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The Brutal Bust in Next-Generation Biofuels in One Chart

The U.S. government finally faces the fact that we won't be powering our cars with corncobs any time soon. 
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When it comes to setting overly optimistic targets for the production of advanced biofuels, the United States Environmental Protection Agency makes Pollyanna sound like Eeyore.

The official 2013 target official for cellulosic biofuel–made from the non-edible parts of plants, wood waste and other non-food feedstocks–was 1.75 billion gallons. That was the volume of biofuels Congress mandated that oil refiners blend with gasoline in an effort to fight climate change.

The EPA subsequently slashed that target to 6 million gallons last year. And on Earth Day yesterday the agency finally came down to earth and issued a retroactive target to reflect the actual production of biofuels in 2013.

The number: 810,185 gallons.

The 86 percent cut in the 2013 target came in response to an appeal by American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. The trade group’s members were understandably miffed that in previous years the EPA had fined them millions of dollar for failing to blend biofuels that did not exist.

What gives?

Other sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind continue to break production records and attract investment from the likes of Google. The search giant yesterday, for instance, announced it would buy the equivalent of 407 megawatts of electricity from an Iowa wind project being built by Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy. And today, Google said it was putting $100 million into a fund to finance rooftop solar arrays for homeowners to be installed by SunPower.

In short, making advanced biofuels is a far more technologically challenging and complex process than deploying solar panels or wind turbines. And attracting investors to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars to build biofuel refineries has been no easy task.

Still, hope springs eternal at the EPA. Last year, the agency set a 17 million gallon cellulosic biofuel target for 2014.

“New facilities projected to be brought online in the United States in 2014 would increase the production capacity of the cellulosic industry by approximately 600 percent,” the EPA stated, estimating that total production next year could reach 30 million gallons.

That’s not going to happen.

In January, one of the few commercial cellulosic biofuel producers, Kior, which is backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, shut down its Mississippi refinery amid “structural bottlenecks, reliability and mechanical issues,” the company stated in a March regulatory filing.

So how much progress is the industry making to hit that 17 million gallon goal for 2014?

Here’s how much cellulosic biofuel was produced in the first quarter of this year, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers: 75,000 gallons. 

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Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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