One of modern agriculture’s most beloved commodities, ethanol, received a stern rebuke on Feb. 13 from Iowa’s largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register.
In an editorial titled “Ethanol Has Been a Boon to Iowa’s Economy. But it’s time to pivot and figure out what’s next,” chastised The Register, Republicans and Democrats in Iowa, for supporting ethanol programs when everyone in Hawkeye State “would be better served to understand what comes after ethanol”.
That wasn’t the only public slap in the face of ethanol in the past month or even week.
Two days prior, Christopher S. Jones, a widely published research engineer at the University of Iowa, lit up Twitter with a blog post titled “Iowa is addicted to cornography,” an essay that, in part, compared the energy provided by an acre of Iowa corn grown for ethanol to that of an acre of solar panels producing electricity.
“There are about 75,000 BTUs in a gallon of ethanol,” Jones explained, and “it takes about 35,000 BTUs to grow corn and produce ethanol…” That means on average, an acre of Iowa corn “will produce about 500 gallons”. of ethanol” with a “net energy gain (of) approximately 20 million BTUs per acre”.
That sounds like a lot, Jones noted, until you add the unaccounted-for corn/ethanol costs: “…soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degradation of streams, lakes and clean water, loss of habitat” and agricultural program subsidies “that keep the hernia system from exploding. ”
In contrast, an acre of solar panels in Iowa “produces 34 times the amount of usable energy as an acre of ethanol (made from corn)…Not twice as much…not 10 times more Thirty-four times more.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast, says the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit science advocacy agency in Cambridge, Mass., known more for its strong endorsement of wind and solar than for its love of the ethanol.
However, in an interview for an episode of the “Corn Save America” podcast, Jeremy Martin, the director of fuels policy at UCS, suggests that ethanol and other “biofuels” could claim a bigger share of the rapidly diminishing “liquid fuel pie”. as electric cars dominate the roads.
For example, agricultural and commodity groups are pushing for an update to the Renewable Fuels Standard that mandates a 15% blend of ethanol and gasoline, one and a half times more than the current blend. by 10%. If the lobbying is successful, Martin thinks the 15% requirement will hit just as gasoline sales begin to plunge, say 2035, due to the rapid adoption of electric or electric vehicles.
“If those two things happen in parallel,” he told podcast host Sarah Mock, “…they cancel each other out perfectly.” In short, “We can go electric as fast as we can…and keep the corn/ethanol program going.”
And, he adds, “if we stop selling gas-powered cars by 2035, we could see total sales of liquid fuel used for transportation drop by 85 percent. If most of this remaining market is claimed by biofuels, “then there is a huge opportunity to expand corn and other feedstock biofuels.”
So Big Ag’s big rush to lock in higher ethanol blends at the pump at the state and federal levels: They see electric vehicles as a market maker for biofuels, not a market taker . As such, the biggest fight over future biofuels policy will not be between corn farmers and solar advocates; it will be between Big Ag and Big Oil, two of the oldest deep-pocketed titans of Capitol Hill lobbying.
It also means that the high environmental costs of biofuel production will likely be buried in the fight against higher blends and the current CO2 pipeline craze.
It would be a mistake. Still-emerging evidence – such as the just-released “Environmental Results of US Renewable Fuel Standards” (link to farmandfoodfile.com) shows that the cost of ethanol, when fully tabulated, is significantly higher than previously calculated.
Which brings us back to the initial concerns of The Register and Jones: the environmental price of ethanol is already high. So steep, in fact, that everyone would be “better served to figure out what comes after ethanol.”
Alan Guebert is an agricultural journalist. See columns passed to farmandfoodfile.com.