Cellulosic ethanol has benefits in the age of drought

The prolonged California drought, made worse by climate change, should get farmers and regulators thinking more about the benefits of cellulosic ethanol. Plants whose sugars are fermented from cellulose, as opposed to starchy plants used for food like corn and sugar cane, often don’t need nearly as much water, tending or high-quality soil.

Currently, the vast majority of the 14 million gallons of ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn — not “corn on the cob,” the sweet corn consumed by humans, but field corn normally given to livestock. Because of the vast scale of corn production, growers are able to tinker and experiment, and their advances in technology and growing techniques have brought higher crop yields than ever: In 2014 farmers grew an average of 171 barrels per acre, about 6 barrels per acre more than the record yield of 2009.

That translated to yields of ethanol: According to the Renewable Fuels Association, corn used for fuel yielded 2.82 gallons per bushel, or 478.8 gallons per acre.

Other starchy, food-based fuel crops are not far behind: Sugar beets actually produce more than twice the ethanol yields as corn (about 1,200 gallons per acre), and many U.S. farmers are increasing production. Grain sorghum is another good sugar/starchy ethanol “feedstock,” yielding potentially 2.27 gallons per bushel.

Other examples of cellulosic ethanol feedstocks would be switchgrass; corn stover; miscanthus giganteus; and wood waste left over from forestry operations. These sources not only are inedible for humans, they don’t require that much work to grow: In the case of corn stover, it’s the leftovers from corn harvesting.

For more information, check out our cool new shareable infographic on feedstocks for ethanol:


According to a study released in March by the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois, miscanthus — a reedy plant that can grow 12 feet tall or more — was the “clear winner” in a side-by-side comparison between switchgrass and corn stover, when it comes to yields and costs of production.

“One of the reasons for interest in these second-generation cellulosic feedstocks is that if they can be grown on low-quality soil, they wouldn’t compete for land with food crops, such as corn. This study shows that although miscanthus yield was slightly lower on marginal, low-quality land, a farmer would have an economic incentive to grow miscanthus on the lower quality land first rather than diverting their most productive cropland from growing corn,” said University of Illinois agricultural economist Madhu Khanna, a co-author of the study.

If the California drought persists for years, and the situation is repeated around the world, it makes sense to displace dirty oil with cleaner-burning alcohol fuels, especially ones that thrive in arid conditions.

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Not just corn: 10 homegrown feedstocks for ethanol

The debate over ethanol often is dominated by corn, our most widely used natural resource for making the fuel.

But there are many different “feedstocks” that can be used to produce the alcohol fuel. Fuel Freedom Foundation has created a new infographic detailing some of those. Of course, corn is in there, but so is natural gas and a variety of plants that don’t just look pretty, they’re useful as a fuel to power our cars, trucks and SUVs.

Companies also are ramping up production of “cellulosic” ethanol. That form of ethanol isn’t fermented from corn starch but from the sugars extracted from a wide variety of plants. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from wood waste, corn stover (the leftovers from corn after it’s harvested) and switchgrass, among other inedible plants.

The infographic is below. Click on the image for a wider view:


Share it, pass it around, use it to debate your skeptical friends!

As David Blume, author of “Alcohol Can Be a Gas!”, outlined in our 2014 documentary PUMP, ethanol can be made from the agave plant, cat tails, sweet sorghum and other plants that don’t require as much effort (and diesel-powered machinery) to grow.

Prickly pear, for instance, “grows all over the world, in huge quantities, especially in places where it’s dry,” Blume said. “We can grow this in poor countries that don’t have a viable agriculture, in arid areas.

“What is the best alcohol crop? It’s the one that’s best suited to your soil and climate where you are.”

Watch that clip from the movie:

Ethanol debate heats up

Anyone who thought that the EPA’s publication of its proposed Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014, 2015 and 2016 was going to settle the ethanol debate has definitely got another thing coming.

The EPA ruling has simply made the situation more contentious and complex. In fact, nobody really knows where ethanol is headed now.

