In 1776, an “all of the above” approach to energy basically meant wood.
The course of human events has run 237 years since then, and we’re pretty much independent of fuel from trees.
The fossil fuels coal, natural gas and oil now provide about 90 percent of the energy Americans consume, according to a special Fourth of July report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But wood is getting a federal push for a comeback, this time as technically revolutionary advanced cellulosic biofuel.
The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act requires refiners to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuels into gasoline and diesel by 2022, putting pressure on oil producers to invest in alternative fuel sources, such as sugar, algae and wood chips.
Cellulosic biofuels include fuels produced from wood, grasses, or the inedible parts of plants, and, more recently, algae.
The Obama administration has urged the development of non-carbon resources, as an alternative to fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
And while the oil industry has challenged biofuel mandates citing lack of available cellulosic fuel, the future mandated targets still stand, with tax credits and other incentives further encouraging companies to invest.
To help meet the upcoming mandates, Chevron Technology Ventures teamed with forest products giant Weyerhauser in 2008 to form Catchlight Energy. It supplies raw material to Pasadena-based Kior, which makes advanced biofuels from southern yellow pine at a plant in Columbus, Miss.
The commercial scale plant, which began shipping its product earlier this year, can process 500 tons of woody biomass per day. The resulting biofuel is blended with gasoline and diesel to reduce the petroleum component and carbon emissions of those fuels.
Wood chip-based fuel, however, costs about $4.50 a gallon to produce, said Desmond King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.
And on Thursday, the nationwide average retail price per gallon was $3.48 for regular gasoline and $3.82 for diesel, according to AAA.
The main challenge in wood’s return as a fuel source is that there isn’t enough of it.
“You can look at the cost to make a gallon, but the problem is how much biofuel you need to make a difference to the world’s oil supply,” King said. The world’s annual timber production would only generate 3 million barrels a day of biocrude, he said.
Meanwhile, according the Energy Information Administration, the world is consuming about 90 million barrels of oil a day.