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Economic Conditions Shifting in Favor of Ethanol

One of the most viable solutions to our large-scale environmental challenges is to use “waste” instead of virgin materials. This is especially true for the transportation fuels industry. Unfortunately, with the current infrastructure in place, virgin resources can actually be more cost effective than “waste.” I became aware of this when I toured the Coskata ethanol laboratory in suburban Chicago. I discovered that there is a cheaper and more consistent supply of harvested trees to produce ethanol than trash.

Trees, agricultural waste, storm debris and trash are all viable fuel sources for ethanol, using the Coskata process. This highly flexible technology allows future manufacturing plants to cater to locally available materials, making ethanol viable in parts of the globe that would not use corn or sugar cane for fuel. Argonne National Laboratory tests show that greenhouse gas emissions are up to 84% lower for Coskta ethanol than conventional gasoline. It has a net energy balance of up to 7.7, compared to 1.3 for corn-based ethanol. These results were achieved with a production cost of $1 a gallon when timber was used as an ethanol fuel source.

On face of it, you would think that garbage would be the cheapest way to produce fuel, given the flexibility of the Coskata process. In fact, one of the most available and economically viable fuel sources is trees, with the low price tag of $50 a ton. There is a very efficient infrastructure for harvesting and transporting trees. They are available throughout the year, unlike some agricultural products. It is actually cheaper to use trees than sorted garbage and agricultural waste.

To make a dent in the 140 billon gallons of gasoline consumed in the US each year, new infrastructures and technologies need to be developed. A paradigm shift is needed in how we view and handle “waste.”

A study by the DOE and the USDA found that the US does have “a sufficient sustainable supply of biomass sufficient to displace 30% or more of the country’s present petroleum consumption…About 368 million dry tons of sustainably removable biomass could be produced on forestlands, and about 998 million dry tons could come from agricultural lands.”

Of the forestland biomass in the study, only 14% was comprised of newly harvested trees. We need to gain the ability to economically utilize residues from wood pulp, processing mills and construction debris. Consistent supplies need to be created, while maintaining low transportation and handling costs. It is not logical to send these valuable materials be wasted.

When looking at the agricultural landscape, the situation is ripe for change. Of the agricultural biomass in the study, over 50% is available from annual crop residues and animal manure. Current technology lacks techniques to make these products extremely dense, reducing storage and transport costs. We can put a man on the moon, yet we don’t have adequate technology and infrastructure for transporting agricultural waste to produce cost-effective ethanol.

This is where the marketplace can shine. There is money to be made by advancing the technologies necessary to make ethanol from waste.

Meanwhile, Coskata has hit the ground running. They announced a strategic alliance with IMC, Inc. yesterday, the leading ethanol plant design and build firm, that will construct their first plant. Expected to open at the end of 2010, this plant will utilize the Coskata process.

Coskata is very well positioned to shift the transportation fuels industry. They have formed an alliance with General Motors, who will increase production of flex-fuel cars that run off of either ethanol or gasoline. The Renewable Fuels Standard requires 21 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels to be used by 2022, which excludes corn and sugar as fuel sources. In addition, the Farm Bill offers a $.60-$.67 a gallon producer credit. Oil currently costs $87 a barrel.

The economic conditions are ripe for a shift away from fossil fuels. Coskata ethanol can be produced for under $1 a gallon and $.50-$1.00 less at the pump. Developing technology and infrastructure to utilize agricultural and forestland waste is the next step for large-scale renewable biofuels.


Note: General Motors paid for the travel and meal expenses associated with my tour of the Coskata laboratory; Photo Credit: Coskata


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Written By

is passionate about the new green economy and renewable energy. Sarah's experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and is a co-founder of Trees Across the Miles, an urban reforestation initiative. When she can escape the internet vortex, she enjoys playing in the forest, paddling down rivers, or twisting into yoga poses.


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