Oregon may be pulling its weight in cellulosic biofuel production with the ZeaChem plant underway in Boardman, but the country as a whole is lagging way behind federal targets.
Cellulosic ethanol is the new promised land for renewable biofuels in the U.S. It's made from wood chips and farm waste – not food crops – so it doesn't compete with businesses that need corn for livestock or food products. If they're made from waste products, the Energy Information Administration says their lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions can be 80 to 90 percent less than petroleum products.
In an effort to boost production, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 set a goal of 500 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2012 and 1 billion gallons by 2013. The feds have doled out tax credits, grants and loan guarantees for new production facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency even set mandates for refiners to use a percentage of cellulosic biofuel at their plants.
But we're not even close to meeting the production targets: The total output of cellulosic biofuels last year was around 20,000 gallons – light years away from 500 million. And the EPA's mandates for refiners were recently struck down in court for lack of supply.
The EIA estimates output could grow to more than 5 million gallons by the end of this year, and up to 250 million gallons by 2015 as several plants ramp up production. That's after admitting that previous projections "have proven to be "too optimistic."
According to the agency, delays and cancellations at production plants, cheap natural gas and the country's debt crisis have all contributed to the missed targets. And then, of course, there's also the fact that it costs more.
"Total production costs for many of these first-of a kind projects remain higher than the cost of petroleum-based fuels on both volumetric and energy-content basis," the EIA reports. "Cellulosic ethanol also faces the same market and regulatory challenges to increasing its share of the fuel market that is faced by other types of ethanol."