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Cellulosic Ethanol

January 22, 2008

Corn Vs. Cellulose: And The Winner Is?


Critics that attack corn-based ethanol in favor of cellulosic ethanol need to develop a better understanding of how corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol go hand-in-hand into the winner's circle. Corn-based ethanol has paved the way for the accelerated development of cellulosic ethanol.  Ethanol has had to overcome several marketplace hurdles and had to develop the legislative support infrastructure, which if it were not in place, would create a much longer and riskier bridge to the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. For example, corn-based ethanol has: 

  1. Established automaker acceptance of gasoline/ethanol blends and alternative fuel vehicle production (i.e., FFVs and E85).
  2. Created a competitive fuel market for the first time in 100 years of gasoline dominance. Corn-based ethanol also helped establish laws to prevent major oil companies from stopping their distributors from selling ethanol.
  3. Helped our government leaders understand that federal and state legislative support is necessary to make it profitable and possible to sell ethanol.
  4. Paved the way to get government funding and support for cellulosic conversion technology.
  5. Has improved and proven the fermentation and drying processes that will be used by cellulosic ethanol plants.
  6. Paved the way to for the expansion of nation’s renewable fuel standard and requirements for cellulosic conversion technology in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
  7. Paved the way to for the expansion of state renewable fuel standard (e.g., MN) and requirements for federal RFS requirements.
  8. It is also paving the road for the cellulose feedstock collection and process which will likely first happen around large and established scale corn-based ethanol plants.
  9. Created the next likely line up of licensers for the new cellulosic technologies being developed today.
  10. Paved the way for the acceptance of the use by Indy race cars which can prove ethanol’s performance and lead to more acceptance by the public.
  11. Corn ethanol is a small part of corn growing strategy and markets – but makes it profitable to growers, saves government payments to farmers, and keeps food production acres and farmers in business.

The excitement over cellulosic ethanol is still about the success and potential of ethanol, which in any other form of production, is still ethanol.

If we choose to throw out corn-based ethanol in favor of cellulosic ethanol, what are our alternatives?

  1. Close down the $20 billion in economic activity currently being generated by corn-ethanol plants.
  2. Return to using more carcinogenic gasoline?
  3. Return to using more crude oil imports from unstable countries that hate us?
  4. Don’t use ethanol and accelerate the supply/demand imbalance for crude oil, and increase gasoline prices?
  5. Let farmers go back to relying on federal payments and force them to sell their land to corporate farms and accelerate urban sprawl?
  6. Cut government programs by $6 billion so we can get back to business of paying farmers not to grow crops?

What was done.

The recent Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 addresses many concerns about corn by limiting its use and sets extra market based rewards for ethanol made from cellulose that can prove it uses less energy when compared to gasoline.

We did it.

The democratic process created new performance metrics for ethanol feedstocks based on public and scientific concerns.  Entrepreneurs, universities, the federal government, and even General Motors are now taking financial risks to accelerate the cellulosic development process to reap the rewards of cleaner burning and cheaper transportation fuels.  Congress has also protected the nation's $20 billion corn-based infrastructure that will soon prove to be an integral part of the success and rapid growth of cellulosic ethanol.

What I think we should we do next?

Corn-based ethanol brought cellulosic technology to the alternative fuels dance and we should all be doing the two step – first step ethanol, second step cellulose. Cellulosic ethanol will answer many of the concerns of critics over ethanol's ability to significantly and sustainably become an important component of our nation's energy strategy.  We should all move forward with enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol, improvements in the process technology, the improved methods of growing of corn and other energy crops, and continue to develop cellulosic ethanol.  Throwing out the corn-based ethanol before it reaches its full potential (e.g., cellulosic) is like turning off the old black and white TV before seeing HDTV. So stay tuned in to see more developments in ethanol and ethanol feedstocks.

What do you think we should do next?

We look forward to your comments and insights.

