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On An Artificial Solution to Ethanol's Price Woes

A 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions is substantial. The RFS2, as written, will reduce annual transportation emissions by roughly 7-8 percent by 2022.  This is a fine strarting contribution to the problem. CAFE standards, and more aggressive rollouts of electric vehicles may further contribute to reductions, but the 7 percent contribution from the RFS2 will dwarf other contributions by 2022.  This is on a life-cycle, per unit of energy basis, so lower energy density is mostly irrelevant when talking about ethanol on a life-cycle basis.

March 24, 2013    View Comment    

On An Artificial Solution to Ethanol's Price Woes

If the solution to the RIN price issue is to sell more E85, then lowering the price seems like the way to do it.  If that means that the price of gasoline will have to go up to compensate for the E85 price spread, then this will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  More importantly, however, is that the high RIN price actually promotes technology innovation in low-carbon fuel.

As we know, the Cellulosic Ethanol RIN waiver credit of $1.13 has not been at a sufficiently high enough price to promote the development of Cellulosc Ethanol (explaining why so little has been produced).  As prices increase, these alternative fuels will become viable to produce, and thus be allowed to scale in the market to reduce costs over time.

RIN price escalation is one viable way to reduce technology lockout -- why is this a problem?

March 19, 2013    View Comment    

On Encouraging Advanced Biofuels Development in a Low Carbon Economy

Hi John,

The LCFS is not setup to address fuel efficiency, and acts on a completely different area for technological promotion than the CAFE standards.  CAFE is a vehicle sandard, while the LCFS is a fuel standard, which targets refiners as opposed to automotive manufacturers. It's better to think of the LCFS as a market-based modificaiton to the RFS2 than to think of it as a fuel economy standard. The LCFS creates a technology incentive mechanism that directs pricing signals toward low-carbon fuel production, and rewards incremental improvements in carbon intensity from a baseline level. These standards may then be met through any modifications to existing fuel production pathways, and through bringing new fuels to market (mostly biofuels).

While cellulosic ethanol may be produced with negative net energy, the RFS barrier prevents that from happening, as it rightly should. The issue with the RFS and promoting cellulosic ethanol is that the RIN waiver credits have not been substantially high, and the mandated levels have remained uncertain, which has discouraged investment in the technology.  If the 50% reduction criteria were removed, this would amount to bringing cheaper, less relevant cellulosic technologies to market, with only the assumption that GHG emissions would be reduced as costs came down. If cellulosic technologies are not coming online with the given RIN waivers, additional funding should be directed toward RD&D as necessary.  We're starting to see some plants finally entering the market, so we'll see where the technology ends up.

A lot of fuel technology policies have, unfortunately, fallen victim to the "fuel du jour" phenomenon, in which the subsidies and incentives have been patchy and short-lived. We truly need a comprehensive energy innovation policy system in this country that is setup to take technologies from their infancy through to market deployable solutions. The LCFS tries to work toward this in some capacity.

February 28, 2013    View Comment    

On Next Generation Biofuels: Pathways To Production

Thanks for the comment, Rick.  What you're talking about can probably best be described by the German-based SolarFuel process 

It turns electricity into methane, an energy carrier, through water splitting and CO2 capture + reforming. This is a highly energy intensive process, but the natural gas is effectively carbon neutral if you neglect the infrastructure.

You'd be burning the natural gas and re-emitting the CO2 to create an effectively carbon neutral process.

It goes like this:

2CO2 (ambient) + energy --> 2CO + O2

4H2O + energy --> 4H2 + 2O2

4H2 + 2CO --> 2CH4 + O2

Net Rxn:4H2O + 2CO2 + energy --> 2CH4 + 4O2

You then combust the CH4, and go back to H2O and CO2.

As the CO2 is derived from the ambient air, you have a carbon neutral process.

As with all nascent technologies, this one is expensive.  Much more expensive than the technologies discussed above.

February 25, 2013    View Comment    

On Which Biofuels Can Capture Our Transportation Market?

Thanks for your comment.  Indeed you are correct, and I will stick with the DOE's definition in the future to avoid furuther confusion, especially as their definition scope excludes butanol from drop-in categorizaiton.

February 7, 2013    View Comment    

On From Here to There: A Brief Outlook for Biofuels

Hi Rick,

Thanks for the comments. I intend to address your major question of "where do we go with bioenergy" in my next couple of posts.

There are dozens of interesting options to pursue that encourage any number of different pathways.  Some policy options, like the low-carbon fuel standard, encourages efficiency improvements for refining of petrochemicals while creating incentives for interesting new production pathways.  The RFS remains mired in first-generation biofuel thinking, but may be adapted to allow for alternative technologies and more innovative approaches to address transportation challenges.

A lot of interesting analysis out there right now indicate that biofuels will likely be used as a stepping stone, or interim fuel for light-duty transportation until EVs or Hydrogen vehicles become competitive.  It's also one of the only options for alternative fuel in the aviation sector. So the general outlook is: use less controversial, more efficient pathways for the production of biofuel until long-term alternative technology options become attractive. This will be discussed in more detail in future posts.

January 23, 2013    View Comment