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:

Is your car a flex-fuel vehicle? Use this tool to find out

You’ve seen the badges on the rear ends of cars, trucks and SUVs, likely while you’re stuck in traffic. They say “FlexFuel” or, more descriptively, “FlexFuel … E85 Ethanol.” Almost 20 million vehicles in the United States come off the assembly line as flex-fuel, meaning they can run perfectly well on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, up to E85 (which is actually 51 percent to 83 percent ethanol, the rest gasoline).

But not all of them have that shiny badge declaring them flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs). Sometimes a yellow gas cap is the dead giveaway, but those caps only started appearing on model-year 2008 vehicles (2006 for General Motors). Buried deep inside the owner’s manual, too, is a notice about which fuels are approved to run in your vehicle.

Now, there’s an easy tool that will tell you whether you’re one of those lucky 20 million whose vehicle can take E85. Fuel Freedom Foundation has just unveiled the Check Your Car tool. You can enter in your vehicle’s make, model, year and engine size, and it’ll tell you whether you’re driving an FFV.

This tool is long overdue, because ever since the first FFV rolled out of the factory — the 1996 Ford Taurus, which actually could run on gasoline, ethanol and methanol — FFV owners have consistently not taken advantage of all these engines can do. Less than 10 percent of such drivers use E85. Part of the reason likely is that only a small percentage of the nation’s fueling stations offer it. But that proportion is rising: E15, which has twice as much ethanol as regular gasoline (which contains up to 10 percent ethanol already), is spreading around the country, and more stations are offering E85 as well.

Using higher ethanol blends, and less gasoline, has multiple benefits:

  • It’s cheaper for consumers. The Renewable Fuels Association says blending ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply saves the average American family about $1,200 a year.
  • It’s a natural octane enhancer, which makes engines perform better.
  • Since ethanol burns more efficiently, it results in fewer tailpipe emissions being released into the air, which is better for air quality.
  • It’s an American-made fuel, requiring American-based jobs. The U.S. only produces less than 10 million barrels of crude a day but consumes some 19 million. The difference must be imported.

Check Your Car is part of our Fuels 101 initiative, which will soon include other features such as an education page about the various fuel types; how to find a station that sells alternative fuels (for the time being, use the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s locator); and how to find a kit that could convert your gasoline-only engine to run on ethanol.

So check back soon. In the meantime, kick the tires and take Check Your Car for a test drive.

EPA’s ethanol ruling pleases no one

Nobody is happy with the EPA’s ruling on ethanol’s Renewable Fuel Standard made last week. The agency finally published its numbers after dodging the issue for two years and falling far behind on its legal obligations.

“It’s Christmas in May for Big Oil,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “President Obama’s EPA continues to buy into Big Oil’s argument that the infrastructure isn’t in place to handle the fuel volume required by law. What happened to the president who claimed to support biofuels? He seems to have disappeared, to the detriment of consumers and our country’s fuel needs.”

Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, also a Republican, was not quite so negative. “We are disappointed that the EPA failed to follow the renewable volume levels set by Congress,” he said. “But we’re encouraged that the agency has provided some stability for producers by releasing a new RFS proposal, and made slight increases from their previous proposal.”

Even the question of whether the EPA’s new standard represents an increase or a decrease in the required amount of ethanol is under dispute. The original law, passed by Congress in 2007, specified that oil refiners were to absorb 14 billion gallons by 2013, 17 billion by 2014 and 19 billion this year. By 2013, however, it became obvious that the country would be unable to absorb 14 billion gallons without spilling over the “blend wall,” the standard of 10 percent ethanol that’s blended into virtually all gasoline in the U.S. There are concerns that some older vehicles can’t handle higher ethanol blends beyond E10 without sustaining damage to parts.

“By adopting the oil company narrative regarding the ability of the market to effectively distribute increasing volumes of renewable fuels, rather than putting the RFS back on track, the Agency has created its own slower, more costly, and ultimately diminished track for renewable fuels in this country,” Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, said in a statement.

The critics seem to have a point. Blends of E15 (up to 15 percent ethanol) and E85 are being sold across the country without any difficulties. Cars built since model year 2001 are approved to run on E15, and about one-third of automobiles are now flex-fuel, meaning they can tolerate any ethanol blend, up to E85. But the EPA has stuck with the “blend wall” in order to accommodate the oil refiners and automakers, who say they will not honor warranties on engines that might be damaged by ethanol.

The EPA standards announced last week are: 15.93 billion gallons for 2014 (that approximates actual sales for that year), 16.3 billion for 2015 and 17.4 billion for 2017. All these figures are about 5 billion gallons below the original statutory requirements. The last two have caused the most controversy. Ethanol supporters say the EPA is bound by the number in the 2007 law — even though there is a waiver provision. But critics who want to cut back on ethanol use argue that the figure is actually increasing from year to year and is only considered a reduction because it doesn’t match the original projections if 2007.

