NEW YORK — The first trickle of fuels made from agricultural waste is finally winding its way into the nation's energy supply, after years of broken promises and hype.
But as refineries churn out this so-called cellulosic fuel, it has become clear, even to the industry's allies, that the benefits remain, as ever, years away.
The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol, a centerpiece of America's green-energy strategy. Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn't emerged as a replacement.
“A lot of people were willing to go with corn ethanol because it's a bridge product,” said Silvia Secchi, an agricultural economist at Southern Illinois University.
But until significant cellulosic fuel materializes, she said, “It's a bridge to nowhere.”
Cellulosics were the linchpin of part of a landmark 2007 energy law that required oil companies to blend billions of gallons of biofuel into America's gasoline supply. The quota was to be met first by corn ethanol and then, in later years, by more fuels made with non-food sources.
It hasn't worked out.
“Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now,” said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it's still five years away.”
Cellulosic makers are expected to turn out at most 6 million gallons of fuel this year, the government says. That's enough fuel to meet U.S. demand for 11 minutes. It's less than 1 percent of what Congress initially required to be on the market this year.
Corn ethanol is essentially as simple to make as moonshine but requires fossil fuels to plant, grow and distill. For that reason, it has limited environmental benefits and some drastic side effects.