Suggested Citation: Morrison, Geoffrey M., Julie Witcover, Nathan C. Parker, Lewis Fulton (2016) Three Routes Forward for Biofuels: Incremental, Leapfrog, and Transitional. Energy Policy 88, 64 - 73
This paper examines three technology routes for lowering the carbon intensity of biofuels: (1) a leapfrog route that focuses on major technological breakthroughs in lignocellulosic pathways at new, stand-alone biorefineries; (2) an incremental route in which improvements are made to existing U.S. corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel biorefineries; and (3) a transitional route in which biotechnology firms gain experience growing, handling, or chemically converting lignocellulosic biomass in a lower-risk fashion than leapfrog biorefineries by leveraging existing capital stock. We find the incremental route is likely to involve the largest production volumes and greenhouse gas benefits until at least the mid-2020s, but transitional and leapfrog biofuels together have far greater long-term potential. We estimate that the Renewable Fuel Standard, California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and federal tax credits provided an incentive of roughly $1.5–2.5 per gallon of leapfrog biofuel between 2012 and 2015, but that regulatory elements in these policies mostly incentivize lower-risk incremental investments. Adjustments in policy may be necessary to bring a greater focus on transitional technologies that provide targeted learning and cost reduction opportunities for leapfrog biofuels.