Really, it’s kind of ridiculous to think that Congress could predict exactly how much ethanol could be sold eight years hence. Typically, they made straight-line projections and assumed that gasoline consumption would hit 160 billion gallons per year by this time and keep going up. In fact, gasoline consumption started to drop almost the minute Congress passed the law, resulting from both improved fleet mileage and the reduction in driving that came with the recession. It now stands at 140 billion gallons. Had the law simply specified that ethanol consumption should be 10 percent of all gasoline consumption, there would be nothing to argue about.

The other place where the law is completely out of whack is in the mandates for non-corn ethanol made from cellulosic materials. At the time it was anticipated that cellulosic ethanol was right around the corner, and Congress specified that consumption should be 3.75 billion gallons in 2014, 7.2 billion gallons by 2017 and 21 billion gallons by 2022. In fact, the cellulosic-ethanol industry produced only 1.9 billion gallons in 2014 and has not increased much since. At one point, the EPA was actually fining oil refiners for not using a fuel that didn’t exist.

There’s little reason for either Congress or the EPA to be meddling in the ethanol market. Ethanol has established itself as an oxygenator and high-octane additive since the banning of MTBE. It would probably be added at a rate of around 10 percent, even without the mandates. E85 has a big price advantage over gasoline and would sell more if it were available. Last week, on the same day that the EPA published its new proposed Renewable Fuel Standard benchmarks, the Department of Agriculture pledged to match state funds for $100 million for the construction of new fueling stations designed to dispense E85. The fuel is very popular in the Midwest and would probably attract customers in other areas if it were easily accessible.

Finally, an export market for American corn ethanol is starting to take shape. Brazil mandates 35 percent of its fuel must be ethanol, but it has had problems with its sugar harvest and has started to import from the U.S. Europe is also getting big on ethanol and is looking across the Atlantic for new supplies.

Ethanol has proved its worth as a fuel additive and possibly as a gasoline substitute as well. All the sturm and drang over the EPA mandates have very little to do with the future of the industry.

Minnesota, land of many lakes and E85 pumps

Minnesota is nicknamed “the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but it actually has 11,842 of them.

The state also has a lot more ethanol pumps than most people realize: There are 292 locations in 205 cities where drivers can fill up on E85 ethanol blend, according to That’s more than any other state. By comparison, California, which has about seven times the population, has only 88 E85 stations. The state where the Los Angeles Lakers call home also has only about 3,000 lakes, but who’s counting.

It’s no accident that Minnesota is ahead of the national curve on ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The state is No. 3 in the country in corn production, behind only Iowa and Nebraska. Minnesota also produces a lot of ethanol, and several plants sell directly to retailers. The relatively short supply chain between product and consumer has made the price point for Minnesota ethanol very attractive: The average price per gallon of E85 on Wednesday was $1.95, 21.1 percent cheaper than E10.

(For drivers who place cost above all other fuel factors, E85 needs to be about 20 percent cheaper than E10 to break even, when the reduced energy content of E85 is taken into account.)

It’s not just bountiful crops and plentiful fueling stations that make E85 so prevalent in Minnesota: It’s the years of momentum built by state officials, who have made the case that ethanol is not only cost-effective, but cleaner and better for air quality and the environment than gasoline.

Robert Moffitt, communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, based in St. Paul, says the chapter has been touting the health benefits of ethanol since 1998, when the Department of Energy selected the Twin Cities area, Chicago and Denver as pilot markets for E85.

“This was at a time when Minnesota had four or five E85 stations,” Moffitt said. “We really did not have a lot in those days. But they just wanted to see whether E85 was promoted in an area, would people use it? If we built it, would they come? And we found out that they would.”

Minn car3Association staffers drive around the state in two alt-fuel vehicles: A Ford Fusion flex-fuel (which is pictured as “Clean Air on a Stick,” a nod to all the foods-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair) and a Ford F-150 flex-fuel. “We have never put gasoline in those vehicles. They have run exclusively on E85 ever since we got them.”

Moffitt says biofuels aren’t a partisan issue like they are in other states. Years ago, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura (the wrestler known as “Jesse the Body,” and the “Predator” actor who made the line “Ain’t got time to bleed” immortal) expressed skepticism about promoting ethanol.

“It wasn’t quite getting through to him,” Moffitt said. “And then the commissioner of agriculture told him, ‘We wouldn’t have to import nearly as much oil from the Middle East.’ And he kind of looked up and smiled and said, ‘I like that.’ That was reason enough for Jesse.”

Despite all the benefits of E85 as a way to reduce consumption of oil, Moffitt acknowledges that “price is always going to be a deciding factor for a lot of people.” But expand the argument to the overall economy, and E85 makes even more sense.

“It’s still an excellent bargain, and it’s still a fuel that helps support our local economy,” he said. “When you purchase E85 instead of gasoline, not only are you helping to prevent about, on average, 5 tons of air pollutants going into the air per year per vehicle, but more of that dollar that you spend is going back into your community, it’s going back into the farming communities, it’s going back to the local retailers, it stays here in the U.S. And of course E85 has the great ability that gasoline doesn’t: We can grow more. … it’s made right here in the Upper Midwest; it’s an American-made product. I see no reason why, if you have a flex-fuel vehicle, and this fuel is available, why you’re not using it.”

