For the United States is to meet its Renewable Fuels Standards mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuel by 2022, it will require about 27 million acres (6.5 percent) of cropland. That’s according to a recent USDA report.

The acreage estimate assumes 15 billion gallons of fuel is produced via corn ethanol -- the maximum allowed under the standards. Last year, the United States produced 10.75 billion gallons of ethanol, and is expected to produce about 12 billion this year.  

USDA’s estimate also assumes the United States would produce 13.4 billion gallons of biofuels from dedicated energy crops, including perennial grasses, energy cane and biomass sorghum. It further assumes that 0.5 billion gallons will come from oilseeds including soybeans and canola. The acreage estimate does not include the assumed 4.3 billion gallons of biofuel produced from crop residues including corn stover and straw or the 2.8 billion gallons assumed from woody biomass from logging practices.

USDA predicted that 527 new bio-refineries would need to be built to meet the 36-billion-gallon mandate for 2022. That assumes an average bio-refinery capacity of 40 million gallons annually. The total construction price tag would be $168 billion.

Beyond the construction, financing and capacity issues, other significant obstacles would need to be overcome to expand biofuels use. For example,the limited number of flex-fuel vehicles, they utilize relatively low amounts of bio-based fuels versus gasoline and the inability of other vehicles to use higher blends, restricts the ethanol amounts that can actually be consumed, the report notes.

Some 8 million flex-fuel vehicles are in the United States today; that’s about 3 percent of the vehicles on the road. The rest can only accept a 10 percent ethanol blend, although the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether engines can tolerate 15 percent blends and still maintain air quality standards.  

Another factor that would need to be addressed is that more pumps would have to accommodate the new blends. USDA added that it could offer infrastructure assistance to increase blender pumps. Rail and truck infrastructure would also need to expand, given that only about 15 percent of petroleum blending terminals that handle ethanol have rail access, the USDA report noted.

View the complete report.

Source: USDA,