August 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Cellulosic ethanol: A fuel for the future?
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And just like Georgia, other states are encouraging development of cellulosic ethanol.
The state of Michigan is working with Mascoma, a cellulosic ethanol company spun off from Dartmouth College, and said in July that they intend to build a plant in Michigan using wood wastes as feedstock.
Mascoma, also backed by high-profile venture capital firms, has designed organisms that speed up the process of breaking down biomass and converting sugars to ethanol.
Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, is enthusiastic about the plan and says it will help the state economically. The total investment from the state and Mascoma could top $150 million, said Michael Shore, a spokesman from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a state agency.
"The state of Michigan will be putting some significant dollars on the line. We certainly believe there's a race to be first and we want to be in it," Shore said.
According to local press reports, the total investment of the Soperton, Ga., plant will be $225 million. A Range Fuels representative said that the company and Treutlen County have not finalized all of the incentives, which are said to include free use of land and tax abatements.
Federal mandates are setting a rapid pace in biofuel production and investment. Ethanol, made from corn, is now used as a gasoline addition, and blends with a high concentration of ethanol can power "flex-fuel" cars that run both ethanol and gas.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 set a target of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2012--a benchmark that is expected to be surpassed as early as next year. The current capacity from U.S. production is more than 6.5 billion gallons, with another 6.4 billion gallons currently under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
Biofuels today make up a fraction of gasoline consumption, which in the U.S. is about 400 million gallons a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
By mid-century, domestically grown biofuels could meet one third of current fuel demand, according to a 2005 report from the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. The report assumes a major portion will be derived from forests as well as agricultural waste products.
As the investments continue to flow toward ethanol and government biofuel production targets rise, environmentalists are taking a closer look.
Making ethanol from the cellulose in agricultural and forestry waste rather than corn produces less greenhouse gases, according to environmental groups. An NRDC study found that, on average, corn-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas pollution by 18 percent for every gallon of gasoline displaced.
Making ethanol from other sources of biomass can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 75 percent depending on the feedstock, the group found. The analysis sought to analyze the emissions through the lifecycle of fuel production. Compared with perennial crops like grasses or managed forests, creating corn ethanol is more polluting because farmers use petroleum-based fertilizer and tractors that consume gas, according to studies.
The NRDC advocates incentives that favor "low-carbon biofuels," an approach that California is taking. Rather than setting biofuels production targets, federal mandates should draw distinctions between different types of biomasses used for fuels, said the NRDC's Greene. Policies should promote fuels that create the least amount of greenhouse gases measured during production, refining and burning of fuels, Greene said.
From the environmental point of view, the Range Fuels plant is notable because it's moving fuel production into the forests and away from competing uses from agricultural land, Greene added.
However, he notes that forests are already under a lot of strain from sprawl and the pulp and paper industries. "Going to the forests is certainly no panacea," he said.
A citizen advocacy group called Food and Water Watch last month published a report last month that criticized the land-grab mentality now hovering around ethanol. It warned that the environmental effects of large-scale cellulosic ethanol production are still not well-understood.
"Even cellulosic ethanol, a considerably better alternative than corn ethanol, is limited by the impacts that large-scale production of feedstocks and fuel would have on the environment," it concluded.
Georgia's Dartnell argues that building a fuel industry around the forests is actually good for trees. He notes that the land being used in the Range Fuels plant is a plantation, where trees are planted in rows for miles, and was converted from cotton and tobacco farms over the past century.
Deforestation should not be a concern, he says, because the state has an inventory process and, at this point, the state is growing trees faster than they consume them. Creating a demand for tree residue will mean that landowners have an interest in managing the resource sustainably, he said.
"In the Forest Commission, our mission statement doesn't say anything about making ethanol," Dartnell said. "It's all about clean air and healthy forests. Part of that is the economic viability of owning forest land."
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