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posted by janrinok on Tuesday August 24, @04:24PM   Printer-friendly
from the its-corn-its-good dept.

The author of this piece has an obvious bias (Geoff Cooper is the president and CEO of Renewable Fuels Association), but does he also have a valid point?

Let's prioritize American renewable fuels over foreign oil and minerals:

After suffering through more than a year of quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and travel lockdowns, millions of Americans have eagerly returned to the nation's highways this summer for long-awaited vacations and road trips. As a result, gasoline demand has surged to record highs and pump prices are at levels not seen since 2014.

In recent weeks, regular-grade gas prices averaged $3.17 per gallon, up almost 50 percent from the same time last year. With higher fuel prices threatening to undermine the nation's ongoing economic recovery, it's easy to see why the Biden administration is looking for ways to ease America's pain at the pump.

[...] Before the Biden administration looks to OPEC+ countries or mineral-rich nations like Afghanistan, China and Bolivia for help, it has an opportunity to turn to America's heartland for a homegrown solution. Renewable fuels like ethanol have a 40-year proven track record of success in helping to lower prices at the pump while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions, supporting good-paying clean energy jobs and curtailing crude oil imports.

Four decades' worth of investment and innovation by ethanol producers has resulted in real breakthroughs in lower-carbon transportation fuels. Today's corn-based ethanol reduces carbon emissions by 52 percent when compared directly to gasoline, according to a recent study from the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. Another study by scientists from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University similarly shows corn ethanol achieves an average carbon reduction of 46 percent compared to gasoline, with some ethanol in the market today achieving a 61 percent carbon reduction.

[...] Before we turn to the Persian Gulf for answers to our nation's energy and climate challenges, let's give the American heartland a shot. The solution to high pump prices and decarbonization lies in the farm fields of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and other Midwest states — not in the oil fields of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East nations.

Journal Reference:
Uisung Lee, Hoyoung Kwon, May Wu, et al. Retrospective analysis of the U.S. corn ethanol industry for 2005–2019: implications for greenhouse gas emission reductions [open], Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining (DOI: 10.1002/bbb.2225)


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  • (Score: 5, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, @11:11PM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, @11:11PM (#1170556)

    Yes, but also no.

    The paper you linked discusses only CO2 emissions, not other environmental costs, among them water and land use.

    The improvement in production efficiency comes from: Higher agricultural productivity; credits for waste production; and more efficient extraction of refinable biomaterials from the corn produced. All of these have problems. Another factor is more efficient farming operations and less carbon-intensive fertilizer, resulting in lower CO2 emissions during actual farming. This is a benefit, but it's not a benefit specific to ethanol production: this benefit belongs to the farming sector as a whole. If the same land were used to grow other crops, the same CO2 emissions reduction would still occur.

    Most of the corn is produced in states irrigated with water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a rapidly depleting and not-very-renewable resource. http://duwaterlawreview.com/crisis-on-the-high-plains-the-loss-of-americas-largest-aquifer-the-ogallala/ [duwaterlawreview.com] It's possible to draw some water from this aquifer sustainably, but not nearly as much as is currently being used. This is a serious problem that is going to be addressed, it's just a question of whether it's addressed intentionally or forced when the water runs out. And it means switching to less water-intensive crops. Corn is one of the worst crops for water use, requiring over 120 gallons of water per pound of corn produced. A gallon of ethanol takes 26 pounds of corn. That's about 3100 gallons (26000 pounds) of water consumed per gallon of ethanol produced.

    Land use is another serious issue. There is only so much crop-growing land, and crops used for biofuel are crops not used for anything else. About ten years ago there was a famine in Mexico, caused by the US convincing Mexico to stop growing their own corn and buy it from the US instead. Then the US decided to set the corn on fire, and Mexicans starved. If the land had been used to grow food crops, this could have been prevented. We are not on the brink of a Malthusian catastrophe, but everyone knows that highly intensive agriculture is damaging. Farmers and scientists do a good job of managing this - we're probably not going to have another Dust Bowl - but there's a hazard here.

    Some of the waste from corn ethanol is converted to pig and cattle feed. They discount their actual emissions because of this because they assume that this is free and that the animals would instead be eating purpose-grown crops. But the reverse is actually the case: Animals were eating corn waste before, and now that the process for extracting refinable biostock from the corn has become more efficient, the waste has become deficient in calories, requiring supplementation with purpose-grown crops. https://theicct.org/blog/staff/if-we-use-livestock-feed-biofuels-what-will-cows-eat [theicct.org]

    I also did not review the value they use for the well-to-wheel CO2 emissions they use for gasoline. It's possible that this is a cause of inaccuracy. Furthermore, some of the data in the paper's sources show much less reduction than the paper claims. The four sources include CARB, EPA, USDA, and Argonne National Lab; EPA and CARB show worse results than USDA and ANL. The paper relies on the more-favorable USDA and ANL data. I did not attempt to evaluate the reliability of the different sources.

    Remember though that the whole idea behind biofuels is that they'd be close to carbon-neutral. "Hey, maybe we can do a little better than gasoline" is a serious case of moving the goalposts. The paper claims to be 46% better than gasoline, but this drops to about 30% if you eliminate the "livestock feed credit," and even that isn't sustainable because of the farming practices needed to achieve it. (Feed waste loss probably doesn't warrant throwing out the credit entirely, but it very likely shouldn't be taken at face value either). And there's the conflicting data. If you use the EPA data, ethanol isn't any better than gasoline at all.

    So, overall, it looks like corn ethanol is still trash. Sugar cane ethanol is better, but you can't grow sugar cane in Nebraska.

    Electric vehicles are great, but at least half of the transportation industry's fuel consumption is ships and airplanes, which can't realistically run on electricity. The long term solution has to be synthetic fuel produced using energy from nuclear fusion or space-based solar power.

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  • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Wednesday August 25, @03:04AM (2 children)

    by HiThere (866) on Wednesday August 25, @03:04AM (#1170636) Journal

    Ships can run on nearly anything burnable. They've got very large combustion chambers and typically don't need a really high pressure. Airplanes are a much more difficult matter.

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    • (Score: 2) by PinkyGigglebrain on Wednesday August 25, @04:14AM (1 child)

      by PinkyGigglebrain (4458) on Wednesday August 25, @04:14AM (#1170664)

      Ships can also use small molten salt nuclear reactors [366solutions.com].

      Or even just good old sails.

      both methods are a lot cleaner and safer than burning anything. With the added benefit that the space that would have carried fuel can carry cargo.

      --
      "Beware those who would deny you Knowledge, For in their hearts they dream themselves your Master."
      • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Wednesday August 25, @01:28PM

        by HiThere (866) on Wednesday August 25, @01:28PM (#1170799) Journal

        Nobody can reasonably use molten salt reactors yet. And sails require a highly skilled crew that is not available. (OTOH, there's some high-tech sailish things that might work.)

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  • (Score: 1) by fustakrakich on Wednesday August 25, @04:47AM

    by fustakrakich (6150) on Wednesday August 25, @04:47AM (#1170673) Journal

    Electric vehicles are great, but at least half of the transportation industry's fuel consumption is ships and airplanes

    That's ok. Let's work with the half we got. Go electric where we can, when we can. Overland is a good place to start. Coastal shipping shouldn't have much difficulty either, and can be done more autonomously than a car. That will clean up the cities a lot. Some day you'll be able to see across Beijing...

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