Ethanol is a promising alternative fuel that, along with improvements in fuel economy and reductions in travel demand, has the potential to help solve many of the problems associated with gasoline use. Though the current form of ethanol made from corn offers limited environmental benefits and limited potential for large-scale displacement of petroleum, it will be a key to the transition to cellulosic ethanol in the future.
Cellulosic ethanol is more energy-efficient than corn ethanol and uses more abundant and diverse feedstocks that, unlike corn, are not used for food production. Unfortunately, cellulosic ethanol is not yet ready for commercial deployment.
In the near term, the largest potential for oil savings comes from improvements in the fuel economy of new vehicles, and greater fuel efficiency will help lower the costs of an ethanol future. For this reason, government should continue to support research into cellulosic ethanol and other alternative fuels, but not at the expense of concrete steps to implement proven, cost-effective, near-term solutions such as improving fuel economy over the next 10 years.
Q: What is the potential for ethanol production in the United States?
A: The long-term potential for ethanol production from products such as grasses, wood chips, rice straw, and the corn plant itself (called cellulosic ethanol) is significant. However, some key breakthroughs are needed for it to play a significant role. In particular, further advances are needed in order to cost-effectively liberate cellulose from the plant material and convert it into fermentable sugars. Aggressive scenarios for the deployment of cellulosic ethanol production indicate that it has the potential to replace nine billion gallons of gasoline in 2025 and upwards of 100 billion gallons in 2050. While this is a very large number, it is important to realize that our gasoline demand by 2050 could be nearly 300 billion gallons if we do not take steps to improve fuel economy and slow growth in travel demand.
The large-scale potential for ethanol production from corn is limited, but corn will be an important part of the transition to even cleaner forms of ethanol. We currently use roughly 10 percent of our corn crop for making ethanol, yet this displaces less than 0.2 million barrels of gasoline per day, out of the nine million barrels of gasoline our cars and light trucks currently use every day. Our total oil use is expected to grow from 21 million barrels per day today to more than 26 million barrels per day by 2025, but even if we used all our corn to make ethanol, with nothing left for food or animal feed, we could only displace perhaps 1.5 million barrels per day of this demand. Clearly, corn ethanol is an early part of the solution but by itself is not a sufficient long-term solution to our oil dependence.
In the long term, both renewable fuels and increased vehicle efficiency will need to be used together, and this combined approach could virtually eliminate U.S. gasoline demand by mid-century. In the near term, as we get moving on a sustainable ethanol path, fuel efficiency can create the needed space for that path to be realized. For example, the modest fuel economy improvements proposed by the “ten-in-ten” fuel economy bill introduced in the Senate would save 39 billion gallons of gasoline in 2025, and the savings would be even greater in later years.
Q: Could we ever completely replace fossil fuel with biofuel?
A: Maybe, but only if we adopt a multifaceted approach to reducing fossil fuel use. In order for biofuels to have a chance of meeting our needs, we will need to significantly reduce the total amount of fuel we use. That means slowing the growth in demand for vehicle travel-through smarter growth, transit use, carpooling, etc.-and getting more miles out of every gallon of whatever fuel we do use.
Q: What potential economic benefits or difficulties could a movement to biofuels have on the U.S. economy?
A: At $60 per barrel, we’re sending $500,000 out of the country every single minute just to buy petroleum. In 2005, the money we spent on petroleum imports was equivalent to about one-third of our trade deficit. Reducing petroleum use through greater efficiency and by producing biofuels domestically could help alleviate this economic burden while creating new jobs on farms, in the auto industry, and throughout the economy. It will take investments to get there. In the near term, government assistance will be needed to help fund research and development and to provide continued incentives for more ethanol pumps. Given the oil industry’s slow response so far on the issue, we also need the government to continue to require increasing amounts of renewable fuels, especially those that also reduce global warming pollution.
A switch to the widespread use of biofuels is not without its challenges. For example, ethanol is currently transported mainly by tanker truck or rail cars because it cannot be shipped in existing gasoline pipelines. This is because ethanol will pick up water, contaminants, and residues in the pipes, which could make the ethanol unusable. While there are ways to overcome this challenge, it will increase the need for investments above and beyond those required to build up a fuel production and pump infrastructure and overcome the technical hurdles associated with cellulosic ethanol.
Q: Is there enough agricultural land to eventually grow all of the nation’s fuel?
