Forget Not the Feedstock

By Todd Atkinson | August 22, 2012

There are no short-term solutions to fuel prices. That’s why five years ago the leadership of the 110th Congress began long-term investments by enacting the Renewable Fuels Standard II, which requires 36 billion gallons of biofuels in our national pool by 2022.   

With 140 billion gallons of gasoline used each year, biofuels give Americans more choices at the pump, injecting competition into a petroleum marketplace known for squeezing household wallets and corporate spreadsheets. Already there are more than 14 billion gallons of corn starch ethanol with more on the way. 

But ethanol had a 30-year head start. Half of today’s volumes were reached by 2007, and ethanol is made with distillation principles used since the dawn of time, from a crop cultivated by mankind for 10,000 years.     

Because the RFS caps ethanol at 15 billion gallons, we’ve got 10 years to make another 20 billion gallons, but we can’t use corn starch. Therein lies the challenge.

Despite billions of dollars invested in research and development, whitepapers and conferences, capital grants and construction loans for next-generation biofuels, little by comparison has been invested in actually growing the crops in the field, in the quantities we need, in time for when we’ll need it.     
America has the capacity to grow these crops—the U.S. DOE’s Billion Ton Study says so. It’s also why the 110th Congress created the Biomass Crop Assistance Program in the 2008 Farm Bill. To date, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has set aside $65 million for producers to grow crops like sterile miscanthus, poplar, camelina, switchgrass and willow on more than 60,000 acres—and that’s only the beginning of what we need to grow so that plenty of nonfood feedstocks will exist for new biorefineries to use. 

It won’t be flawless at first. For farmers willing to take the risk, we must have their back. Growing successful yields of unconventional cultivars is a complex equation of economics, behavior, weather, markets and timing. Many energy crops are perennial and take several seasons to mature for harvest, plus trial and error to get it right. There’s no millennium of experience. There are no major trade associations, no widespread best practices, nor plentiful data to create crop insurance, prepare faultless business plans, or calculate farm loans.

Pull the plug on BCAP, and there never will be. We’ll begin again, in the 2017 Farm Bill, in time for the 2019 crop year, from precisely the same point as today. We’ll never cross the canyon on gas prices this decade because the crops won’t be grown and the bridge won’t be built.  

BCAP could create 700,000 jobs by 2022. These aren’t shovel-ready jobs; they’re plow-ready. So let’s keep growing the crops, because when it comes to biofuels, the feedstocks are the sine qua non―without them, there is nothing.

Author: Todd Atkinson
Senior Energy Advisor,
USDA Undersecretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.