Officials: Standard key to biofuel future

Source: Written by Peter Harriman, Argus Leader • Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013

poet presser

 A news conference at Poet on Thursday with (from left) South Dakota Gov. Dennis Dau- gaard, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Poet CEO Jeff Lautt. / Melissa Sue Gerrits / Argus Leader

Mandate pushes innovations, governors, ethanol executives sa

Job one for biofuels proponents is to vigorously defend the federal renewable fuels standard, so advanced fuels such as cellulose-based ethanol have room in the marketplace, Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told participants at the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition hosted by Poet on Wednesday in Sioux Falls.

On this foundation, the governors and others discussed a strategic vision how to develop a market for next-generation fuels, how to ensure a consistent, sustainable supply of feedstocks for them and how clean-burning ethanol is the answer to an emerging public health concern that the fuel additives oil refiners use to boost gasoline octane is as dangerous as the lead and methyl tertiary butyl ether they replaced.

“This year we will probably have the biggest battle,” Branstad predicted of the renewable fuels standard. “We need to win this battle.

“We need to continue support for the RFS to allow us to get through challenging times to a very bright future.”

Advanced biofuels

Allies of the oil and grocery industries unsuccessfully pushed to have the renewable fuels standard waived last summer in response to widespread drought that reduced the nation’s corn harvest. The mandate, passed by Congress in 2005, called for 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply by 2012. It was expanded in 2007 to require 36 billion gallons to be blended by 2020. Of that, 21 billion gallons must be advanced biofuels.

When the revised standards were adopted, advanced biofuels were still laboratory experiments, according to Daugaard. “Now we are on the verge of production,” he said.

The renewable fuels standard provided the impetus to take cellulosic technology from the lab bench to commercial production.

Even without cellulose-based ethanol, South Dakota’s 15 corn ethanol distilleries have the capacity to produce 1 billion gallons annually and use half the corn grown in the state, according to the governor.

But Daugaard and others at the conference said biofuels are poised to make an enormous jump if the industry can shrug off attempts to keep it under wraps.

Potential products

Poet co-founder and board chairman Jeff Broin drew a parallel to PVC pipe. From its development in the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, its use was suppressed by the steel industry. In 1965, it was approved for widespread applications, and “it took off,” Broin said. “This is what I think can happen in our industry.”

Worldwide, there are 1 billion acres of idled cropland that can be returned to production and planted to corn and other biofuels crops, he said. Corn yields are expected to double to about 300 bushels per acre by 2030. Not only is the ethanol industry becoming ever more efficient at producing fuel, additional products such as the livestock feed dried distillers grain, industrial coatings, food additives and biopolymers are being developed.

“There is no question we will get dozens if not 50 products from the corn plant down the road,” Broin said. He likened this to the myriad products that result from refining oil.

“Corn is the oil of the future,” he predicted.

Standard needed

But only if the renewable fuels standard remains in place to ensure advanced biofuels are welcomed in the marketplace, according to Tom Buis, executive director of the biofuels advocacy group Growth Energy. Without the RFS imperative to drive blending ethanol in higher concentrations than the original 10 percent E-10 blend and the E-15 on the verge of being approved for widespread use in motor vehicles, ethanol use will be stalled at the current level. Oil refiners have no incentive to aid the expansion of biofuels that displace gasoline in the nation’s fuel supply, Buis argued.

“It’s all about market access. The RFS is the absolute thing that guarantees us market access, because our product is distributed by people who absolutely do not want to see us succeed,” he said.

As commercial cellulose-based ethanol ventures get under way, important challenges must be worked out. The Poet-DSM consortium’s Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa, is set to begin distilling 20 million gallons of ethanol annually from corncobs, stalks and husks this year. For cellulosic ethanol to succeed, producers such as Poet-DSM must be assured a sustainable, timely feedstock supply, said Amy Schwab, biomass systems integration lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Schwab and Greg Kissek, head of government affairs for ICM Inc., said the experience at Project Liberty will provide insights into how to ensure that supply without disrupting the primary aspect of farming, grain production.

Schwab said advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol will create 190,000 new jobs with a total economic impact of $148.7 billion if the 21 billion gallon advanced fuels portion of the 36 billion gallon renewable fuels mandate is met.

PAH health concerns

A game-changer in the expansion of biofuels could be medical scientists’ growing concern with the safety of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This class of chemicals, a product of oil refining, currently is used by fuel blenders to boost gasoline octane. PAHs replace the toxic metal lead, largely phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986, and the toxic compound MTBE. The EPA began phasing out MTBE in 2000 after it was shown to migrate aggressively underground when spilled and contaminate groundwater.

But PAHs do not entirely burn in combustion engines. They produce ultra-fine particles. In urban areas, especially, these are prevalent enough to be readily inhaled, and they are so small they are difficult to exhale. Recent medical studies implicate them in asthma, endocrine disruptions, diabetes, autism and cancer, according to Carol Werner of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Kissek noted in the past three decades, ethanol proponents touted biofuels’ ability to reduce greenhouse gases and ethanol’s dramatic economic stimulation of rural economies as well as its ability to replace imported oil with fuel made from home-grown corn.

“All those had their time. They are all still valid. But the health effects are becoming more and more an issue,” he said.

As biofuels proponents rally to support the renewable fuels standard, public health concerns with PAHs may be the compelling next chapter in the biofuels’ narrative, Kissek said.

Ernie Shea, executive director of 25 x ’25, a group dedicated to seeing 25 percent of the nation’s energy come from renewable sources and conservation by 2025, challenged the EPA to step up and meet its responsibilities for regulating PAHs under the authority of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Even while federal agencies are accepting mandatory budget cuts, the EPA could make that a priority, Branstad insisted.

“They’ve got an army of people,” he said, and Daugaard added the agency should bring “a laser-like focus” to developing rules governing PAH emissions.

Goading the EPA to aggressively enforce PAH limits to help make the case for biofuels and safeguarding the RFS will result in a huge payoff, insisted participants at the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition.