Metro Pulse: Biofuels Boondoggle? State’s Investment in Switchgrass Doesn’t Reap Benefit

August 22, 2012

In 2007, when state government was flush with revenue, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen channeled $70 million to the University of Tennessee for what was called the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. The goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of converting what was envisioned to become hundreds of thousands of acres of home-grown switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol for motor fuel processing plants throughout the state that would both boost Tennessee’s economy and help reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil.

That same year, Congress enacted a Renewable Fuels Standard that called for the production of 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol nationally by 2012 as a stepping stone toward 16 billion gallons by 2022. Together with the 14 billion gallons of ethanol that’s already being derived from corn, that would displace more than 20 percent of the 138 billion gallons of gasoline that were then being consumed in the U.S.

But now five years have passed, the $70 million has all been spent, and there’s no sign of a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Tennessee anywhere in sight. More than half of the $70 million went toward building a 250,000 gallon pilot refinery in Vonore. A fledgling UT subsidiary, Genera Energy, contracted with chemical giant DuPont to run the pilot plant, which commenced operation at the end of 2009.