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Web Extra Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bush renews call for renewable fuels

Although healthcare and the Iraq strategy were hot topics of discussion following President George W. Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, energy was front and center in the domestic portion of this year's address. Bush called for a 20 percent reduction in gasoline consumption over the next ten years to help decrease emissions and lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Achieving that goal, he said, will require producing more alternative fuels and setting new fuel economy standards.

In a speech reminiscent of the 2006 State of the Union, in which Bush called America "addicted to oil" and introduced the Advanced Energy Initiative that focuses on the development of new technologies to advance the U.S. beyond petroleum, Bush said this year that "the way forward is through technology" (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 3, 2006). Furthermore, he said in the speech, "we must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — using everything from wood chips, to grasses, to agricultural wastes." He asked members of Congress to pass legislation that would require production of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017.

This goal is reasonable if the appropriate funding is made available, but "there's a lot of work to be done to get to that level," says George Douglas, a spokesperson for U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Getting adequate funding may be even more difficult this year, given that Congress is still operating on a continuing resolution, forcing programs to remain at fiscal year 2006 budgets (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Jan. 23, 2007).

Indeed, the president's plan sets forth "a very ambitious schedule," says Bob Greco, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. Producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol would require "technological breakthroughs," he says. In 2006, just 4.9 billion gallons were produced — a record high, but far short of Bush's goal (see Geotimes, June 2006).

Today, ethanol is produced by fermenting starchy plants, such as corn, to produce alcohol. But, according to Greco, there isn't enough corn currently available to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol. In fact, according to David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, 35 billion gallons of ethanol would require the United States to produce 140 times the amount of corn currently produced.

New research is under way to produce ethanol from cellulose — harvested from fast-growing trees, grasses, and crop wastes — but the process is still expensive and experimental. Still, the Department of Energy expects to have demonstration plants by 2010 and commercial plants operational by 2012 for such cellulosic ethanol, Douglas says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns announced on Wednesday that the USDA plans to propose $1.6 billion in new funding for renewable energy, focusing on cellulosic energy research and production. "With biofuels coming to the forefront, American agriculture faces the greatest opportunity of a generation to lead a future in which we get our energy by the bushel and not by the barrel," Johanns said in a USDA news release.

Some scientists, however, are skeptical that biofuels are worth the effort. "It takes about 30 percent more fossil energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than you get out of combustion of ethanol," Pimentel says. Douglas says, however, that "while numbers like this may have been true years ago, ethanol plants today are more efficient than in the past, and farmers use less fossil fuel per bushel of corn than ever before." Current ethanol production, Douglas adds, results in a 30 percent net energy gain.

In addition to highlighting ethanol, Bush also called for more research on hybrid and electric cars and for new fuel economy standards to help reduce gasoline consumption. New technologies "will help us become better stewards of the environment — and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change," Bush said — the first time Bush has mentioned global climate change in seven State of the Union addresses.

Cassandra Willyard
Geotimes contributing writer

"Bush addresses alternative energy," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 3, 2006
"Without a budget, NSF loses," Geotimes online, Web Extra, Jan. 23, 2007
"Is ethanol the answer?" Geotimes, June 2006

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