Consider the following developments:

  • The industry hit an all-time high first week in June, producing 992,000 barrels per day, equal to the old record of Dec. 19, 2014, and 100,000 barrels more than the first week in May. This despite the argument from the industry that the EPA measure is crippling the industry.
  • Gasoline consumption rose 3 percent over the first quarter, the fastest increase in a decade. Gasoline costs $1 less a gallon than it did a year ago, and motorists are responding by driving more. The more gasoline consumed, the more ethanol will be consumed, since it makes up 10 percent of each gallon.
  • While the EPA may have underestimated the amount of ethanol that will be consumed in a year, the agency has definitely overestimated the amount of “advanced” ethanol the industry can produce. This is supposed to be an incentive for the development of cellulosic ethanol, but cellulosic plants are having a hard time getting off the ground. It’s not at all certain that cellulosic ethanol will ever be available in commercial quantities.
  • Through a quirk in the law, the EPA counts sugar-based ethanol as an “advanced technology” in opposition to corn-based ethanol. Therefore, refineries are allowed to count sugar-based ethanol toward their EPA “advanced” quota. The result has been a boon to Brazil, which saw its exports of sugar-based ethanol triple over the past few months. There is very little sugar-based ethanol produced in this country. The price of Renewable Identification Notices (RINs), whereby refiners show they have added “advanced” ethanol to their gasoline, rose to its highest level in two years since the EPA announcement. Meanwhile, the price of RINs for corn-based ethanol has fallen by 50 percent over the same period.

And so it goes, round and round. All this has left commentators scratching their heads as to where the industry is headed. On, Colin Chilcoat wrote a column asking, “Has U.S. Ethanol Production Topped Out?” Accompanying it was a graph showing that ethanol production has leveled off at 9.8 percent of every gallon over the last three years:

ethanol graphThis puts consumption just below the 10 percent “blend wall,” at which ethanol supposedly starts to harm engines. But that’s not the whole story. As Chilcoat writes: “Buoyed by high exports – up 33 percent from 2013 – ethanol production totaled more than 14.3 billion gallons in 2014.” American ethanol is starting to find markets abroad, even as we import more from Brazil.

Then there’s the question of whether that “blend wall” really exists. There’s no question that ethanol corrodes steel. That’s the reason it can’t be shipped in pipelines – which makes it very expensive to get it from farm country to the East and West coasts. But steel has been replaced by rubber in fuel-injection systems, and the danger no longer exists for cars built after 2001. Then there are the flex-fuel vehicles, of which there are some 17 million on the road today. They can handle any liquid fuel. Finally, an older car can be modified by replacing the steel parts in the fuel system through a simple procedure that costs less than $200. E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is being sold all over the Midwest, where support for ethanol is strong. And the Obama administration’s Department of Agriculture has just appropriated $100 million for gas stations that can dispense all varieties of ethanol.

“Unfortunately, the EPA continues to cling to the ‘blend wall’ methodology that falsely claims ethanol has reached its saturation point at a 10 percent ethanol blend,” Bob Dinneen, president the Renewable Fuels Association, complained. “The Agency has eviscerated the program’s ability to incentivize investments in infrastructure that would break through the blend wall and encourage the commercialization of new technologies.”

Perhaps the biggest shift has come from environmental groups, who were once ethanol’s biggest supporters but who have done a 180-degree turn and are now among its biggest opponents. The Environmental Working Group recently published a paper claiming that corn ethanol actually produces a 20 percent increase in carbon emissions and is a contributor to global warming. EWG estimates that the production of E10 in 2014 resulted in 27 million tons more carbon emissions than if American drivers had been burning ethanol-free gasoline (E0). A study by the World Resources Institute purports to show that where carbon emissions are concerned, ethanol does more harm than good. Friends of the Earth, once a supporter, is now one of ethanol’s most vocal detractors.

