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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Algae’s Potential as a Transportation Biofuel

Kelsi Bracmort
Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Congress continues to debate the federal role in biofuel research, biofuel tax incentives, and renewable fuel mandates. The debate touches on topics such as fuel imports and security, job creation, and environmental benefits, and is particularly significant for advanced biofuels, such as those produced by algae.

Congress established the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2)—a mandate requiring that the national fuel supply contain a minimum amount of fuel produced from renewable biomass. The RFS2 is essentially composed of two biofuel mandates—one for unspecified biofuel, which is being met with corn-starch ethanol, and one for advanced biofuels (or non-corn starch ethanol), which may not be met in coming years. Within the advanced biofuels category, the RFS2 requirements for the cellulosic biofuels subcategory (e.g., ethanol from switchgrass) have not been met for the last few years, which could cause alarm, as this subcategory is slated to ramp up from roughly 3% of the standard in 2012 to roughly 44% of the standard in 2022. Limited cellulosic biofuels production has occurred to date. As a result, as allowed under the RFS2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has lowered the required cellulosic biofuels volume for 2010, 2011, and 2012 and has proposed to do the same for 2013.

Currently, algae-based biofuel qualifies as an advanced biofuel under the RFS2, but not as a cellulosic biofuel. One possible solution to meet the RFS2 cellulosic biofuels mandate is to add algae as an eligible feedstock type. Because algae is not cellulosic and is not defined as such in the RFS2, it does not qualify for this subcategory. Algae does qualify as a feedstock for the biomass-based diesel subcategory of the RFS2 advanced biofuel mandate. The RFS2 does not mandate rapid growth of biomass-based diesel, as it does for cellulosic biofuels.

Algae can be converted into various types of energy for transportation, including biodiesel, jet fuel, electric power, and ethanol. The potential advantages of algae-based biofuel over other biofuel pathways include higher biomass yields per acre of cultivation, little to no competition for arable land, use of a wide variety of water sources, the opportunity to reuse carbon dioxide from stationary sources, and the potential to produce “drop-in” ready-to-use fuels. Potential drawbacks include the anticipated cost of production, the amount of resources (e.g., water and land) required to produce the biofuel, and the lack of commercial-scale production facilities. Algae-based biofuel research and development are in their infancy, although work has been conducted in this area for decades. At present, published research efforts offer policymakers little guidance on what algae types or conversion methods for which biofuel could be the front-runner for commercial production, and when.

Congressional support for algae-based biofuel has consisted of congressionally directed projects and funding of programs and studies by the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Defense (DOD). Some algae industry advocates contend that Congress should encourage advances in algae-based biofuel production by extending the expiration date for eligible tax credits, appropriating additional federal funds for algae-related programs, and modifying the RFS2 to include algae in the cellulosic biofuels mandate, as was done recently for the cellulosic biofuels production tax credit. In contrast, some argue that Congress should reconsider its investment in biofuels because of the current federal budget crisis and the lack of any measurable progress in cellulosic biofuels production.

Date of Report: April 1, 2013
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R42122
Price: $29.95

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