The EU and the United States are preparing for what appears to be an extended debate on the merits and structure of biofuels mandates. Especially in the US, where the Renewable Fuel Standard is coming under blistering attack from the coalition of oil, food and environmental groups that successfully sold the myth of "food vs fuel".
Myth #5. Cellulosic biofuels will be five years away, forever.
Reality: The first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels planet are opening this year in the US and Europe, and more will be opening each year because the Renewable Fuel Standard and the EU biofuels targets had their intended effect. As BP Biofuels chief Phil New put it, passage of the 2007 RFS “galvanized us in to action.”
As it happened, it was almost exactly five years from the passage of RFS2 to the opening of the first cellulosic biofuels plants at commercial scale — despite the 30-month disappearance of project finance to build such plants, int he 2008-2010 credit crunch.
So the five years part was right, but the “forever” part, that’s myth. Cellulosic biofuels are affordable and available.
Myth #6. President Obama wants everyone to use algae-based biofuels that cost $26 per gallon.
Reality. Well, it may be little known, but the commencement of envelopment of algal biofuels is an initiative of the Reagan Administration, continued under first Bush Administration, cancelled under the Clinton Administration due to extremely low oil prices prevalent in the 1990s, and revived under George W. Bush. It is decidedly a Republican renewable fuels program, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Basically, if there’s a President Algae, it’s conservative icon Ronald Reagan — more power to him. If there’s a party that should get credit on algal fuels, it’s the GOP.
The $26 per gallon figure was circulated after the Navy paid that amount for testing and certification quantities of algal-based biofuels. However, the Navy is on record saying that they are intent on deploying such fuels only after they reach commercial scale, and comparable cost with conventional jet fuel.
Let’s look at exactly how and why President Obama got himself embroiled in the controversy. First of all, he’s a former farm state senator, and a strong believer in addressing climate change and doing game-changing things to address the US situation in the Middle East — accordingly, to at all surprising that he he strongly pro-biofuels.
But there’s a lot of political opportunism in all this.
As Dan Morgan wrote in The Globalist, it was “former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, then still a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination for president, [who] mocked President Barack Obama’s support for algae-based fuels. He called it “cloud cuckoo land”.” Gingrich went on to label Obama as “President Algae”.
But Morgan adds, “a senior American politician noted that by the end of the decade “you could be fueling 12 airplanes, 20 airplanes, 30 airplanes” with algae-based fuels. That was none other than Newt Gingrich, addressing an audience of California Republicans in February.”
Myth #7. Biofuels require massive subsidies.
Reality. Well, no. Biofuels producers point out that subsidies will accelerate the commercialization of their industry, and if that is a policy benefit to the country offering subsidies, that can be a win-win. But they are not at all requiring them. In fact, both Brazilian cane ethanol and US corn ethanol have successfully transitioned off subsidies.
More than that, by helping to create a “floor price” for commodity crops like corn, U.S. biofuels have allowed the U.S. to also end payments to farmers made until long-time farmer payment policies designed to avert farm bankruptcies, and a halt in food production, during periods of low crop prices. The current US farm bill will end direct gamer payments, which in 2011 paid out $5.6 billion to farmers. That’s a result of the increased protection offered by crop insurance — and the price floor that biofuels provides.
Myth #8. Natural gas is a renewable fuel, too, and should receive the same advantages as biofuels.
Reality. “Gas has been reclassified as a green source of power by Horizon 2020, an €80bn European Union programme unveiled last year, which could have serious repercussions for the renewable energy industry,” reports The Guardian.
Is gas green? Well, it certainly is greener than coal, as a source of electric power. But the definition of “renewable” turns on the time lines. It’s true that if you take a ton of biomass and bury it for 60 million years that, under the right conditions, it will become natural gas or oil. But “renewable”, when it comes to biomass, generally applies to perennial or annual crops, or quickly growing wood.
So there you have it. The perception, and the reality. Our take at the Digest — base it on science. That doesn’t mean, always, quite the same thing as “base it on anything that comes out of a scientist’s mouth” — over time, consensus views have shown that a policy of “biofuels, never!” is just as foolish as “biofuels, always and in every place at every time.”
This article was originally published on Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.
Image: Chalkboard via Shutterstock
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