According to a new report by the National Research Council (NRC), the US will be unable to produce enough next-wave biofuels to meet its renewable energy targets by 2022. The report, which was requested by congress, also questioned both the economic and environmental benefits of biofuels as opposed to fossil fuels.
At the center of the report was an examination into whether the production of cellulosic biofuels (which use non-food crops) could be ramped up significantly over the next twenty years.
The NRC concluded that cellulosic biofuels, long heralded as the “next wave” of biofuels, face a number of barriers if they are to fulfill the mandate of 16 billion gallons by 2022.
In particular, the production of cellulosic biofuels would require the conversion of large tracts of land to grow necessary feedstocks. Not only does this conversion underscore the economic costs associated with biofuel production, it could also substantially impinge on the ability of biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Most likely, the land that would get converted would be farmland, natural habitat, or unused pasture land. It is questionable whether or not at the end of all these land conversions that cellulosic biofuels would have any less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.
Furthermore, cellulosic biofuels require generous government subsidies in order to become cost-competitive with oil.
The report revealed that “a cellulosic feedstock market would [only] be feasible if the price of oil reached $191 per barrel, if a carbon price made the price of cellulosic biofuels more competitive, if government subsidy payments were high enough, or if government mandates were enforced at given levels of biofuel blending.”
So far, the production of cellulosic biofuels is way behind the escalating annual targets set out in a 2007 energy law. Furthermore, there are currently no large-scale cellulosic biofuels refineries in operation today.
Do you think that biofuels are a key component of a renewable energy strategy? Do you think the U.S. government should subsidize biofuels to make them more cost-competitive with fossil fuels?
Image CC licensed by U.S. Department of Agriculture: Samples of biofuels produced from algae. Algae are another source as a feedstock for next generation biofuels.