U.S. bioenergy policy: Time to refuel?

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A recently-released policy paper by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy is questioning the United States’ biofuels policy, and rightly so. The paper, “Fundamentals of a Sustainable U.S. Biofuels Policy,” challenges the economic, environmental and logistical basis for ethanol production. To read the complete report, visit www.bakerinstitute.org/programs/energy-forum/ and make up your own mind, especially since the study was supported by a research grant provided by Chevron Technology Ventures.

U.S. biofuels policy is by no means, perfectly structured and many areas are in dire need of being revisited. In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that mandated production targets for “renewable fuels,” mainly biodiesel and ethanol produced from corn. The bill mandates production targets of 9 billion gallons of biofuels a year in 2008 and rising to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022. Corn ethanol is capped at 15 billion gallons a year in the law and recent legislative talk has nearly promised that under the Renewable Fuels Standard, the blending rate will transition from 10 percent ethanol (E-10) to a 15 percent blend (E-15) in domestic gasoline fuels. EISA also called for 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels production from biomass sources such as switchgrass, corn stover, etc. by 2022. Lofty goals by any account and all signs are pointing to the unachievable direction, according to many sources.

In contrast, countries such as Germany in the European Union (EU) are forging ahead with a goal to fulfill 50 percent of its energy needs through renewable resources by 2050, with the overall intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Next year, all states in the EU have to implement the Renewable Energy Act and Germany has already been quite aggressive by meeting 18 percent of our energy needs with renewables (wind, solar, water and biomass),” said Dr. Hans-Jurgen Froese, deputy director for the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.

Officially adopted in 1991, EEG provides written incentives for commercial operators and farmers interested in the production of regenerative power, as well as energy recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No, I didn’t misspeak, Germany began making a move in the bioenergy arena in 1991, and EU policy does not focus as closely as corn ethanol as U.S. policy. For one simple reason, according to Froese, “corn ethanol is not economical.”

Broadly, the target for the EU is to nearly double the electric share from heat and power to 25 percent renewable resources by 2020 and increase the share of renewable energy in power regeneration to at least 30 percent by 2020.

Currently, renewable energy makes up only 7 percent of primary energy consumption in the EU. In 2008, Germany landed ahead of the curve with nearly 15 percent shared in renewable energies in the gross power consumption, tripling its number in the last three decades, according to Froese. Wind makes up for 44 percent, water power 23 percent, and around 29 percent of the power is generated from biomass. And while biomass in the United States, especially the Midwest, is defined as corn residue, wood, paper waste and cattle and hog manure; in Germany, biomass also includes rapeseed, wheat residue, grass and pasturelands.