A: UCS contributed to a report entitled Growing Energy that laid out a “pedal to the metal” scenario for the broad adoption of biofuels. The study found that with the right combination of policies and technological breakthroughs, cellulosic ethanol and other biomass fuels used in combination with a doubling of fuel economy and a cut in the growth in travel demand could conceivably reduce our gasoline demand to near-zero in about 50 years, without sizable interference in food crop production. To do this, we would need to significantly increase fuel economy standards for all vehicles, adopt smart growth policies to reduce travel demand, more than double the amount of usable biomass that can be grown on an acre of land, and more than double the number of gallons of biofuel that can be produced from that biomass. In the long term, biofuels could be a significant part of the solution but, in the near term, much greater reductions in oil demand would be realized through greater fuel economy. Also, increasing fuel economy buys us the time we need to achieve the key biofuels and for biofuel production volumes to ramp up dramatically.
Q: Is corn really the best raw material for ethanol? Why?
A: Corn is an important transition feedstock on the path to cellulosic ethanol but, because the potential capacity for ethanol production from corn is fairly limited, we need to look to other resources if ethanol is to make a significant dent in U.S. oil dependence and global warming pollution. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to address these challenges, but it is not yet ready to be broadly adopted.
In addition to concerns about feedstock limitations, corn ethanol derives much of its energy from fossil fuel inputs. As a result, the overall reduction in heat-trapping emissions achieved by using corn ethanol is relatively small: only about 10 to 20 percent per unit of energy delivered. Replacing gasoline with corn ethanol will not solve the problem of global warming, but cellulosic ethanol could potentially deliver much larger benefits: as much as an 80 to 90 percent reduction for the same amount of energy.
Q: What is the level of understanding on Capitol Hill regarding biofuels?
A: There is no shortage of enthusiasm for biofuels on Capitol Hill right now, but there is also the danger of biofuels being viewed as a panacea. This creates a risk of overlooking more obvious solutions such as increased fuel economy, which can deliver results much more quickly and is essential to the long-term success of biofuels. It is critical for Congress to realize that biofuels are just one part of the solution to our oil dependence. Congress should be supporting research in biofuels as well as clean hydrogen and electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles powered with renewable electricity, but not at the expense of proven solutions that are available right now.
Q: Some critics say that ethanol is destined to remain a niche product in the Midwest, subsidized by Congress for the benefit of farm-state politicians. Is this charge justified?
A: If ethanol is to grow beyond its midwestern roots, we will need to develop new technologies to produce it more efficiently and from alternative feedstocks. The potential for cellulosic ethanol to help tackle oil dependence and global warming is there, but it will take a long-term commitment and improvements in vehicle efficiency for that potential to be realized. If politicians just use ethanol as a “flavor of the month” to avoid taking real steps to cut oil dependence through higher fuel efficiency, it could end up as a bit player or even a drain on oil dependence (as we have seen with the dual-fuel loophole that provides automakers credits toward meeting fuel economy standards without requiring that flex-fuel vehicles run on alternative fuels).
Q: The need for alternatives to Middle East oil has been called the “the greatest opportunity for the heartland since the New Deal.” What potential does ethanol and biofuel development have as an opportunity for growth in rural America?
A: Innovation has been at the heart of economic growth in America and innovation focused on renewable energy and efficient vehicles will be no different. A combination of sustainably grown renewable fuels, renewable electricity, and more efficient vehicles can lead to economic prosperity in the parts of our country that feed us, build our cars and trucks, or both. Our analysis has shown that a 10 percent national renewable electricity standard would generate $5.7 billion in income to farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners from biomass energy production and wind-power lease payments, nearly three billion dollars in new property tax revenues for local communities, and more than 90,000 new jobs throughout the country by 2020. The findings are similar for increasing fuel economy to 40 miles per gallon over the next 10 years, which would create more than 40,000 new jobs in the auto industry alone and more than 160,000 throughout the country. The picture for biofuels would look pretty similar-though with a somewhat longer timetable-if the nation committed to a reasonable renewable fuels pathway.
We should not fool ourselves, however, and think that existing industries will take advantage of these benefits on their own. High oil prices could also lead to investments in tar sands, oil shale, and motor fuel made from coal, all of which would only make our environmental problems much worse while setting ourselves up for another hard fall as these finite resources are gobbled up.
Q: Biofuels proponents have said, “Investing in biofuels is a win-win situation for everyone involved.” Is this a fair statement?
A: Sustainably grown biofuels have the potential to be a win-win for everyone in the future, but it is not a sure thing. A successful biofuels strategy will require technology innovation, significant vehicle efficiency improvements, and reduced travel as critical supporting strategies, along with attention to sustainable agricultural practices.