Ethanol Continues to Improve

By Mike Bryan | September 12, 2011

American agriculture and the domestic ethanol industry are becoming increasingly efficient and as a result, are playing a larger and more important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was not that many years ago, that it took seven to 10 gallons of water to convert one bushel of corn to ethanol, today it’s just over two. During the same time, it took 25 percent more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it does today. The list of technological improvements is long and getting longer with each passing year.

According to Geoff Cooper of the Renewable Fuels Association, the current 450 gallons of ethanol produced from an acre of corn is a 50 percent improvement over just 15 years ago and, with future projections using the entire corn plant, that level approaches 800 gallons per acre. While this may seem incredible, so does the fact that over the past 15 years we have seen a 34 percent increase in the per acre yield of corn in the United States.

These and other factors all come together to show substantial improvements in the energy efficiency of ethanol production and a corresponding decrease in the CO2 emissions from field to the consumers fuel tank. Life-cycle analyses on ethanol show CO2 reductions well in excess of 30 percent, with some approaching 50 percent. The contribution ethanol makes to the reduction of greenhouse gas is no longer in question, only the level of reductions varies slightly from study to study.

For years environmental groups have falsely accused agriculture of “pouring on the fertilizer and chemicals,” when, in fact, the use of both has steadily declined. These are not government-mandated changes, but rather changes driven largely by economics. New and better corn hybrids require less fertilizer and are more drought and disease resistant. Better tillage practices, including minimum and no-till, mean better water conservation and fewer trips over the field. Add to that the simple fact that fertilizer and chemicals are among of the most expensive inputs in farming and that any reduction in their use means more money in the farmer’s pocket, and you have a recipe for a smaller carbon footprint.

In fairness, the oil industry also has taken steps (albeit federally mandated) to produce a cleaner fuel, not so much in terms of its carbon footprint, but more as it relates to overall air pollution. Low-sulphur diesel and reduced aromatics in gasoline are just some examples. While these have added costs to their production process, using fewer chemicals and fertilizer in agriculture has reduced costs. At the same time, the ethanol industry continues to produce ethanol better, faster, cheaper by employing newly developed technology, while the refining process has remained relatively unchanged for decades.

Frankly, about the only thing oil has going for it is an intricate global system of refining and distribution. As each day passes, ethanol becomes more price competitive, but we still rely exclusively on the oil industry for distribution. This is has become the only reason mandates are essential to the continued growth of our industry. With a smaller carbon footprint, renewable, domestically produced and competitively priced ethanol, if it had its own distribution infrastructure, would quickly become the fuel of choice, as Henry Ford envisioned so many years ago.

That’s the way I see it! 

Author: Mike Bryan
Chairman, BBI International
mbryan@bbiinternational.com