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Study finds wide range in GHG intensities and production costs of cellulosic ethanol from corn stover, switchgrass and miscanthus

A team led by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed an integrated framework to determine and to compare greenhouse gas (GHG) intensities and production costs of cellulosic ethanol derived from corn stover, switchgrass, and miscanthus grown on high and low quality soils for three representative counties in the Eastern United States.

In their study, published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology they found that—compared to gasoline—the GHG savings from miscanthus-based ethanol ranged between 130% and 156% whereas that from switchgrass ranged between 97% and 135%. The corresponding range for GHG savings with corn stover was 57% to 95% and marginally below the threshold of at least 60% for biofuels classified as cellulosic biofuels under the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Scatter plot of production cost of cellulosic ethanol and percentage GHG savings relative to energy equivalent gasoline over simulation period. GHG savings are based on GHG intensities calculated by considering net carbon sequestered in soils, avoided GHG emissions due to supply of cogenerated electricity to the grid, aboveground GHG emissions, and GHG emissions with average ILUC effect. Production cost of ethanol is annualized over the simulation period. Average parameter values are used for determining production costs. Credit: ACS, Dwivedi et al. Click to enlarge.

The new analysis shows—unlike previous studies that provide a single estimate of GHG intensity of cellulosic biofuel from a particular feedstock—the heterogeneity in the GHG intensity of cellulosic biofuels depending on feedstock; location of feedstock production; and soil quality as well as the trade-offs involved between costs of biofuels and their potential to reduce GHG emissions relative to gasoline.

Simulated annual harvestable yields differed considerably across feedstocks and locations, with the harvestable yields of corn stover being more sensitive to changes in local weather conditions than the yields of switchgrass and miscanthus.

Miscanthus yield was on average at least 28% higher than that of switchgrass and at least 5 times higher than the corn stover yield. Yield of perennial grasses was slightly lower on low than high quality soils, with the difference ranging from 8% to 20% for miscanthus and 3% to 16% for switchgrass. This difference was not statistically significant at any of the three locations. Differences in crop yields led to differences in the average volume of ethanol across feedstocks.

The study also showed that the production cost of ethanol could range from a lower estimate of $0.88 L−1 to a higher estimate of $1.66 L−1. The team also found that ethanol conversion cost was a key determinant of any change in the overall production cost of ethanol derived from selected feedstocks.

The annual production costs of ethanol varied considerably mostly because of variations in feedstock yields and changes in input parameters for high, average, and low cost estimates, they said. Variations were highest in the case of corn stover followed by miscanthus.

We found that the minimum cost of abating GHG emissions with cellulosic biofuels was $48 Mg−1 of GHG emissions and could be as high as $375 Mg−1 of GHG emissions. These costs will be higher if the credits for soil carbon sequestration and cogenerated electricity are not realized. This suggests that at a minimum a carbon tax of $48 Mg−1 of GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent) would be needed to equalize the energy equivalent cost of consuming cellulosic ethanol and gasoline in 2010 prices.

… The potential heterogeneity in costs and GHG intensities across cellulosic biofuels from alternative feedstocks suggests a critical role for policy incentives that reward low GHG intensity feedstocks and do not treat all feedstocks in the same manner. The Renewable Fuel Standard provides uniform incentives for all cellulosic biofuels provided they meet a 60% threshold level of GHG savings relative to gasoline. Such policies, by themselves, are unlikely to create the incentives to use cellulosic feedstocks that could lead to less GHG intensive biofuels but may be more expensive to produce. Although a carbon tax would provide the differential incentives needed, it would need to be at least $48 Mg−1 of GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent) to equalize the post-tax cost of cellulosic biofuel and energy equivalent gasoline. In addition to varying with feedstock, yield, location, and climate variables, this estimate depends on the cost of conversion of cellulosic feedstocks to biofuel, the components of life-cycle GHG emissions included, and the price of gasoline.

—Dwivedi et al.


  • Puneet Dwivedi, Weiwei Wang, Tara Hudiburg, Deepak Jaiswal, William Parton, Stephen Long, Evan DeLucia, and Madhu Khanna (2015) “Cost of Abating Greenhouse Gas Emissions with Cellulosic Ethanol” Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es5052588



This clearly indicates taht corn and stovers should not be used as feed stock to produce bio-fuels.

How many other studies will be required to convince the bio-fuel industry to switch to other feed stocks?


Corn stover is best used for what then? Its a waste of a product to feed our meat consumption. I say use it if its there, there are plenty of bio refineries coming online that can use it. It's not the best, but is better than doing nothing.


This does NOT "clearly" show anything except lower CO2 emissions.
The corn stover cellulose ethanol plants in Kansas and Iowa are doing fine. Farmers are making more money and the land is healthy. Use corn grain for feed and food, use corn stover for fuel.


I would like to see a study that compared hemp to these others. Hemp is a great industrial feedstock plant that had over 48,000 uses before Hearst got America paranoid about "MJ" and the Mexicans. As a fuel you can get biodiesel from its seeds and ethanol/methanol from its stalk.


It is a very inefficient way to use solar energy to propel our high GHG gas guzzling vehicles.

Collecting solar energy with high efficiency solar cells for use by EVs is more appropriate, cleaner and has better total efficiency than via plants.


That is true Harvey and I would love to see the bulk of our transport switched over to electricity. But, given the sheer diversity of vehicles out there and the jobs we ask them to do, there is always going to be some of them that will have to be run on some type of liquid fuel.


200 million engine cars with 0.1% EV. We are already growing the crops for food/feed so use the stalks for fuel. Energy crops should only be grown on marginal land with rainfall, no food crop land with irrigation.


Also a good point SJC. Given the sheer number of cars already on the road and the slow penetration of EVs it will be some time before we can get the bulk switched over. We need a cleaner alternative to petroleum based fuels for the meantime. But only for the meantime.


Mean time might be 30 years, a lot can happen in 30 years. It takes decades to build the advanced biofuel plants, commercial jet aircraft will need liquid hydrocarbon fuels, so the risk of 200 million EVs in 30 years is not a threat.


With near term quick charge 4X to 10X batteries, most ground vehicles, from very small cars to large trucks and buses will be electrified.

If we don't, many ten (10)year old children living in large cities will have cancers, Alzheimer's and other incurable brain diseases?

When we finally realize all the damages caused by burning fossil and bio-fuels, the majority may be easier to convince to accelerate the switch to cleaner electrified vehicles and clean electricity and H2 sources.

HEVs and PHEVs are good interim solutions to reduce fuel consumption but BEVs and FCEVs are many steps ahead.

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