The fight over corn ethanol could be over, if cooler heads look at the latest data.  While academia has busily pored over reports and run computer models, the industry, that is paying the bills, has been busily upgrading the efficiency of the whole industry.

Academia does catch up sometimes.  The authors of a new study, led by researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL), say that previous studies that tarred ethanol as an environmental villain were flawed because they looked at outdated corn and ethanol production techniques. The more modern ethanol plants – which account for about 60% of U.S. production and will account for 75% by the end of 2009 – have become a lot more efficient at growing and harvesting corn and turning it into alternative fuel. The new study was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

The estimable Keith Johnson writing for the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital pointed out a perceived flaw writing, “But the new study leaves off one huge area of potential environmental impact – the knock-on effects of using more U.S. cropland to grow corn. That means less acreage for soy and other food crops, which means other countries have to pick up the slack, sometimes by cutting down forests.”

Ah, that’s not how it works, OK, maybe in New York City where reality is hundreds of miles out in the hinterlands.  The reality is that some pasturage and conservation land is back in corn.  But the fact is almost all corn land is in one year growing corn and the next growing soybeans, then corn, then soy again, rotating back and forth.  So Mr. Johnson is passing on the myth, while the reality is that soy will be up as well, just a year later is all.

The myth, or giant lie as hard nosed ethanol supporters say privately, leads to such strange things as those ‘land use changes’ that have the environmental crowd so worked up.  And worked up they are – the land use ‘issue’ has become a lever to extract more restrictive biomass measures from proposed regulations.  Ethanol might be today’s target, but every form of biomass headed to ethanol, methanol, butanol, algae oil and everything else is going to get swept up and regulated as well.  The danger for a cleaner planet has dangerous enemies within its proponents.

One shock that the New York crowd and the following investor crowd haven’t come to grips with is that for decades the price of corn has followed oil in lockstep, a few minutes later.  Trying to run an ethanol plant with the economic background of the MBA or ‘business expertise’ from other industries is a prescription for disaster.  Johnson says, “Pricier corn and cheaper oil and gasoline prices make ethanol an unprofitable business.”

The fact is folks in the agriculture business running ethanol plants are doing fine, and those ethanol plants that went bust and were bought by the oil companies will be too.  Soon, no plants will be run by non-experienced managers and executives.  Hot trends, as ethanol was only a few short years back, still need experienced management and executives, a lesson investors have just been taught again.

Meanwhile, the study using current data has some pleasant surprises.  Direct-effect green house gas (GHG) emissions from corn ethanol are equivalent to a 48% to 59% reduction compared to gasoline – a twofold to threefold greater reduction than reported in previous studies because of the results of recent improvements in efficiency throughout the production process.

The UNL researcher team evaluated dry-mill (dry grain is milled down to very small particles) ethanol plants that use natural gas accounting for nearly 90% of current production capacity.  The direct-effect emissions assessment considered the energy used for the corn production and harvesting (e.g., fossil fuels for field operations and electricity for grain drying and irrigation) as well as upstream costs for the production of fertilizer, pesticides, and seed; depreciable cost of manufacturing farm machinery; and the energy required in the production of fossil fuels and electricity.

The energy used in the conversion of corn to ethanol includes transportation of grain to the ethanol plant, grain milling, starch liquefaction and hydrolysis, fermentation to biofuel, and the co-product (distillers grain) processing and transport. The study even included energy used for the construction of the ethanol plant itself, prorated over the life of the facility.

People who eat beef, drink milk and like cheese should know many plants are located near cattle feeding or dairy operations, which allows efficient use of the co-product distillers grains as cattle feed. For example, the distillers grain doesn’t have to be dried to facilitate long-distance travel; thus avoiding drying that uses up to 30% of total energy used in ethanol plants.

Farming practices have changed as well.  Corn ethanol’s GHG performance is from improvements in how the crop is grown, including improved crop and soil management, and better hybrids that help farmers achieve a steady increase in corn yields without having to increase fertilizer or energy inputs.

The future looks bright as well.  The study’s ethanol-to-petroleum output/input ratios ranged from 10:1 to 13:1 but could be increased to 19:1 if farmers adopted high-yield progressive crop and soil management practices, according to the study.  Using advanced closed-loop ethanol production technology with anaerobic digestion reduced GHG emissions by 67% and increased the net energy ratio to 2.2, from 1.5 to 1.8 for the most common systems.  These numbers are much better than the 1.5:1 so often seen and discounted to below 1:1 by non expert pundits.

What can be learned from the study is the spread of the ethanol to oil output/input ratios, the ranges of net efficiency and the GHG emissions are due to the local differences in corn production practices and the sophistication, capital facility improvements and operating expertise.  No surprise there.

What will surprise people is as the corn land range increased from such changes as a lot of cotton land went to the corn and soy rotation for example.  The following maps show the expertise of the Corn Belt is exemplary, while the new corn growers and their local plants suffered.

Ethanol Production Results by State. Click image for more info.

Ethanol Production Results by State. Click image for more info.

The main lesson is what good farmers always know.  It’s better to do what you know than to take risks on something strange.  Biomass is going to be much slower to take up farmland than many expect and there will be much less dislocation and distortion than offered.


6 Comments so far

  1. Matt on November 3, 2009 9:20 AM

    Processing with plentiful natural gas is a key component here for the oil offset. Also, if and when some other option becomes available i.e. algae – these plants can be converted away from corn.

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