California studies present conflicting views on ethanol

By Kris Bevill | June 01, 2011

Two recently released studies examining California’s future energy needs address biofuels’ role in contributing to the state’s fuel mix. Both reports are aimed at evaluating methods to reduce the state’s overall emissions, but reach differing conclusions regarding ethanol’s contribution to a lower-emission environment.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the Automobile Club of Southern California and Massachusetts-based technology processing and commercialization firm Tiax LLC concluded in their report, “Projected Outlook for Next Generation and Alternative Transportation Fuels in California 2010-2030,” that while petroleum will continue to fuel at least three-quarters of the state’s vehicles through the next two decades, alternative fuels’ share of the market will continue to increase, with ethanol serving as the largest contributor to the alternative fuel mix. This is due mostly to the state’s E10 mandate, with the potential to increase the blending requirement to E15 in the future, the researchers stated in the report. E85, which so far has not been widely available in the state, is not expected to contribute significantly to the state’s alternative fuel use in the future, according to the researchers.

The report, which was funded by a group that includes United Airlines, Union Pacific Railroad, Walmart and Chevron, appears to side with ethanol critics in its overall view of ethanol, stating that corn ethanol production is believed to be an inefficient process, as is sugarcane ethanol, to a lesser degree. Cellulosic ethanol, while having the advantage of not using food crops, is not yet a commercially developed technology and therefore cannot be counted on to contribute to the state’s alternative fuels mix in the next 20 years, the researchers stated. In terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, the researchers also paint a negative picture of ethanol, stating, “In the long term, it appears unlikely that ethanol as a transportation fuel would be able to significantly contribute to California’s air quality improvement and greenhouse gas reduction goals, so an aggressive push towards this strategy is unlikely.”

Regardless, the study projects that ethanol will make up 15 percent of the state's fuel mix by 2025, up from 9 percent in 2010, and will remain steady at 15 percent through 2030. Petroleum is expected to decrease slightly, from 91 percent of the total light-duty vehicle fuel mix in 2010 to 74 percent in 2030. Electric and hydrogen light-duty vehicles are expected to begin ramping up their share of the market beginning in 2025.

The California Air Resources Board, the California Energy Commission and the S.D. Bechtel Foundation, funded another report, extending the energy outlook to 2050, which found that biofuels will continue to play an important role in the state’s energy mix as it works to reduce its GHG emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. According to that report, “California’s Energy Future - The View to 2050,” first-generation biofuels do contribute to the goal of reducing GHG emissions in that they produce 40 to 50 percent fewer emissions than fossil fuels. “Biofuels are an important component of our future reduced-emission fuel use, and the state can benefit from advancing technology and developing a sustainable supply of biomass,” the authors stated in a report summary, adding that additional low-carbon fuel technologies that do not require the use of biomass also need to be developed in order to meet the state’s emissions reduction goals.