DRIVE: California's Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program

Biofuels: Ethanol, Diesel Substitutes, Biomethane

Ethanol (E-85) and Flex Fuel Vehicles

Ethanol Benefits

Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel made by fermenting and distilling purpose-grown starch crops, such as corn, sugar cane and wheat. It can also be made from cellulosic biomass such as agricultural residues, animal manures, food wastes, fats, oils and greases. Additionally, landfill gases and municipal solid waste (MSW) can be used; these feedstocks avoid the issue of using prime agricultural lands for fuel production and result in fuels that are considerably lower in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Additional benefits include the following:

  • The use of ethanol can reduce our dependence on petroleum.
  • Next generation cellulosic ethanol, made from waste feedstocks, offers significant reductions in GHG emissions.
  • Many vehicle manufacturers offer flex fuel vehicles. In 2010, more than 460,000 flex fuel vehicles were registered in California.

Ethanol Challenges

  • Ethanol's GHG reductions are modest.
  • Ethanol is costly to produce.
  • Increases in production may result in higher prices for animal feed, and other products produced from these commodities.
  • There are a limited number of stations selling higher blends, such as E-85.

How is the Energy Commission Helping?

Better access to E-85 will allow owners of flex-fuel vehicles to experience an immediate reduction in criteria and greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2012 there were 71 stations in California dispensing E-85 and the Energy Commission has plans to fund over 180 new E-85 locations by 2016.

Furthermore, the Energy Commission invested $6 million to encourage California ethanol producers to leverage their efforts in new and retrofitted production technologies, feedstocks and facilities through the California Ethanol Producer Incentive Program, known as "CEPIP." The program provided production incentives to reduce the carbon intensity (CI) of operating facilities or to promote the use of cellulosic feedstock. Economic conditions have slowed the anticipated expansion of California ethanol production and the Energy Commission is studying the benefits of this investment before making recommendations on further funding.

Diesel Substitutes - Biodiesel

Biodiesel Benefits

Biodiesel is an alternative fuel produced from vegetable oils, animal fats, agriculture, green and food wastes, forest residues, and algae. These products can be used in its pure form or blended with petroleum diesel. It is a cleaner-burning alternative for diesel engines than petroleum diesels. Since more than 90% of all diesel in the country is consumed by heavy duty and off-road vehicles, this represents a promising market for biomass-based diesel fuels. Additional benefits include the following:

  • Biodiesel is available domestically, so it reduces petroleum imports.
  • It can be blended up to 5% of the total volume in conventional diesel.
  • It can be utilized in existing diesel engines without costly conversions.
  • It is lower in harmful emissions than traditional diesel engines. It reduces carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 50%-88% depending, upon the feedstock used.
  • Biodiesel energy crops can be grown on marginal lands.

Biodiesel Challenges

  • Dependent on feedstock, biodiesel may have a higher per gallon cost than conventional diesel.
  • Soy-based biodiesel has a very modest GHG reduction.
  • Biodiesels have special handling, storage and use requirements.
  • The fuel can cause problems with vehicle and engine durability and can solidify in cold weather.
  • The higher nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from biodiesel usage must be offset by additional environmental benefits.

How is the Energy Commission Helping?

To date, the Energy Commission has invested over $23.5 million for diesel substitute infrastructure and to support new diesel substitute production plants or plant expansions. Specifically, $7 million has been awarded or allocated for diesel substitute blending and storage terminal projects, while nearly $17 million has been awarded or allocated for diesel substitute production.

Biomethane or Renewable Natural Gas

Biomethane Benefits

Biomethane, sometimes called biogas, is renewable natural gas produced from the decaying processes of organic matter. Municipal solid waste (MSW) from landfills is one of the largest sources of feedstock for this technique and results in the added benefit of diverting waste from the landfill to produce energy. Additional benefits include the following:

  • Biomethane can reduce GHG emissions by up to 87% compared to conventional petroleum-based fuels.
  • It is the lowest carbon intensity (CI) alternative fuel readily available in California.
  • In many cases, the feedstock is already being transported to the facility where it is processed into fuel.
  • It can be made from all types of organic wastes – wastewater treatment plants, municipal solid waste, agricultural waste, food processing waste and woody biomass waste.
  • It can be used in the rapidly expanding fleet of medium-duty and heavy-duty natural gas trucks.

Biomethane Challenges

  • Few biomethane production projects are in commercial operation.
  • Natural gas pipeline connections can be prohibitively expensive.
  • Extensive and costly gas cleaning must be done if the gas is to be transported via the natural gas pipeline.

How is the Energy Commission Helping?

To date, the Energy Commission has invested more than $49 million on 13 biomethane feasibility, demonstration and production projects throughout the state. Using a variety of feedstocks including waste water treatment sludge, food waste, animal manures, landfill gas, woody biomass residues and municipal solid waste, these projects, when fully commercialized, are expected to displace over 100 million diesel gallon equivalents (DGEs). Find out more about our biofuel projects:

Biofuel Projects

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