Yet the public seems to be still behind the ethanol effort. A poll conducted by RFA found that 62 percent of the public favors corn-based ethanol, while only 18 percent were opposed. The number rose to 69 percent when people were asked if manufacturers should be required to offer flex-fuel vehicles.

So the EPA is limiting the production of corn ethanol, which is plentiful, while providing broad leeway to cellulosic ethanol, which doesn’t yet exist at scale. To top things off, Sen. John Cassidy of Louisiana introduced a bill to do away with the Renewable Fuel Standard altogether, making all gas E0 again. Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania already have a similar bill in the hopper.

The last act of the ethanol story has definitely not been written yet.

Non-food-based ethanol scaling up to succeed corn

Biofuels have been taking their lumps lately. After almost seven years of controversy, the European Parliament has acted to limit the amount of biofuels that can be garnered from land that could be used to grow food.

The EU has set itself a goal of getting 10 percent of its transport fuel from biofuels by 2020. Last week the Parliament voted to reduce this to 7 percent. The concern is that biofuels are taking food out of people’s mouths. Biofuels are also accused of leading to deforestation, both in Europe and in countries such as Brazil and Argentina, where Amazon rainforest and Argentinian pampas are being put under cultivation for growing biofuels for export.

“Let no one be in doubt, the biofuels bubble has burst,” Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth Europe said in a statement. “These fuels do more harm than good for people, the environment and the climate. The EU’s long-awaited move to put the brakes on biofuels is a clear signal to the rest of the world that this is a false solution to the climate crisis. This must spark the end of burning food for fuel.”

Ironically, it was soft-energy guru Amory Lovins, who at the time was British representative of Friends of the Earth, who originally suggested the biofuels idea in his 1976 book, Soft Energy Paths. Lovins used an elaborate comparison with the beer and wine industry to show that it would be possible to produce a good one-third of the United States’ gasoline requirements through biofuels. Unfortunately, Lovins did not take account of the amount of land that would be required to grow these crops. This oversight has dogged the biofuels effort ever since.

In the U.S., criticism is mounting as well. A study published last month by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that corn and soy crops for biofuels are expanding into previously un-farmed prairie land in the Midwest. Using high-resolution satellite photographs, the authors identified the expansion of cropland from 2008 to 2012, the four years following the passage of the Renewable Fuels Act that mandated the use of biofuels. The authors estimate that 40 percent of the corn crop grown in the U.S. is now used to make ethanol for use in vehicles. Ironically, environmentalists who originally celebrated ethanol are among its biggest detractors.

So does this mean that American biofuels will soon be facing the same limitations they’ve encountered in Europe? Probably not. The reason, once again, is technology.

From the beginning, the dream of biofuels enthusiasts has been that ways could be found for breaking down the refractory cellulose molecule and turning it into basic sugars that can be synthesized into ethanol. This is a very difficult task. It can only be accomplished in two ways: 1) heating corn stover and other cellulosic materials to a very high temperature, which consumes more energy than is produced; and 2) taking advantage of bacteria in the guts of cows and termites that can break down cellulose. These bacteria are highly temperamental, however, and have proved to be extremely difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale.

Nevertheless, progress has been made, and there are several commercial operations now approaching successful operations. Among them are:

Abengoa Bioenergy (Hugoton, Kansas). This Spanish company’s cellulosic-ethanol facility came online in 2014 and is expected to produce 25 million gallons per year from corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and switchgrass.

DuPont (Nevada, Iowa). Its 30 million-gallon-per-year cellulosic plant is scheduled to begin production this year. The plant will get corn stover from 500 farmers who are participating in the company’s Feedstock Harvest Program.

Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels (Emmetsburg, Iowa). Co-funded by a Dutch company, Project Liberty opened in September 2014 and is producing ethanol from corn cobs, leaves, husk and stalk. It is shooting for 25 MMGY.

