Move over gasoline, here come biofuels

Clean-burning biofuels, made from plant materials, will power the cars of the future, says the US National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Clean-burning biofuels, made from plant materials, will power the cars of the future, says the US National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Americans love cars. They love the freedom of movement they provide, love cruising down the open highway. But today, it’s beyond argument that their gasoline habit is a road to ruin. Voices from across the political spectrum say oil dependence is bad for America’s national security, economy and environment.

But what if there were a viable alternative to petroleum? What if there were a cost-competitive, clean-burning, global-warming-busting fuel that could be produced from plants grown on American soil? It may sound too good to be true, but it’s not. Scientists, farmers and auto experts agree that biofuels – fuels made from plant materials – can help free America from their oil dependence.
Aggressive action to develop biofuels between now and 2015 would position America to produce, by 2050, the equivalent of more than three times as much oil as we currently import from the Persian Gulf. And if combined with better vehicle efficiency and smart-growth urban planning, biofuels could virtually eliminate our demand for gasoline by 2050.
This is not the stuff of science fiction. The biofuels industry relies on real world technologies that are improving by leaps and bounds. With technological advances that we could deploy over the next 10 years, biofuels would bring staggering economic and environmental benefits:
Biofuels can slash global warming pollution. By 2050, biofuels – especially those known as cellulosic biofuels – could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tonnes per year. That’s equal to more than 80 percent of current transportation-related emissions.
Biofuels can be cost competitive with gasoline and diesel. By 2015, we could produce biofuels at costs equal to between $0.59 and $0.91 per gallon of gasoline, and $0.86 per gallon of diesel. These prices are competitive with average wholesale prices over the last four years – $0.91 per gallon for gasoline and $0.85 per gallon for diesel.
Biofuels will provide a major new source of revenue for farmers. At $40 per dry ton, farmers growing 200 million tonnes of biomass in 2025 would make a profit of $5.1bn per year. And that’s just the beginning. Experts believe that farmers could produce six times that amount by 2050.
Biofuels can provide major air quality benefits. Biofuels contain no sulphur and produce low carbon monoxide, particulate and toxic emissions. Using biofuels should make it easier to reach air pollution reduction targets than using petroleum-based fuels.
Biofuels offer major land-use benefits. Switchgrass, a promising source of cellulosic biofuel, is a native, perennial prairie grass that has low nitrogen runoff, very low erosion and increased soil carbon, and also provides good wildlife habitat.

Making biofuels happen
It may seem like gassing up with fuel that’s been grown by an Iowa farmer is a long way off. But it isn’t. American farmers and refiners are already producing billions of gallons of ethanol from corn. But to make enough biofuels to slash our oil use, the industry will need to evolve to making cellulosic biofuels – fuels made from whole plants, not just the corn kernel. To make this next leap, we need to put the right national policies in place.
The federal government should invest in a package of research, development and demonstration. Producing a cheap and reliable alternative to oil will be lucrative business, but the industry alone will take too long to develop the new technologies needed. The government can spur the development along – and ensure that biofuels are affordable for American consumers – by investing about $1.1bn between 2006 and 2015 in biofuels development.
They could also offer incentives for deploying the first billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels. With oil prices skyrocketing and greenhouse gas emissions piling up, we need to shift to biofuels today, not in the distant future. To make sure that at least one billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels are produced by 2015, the government should offer $1bn in incentives to production facilities.

Give consumers a meaningful choice at the pump
Today, drivers have a choice between oil and oil when they wheel up to the gas pump. To change that – to provide a choice between oil and biofuels – will take robust markets and infrastructure. And to that end, the government should require that all vehicles sold by 2015 be able to use both traditional fuels and biofuels, and that at least one-quarter of gasoline stations have at least one pump dedicated to selling biofuels.