November 4, 2012

#GREENFAIL: BP Plant Cancellation Darkens Cellulosic Ethanol’s Future.

When BP backed out of building a $350 million, 36-million-gallon-per-year plant in Highlands County, Florida, last week, the cellulosic biofuels industry, which tries to make fuel from grass and wood chips, lost one of its most promising projects. The cancellation raises the question, if BP can’t bring cellulosic ethanol to market, can anyone?

BP had already started developing a 20,000-acre farm to grow special crops for the plant, such as a type of sugarcane that produces larger amounts of biomass and less sugar than the kind used to make sugar and ethanol in Brazil. As recently as last year, the CEO of BP Biofuels touted the project as evidence that “the technology is coming through” and a new “global commodity is starting to emerge.”

But the cellulosic industry is struggling, despite years of promises and an ambitious federal renewable fuels standard, which took effect in 2010, that mandates a market for cellulosic ethanol that was to have reached 500 million gallons per year by now and a billion by next year. The first commercial plant hasn’t been built, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has had to repeatedly waive the cellulosic ethanol requirement. At first, biofuels companies blamed the lack of commercial facilities on their inability to finance large plants. When a few big players like BP stepped in to say they’d finance plants, it looked like that problem was about to be swept away.

Now that BP has backed out, prospects look considerably dimmer.

Wait, you can’t just regulate a new technology into existence? Why weren’t we told? Oh, right. . . .

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