Without significant advancements in technology or investment, the biofuel industry won’t be able to meet the cellulosic ethanol production requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a National Academy of Sciences study concludes.

The RFS, as amended in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, requires that 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol, 1 billion gallons of biodiesel and 16 billion gallons of cellulosic fuels be produced annually by 2022. Prepared for Congress by a committee co-chaired by Purdue University ag economist Wally Tyner, the study states that the corn ethanol and biodiesel numbers can be achieved, but the cellulosic goals probably cannot.

Tyner says that's because the corn ethanol industry has been working for more than 30 years, while the cellulosic industry is still very young. There are no commercially viable biorefineries for cellulosic ethanol today.

"We have more than 200 corn ethanol plants producing more than 14 billion gallons of ethanol today,” says Tyner. “It took 30 years to get there. We have 11 years to reach even higher numbers for cellulosic biofuels. We would need a build rate three times that of corn ethanol. And with corn, we had the technology; we had the feedstock, and prices for corn were relatively low. We don't have any of that with cellulosic."

Another problem, according to the study, is that the amount farmers would need to make a profit on raising cellulosic feedstocks is more than ethanol producers are willing to pay. In most cases, the gap is larger than the federal subsidy that goes to producers, which may leave investors nervous about getting into the cellulosic ethanol industry.

"There are conditions in which you could see us meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard for cellulosic biofuels, but they require major leaps in technology, substantial increases in oil prices and/or very large subsidies," Tyner says.

The study’s findings “should be interpreted with extreme caution,” says Geoff Cooper, vice president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

“It is true that the goals of the RFS could go unmet if we continually keep telling ourselves that we can’t do it,” says Cooper. “Instead of wringing our hands about the challenges associated with revolutionizing our energy supply, we should immediately end the billions in subsidies channeled every year to the mature fossil-fuel industry and invest in the advanced and cellulosic ethanol technologies and related infrastructure that are needed to get us over the hump.”

The study was sponsored by USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Energy.