A report published by Biofuelwatch claims it "busts the myths around the supposed ‘promises’ of cellulosic biofuels". The report concludes that "commercial success remains elusive" more than a century after the first cellulosic ethanol refineries opened and that cellulosic biofuels cannot help to achieve the aim of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5oC and, instead, divert funding as well as attention from "genuine solutions".
The report, “Dead End Road: The False Promises of Cellulosic Biofuels” published by Biofuelwatch, a non-profit organisation based in the UK and US which carries out “research, education, advocacy and campaigning in relation to the impacts of large-scale bioenergy”, tracks the history and recent “commercial failures” of different technologies developed to turn to wood, grasses, agricultural residues, and waste from biomass into transportation fuels.
False promises about cellulosic biofuels made from wastes and residues continue to be used by industry and policymakers to keep biofuel subsidies and targets in place, even though 99 percent of biofuels worldwide are ‘first generation’ ones made mainly from cereals, sugar crops, and vegetable oils such as palm oil. Cellulosic biofuel myths perpetuate support for existing biofuels which require vast areas of land for very little energy, said Almuth Ernsting, co-director Biofuelwatch (UK) and co-author of the report.
The report takes a detailed look at each of the 11 commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel facilities officially commissioned or ‘operating’ since 2010, most of which have since closed down and none of which, the report says, has been a commercial success. Failures cited include Beta Renewables, a subsidiary of Mossi Ghisolfi Group in Italy, Europe’s “only” commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which the report says “was beset with technical problems and attracted numerous complaints over environmental pollution” before closing down.
Other failures cited in the report include plants built by Abengoa and DuPont, shut down after lengthy failed attempts to make them operational whereas the report’s most ‘successful’ plant, operated by a Shell-COSAN consortium in Brazil, continues to be “beset with technical problems” and is producing ethanol well below its capacity.
If cellulosic biofuels were to ever ‘work’, forests worldwide would face a new threat of being turned into fuel for cars and planes. As it stands, billions of dollars that should have supported meaningful responses to climate change have instead been wasted entirely on such unsuccessful technologies, said Dr Rachel Smolker, co-director Biofuelwatch (US) and co-author of the report.
The authors warn that, although no commercial cellulosic biofuel production has been “anywhere near successful”, genetic engineering of microorganisms for cellulosic ethanol production has proliferated, despite serious but poorly understood risks of negative environmental and public health impacts.
Furthermore, that cellulosic ethanol production has also helped biotech companies to attract more funding for genetically engineered trees, which Biofuelwatch says pose severe dangers to forest ecosystems.