The best and worst of times for ethanol

For ethanol it is the best and worst of times. Silos are bursting with a bumper crop and the price of corn has fallen by half, from $7 to $3.50 a bushel over the past year. Refiners are buying feedstock at rock-bottom prices.

“This is the most profitable time I can remember,” Dan Syekh, plant manager at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy of Council Bluffs, told the Lexington Clipper-Herald of Nebraska. “People are beginning to pay off debt and invest in ever more advanced technologies.”

Yet hanging over all this is the question of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will do about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which specifies how much ethanol the refining industry must buy next year.

“I feel like [the EPA is] playing politics instead of doing what’s right for America,” Iowa Gov. Terry Bradshaw told a Farm Progress Show in Boone last week. “Farmers aren’t buying equipment and John Deere is laying people off. What EPA has done is not only damage farm income but cost us jobs in farm machinery and manufacturing.”

At issue is the EPA’s announcement last spring that it would cut the mandate from the 14.4 billion gallons, originally required by the law, to 13.01 billion gallons, in order to deal with overproduction. With gasoline consumption having fallen since 2007, although numbers are now starting to rise again, the federal requirement had pushed ethanol additives past the 1 percent “blend wall,” where auto and oil companies claim it will damage engines. Many people dispute this but the auto companies are refusing to honor warranties in cars that use blends higher than 10 percent without authorization. Others say the solution is E85 — a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — is the answer but it is not yet widely available outside the Midwest.

The EPA was supposed to make a decision on the mandate last November but has delayed after the furor over its initial proposal. Only last week it sent a final proposal to the White House for review. Rumors are that the EPA has settled on a figure somewhere between the original mandate and its April number, but there is nothing definite. In any case, the Obama administration could take several weeks to approve, even pushing its verdict past the November elections. This is the longest delay in the program’s history.

For several years now the ethanol industry has seen its influence waning in Congress. In 2011, Congress repealed the tariff on foreign biofuels, opening the door to cheaper sugar ethanol. Then it allowed a production tax credit to expire. Perhaps most significant has been the loss of support from large portions of the environmental community. Last year the Associated Press ran a story documenting how the mandate has led to over intensive cropping and the removal of land from conservation soil banks. “Corn ethanol’s brand has been seriously dented in the last 18 months,” Craig Cox, director of the Environmental Working Group in Ames, Iowa, told Politico. “The industry is still politically very well connected but it doesn’t occupy the same pedestal it did two years ago.”

Yet oddly enough, all this is happening at the moment when the industry may be on the verge of a huge breakthrough. On September 3, POET, the South Dakota refiner of ethanol, and Royal DSM, a Dutch maker of enzymes, will hold opening day ceremonies in Emmetsburg, Iowa for the inauguration of what could be the country’s first cellulosic ethanol plant — long considered the holy grail of biofuels. King William-Alexander of the Netherlands is scheduled to be in attendance.

Cellulosic ethanol uses the non-grain parts of the corn plant — the shucks and stalks that cannot be eaten. By cultivating certain enzymes and bacteria from the stomach of cows and other ruminants, several companies now believe they are able to break down the starches in these plant “wastes” and turn them into fuel. Various inventors have made the same claim over the years but have never been able to achieve cellulosic digestion at a commercial level. Now it appears POET may be about to break the barrier.

They aren’t the only ones. In fact, there is now $1 billion worth of cellulosic ethanol investments in the Midwest about to bear fruit:

  • In Nevada, Iowa, DuPont is investing $200 million in a cellulosic plant that will have a capacity of 30 million gallons annually. Operations are slated to begin before the end of 2014.
  • In Hugoton, Kansas, Spain-based Abengoa Bioenergy is spending $500 million on a plant to make ethanol from corn leftovers, wheat straw, milo stubble and prairie grasses. It will produce 21 million gallons of ethanol plus 21 megawatts of electricity.

Should any of these plants succeed, it would change the face of the industry.

So ethanol finds itself in a very strange position. Just as it may be on the verge of a huge breakthrough in production, it finds its markets drying up. Several Midwestern agricultural professors have suggested that the real solution is E85, which readily substitutes for gasoline and would create an almost unlimited demand. There are 15.5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road — 6 percent of the entire fleet — all of which accept E85. There are also 3,200 gas stations that dispense it. But there is a huge mismatch between them. Most of the stations are in the Midwest where support for ethanol is strong while the flex-fuel vehicles are concentrated in cities on the East and West Coasts. So far no one has come up with a solution for making a better match.

There remains one potential market, however, that could tide over the ethanol industry until better auto markets develop. This is the U.S. Navy. The Department of Defense burns 300,000 barrels of oil a day, 2 percent of national consumption. For some time the Navy has been trying to find “drop-in” biofuels that would substitute for imported oil in jets and other vehicles. This year, for the first time, the Navy will include biofuels in its annual procurements. It is trying to get 50 percent of its fuels from renewable resources by 2020. “Up in the air you don’t have any other choice but liquid fuels,” said Tyler Wallace, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue. “The U.S. uses 21 billion gallons of aviation fuel annually and cellulosic ethanol would make a perfect drop-in.”

So would a huge order from the Navy be able to galvanize an infant cellulosic industry? Or will ethanol have to continue to holds its breath waiting for a decision on the Renewable Fuel Mandate from the White House and the EPA? For the industry, it remains the best and worst of times.

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