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Pavley, Energy Commission eye biofuels for cleaner air

Can California grow its way to cleaner air and energy independence?

The idea is getting a good deal of attention around the Capitol. Earlier
this month, the California Energy Commission (CEC) unveiled a new draft
report on the topic of biofuels–fuel made from biomass, such as ethanol from
corn. The report said using biofuels could allow California to replace 30
percent of the oil it consumes for transportation by 2030, a goal
established by legislation passed in 2000.

The draft report lays out a new, ambitious set of goals. The report’s
authors, Navigant Consultants, presented the report for public comment at
the CEC’s March 9 hearing. A final version is due at the end of the month.

One of alternative fuel’s main allies in the Legislature, Assemblywoman Fran
Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, held a hearing on the subject on Tuesday. Pavley has
been the source of much of California’s recent environmental legislation.
Last year’s AB 1007, which was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, requires
the state to develop an alternative fuel strategy. This year, Pavley is
carrying AB 2264, which would require the state to upgrade the fuel
efficiency of its motor-vehicle fleet.

While there were many alternative sources of fuel discussed at the hearing,
such as hydrogen or propane, most of the discussion centered on biofuels. In
fact, the featured speaker, University of California, Berkeley, energy
professor Daniel Kammen, addressed the commission report directly.

“I think we could go much further than what this report suggests,” Kammen
said.

Kammen, who heads up a lab that studies biofuels, is co-author of a January
article in Science magazine that seeks to dispel the idea that biofuels
cannot be produced at a net energy gain–that is, without putting more energy
into producing them than you get out of the fuel.

In sprawling, car-centered California, most of the attention has been
focused on plant-based ethanol used to power cars. Bob Epstein, co-founder
of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), cited a National Resource Defense
Council report showing that ethanol could be delivered for well under a
dollar wholesale, far cheaper than current gasoline prices. However, only
600 of the nation’s 17,000 filling stations have pumps that can be used for
E85 ethanol, a gasoline substitute made with 85-percent biofuels. Most of
these are in the Midwest.

“I don’t think they’ve ever deployed the Marine Corps to protect a cornfield
in Iowa,” said Jon Van Bogart, director of sales for the western region for
the Texas-based company Clean Fuel USA, summing up one reason why many in
California are interested in biofuels.

Of course, this brings up another problem: California is far from the
Midwestern corn used to produce most ethanol. The CEC report notes that the
state is the largest user of ethanol in the country: 900 million gallons
annually, a quarter of the national total.

But, California produces less than 45 million gallons of ethanol annually. A
new ethanol-processing facility being built near Fresno by Pacific Ethanol
will rely on Midwestern corn. Another company, Calgren Renewable Fuels, is
seeking funding to build up to two California ethanol plants that would rely
at least partially on corn.

Many have suggested that the state needs to switch to plants the state grows
more readily, such as trees or switchgrass, the plant brought to public
attention in President Bush’s State of the Union speech in January. However,
economics are working against the switch, said Gregory Morris, director of
the Green Power Institute in Oakland. Not only is corn heavily subsidized,
it is easily split into many useful products: The starch can be turned into
ethanol or corn syrup, the fiber and protein into animal feed. Many
Midwestern ethanol plants are located very close to corn-growing areas,
allowing efficient operations, Morris added.

One of the goals expressed in the report is to create a market for E85 fuel,
made of 85-percent ethanol. There are currently 300,000 vehicles in
California capable of burning such a fuel, Van Bogart said, including large
numbers of pickups and SUVs. Of these, 70 percent are in the hands of
private citizens, while the rest are in government and corporate fleets.

Such an industry, however, would have little positive effect on air quality
if it consists of hauling corn across the country. Not only are cellulosic
sources like trees and grasses far more plentiful in California than corn,
he said, the resulting ethanol burns far more cleanly.

“If you want to build an industry for ethanol usage, corn is fine,” Kammen
said. “In the long term, you need to switch to cellulose.”


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