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The Good

The 9 billion gallons of ethanol that Americans used last year helped drive down oil prices. For those of us who fuel our vehicles with gasoline, as much as 10 percent of that gasoline is ethanol. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that more biofuel be used every year until we reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Reduced oil prices are good. We can go from good to great, if we move past fuel from food and haste to fuels from wood and waste. Although the economics do not yet favor major production, pilot plants are taking wood and paper waste and converting it to fuel.

Other cellulosic material is even more promising. Some grasses, energy crops, and hybrid poplar trees promise zero-emission fuel sources. These plants absorb CO2 and sequester it in the soil with their deep root systems. These plants often grow in marginal lands needing little irrigation and no fertilizers and pesticides, standing in sharp contrast to the industrial agriculture that produces much of our fuel.

Cellulosic biofuels are becoming economic reality. Norampac is the largest manufacturer of containerboard in Canada. Next generation ethanol producer TRI is not only producing fuel, its processes allow the plant to produce 20% more paper. Prior to installing the TRI spent-liquor gasification system, the mill had no chemical and energy recovery process. With the TRI system, the plant is a zero effluent operation, and more profitable.

A Khosla Ventures portfolio company is Range Fuels which sees fuel potential from timber harvesting residues, corn stover (stalks that remain after the corn has been harvested), sawdust, paper pulp, hog manure, and municipal garbage that can be converted into cellulosic ethanol. In the labs, Range Fuels has successfully converted almost 30 types of biomass into ethanol.

While competitors are focused on developing new enzymes to convert cellulose to sugar, Range Fuels’ technology eliminates enzymes which have been an expensive component of cellulosic ethanol production. Range Fuels’ thermo-chemical conversion process uses a two step process to convert the biomass to synthesis gas, and then converts the gas to ethanol.

Range Fuels in Georgia is building the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Phase 1 of the plant is scheduled to complete construction in 2010 with a production capacity of 20 million gallons a year. The plant will grow to be a 100-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will use wood waste from Georgia’s forests as its feedstock.

The Bad

Over one billion people are hungry or starving. Agricultural expert Lester Brown reports, “The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year.”

Corn ethanol that is transported over 1,000 miles on a tanker truck, and then delivered as E85 into a flexfuel vehicle that fails to deliver 20 miles per gallon is bad. GM and Ford (NYSE:F) have pushed flexfuel vehicles that can run on gasoline or E85, which is a blend with as much as 85 percent ethanol. For the 2009 model year, the best rated car running on E85 in the United States was the Chevrolet HHR using a stick-shift, with a United States EPA gasoline mileage rating of 26 miles per gallon, and an E85 rating of only 19 miles per gallon.

In other words, if you passed on using E85 and drove a hybrid with good mileage, you would double miles per gallon and produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than any U.S. flexfuel offering. (See Top 10 Low Carbon Footprint Four-Door Sedans for 2009)

The problem is not the idea of flexfuel. You can get a flexfuel vehicle with good mileage in Brazil. The problem is that GM and Ford used their flexfuel strategy as an easy way out, instead of making the tougher choices to truly embrace hybrids and real fuel efficiency. Flexfuel buying credits and ethanol subsidies have created incentives to buy cars that fail to cut emissions.

A new paper documents that the cost and emissions from transporting ethanol long-distance is much higher than previously thought. Ethanol is transported by tanker truck, not by pipeline, although Brazil will experiment with pipeline transportation.

The Ugly

It’s a tough time to make money with ethanol. Major players, like Verasun, are in bankruptcy. For the industry, stranded assets are being sold for pennies on the dollar. With thin margins, low oil prices, and high perceived risk, it is difficult to get a new plant financed.

Activists worry about oil refiners, such as Valero (NYSE:VLO), offering to buy ethanol producers such as Verasun. But oil companies can bring needed financing, program management, and blending of next generation biofuels with existing petroleum refined gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Government mandates for more ethanol do not match today’s reality. Subsidies to industrial corn agriculture are not good uses of taxpayer money. Encouraging federal, state, and local governments with their 4 million vehicles to give priority to flexfuel vehicles with lousy mileage is government waste.

Not all government help is misplaced. Range Fuels large-scale cellulosic ethanol production was helped with an $80 million loan guarantee. The loan guarantee falls under the Section 9003 Biorefinery Assistance Program authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides loan guarantees for commercial-scale biorefineries and grants for demonstration-scale biorefineries that produce advanced biofuels or any fuel that is not corn- based.

The Beautiful

Beautiful is the transition to electric drive systems and the development of next generation biofuels. Last year, Americans rode electric light-rail in record numbers. In 2008, Americans drove 100 billion miles less than 2007. Americans also drove 40,000 electric vehicles.

Critics and special interests try to stop the shift to electric vehicles by wrongly stating that if there is coal power used, then there are no benefits. Mitsubishi (NYSE:MTU) estimates that its electric vehicle is 67 percent efficient, in contrast to a 15 percent efficient gasoline vehicle. Efficient electric drive systems lower lifecycle emissions. With the growth of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables, lifecycle emissions from electric transportation will continue to fall. For example, my main mode of transportation is electric buses and rail that use hydropower. My backup mode is a Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius that I share with my wife.

Long-term we will continue to see the growth of electric drive systems in hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids, battery electric, fuel cell vehicles, light-rail, and high-speed rail. Over decades, the use of internal combustion engines will decrease, but the transition will take decades, especially for long-haul trucks. During these decades we can benefit from next generation biofuels that will replace corn ethanol and biodiesel from food sources.

Shell (RDS) has a five-year development agreement with Virent, which takes biomass and converts it to gasoline - biogasoline. Gasoline, after all, is a complex hydrocarbon molecule that can be made from feedstock other than petroleum. Unlike ethanol, biogasoline has the same energy content as gasoline. Unlike cellulosic ethanol alternatives, Virent produces water using a bioforming process, rather than consuming valuable water. Virent has multi-million dollar investments form from Cargill, Honda (NYSE:HMC), and several venture capital firms. Biogasoline will be its major initial focus. Its technology can also be used to produce hydrogen, biodiesel, and bio jet fuel.

Sapphire is an exciting new biofuels company backed with over $100 million investment from firms such as ARCH Venture Partners, the Wellcome Trust, Cascade Investment, and Venrock. The biotech firm has already produced 91-octane gasoline that conforms to ASTM certification, made from a breakthrough process that produces crude oil directly from sunlight, CO2 and photosynthetic microorganisms, beginning with algae.

The process is not dependent on food crops or valuable farmland, and is highly water efficient. “It’s hard not to get excited about algae’s potential,” said Paul Dickerson, chief operating officer of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy “Its basic requirements are few: CO2, sun, and water. Algae can flourish in non-arable land or in dirty water, and when it does flourish, its potential oil yield per acre is unmatched by any other terrestrial feedstock.”

Scale is a major challenge. Producing a few gallons per day in a lab is not the same as producing 100 million gallons per year at a lower cost than the petroleum alternative. Yet, some of our best minds are optimistic that it will happen in the next few years. We will see fuel from marginal lands, from crops and algae that sequester carbon emissions. The fuel will blend with existing gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, and run in all engines, not just those with low mileage.

Some think that such a transition is as impossible as an interception with a 100 yard run for a touchdown in a Superbowl. It is exciting when the impossible happens.

Source: Ethanol: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Beautiful