Designed to help combat climate change and stimulate the farm economy, the Renewable Fuel Standard keeps the research community busy looking into new plant-based sources of energy.
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has provided more than a pathway to reduce petroleum use in the United States. The energy policy program, which was originally authorized by Congress in 2005, has stimulated research interest in creating a variety of other potential biofuels.
“The RFS is exactly what it was meant to be — a forward-thinking policy designed to push our nation’s development and use of next-generation biofuels,” says Rachel Gantz, Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) spokeswoman.
Congress originally created the RFS to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the nation’s renewable fuels sector while reducing reliance on imported oil. It was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It was then expanded under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 with goals of combating climate change and stimulating the farm economy.
While a variety of renewable fuels are produced and used today, government statistics show corn ethanol has been the highest volume and lowest cost fuel available to meet RFS obligations.
“Under the RFS, while there is a cap on conventional biofuels, which includes corn-based ethanol at 15 billion gallons, the industry can and will produce above that amount. It just won’t meet the RFS obligation,” says Gantz. “The RFS was never just about ethanol.”
In fact, the second generation of ethanol plants currently coming online is creating ethanol out of paper waste, forestry residue, wheat straw and corn stalks. The RFS also requires refiners to use biodiesel (made primarily from soybeans), cellulosic biofuel (made from crop residue, grasses, wood waste and a host of other feedstocks) and advanced biofuel (made from renewable biomass and other feedstocks) to meet their obligations.
“You are seeing all of these different types of biofuels being used to satisfy RFS requirements, and we look forward to continued growth,” says Gantz.
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which implements the RFS, periodically proposes to add new and emerging biofuel feedstocks to help satisfy the blending requirements, which helps keep pace with technology growth.
Renewable fuels industry officials believe research has, and will continue to be conducted, by both private and government entities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Traditional ethanol producers have long suggested the next generation of biofuels and bioproducts would not be produced exclusively by new, stand-alone facilities, but rather through the adoption of synergistic bolt on technologies,” says Gantz. “That became a reality in 2015, as corn-based ethanol plants worked to install or start new processes, allowing onsite production of everything from cellulosic ethanol to zein protein to renewable diesel.”
Other feedstocks, including corn oil, are increasingly being used in biodiesel production. NCGA President Wesley Spurlock from Stratford, Texas, stresses while corn will continue to serve as the primary feedstock in conventional ethanol, corn stover, other crop and wood residues, rice straw, wheat, milo, sugarcane and industrial wastes also will be more and more part of the mix.
“The intent of the RFS was to help stimulate growth in the biofuels industry overall. New technologies were always on the horizon and are something the industry has always supported,” says Spurlock. “The development and use of new technologies benefit the industry as a whole. It is for that reason the RFS requires the use of cellulosic and advanced biofuels.”
Getting RFS Back on Track
In May 2015, EPA proposed 2014-2016 RFS volume requirements far below levels originally specified by Congress. In response to feedback from RFS supporters, EPA then released a final rule in November 2015 that slightly raised the volumes.
However, some argue EPA’s final rule relied on an unlawful methodology for setting the annual blending obligations, and getting the RFS back on track in 2017 would not only eliminate the need for EPA to try and apply a general waiver that violates the statute, it would signal to advanced and cellulosic biofuels developers that EPA is committed to enforcing the law.
“We believe the RFS needs to be maintained without changes, which will help future industry growth,” says RFA’s Gantz. “The RFS and the use of biofuels have helped to clean the air, provide energy security and bolster local economies.”
Emissions Reduction Key to RFS Qualification
For a fuel to qualify as a renewable fuel under the RFS, research must show a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to a 2005 petroleum baseline. Advanced pathways already approved include ethanol made from sugarcane; jet fuel made from camelina; cellulosic ethanol made from corn stover; and compressed natural gas from municipal wastewater treatment facility digesters. Here are the requirements:
• Biomass-based diesel must meet a 50 percent lifecycle GHG reduction.
• Cellulosic biofuel must be produced from cellulose, hemicellulose or lignin and must meet a 60 percent lifecycle GHG reduction.
• Advanced biofuel can be produced from qualifying renewable biomass (except corn starch) and must meet a 50 percent GHG reduction.
• Renewable fuel must meet a 20 percent lifecycle GHG reduction threshold.