitrous oxide, or NOx, is expected to be unchanged with a move to E15. Ethanol and acetaldehyde emissions will likely increase. Carbon monoxide (CO) will decrease.”

Yanowitz’s analysis for the committee was based on peer-reviewed scientific literature and studies by the coalition of petroleum and automobile companies that make up the Coordinating Research Council or CRC.

She pointed to a 2008 study done by three national laboratories as further evidence of E15’s viability.

“They conducted emissions testing on 16 vehicles, model years ranging from 1999 through 2007 using E0, E10, E15 and E20,” Yanowitz said.

“They found that increasing the ethanol content resulted in no significant effect on NOx or organic tailpipe emissions, although the results varied widely among vehicles; CO emissions were reduced and ethanol and acetaldehyde emissions increased.”


R. Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said the future of the cellulosic ethanol industry depends on the ability to expand ethanol markets through E15 and other higher blends.

A number of companies, including three in Iowa, have launched commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production in the past few years.

“It is cost-effective now,” Coleman said. “The bill is important to get demand for the fuel.”

The recession that started in 2007, he said, along with a slow-to-develop E15 market, have played a major role in slowing the expansion of cellulosic ethanol.

“Project finance in the advanced biofuels sector — or any sector — depends very acutely on being able to demonstrate (to outside or in-house investors) the opportunity for market demand if technological/production benchmarks are hit,” Coleman said.

“The biggest challenge emerging cellulosic biofuel producers have is being able to create and demonstrate consistent year-to-year demand against the headwind of manipulated price and more general oil industry dis-interest in using more renewable fuel than required by law.”

E15 would be the “lowest hanging fruit” opportunity for cellulosic ethanol, he said, because the fuel has been approved by EPA for use in all vehicles manufactured after 2001.

“E15 adoption as essentially a three-season fuel has helped cellulosic ethanol makers demonstrate growing ethanol demand,” Coleman said.

“However, its unavailability in the summer has dampened retailer interest in making the arrangements to offer the fuel at all. And it has thereby dampened enthusiasm on the project finance side due to uncertain market demand.”

Jonathan Lewis, senior counsel for the Clean Air Task Force, told the committee his group has a number of concerns about E15’s potential effect on climate.

Primarily, his group is concerned that expanding E15 will lead to more corn ethanol production and will harm the environment as a result of increased land-use changes.

“Allowing E15 to be used year-round would expand the market for ethanol, and if history is any guide, much if not all of that new market space will be filled by corn ethanol,” he said.

During the hearing, Lewis and Coleman went back and forth on corn ethanol’s greenhouse lifecycle emissions profile. Lewis cited a National Research Council study of 2011 emissions data.

That data collected by the EPA found corn ethanol to have higher lifecycle emissions than gasoline. Subsequent analyses reached the opposite conclusion.


Todd Teske, chairman, president and chief executive officer for Briggs and Stratton Corp., said his company has concerns that expanding E15’s availability could further confuse small engine owners and hurt those engines in the long term.

“E15 fuel, by definition would have an alcohol content ranging from 0% to 15%. Our engines would have great difficulty in meeting both emissions and performance expectations with this type of alcohol range,” he said.

“Furthermore, department of energy testing of E15 on a representative sample of small non-road engines, including Briggs and Stratton powered generators and power washers, found that small engines experienced a variety of difficulties with intermediate blends of ethanol.”

Teske said though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels E15 pumps to prevent misfueling, the labels don’t necessarily work.

“Warning labels have been the subject of many research studies,” he said, “with results often showing little change in consumer behavior.”

Mike Lorenz, executive vice president of Sheetz Inc., a growing retail provider of E15, said his company has expanded E15 availability at its stations based on consumer demand.

“We have had no instances of misfueling in selling E15 for two years,” he told the committee.

“Consumers can make the right fuel choices. We guarantee all gas we sell. If there’s a problem we’ll make it right and fix it.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, an avid motorcyclist, said the idea that consumers are unable to make the correct fuel choices is “a bad argument.”

A number of ethanol interest groups this week urged Senate leadership to pass the bill.

The Renewable Fuels Association called for the “expeditious” passage of the measure.

“The biggest remaining obstacle to E15 growth is the inequitable application of gasoline vapor pressure regulations,” RFA President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Dinneen said in a letter to Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Tom Carper, D-Del.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current regulations have created an un-level playing field for E15 and other higher-level blends.”

Ahead of the hearing, the RFA said it placed an advertisement in Wednesday’s print edition of “The Hill.”

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor said in a statement on Wednesday, “For years, Growth Energy has led the charge to put choice into the hands of consumers by expanding the marketplace for higher blends of ethanol. The testimony heard today provides clear evidence that Congress should move forward and ensure that consumers benefit year-round from higher ethanol blends that reduce emissions and protect our heath and our climate.”