One of modern agriculture’s most beloved products – ethanol – received a stern rebuke Feb. 13 from Iowa’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register.
In an op-ed titled, “Ethanol has been a boon to Iowa’s economy, but it’s time to pivot and figure out what’s next,” the Register chastised Iowa Democrats and Republicans for having supported ethanol promotion 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, Chris 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 one acre of Iowa corn grown for ethanol to that of one 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.”
This means that on average, an acre of Iowa corn will “produce about 500 gallons of ethanol” with a “net energy gain (of) about 20 million BTUs per acre.”
That sounds like a lot, Jones noted, until you add the unaccounted costs of corn and ethanol: “soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degradation of streams, lakes and drinking water, loss of habitat” and subsidies from agricultural programs “that prevent 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 three times as much, not 10 times more Thirty-four times more.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy agency based in Cambridge, Mass., known more for its staunch embrace of wind and solar than for its love of 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, groups of farmers and commodity producers are pushing for an update to the Renewable Fuels Standard that mandates a 15% blend of ethanol and gasoline, compared to the blend of 10% today.
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 vehicles, or EVs.
“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 biofuels as feedstocks.”
So Big Ag’s big rush to lock in higher ethanol blends at the pumps at the state and federal levels: They see EVs 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.
But that would be a mistake.
Ever more recent evidence – such as the “Environmental Results of US Renewable Fuel Standards” just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences – shows that the cost of ethanol, when fully tabulated, is considerably more than previously calculated.
And that brings us back to the initial concerns of the Register and Jones: the environmental price of ethanol is already high — so high, in fact, that everyone would be “better served to understand what comes after ethanol.”