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New RFS Proposals a Boon for Forest Biomass

October 12, 2016
Author: John Greene

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed some important changes to its Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) via the Renewable Enhancement and Growth Support rule, which aims to support the market growth of ethanol and other renewable fuels. Before approval of the rule, the agency must offer a 60-day comment period regarding the new proposals. Highlights of the suggested changes include:

  • Allowing biofuels producers to partially process a feedstock at one location before further refining the resulting material into a biofuel at another location (a process known as the production of “biointermediate” fuels), EPA noted that near-term production of biointermediates could be modest but there is real potential for long-term growth. These technologies could lower the cost of using cellulosic feedstocks by reducing storage and transportation costs while taking advantage of existing ethanol and petroleum refinery equipment to convert the biomass into fuel. This would “increase the economics and efficiency for the production of biofuels, particularly advanced and cellulosic fuels that have the lower carbon footprints,” EPA said in a summary of the proposal. Additionally, EPA is seeking comments from producers of biointermediates on the current status of operations, potential production volumes, timelines for production and any other information that may help the agency better understand the expected use of these fuels.
  • Updating fuel regulations to allow expanded availability of high-ethanol fuel blends for use in flex fuel vehicles (FFVs). FFVs are designed to operate on any gasoline-ethanol mixture of up to 83 percent ethanol. FFVs currently represent roughly 8 percent of the US passenger vehicle fleet. EPA is revising its gasoline regulations to make it clear that E16-E83 fuel blends are not gasoline, and hence not fully subject to gasoline quality standards. However, EPA will also be putting standards in place that ensure the quality and environmental performance of these fuels, and the agency believes this will clear the way for the expanded production and use of high-ethanol fuel blends at a lower cost, which will increase market demand.
  • New feedstock approvals for cellulosic biofuels produced from short-rotation tree systems (SRT), including hybrid poplar and willow trees. The proposal notes that “SRT systems can provide a number of environmental benefits over a tilled agricultural system. They result in greater accumulation of carbon through below-ground organic matter that goes undisturbed for longer periods of time, as well as protection against nutrient runoff and soil erosion due to larger root networks. A key feature of most SRT systems is coppicing. Coppicing is a desirable characteristic of short-rotation system because it requires relatively low maintenance between harvests compared to an annual crop.” 
    • Short-Rotation Hybrid Poplar: There are approximately 100,000 acres of short-rotation hybrid poplar grown in the Pacific Northwest (including Canada), approximately 25-30 thousand acres grown in Minnesota, and small pockets of production in other parts of the US and Canada.

hybrid_poplar.jpgFast-growing poplar grown on marginal lands. Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.

  • Short-Rotation Willow: USDA has partnered with The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) to develop willow in upstate New York, where there are approximately 1,200 acres of willow in production that is harvested in 3-4 year cycles. Since the initial trials in upstate New York in the mid-1980s, yield trials have been conducted (or are underway) in 14 states and six provinces in Canada. Willow also has a history as a bioenergy feedstock in numerous countries in Europe, including Sweden, the UK, and Poland, where it is pelletized and co-fired with coal in electricity generation.

 Willow_Biomass.jpgWillow biomass crop in the third growing season. Photo Courtesy of SUNY-ESF.

  • New feedstock approvals for cellulosic diesel produced from co-processing cellulosic feedstocks with petroleum, and renewable diesel and biodiesel produced from non-cellulosic portions of separated food waste.

EPA is also seeking comment on a variety of other issues that impact renewable fuels, including Renewable Identification Number generation for renewable electricity used as transportation fuel and requirements for facilities that could use carbon capture and storage as a way to reduce carbon in the production of renewable fuels in the future.

A full copy of the 374-page proposed rule is available here.

Renewable Fuel Standards

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