magazine Business Editor
6/15/2010, 4:17 PM CDT |
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Most farmers are painfully aware that corn prices have been trending
down for much of this spring, even as the ethanol industry recovers and
expands its use of the grain to make fuel.
California doesn't know. At least officially, at the California Air
Resources Board, or CARB. CARB is in charge of a state law that aims to
lower the carbon emissions from fuels 10% by 2020. Last year CARB ranked
the "carbon intensity" of fuels and used a controversial theory on
indirect land use that had the effect of making gasoline look greener
than Midwest corn ethanol. The theory assumes that an expanding ethanol
industry will raise grain prices and lead to tropical savannas and
rainforests being cleared for crop production.
No one disputes that clearing tropical forests puts a lot of CO2 into
the atmosphere. That's why Indonesia, a relatively poor country, ranks
third behind China and the U.S. among the planet's top greenhouse gas
producers. Indonesia is a major producer of timber and paper and has
been converting rain forests and tropical peat bogs to palm oil
But the science of calculating how
biofuels fit into the equation is new and still uncertain. This Thursday
CARB will hear from a Purdue University economist, Wally Tyner, who led
a team that refined a computer model for a report that shows ethanol
has a much smaller effect than originally believed.
"Sometimes I tell people this whole land use issue has only been
around for three years," Tyner told Agriculture.com in a recent
interview. "Over the last 14 months, we learned a lot about the kind of
data we need and the parameters."
Tyner's latest computer analysis comes up with at least a 10% cut in
greenhouse gases from ethanol over gasoline, even including indirect
Tyner will talk about a report that he and others released this
spring for the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.
Tyner is a member of the CARB Expert Working Group.
Economic computer modeling might seem like a dry subject, but it's a
big deal to the ethanol industry.
California represents nearly a tenth of the nation's market for
ethanol, said Geoff Cooper, vice president of the Renewable Fuels
Association. New rules for blending fuel in California take effect next
January and gasoline suppliers are already making decisions based on a
low carbon fuel standard that the state adopted last year.
"They're going to be looking for biofuels that generate credits that
help lower the carbon intensity of their fuel blends," Cooper told Agriculture.com.
Current rules favor ethanol made in California and Brazilian sugar cane
ethanol over corn-based ethanol from the Midwest.
That's why the RFA has asked CARB to give credit to Tyner's work
right away, even though CARB has until December to make any changes it
its low carbon fuel standard.
RFA considers the whole concept of indirect land use flawed and,
along with another trade group, Growth Energy, is challenging CARB's low
carbon fuel standard in court.
"One thing I want to make clear is that us pushing CARB to adopt the
new Purdue numbers is not an endorsement of the concept (of indirect
land use) in any way," Cooper said.
Mark Stowers, vice president for research and development at POET,
the world's largest ethanol producer, is another industry member of
CARB's Expert Working Group. He, too, is skeptical of the validity of
earlier estimates of the effect of ethanol on land use in other nations.
"I think CARB needs to look at a two-year moratorium and let the
science settle out," Stowers told Agriculture.com recently.
Tyner's estimate of the effect of land use changes on greenhouse gas
emissions from ethanol is only about 13% as much as the first estimate
published in Science magazine by Tim Searchinger and others. And it's
about half as much as CARB estimated last year.
Tyner said there are several reasons why the new computer modeling
cut ethanol's impact.
The original Searchinger paper didn't account for distillers grains
from ethanol, making the loss of corn for feed seem greater than it is.
Tyner's estimate does. It also gives more credit for the productivity of
pasture and marginal land that would be converted to crops as ethanol
uses more corn. Previous reports estimated that marginal land converted
to crops would be only about two-thirds as productive as prime land.
"In many areas of Brazil, for example, it's closer to one," Tyner
As experts and CARB debate the carbon footprint of ethanol, the
industry isn't standing still.
At least half-a-dozen plants have applied to CARB for approval of
ethanol production processes (called a pathway by CARB) that are more
efficient at conserving energy and carbon, said Cooper of the RFA.
One is Corn Plus, a farmer-owned plant in Winnebago, Minnesota, that
gets part of its electricity from two windmills and which burns part of
the soluble portion of distillers grains for heat.
Last year CARB gave Midwest corn ethanol a "carbon intensity" of 99.4
(above gasoline's 95.86).
Keith Kor, manager of Corn Plus, said his plant has hired a
consultant to do a life cycle analysis for its own carbon intensity
It may be as low as 72, "which basically would be the same as
Brazilian sugarcane ethanol," Kor said.
POET, too, is a major innovator.
At the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in St. Louis today, it released its own
life cycle analysis of cellolusic ethanol that will be produced at its
corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.
According to an independent analysis of POET's Project Liberty, the
cellulosic ethanol will lower carbon emissions by 111% compared to
gasoline. It will actually have negative emissions, offsetting more
carbon than it releases. The plant will use corn cobs and the upper 25%
of corn stover for its feedstock.
"Not only is cellulosic ethanol a clean and safe alternative fuel, in
cases such as Project Liberty, it can literally reverse some of the
effects of our nation's dependence on fossil energy such as oil," POET
CEO Jeff Broin said. "By expanding the number of sources for ethanol
production, the entire nation can contribute to helping our nation's
economy, security and environment through alternative fuel production."
Broin gave the results to reporters today. A lifecycle analysis
tracks the emissions of ethanol production from "field to tank." It
includes emissions from planting and harvest, feedstock transportation,
conversion to ethanol, waste products, co-products and transportation of
the ethanol. It also includes Environmental Protection Agency
calculations for changes in land use and effects on agriculture inputs.
Waste from the cellulosic plant will produce biogas, which will be
used to help power an existing corn ethanol plant next to the cellulosic
Click here for details on the POET
Click here for the full report of Wally Tyner's
research, Land Use Changes and Consequent CO2 Emissions due to U.S.
Corn Ethanol Production: A Comprehensive Analysis.