New Study: Cellulosic Ethanol Could Replace 30% of Gasoline by 2030

switchgrassSandia labs just released a report indicating that by 2030, the US could produce a total of 90 billion gallons of ethanol from plant waste and energy crops, including 75 billion gallons coming from switchgrass, corn stover, wheat straw and woody crops.

What’s the catch? For this fuel to be economically viable, oil will have to stay above $90 per barrel (oil is currently hovering around $42 / barrel).

Key points from the study include:

  • Researchers picked middle range assumptions for their estimates. “We didn’t pick the most optimistic assumptions or the most pessimistic.”
  • The $90 per barrel figure is based on a few important assumptions: 91 gallons of ethanol can be produced from a dry ton of biomass, building a cellulosic ethanol plant would cost $3.60 per gallon of capacity, and plants would pay an average of $40 per dry ton of feedstock.
  • 90 million gallons would surpass the federal mandate of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be produced by 2022


Not everyone agrees with these numbers, including Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist at North Dakota State University, who said that the “90 billion figure is the most aggressive he’s heard to date.” David Pimental, ethanol’s #1 critic, said a more reasonable goal would be 10 billion gallons a year from cellulosic ethanol within the next 10 years.

What do we think?

If you’ve been following the development of cellulosic ethanol, this story is not as much of a breakthrough as it is underscoring earlier points, since back in January of last year, researchers from the USDA came to the same conclusion. Despite the predictions, there are two major stumbling blocks for cellulosic ethanol:

  1. Development is moving relatively quickly, but maybe not fast enough. If you think ‘sustainable ethanol’ is a pipe dream, you may not know that some cellulosic ethanol facilities are already producing, and switchgrass is being prepared for farmers as we speak. But this industry is going to need some support (read more on switchgrass).
  2. Mainstream perception of ethanol has been horribly skewed against ethanol (rightly so when made from corn), and it’s going to take some serious PR for people to understand that these (cellulosic ethnaol vs. corn-based ethanol) are all completely different fuels.

Cellulosic ethanol still has a major role to play in weaning us off petroleum, considering that even a massive switch to plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles aren’t going to do much for the millions upon millions of cars already on the road.

[Via: Associated Press]


In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.