Burl Haigwood
Director of Program Development

January 15, 2008

General Motors Bets on Cellulosic Ethanol Model

GM's recent announcement to partner with Coskata Energy to help accelerate the development of cellulose-based ethanol (cellulosic ethanol) should be welcomed news for consumers, environmentalists, policy makers, and all others concerned about the sad state of our nation's energy / economic / environmental and geopolitical affairs.  GM is acting way outside the traditional automaker box with their decision to invest in developing cellulosic ethanol to accelerate the market place arrival of cleaner and cheaper transportation fuels.  The announcement has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and widespread coverage, but has also seen some hopeful, well-intentioned skepticism.  This is obviously a development we'll be covering closely in the future, but for now, let's review the Coskata cellulosic process and discuss the historical perspective that helped lead to this development:

Coskata process

CFDC welcomes Coskata Energy to the growing group of companies developing cellulosic ethanol technologies like Range Fuels, Mascoma, KL Design, Virent Energy Systems, Clear Fuels Technology, Blue Fire Ethanol, and Fuel Frontiers.

Why would an automaker support cellulosic ethanol?

The auto/oil conspiracy against alternative fuels has been dead since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (at least on the auto side) when U.S. automakers helped environmentalists and alternative fuel advocates change the composition of gasoline to include cleaner burning oxygenated fuels like ethanol. EPA announced this week that the reformulated gasoline/clean fuel program is exceeding their expectations to meet clean air and water goals.  The historic and successful clean air/clean fuel legislation of 1990 spawned the first renewable fuel standard (RFS) in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 -- and the U.S. automakers helped. The successful RFS program in 2005 resulted in expanding the RFS in the new Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 from 7.5 billion gallons to its current goal of 36 billion gallon per year -- and the U.S. automakers helped.  Automakers, and especially GM, have continued to show leadership and support for ethanol by first approving of ethanol's use and performance in their vehicle warranties in the 1980's, producing more cars that run on 85% ethanol (i.e., FFVs) in the 1990's, and now supporting the development of new legislation, technologies, and public/retail E85 refueling infrastructure.

General Motors: pioneering business model and role model

What's in it for GM?  Each time the price of gasoline goes up automaker stocks goes down and car sales go down with it.  This historic trend does not seem to mirror oil company profits.  The high cost of changing emission and mileage technology has the same impact on sales, but automakers have evolved, compromised, and advocated and paid for change on a much larger scale compared to oil companies (e.g., catalytic converters, seat belts, air bags, 30+ 30 MPG models, Flexible Fuel Vehicles FFVs, etc.).  While mandating smaller cars with smaller engines in order to get higher mileage has been a difficult challenge in Washington, D.C. -- changing consumer preferences via Detroit has been even tougher.  Changing the automobile refueling choice to one that is cleaner burning, domestic and has a lower carbon footprint for alls cars, not just the new ones, will have a much bigger impact on protecting the environment and stimulating the economy.  An ever growing majority of industry and government leaders and the public agree with this approach – and energy, the economy, and the environment remain on the top of the Congressional to do list.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have been producing cars capable of running on flexible mixtures of gasoline and up to 85% ethanol since 1990's. There are now six million FFVS on the road that combined could use all of the ethanol produced in the United States.  After waiting 30 years for the oil companies to correspond with an alternative fuel chicken to complement the auto's alternative fuel vehicle golden egg, GM has now taken their vehicle's fuel destiny in their own hands and is investing in the development of alternative fuels.  Role model and business model all wrapped up in one. The public did their part by making sure Congress did their part by passing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  GM is fulfilling their corporate stewardship and self-preservation role, as well as stepping in an playing the role of some missing stakeholders.  GM's decision to accelerate the development of cellulosic ethanol sets a great example for others in corporate American that are trying to go green -- spend some green and get results.

Clean Fuel Development: Whose job is it?

Who do you think should be responsible for making sure fuels are clean, consumers have choices of ample supplies of transportation fuels, a competitive "free" market is maintained, and technologies to reduce fossil fuel use and crude oil imports are developed?