Blog: Ethanol’s GHG profile sees impressive improvement

By Susanne Retka Schill | January 16, 2017

USDA released a significant report this week taking a look at ethanol’s GHG emissions, finding corn ethanol now comes in at 43 percent lower GHG emissions than gasoline. The U.S. EPA’s modeling in 2005 found the industry average to be 16.8. About half that value is from the indirect land use penalty that assesses U.S. ethanol for potential GHG increases from land use change in other countries.

It’s a decade later, and ethanol has gotten more efficient, corn farming has gotten more efficient and the predicted ILUC didn’t materialize. Our story, linked above, quotes the USDA statement accompanying the report: “Instead of converting new land to production, farmers in Brazil, India and China have increased double cropping, expanded irrigation, reduced unharvested planted area, reduced fallow land and reduced temporary pasture. Much of the international attention on supply of corn for ethanol has focused on Brazil, where earlier estimates anticipated conversion of rainforests to commodity production. But between 2004 and 2012, at the same time U.S. corn ethanol production increased more than 200 percent, deforestation in Brazil's Amazon decreased from 10,200 to 2,400 square miles per year.”

I think USDA, which tracks global crop production for its monthly World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates report, is a lot more credible than the long-disputed Searchinger report, now more than a decade old that still gets cited.

What really caught my eye, though, were the forecasts reported in our story:  “Given current trends, the report said by 2022 the GHG profile of corn ethanol is expected to almost 50 percent lower than gasoline, primarily due to improvements in corn yields, process fuel switching and transportation efficiency.

“The report also examines a variety of factors that could enhance the GHG benefits of corn ethanol, and provides estimates of how those factors could change ethanol’s lifecycle GHG emissions. For example, in a scenario where efficiency improvements are made at ethanol plants and corn-producing farms adopt additional conservation practices, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol increase to approximately 76 percent reduction when compared to gasoline.”

Corn yields are improving and farmers are reducing emissions through greater efficiencies and conservation measures. The ethanol industry is getting more efficient as well.

Another story this week highlights just how efficient the ethanol industry is becoming.  The AgMarketing Resource Center published an analysis of the grain crushings and coproducts report. The authors provide trendlines for several coproducts in the report, but the data I found most interesting was the calculation of monthly average ethanol yields, based on two USDA reports. After hovering around 2.87 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn in late 2015, the industry boosted yield to 3.00 gallons in March, holding at 2.99 to 2.97 for four months.  Those are impressive numbers.