Moffitt4“Even here in Minnesota, there are those who doubt, but that’s their choice. We want to make sure they have a choice. We want to make sure that, for the first time in 100 years, Americans have a choice at the pump … if they want to stick with traditional gasoline, that is their choice. But wouldn’t it be great if we all had a choice to pick something else, something that was cleaner, made in America, and didn’t support countries that don’t like us so much?”

Ethanol can be made from many “feedstocks,” not just corn. Whatever is nearby and abundant is the best source for fuel to be made and sold domestically.

Tell us about what you’re doing to make the switch to alternative fuels: Leave a comment or e-mail us at [email protected].

Bryce (NY Times) and ethanol: The whole truth and nothing but the truth

E85 pumpWhat’s up with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research? While I often don’t agree with the scholars who write for it, I find its articles and books thoughtful and provocative.

My question concerning the Institute derives from a desire to build a now absent civil dialogue concerning policy issues affecting the U.S. The Institute, when a reasonably informed national dialogue on policy existed, was an important participant. Now, that it has been lost, the Institute’s agenda and body of work offers hope that it can be resurrected someday soon. In this context Robert Bryce’s article in today’s New York Times, “End the Ethanol Rip-Off” concerns me. His article is filled with factual and interpretative errors that skew his conclusions concerning the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Bryce asserts that corn ethanol is responsible for significant environmental problems particularly related to land use, harvesting and processing fuel. He also states that it generates higher food costs, and that it damages small engines. Finally, according to the author, ethanol’s price has been and is generally higher, much higher, than gasoline. The only thing he left out is that ethanol is the cause of global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unemployment, the trial and tribulations of Miss America contests and bouffant hairstyles in Texas.

No fuel used now in America is perfect. Certainly, the DNA of gasoline, which Bryce seems to champion, is much more harmful to the environment, and the nation’s need to reduce GHG emissions. Gasoline use also reflects significantly more public health problems and continues the nation’s dependence on imported fuels.

Let me try to summarize some of the facts that Bryce overlooks or does not seem to know:

  1. Although a cleaner burning fuel, E10 (10 percent ethanol) blended with gasoline does result in a small energy content gap that requires a purchase of additional E10 gasoline to secure mileage equivalency. But, up until recently, the lower price of E10, compared to gasoline, has more than made up for mileage differentials and slowed down the upward trend of the price of gasoline and put downward pressure on prices.
  2. E85, which the author does not mention, has been approved by the EPA for certain vehicle classes. Like E10, its use does result in lower mileage per gallon when compared to gasoline and also results in more mileage per BTU. The mileage gap is lower than the gap that Bryce indicates in his article. Again, before the decline of gas prices , the gap was more than made up by the lower costs of ethanol and its’ increased efficiency.
  3. There is no real consensus on the food vs. fuel debate. The World Bank has changed its position on this globally over the years and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has suggested that if there is a negative effect on food, it is very minor. Indeed, while the food vs. fuel argument has not yet been settled, most experts agree that increased oil prices contribute to increased food prices. The food vs. fuel argument has reflected an “on the one hand, on the other hand” dialogue. Perhaps more relevant, particularly with respect to corn, there are land use and processing techniques now being introduced that would mitigate possible problems. Certainly, corn is not in short supply and the price of corn to the consumer has not spiraled up significantly.
  4. The author also neglects the fact that natural gas- and cellulosic-based ethanol (as well as other feedstocks) maybe on the horizon. Investors have delayed involvement, primarily because of uncertainty concerning the market and gasoline prices. Its advent will likely lessen food vs. fuel issues and help lesson environmental concerns.
  5. Bryce suggests that ethanol, (again, he refers to E10 in his article), has a negative effect on engines. Most of the independent analysis of the impact of ethanol on engines, E10 as well as E15 and E85, suggest differently. The EPA has approved the sale of each blend with certain vehicular limitations with respect to E 15 and E 85.

Bryce spends much time talking about the cost to the consumer of ethanol and the so-called ethanol tax. Curiously, given his location in the Manhattan Institute, he neglects to mention the significant cost to the consumer of the failure of oil companies to open up the gasoline market to alternative fuels like ethanol. Try going to a “gas” station to buy E85 or to charge your electric vehicle. Good luck finding one near your home or easily on a long trip. Through tough franchise agreements, oil companies eliminate competition around the nation. I suspect the imputed tax caused by the oil companies’ monopoly or almost-monopoly position is quite higher, much higher, than the tax that Bryce suggests results from ethanol use. The Institute should pay for a copy of Adam Smith and give it to the author.

Bryce’s article does not really contribute to a needed transparent debate over Renewable Fuel Standards or the wisdom of alternative fuels. It mixes up concepts and facts concerning energy content, car performance and efficiency. It sweeps over serious issues with respect to food vs. fuel and the environment with a broken brush or broom. Its conclusion concerning ethanol and implicitly other alternative fuels is inconsistent with his assumed anti-regulatory position and belief in the market place. We need such a debate, one that reflects a comparison between alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasoline as well as one that accommodates a needed transitional strategy between alternate and renewable fuels.


Photo Credit: East TN Clean Fuels Coalition