Ethanol is a not long term solution

In Minnesota, ethanol has become part of our everyday lives. It is blended into our gasoline and is available for flex fuel vehicles in the form of E85, with the intention of lowering our fossil fuels dependence. Ethanol also helps keep corn demand and prices high to support our farmers. But corn ethanol is increasingly becoming a controversial topic.

There are a number of downsides to corn ethanol. Besides supporting a system that over-relies on corn, corn ethanol also drives up food prices. As a fuel alternative, it is dubious. Ethanol contains less energy per volume than gasoline, but also requires a very energy intensive process to manufacture it. As a result, it burns through a considerable amount of fossil fuel to create it.

Still, corn ethanol has played a critical role in getting people to think more deeply about environmentally and economically friendly fossil fuel alternatives. So what else should we consider as we try to transition past corn fuel?

In 2011, the U.S. opened the ethanol market to international competition; as a result we have imported a fair amount of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol. Versus corn ethanol, it has been lauded as a more environmentally friendly and efficient alternative to fossil fuels. The sugar cane ethanol requires less processing and the factories have the ability to generate their own power by burning leftover materials from the process. This has resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeling the Brazilian ethanol as an ‘advanced biofuel’ and creating mandates that encourage imports. (We'll talk about MN sugar production later in this blog.)

It turns out that Brazilian ethanol has its own problems. These range from worker abuse to environmental issues related to burning the cane fields before manual harvest (many sugar plantations have been switching to mechanized harvest which eliminates the need for burning; but has cost, fuel use, and other problems associated with it). However, the largest drawback to Brazilian sugar cane ethanol production is that it is still a crop that takes up land and fertilizer. Expanding sugar cane fields push food production farms into areas where they will be forced to farm in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Amazon and near the Pantanal. This makes ethanol’s goals at reducing carbon emissions very difficult indeed.

Ok, so the outlook of biofuels is looking a bit cloudier now, but there are still options. Earlier this year, in California, a project went underway to build an ethanol and cellulosic biofuel production facility that uses sugar beets. The facility is projected to produce ethanol and fuels at an efficiency and carbon reduction rate much greater than corn and even sugar cane. This is intriguing from a Minnesota perspective because we grow the most sugar beets in the nation. We can diversify our ethanol production in the state by using our beets to produce a more efficient ethanol and cellulosic biofuel. This would take alleviate some of the problems associated with corn ethanol, but will still be using land and fertilizer. It would also likely drive up food prices and further complicate the sugar industry in the U.S.

In the end, ethanol is certainly not the environmental, economic and political panacea. But that does not mean that we should ditch all efforts to produce fossil fuel alternatives. It simply means that ethanol cannot be relied upon as the sole solution to our fossil fuel problems. We still need to do a considerable amount of investment in both time and resources to further develop and reach the full potential of many renewable energy sources, and ethanol is just one step in that long process.

  • You make some good points in your blog, Colin, about ethanol, its importance to Minnesota (in many ways) and our need to find fuel alternatives to fossil-based petroleum. Although Jonathan makes some good points about corn as a commodity, including it not being a major factor in the rise in food prices, I don’t see your comments as being driven by big oil. I do like the way you think, in terms of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. Your California example is right on, as far as it being desirable to take non-food sources of sugar to turn them into ethanol, which can be used as fuel. You should know that the conversion technology used to convert sugar beets and organic scrap, which the industry calls biomass, owes its origins to the corn-ethanol industry, which has helped to pioneer the process. Using enzymes, yeasts and heat, this renewable cellulosic process breaks down the leftover cobs, leaves and stalks from the cornfield to release about 90 percent of the remaining sugars, which are fermented into ethanol. By adjusting the types of enzymes and yeasts, the feedstock can be sugar beets, switch grass, wood pulp (such as sawdust, etc., from a mill) or other organic matter. Because these are generally byproducts of another process, there is no additional fertilizer or land use required. You should know, however, that the process of making ethanol from corn does yield 2.3 energy units for every unit it consumes, so it is an energy-positive process. The company where I work – DSM – is building one of the first cellulosic ethanol plants in Iowa, which will be online in early 2014. Using this process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 86 percent, compared to gasoline, and it makes up to 10 units of energy for every one that is consumed. We hope to offer this process to the corn-ethanol plants in Minnesota, so that they have the opportunity to also use the area's farm scrap or biomass from corn production to make an even more attractive alternative to fossil-based fuels. By the way, one of the side effects of adding a cellulosic ethanol plant – beside the investment – is an increase of about 45 direct and over 100 indirect jobs in the community, plus about $20 million annually in biomass purchases to local farmers. - by Michael Scholl on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 3:23pm
  • there are flaws with this commentary.. first the first and largest of the ethanol plants in MN took 5 years to turn a profit... it was a 75 million dollar investment that paid off in 5 years.. that's pretty darn good and it did so by not having any waste... everything that goes in gets used and or is sold.... it costs significantly less to produce the same energy from ethanol than from gasoline... increases in costs of food are more the result of an increase in transportation costs than an increase in costs of corn since the corn used in the production ethanol is NOT food grade corn and the mash residue from production of the mash that goes into making the ethanol is mixed with grain and sold back to farmers for their livestock... ethanol may not be the end all to our fuel problems but know the facts before you decide... it works, it's cleaner, it's less polluting, it's energy efficient. - by Bruce Gannon on Wed, 08/28/2013 - 11:52am
  • nearly every "fact" in this piece comes straight from Big Oil's PR schills. Ethanol is keeping Minnesota farmers and farm communities in business. The rise in commodity prices had made farming profitable again without government help, while raising food prices by ten percent or less (World Bank and UN studies confirm this) --the biggest costs in food price rises are increases in the cost of labor (worth paying) and fossil energy (not so much). - by Jonathan Eisenthal on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 1:05pm
  • How about Tesla's Technology He had the answer and we have never seen any of it. - by Gregory Marshall on Wed, 08/28/2013 - 12:03pm

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