It's About the Message

By Susanne Retka Schill | August 27, 2010
Reading through this EPM issue, one can't help but notice the turbulence in the ethanol industry. Extension of the ethanol tax credit is by no means assured. New reports continue to come out both damaging and favorable to ethanol. The mainstream press continues its tirades, although there was a glimmer of hope of better balance in a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report on how oil subsidies are 12 times greater than renewables (and written permanently into the tax code). More troubling, however, is the divergence of policy strategies among the ethanol industry's advocacy groups. Holly Jessen was ready to begin digging into the blenders tax credit for her feature story when Growth Energy announced its Fueling Freedom plan. Needless to say, her story took on new dimensions, looking at that plan and the reactions to it, along with several new reports examining the subsidy issue. Nearly every columnist in this issue addresses the controversy as well.

The best means to further ethanol is the root issue. One hopes that through this tension and diversity of thought, new synergies will emerge and ultimately strengthen the industry.

On a related note, Merle Anderson, chairman emeritus of the American Coalition for Ethanol from Climax, Minn., shared some number crunching in defense of ethanol that formed the core of a letter to the editor he recently submitted to local and regional publications. It makes me think it might be time to recall the calculations of a simpler day, before life-cycle analyses and indirect land use theories muddied the waters. He focuses on the fossil energy used in growing corn, starting with national averages for yields and field inputs. The result: One acre of corn produces 165 bushels with an ethanol yield of 2.7 gallons per bushel which computes to 445.5 gallons of ethanol produced per acre on the average. If you figure 5 gallons of fossil fuel used per acre for traditional farming practices, 89 gallons of ethanol is produced for every gallon of fossil fuel. "Now that is a high gain in replacing foreign oil," Anderson says.
He ran the numbers again, this time assuming a 200 bushel corn yield (higher than the average, but still not as high as some corn producers routinely get) and a lower fossil fuel use to reflect no-till farming practices. He based his calculations on a quarter-section field of corn.

160 acres of corn times 200 bushels per acre equals 32,000 bushels.

Most ethanol plants yield 3 gallons per bushel for a yield of 96,000 gallons per quarter section.

3 gallons of fossil fuel used for planting, harvesting and transporting the crop requires a total of 480 gallons per 160 acres.

96,000 gallons of renewable fuel divided by 480 gallons of fossil fuel used equals 200 gallons of ethanol produced for each gallon of fossil fuel.

That yield goes a long way in replacing oil imports.

Anderson explains he doesn't include the energy used to produce ethanol, because that comes from domestic supplies. "By using natural gas and electricity, we are simply trading in commerce and it is only good for the country," he says. Ethanol only uses the starch from the corn kernel, he adds, leaving other nutrients to be used for food and feed. "With our oil imports at nearly 70 percent, we in agriculture can play a huge role to help our economic problem, job creation, and help keep our money in our nation's heartland instead of sending money to countries that support terrorism."

Merle may be onto something. Turning public opinion around may require simplifying the argument and illustrating points with concrete examples. Keep encouraging folks in corn country to continue explaining to anyone who will listen how ethanol benefits their local community and the country. Keep it simple. Keep it concrete.