West Lafayette, Indiana – The U.S. does not have the infrastructure to meet the federal mandate for renewable fuel use with ethanol, but could with significant increases in cellulosic and next-generation biofuels, according to a new study by Purdue University.
The authors of the study concluded that the United States is at the “blending wall,” the saturation point for ethanol use, and cannot consume more ethanol than is currently being produced without new technology or a significant increase in infrastructure.
The federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires an increase of renewable fuel production to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. About 13 billion gallons of renewable fuel was required for 2010. Wally Tyner, professor of agricultural economics and a co-author of the study, predicts that this amount is the threshold for U.S. infrastructure and consumption ability.
“You can’t get there with ethanol,” Tyner said, because there simply aren’t enough flexible-fuel vehicles capable of using the fuel or enough E85 stations to distribute more biofuels. According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), flex-vehicle vehicles make up 7.3 million of the 240 million vehicles on U.S. roads. Of those, about three million owners of flex-fuel vehicles aren’t even aware they can use E85 fuel, Tyner said.
There are only about 2,000 E85 fuel pumps in the U.S. and it took more than 20 years to install them. “Even if you could produce a whole bunch of E85, there is no way to distribute it,” Tyner said. “We would need to install about 2,000 pumps per year through 2022 to do it. You’re not going to go from 100 per year to 2,000 per year overnight.”
Tyner said that even if the fuel could be distributed, E85 would have to be substantially cheaper than gasoline to entice consumers to use it, because E85 gets lower mileage. If gasoline were $3.00 per gallon, E85 would have to be $2.34 per gallon to break even on mileage.
If a proposed maximum amount of ethanol blended into gasoline for regular vehicles was raised from 10 to 15 per cent, the blending wall would be reached again in about four years, Tyner said. Advances in the production of thermo-chemical biofuels, which are created by using heat to chemically alter biomass and create fuels, would be necessary to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard. These fuels would be similar enough to gasoline to allow unlimited blending and would increase the amount of biofuel that could be used.