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Wood-Based Biofuels: A drop in the bucket

In May of 2011, Forisk published a study that evaluated the viability of the wood-based transportation fuel sector in the U.S. The study detailed 12 technologies and 36 projects that convert wood to fuels including ethanol, butanol, diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. Forisk’s conclusion of the 2011 study:

“…wood-based biofuels will fail to contribute substantively to EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard targets in 2011 or 2022.” 

Revisiting the study in 2018 confirmed that wood-based biofuels have failed to develop commercially, despite conventional ethanol and biodiesel being produced at record levels—the U.S. produced 15,845 million gallons of ethanol and 1,592 million gallons of biodiesel in 2017. Of the original 36 projects, 19 were canceled, 9 were shut down, and 8 remain operational. Of these operational facilities, all are pilot or demonstration plants.

Even as the sector struggled, 26 projects were announced between 2011 and 2018. As time progressed, these new projects better reflected biofuel market realities. They were scaled to smaller production levels—more than a quarter were demonstration or pilot facilities—with feedstock flexibility and varied end-market strategies targeting products such as aromatics, cellulosic sugars, and jet fuel. And there have been successes along the way.

In November 2016, through a partnership with Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance and Gevo, Inc., Alaska Airlines flew the first commercial flight using renewable jet fuel. The 1,080 gallons of jet fuel used to fly from Seattle, Washington, to Washington, D.C., came from forest residuals; cellulosic sugars were converted into isobutanol before conversion to jet fuel.

Despite scientific progress, there were only 24 operating and advancing projects at the end of 2017, and at least 13 of these were pilot projects or demonstration facilities. Of the 4 projects with stated capacities of 10 million gallons per year or higher, none operate at a commercial level. The entire sector has a maximum potential capacity of 75 million gallons per year. This is less than the 392 million gallons of gasoline that drivers in the U.S. use in one day. Analysis of potential wood use highlights the change within the sector and the minimal relevance these projects currently have on the forest industry (Figure).



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