Quad County Corn Processors (Galva, Iowa) started production last year. Its Quad County facility can produce 2MMGY. The company says its patented technology has the ability to generate 1 billion gallons per year, without consuming any more corn, by adding bolt-on technology to existing corn-ethanol refineries.

So ethanol is not standing still. The EPA is expected to issue its renewable fuel standard sometime next month, after dodging the issue for two years. The threshold likely will be below the 14 billion gallons that was originally scheduled for 2014. But the law’s requirement for Gen-2 biofuels has barely been scratched, since these cellulose efforts have not borne fruit to date. With cellulosic operations now gearing up, it appears that ethanol may be ready to take on a second life.

(Photo: Corn-stover harvest. Posted to Flickr by Idaho National Laboratory)

Can exports rescue ethanol?

As the Renewable Fuels Association’s National Ethanol Conference convened in Dallas last month, the outlook for ethanol appeared grim. The Environmental Protection Agency still hasn’t issued set the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014, and ethanol manufacturers have been left in limbo.

On top of that, ethanol producers still are dealing with the months-long drop in oil prices. Even though Brent crude has been rising again of late, hovering around $60, it’s a far cry from the $115 it traded at last June. The overall price swoon has driven down ethanol stocks, along with those of oil companies. Warren Buffett has unloaded his ExxonMobil stock, which seemed to have been a bellwether for the market in general. Yet if the oil-price drop increases the consumption of gasoline and the 10 percent ethanol requirement holds, ethanol sales could actually go up while the price remains the same.

No one really knows what’s going to happen as long as the EPA keeps delaying new guidelines for the RFS, which will mandate the total amount of ethanol that should be sold in the coming year. The problem has been that, as demand for gasoline slackened, and the required amount of ethanol blended into the nation’s gas supply steadily rose, the ethanol threshold approached the 10 percent “blend wall.” Government testing has shown that virtually all vehicles model year 2001 and newer can run safely on ethanol blends up to E15, but the impact on older engines is still unclear. Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Transportation, apologized for the delay and said the EPA might be issuing its decision on the RFS in the next couple of months.

Yet no one at NEC seemed terribly bothered by the delay. Why? Because the ethanol industry is starting to boom with demand from abroad. “Who needs the RFS? Who needs the EPA?” Tim Worledge wrote on The Barrel, a blog of the Platts energy-news service. “We’ve already proven we can make the stuff … now it’s time to take it global.”

Ethanol exports are not limited the way oil exports are, so there’s no restriction on what can be sold abroad. Many countries don’t limit ethanol additives to 10 percent of gasoline, so there’s plenty of room for opportunity. “There are some persuasive arguments around this [the export] solution,” Worledge writes. “Bob Dinneen, the near-legendary head of the RFA [Renewable Fuels Association], cited 61 countries globally that have biofuel mandates in place. Target them. Grow the economy at home and target the locations in the world where opportunities remain — the “explosive growth” of China and India is an opportunity, says Dinneen, while Pedro Paranhos, vice president of Eco-Energy, pointed out that the US has already supplanted many of Brazil’s traditional export markets, with the only markets proving immune are those where quality and feedstock issues give Brazilian outflows an advantage.”

The international market is indeed just beginning to show signs of a demand for American ethanol. “The burgeoning firepower that the US ethanol industry can bring to the global market could yet see further pressure heaped upon the rest of the world’s ethanol products,” Worledge continued. The industry, he said, should be “looking to the world’s markets to insulate yourself from these political uncertainties,” i.e. the EPA’s delays on the RFS.

One potential problem is that the U.S. is trying to crack the European market just as the European Union is beginning to worry about whether biofuel production is really all that good for the environment. The debate is raging right now in the European Parliament. But even if Europe decides to set aside some land as off-limits for growing plants to process into biofuels, such restrictions could actually clear the way for the import of American-made ethanol. That would create a huge market opportunity for the U.S. industry.

One way or another, it seems too early to write off the possibility that ethanol will be able to reduce what the countries of the world must buy from oil-producing nations in order to power their transportation.