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It’s Stop and Go for Cellulosic Ethanol

Another Independence Day has come and gone, and it seems the U.S. is no closer to figuring out the role that cellulosic ethanol might play in promoting energy independence. At least, that is the theme expressed in a recent article in the Des Moines Register.

How now, corn cob? Credit: Poet

Dan Pillar outlines the strikes against the industry: EPA continues to down shift its expectations for cellulosic ethanol production – from a 2005 goal of 100 million gal this year to, last month, 6.5 million gal for the year. Large biorefineries  – comparable in output to corn-based ethanol - were supposed to come online this year, but have not, Pillar notes, due in large part to concerns by financiers over the future profitability of ethanol.

One example of a project on hold is Poet, a leading corn ethanol producer that is still waiting on a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy for its cellulosic operation. And politically, ethanol has been increasingly unpopular. The corn version has been blamed for increasing the cost of corn, and long-treasured subsidies are eyed for the chopping block. And the next-generation cellulose players might lose support in Congress as budgets get trimmed. One program that is at risk would help pay farmers to gather corn stover and corn cobs to feed Pilot’s plant.

Cattle farmers, already incensed at the rising cost of feed corn, are also not pleased at the possibility of losing access to harvested corn fields for grazing. Meanwhile, strategies for economically providing the “waste” agricultural materials to cellulosic ethanol plants have long been a logistical hurdle for making the next-gen ethanol plants economical.

Is cellulosic ethanol having problems financially, politically, and logistically, all at the same time? Perhaps, but though plans have slowed – and some may be in limbo – one big loan guarantee may tip the balance. Meanwhile, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol said last week that it had acquired land for a commercial scale refinery in Nevada, Iowa, to be fed by corn stover. While it gets ready for construction, DDCE is working with Pioneer Hi-Bred, DuPont’s seed company, and Iowa State University to figure out how to work the corn stover harvesting, storage and transportation side of things.

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