The debate over America’s Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), and the role that advanced biofuels like sugarcane ethanol play in meeting our clean energy goals, has largely focused on what the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) appropriate volume targets should be moving forward.
But centering the debate on volume targets for all biofuels has let two key benefits of advanced biofuels slip out of focus: the potential for non-corn ethanol to drastically cut lifecycle emissions compared to gasoline, and the ability of biofuel feedstocks to be sustainably grown without harming the environment.
Land-Use Advantages Compared To Corn
Let’s start with emissions reductions, arguably the most important imperative to fighting climate change. EPA certified sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel that cuts emissions 61% compared to gasoline after a careful lifecycle analysis of the entire production-to-consumption process in 2010.
Examining the “well-to-wheels” impact of this clean fuel shows sugarcane ethanol cut emissions from American drivers 2.2 million tons in 2012, equal to growing 57 million trees for 10 years. By itself, that’s impressive data, but the full sustainability sum is revealed when land-use benefits are included in the equation.
Sugarcane fields store roughly 60 tons of carbon per hectacre, including above and below ground and soil organic carbon. That is a significant amount of carbon sequestration potential, but it’s made even more impressive because unlike corn, sugarcane only needs to be replanted every six years. This reduces land tilling, cutting the amount of carbon released from the soil.