Fairfield Ledger

Neighbors Growing Together | Jan 23, 2017

An energy policy or a corn policy?

By Francis Thicke | Jan 30, 2014

To the editor:

The original idea behind biofuels was good: to create a farmer-owned industry to produce home-grown fuels – preferably for on-farm use -- with the expectation that over time feedstocks would transition from erosive and nutrient-leaky row crops (corn and soybeans) to more sustainable perennial cropping systems. That didn’t happen.

The ethanol industry was mostly taken over by large corporations, and the industry – with government support – built too many corn ethanol plants. Unfortunately, neither the industry nor politicians had the foresight to call for an end to building more ethanol plants before the industry became overbuilt. Now the ethanol industry has too much capacity for the 10 percent “blend wall” and wants the government to bail it out of the hole it has dug itself into.

Corn ethanol production has environmental consequences. For example, for every gallon of ethanol produced from corn, two gallons of soil are lost to erosion. Corn production in Iowa has an average soil erosion rate that is 25 times the average soil regeneration rate.

Also, nutrient loadings from corn production cause water quality problems locally, and are a major contributor to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, corn and soybean production account for 52 percent of the nitrogen making its way to the Gulf to fuel the Dead Zone. Clearly, corn ethanol production is not a sustainable industry.

The ethanol industry claims ethanol replaces 10 percent of our country’s gasoline usage. However, the net energy gain from making ethanol is much less than that for two reasons: 1) Thermodynamically, ethanol contains just two-thirds of the energy of gasoline, and 2) The best estimates are that only 40 percent of the energy of corn ethanol is a net energy gain; the other 60 percent of the energy of ethanol is “embedded” fossil-fuel energy that was used to grow the corn and process it into ethanol (in fact, many scientists put the net energy gain of corn ethanol much lower).

Even using those best estimates of net-energy gain, ethanol replaces only 2.67 percent of U.S. gasoline, on a net-energy basis.

If instead of replacing 2.67 percent of the net energy of gasoline with corn ethanol production we were to increase our average passenger vehicle mileage by 2.67 percent, our average vehicle mileage would need to go up by only about half a mile per gallon: from the 21 mpg current average (EPA estimate) to just 21.56 mpg.

However, we could do much better than that. We already have the technology to double our automobile mileage; my 8-year-old car averages 43 mpg. Why are we putting so many resources into inefficiently producing ethanol for gas-guzzling cars when we could achieve much greater gains by using already-available technologies for much larger gains in fuel efficiency? Is it because the Renewable Fuels Standards are part of a corn policy, rather than part of an energy policy?

The ethanol industry is crying “the sky is falling” because the EPA is proposing a modest adjustment of the Renewable Fuels Standards, necessary to meet current demand. Corn ethanol was always meant to be a stepping-stone to advanced biofuels. The negative reaction to the RFS adjustment shows that we have lost track of the ultimate vision for renewable fuels production in Iowa.


– Francis Thicke, Fairfield

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