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U.S. Energy Department Offering $4 Billion for Renewable Energy Loans

Biofuels is one of the areas of interest, but new research questions corn biofuel carbon emissions

3 min read
U.S. Energy Department Offering $4 Billion for Renewable Energy Loans
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Biofuels made from leftover corn may not be any better than conventional gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study from Nature Climate Change that was paid for by the U.S. government.

In terms of life cycle analysis, fuels made from corn residue release 7 percent more greenhouse gases in a 10-year timeline compared to gasoline, even though they may be better than gas in the long run, according to a report in the Associated Press. The federal government has spent more than US $1 billion supporting cellulosic biofuel research.

Although the fuel stock may change, biofuels continue to be a big focus for the government. Biofuel-based drop-in replacements for gasoline are one of five technology areas that were identified as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) latest renewable energy and energy efficiency solicitation.

The DOE will offer up to $4 billion in loan guarantees to help commercialize technologies that may not be able to obtain full commercial financing, the agency said last week. The program falls under a different section of the law than the part than the one that funded Solyndra.That section,1705, has now expired but had a more than 90 percent success rate across the portfolio despite some significant failures. 

“Through our existing renewable energy loan guarantees, the Department’s Loan Programs Office helped launch the U.S. utility-scale solar industry and other clean energy technologies that are now contributing to our clean energy portfolio,” DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement. “We want to replicate that success by focusing on technologies that are on the edge of commercial-scale deployment today.”

The DOE will take applications for any project that meets the eligibility requirements, but it is particularly interested in: 

  • Advanced grid integration and storage
  • Drop-in biofuels
  • Waste-to-energy
  • Enhancement of existing facilities
  • Efficiency improvements.

For biofuels, the DOE noted “qualifying projects may include, but are not limited to, the following: new bio-refineries that produce gasoline, diesel fuel, and/or jet fuel; bio-crude refining processes; and modifications to existing ethanol facilities to gasoline, diesel fuel, and/or jet fuel.”

The U.S. Department of Defense, in particular, is eager for drop-in biofuels to meet its goals. The Navy, for example, has a goal of 50 percent of its liquid fuels will come from alternative sources by 2020.

It is unclear if the findings from the Nature Climate Change study would be considered by the DOE for any applications that are related to corn residue biofuels. According to the AP, other research, including a study by the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, has found that corn-based biofuels were still better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

There will be plenty of other technologies, both other feedstock for biofuels, and other areas of clean tech, that will be vying for the loans. In the first quarter of 2014, more than 90 percent of new power generation was renewable energy, according to the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [pdf].

In the area of advanced grid integration and storage projects would help mitigate grid issues caused by intermittent renewable energy. Along the same lines, the DOE's funding for “enhancement of existing facilities” will focus on incorporating renewables into existing generation facilities.

Waste-to-energy applications should focus on projects that turn landfill methane or segregated waste streams, such as forestry waste or crop waste, into energy. Energy efficiency is also a key area, and could fund efficiency in residential, commercia,l or industrial processes or ways that efficiency and demand response could help dispatch underutilized renewable energy.

The DOE is taking public comments until 16 May and the final solicitation will be issued in June.

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