It wasn’t long ago that ethanol, specifically the corn variation, was hyped as the prince of renewable energies.
But today, it’s the pauper of alternative fuels, driven down by higher prices for raw materials and an oil market that’s leveling out.
Private investors are growing skittish and federal lawmakers – who now realize their mandates of 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels in 2010 and 250 million gallons in 2011 won’t be reached – are as hesitant as ever.
Michael E. Salassi, LSU agribusiness professor, says he hasn’t heard of any Louisiana ethanol plants shutting down amid these challenges, but The New York Times reported last week that at least one manufacturer around the nation was closing shop every seven days or so this year.
Still, Salassi says Louisiana producers of corn ethanol have to overcome the financial and philosophical debates, like the value of the crop as fuel or food. “Right now, they’re not even able to cover the costs of the raw product,” he says. “And in the meantime, ethanol prices just keep going down.”
In its place, state and federal officials are turning their attention to an advanced biofuel known as cellulosic ethanol. It’s basically ethanol produced from forestry or agricultural waste. Not only does it eliminate the fuel-or-food debate, but Louisiana is uniquely positioned to benefit.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium opened up its first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant using sugar in Jennings last year [to read more about it, click here] and a full-scale model is being built in Florida. Additionally, researchers from the LSU AgCenter’s Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research station in Houma have developed several varieties of energy cane that can be used as feedstock for producing ethanol.
So, how big of a shift could this be? According to a joint study released earlier this month by Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors, American could replace one-third of its yearly gas use with ethanol by 2030. Out of the 90 billion gallons needed to make this happen annually, 75 billion gallons could potentially be cellulosic ethanol, based on the study’s calculations.
Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain says, for its part, the Bayou State is ready to leap at the opportunity and there should be a few related bills debated during the upcoming regular session that convenes in April. “All of the technology is moving that way,” he says. “With our sugar cane and out timber, Louisiana is at a competitive advantage.”