Few topics in renewable energy are as controversial as biofuels. Politically, ethanol is the biggest hotbutton issue, which does the seeming impossible: alienate many liberals and conservatives, while still enjoying substantial practical support from the federal government. Love it or hate it, ethanol is one of the leading sources of renewable energy in the U.S., and unquestionaly the most widely used, since most gasoline is blended with up to 10% ethanol. Although many myths or half-truths persist about ethanol (and biofuels more generally), there are real advantages as well as real concerns about biofuels. Few see biofuels as a long-term solution to all of our energy challenges in transportation, yet only the most foolhardy suggest that biofuels have no place in our energy future either. Considerable progress has been made in the efficiency of biofuel production, though much work remains.
In a recent article, "Growing Better Biofuel Crops," researchers at the Energy Biosciences Institute of the U-C Berkeley argue that the future of biofuels are potentially bright. Biomass resources currently provide "the most cost-effective route to produce renewable liquid fuels." By shifting biofuel crop production from displacing food crops (like corn and soybeans) and instead expanding production to crops that can be grown on lands unsuitable for food crops, they argue, biofuels could meet up to 30% of total transportation fuel demand within 25 years. This goal, which would amount to slightly more than quadrupling our current contribution, which amounts to about 7% of total fuel production. The authors note the corn used in ethanol production has come almost entirely from increased productivity of existing farmland and by producing crops on previously unused land; corn production for feed and for export has remained fairly constant. Woody biomass, in particular, has the potential for being a feedstock for biofuels, the authors note. Much of the hope for biofuels lies in one of two areas: finding a better feedstock or improving biomass yields.
Biofuels are likely to remain highly controversial and generaly unpopular in the Valley due to concerns about increasing the price of feed corn, which is a critical input in both the poultry and livestock industries. Because biofuel policy on the federal level has been friendly to ethanol, in particular, there is every reason to believe that U.S. ethanol production will remain at or above current levels for the forseeable future. Whether 30% of total fuel consumption is achievable remains to be seen.