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Analysis: Alternative fuels not enough

By
CHRIS KILLIAN, UPI Energy Correspondent

If the United States is to make significant steps in the coming years in becoming more energy independent and reducing greenhouse gases, simply developing alternative fuels may not be enough.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee weighing a bill on research and development of such fuels was told this week that more attention needs to be paid to the infrastructure to produce and deliver alternative fuels.

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The House Science and Technology Committee approved the Advanced Fuels Infrastructure Research and Development Act Wednesday, a day after the Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill, H.R. 547.

Biofuels, including ethanol, biodiesel and other non-petroleum-based fuels, have been recently buoyed by the high prices of crude. Increased talk of the threat of global warming has also put a greater spotlight on the polluting crude fuels.

The act directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to initiate research-and-development programs to make alternative, bio-based fuels more compatible with present-day infrastructure.

It also directs these agencies to develop technologies and methods to provide low-cost, portable and accurate measurements of sulfur in fuels, as the production and distribution of a mandated new, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel has been under way for several months.

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Problems also exist with regard to ensuring that the diesel that is being distributed to consumers at service stations throughout the country is certified, especially since the new fuel travels though the same pipeline as gasoline and jet fuel, which could compromise its low-sulfur content.

Richard Kassel, a senior attorney and director of the Clean Fuels and Vehicles Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that in spite of pipeline sharing, the quality of the diesel arriving at service stations is very high.

A recent EPA survey of service stations found that while 90 percent of the diesel fuel they sold was certified as ultra-low sulfur diesel, 76 percent of the stations did not label the fuel as such, Kassel said.

Ethanol was given the most emphasis at Tuesday's hearing, which several members of the subcommittee -- along with the industry experts -- said has the most short-term promise.

But several infrastructure challenges exist with regard to getting the fuel to consumers.

"Petroleum retailers don't mind what they sell, but new fuels do present challenges," said John Eichberger, vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, who testified on behalf of the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.

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"Much of our retail infrastructure does not meet the requirements necessary to (hold and distribute) new fuels, such as ethanol," he said.

Eichberger pointed to the corrosive nature of ethanol, which could denigrate service-station holding tanks. He said the cost to update or install new infrastructure runs from $17,000 to $60,000 per service station, depending on specific needs.

Sufficient demand for ethanol needs to be in place before retailers are willing to make the capital expenditures necessary to ready their service stations for ethanol distribution, Eichberger added.

Detroit automakers, including Ford and General Motors, announced recently their intent that by 2012, 50 percent of the automobiles they manufacture will be able to run on ethanol-based fuel.

Bob Dinneen, president and chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry, is bullish.

Currently, ethanol is distributed on a "virtual pipeline," being hauled by train, tanker truck or barge. To meet the expected increase in demand, the ethanol industry is heading full-steam into construction efforts.

Seventy-eight ethanol plants are currently under construction in places like Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho -- states not traditionally associated with agricultural production.

By constructing plants in these areas, Dinneen said, ethanol can be more easily transported around the country and for less money.

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But the increased demand for ethanol -- now primarily made from corn -- would increase the price of corn used for food. Cellulosic ethanol, a fuel made from other plant materials like weeds and switchgrass, is considered a better alternative to corn-based ethanol, though it isn't commercially viable yet.

Still, some subcommittee members wondered if an ethanol pipeline would be necessary.

Dinneen said that it might be, but plans to construct one are likely in the distant future, due to the relatively low amount of ethanol being used when compared to gasoline.

Last year, Dinneen said, 5 billion gallons of ethanol were produced. A pipeline won't be necessary until production is "40, 50, 60 billion gallons," he said.

"Will the (ethanol) market develop such that a pipeline will be necessary? That is the question."

The environmental and agricultural implications of increased demand for ethanol -- namely the need to grow more corn -- was a concern for several subcommittee members, especially Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who said the utilization of ethanol as an alternative fuel "just nibbles at the margins."

He questioned Dinneen on the ability of the industry to grow more plants and not harm the environment.

"We need to be realistic or we will lose the American people," he said. "If you grow more corn, there is going to be more erosion. These plants also leech a lot of nutrients from the ground. We face a big challenge here."

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Dinneen countered by saying that new research is being performed on technologies that will enable ethanol to be derived from the cellulose of a corn plant, in addition to wheat straw, biomass and even solid municipal waste.

"The industry will be unrecognizable in five years," Dinneen told Bartlett.

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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