Like nearly everyone, I thought Brazilian sugarcane ethanol was about the greenest biofuel on earth. It yields about eight times as much energy as is used to make it. Corn ethanol doesn't come close.
"This is something the press hasn't covered," Alexander says.
Sugar has another problem. Its leaves and trash are burned off to make harvest easier and safer. That's not too green, is it? Releasing all that global-warming CO2 into the air.
Alico's own ethanol production is likely to use a related crop -- energy cane -- without field burning.
I was starting to feel smug after finding a few advantages corn ethanol might have over sugarcane. Then, not long after my visit to Alico, the respected journal, Science, published an article arguing that all biofuels production actually increases emissions of the global-warming gas, carbon dioxide. It asserted that more CO2 is released by plowing up grasslands and cutting rain forests than is saved from ethanol or biodiesel.
Many scientists responded to newspaper reports on the article to say that there's ample evidence that biofuels do reduce carbon emissions. But the damage has been done. The public already wonders if ethanol takes food from the mouths of babies in poor nations (another simplistic and unfair argument).
Promoting ethanol to the public makes sense. One good way is through the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC), which is something like a voluntary checkoff funded by the ethanol industry.
But it's not enough.
Agriculture and biofuels are going to have to prove that they're reducing greenhouse gases. Already, the state of California is drafting standards for green fuels. The regulations for the new federal renewable fuels standard do more than require the oil industry to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. They say conventional grain ethanol must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Advanced biofuels and cellulosic ethanol must cut them by about half.
First, ethanol plants themselves must be efficient. Here cellulosic ethanol can be a friend of corn.
The grain ethanol company, POET, aims to nearly eliminate the fossil fuels it needs to make corn ethanol by using the waste products from cellulosic ethanol production. That's an economic synergy that should be good for the environment. It helps, too, that POET will use cobs, with corn stover left on fields.
Second, the way crops are produced may fall under more public scrutiny, says Rahul Iyer, a co-founder of the biofuels company Primafuel. That could mean more use of no-till to grow corn for ethanol plants, he says. No-till acres have already risen with diesel fuel prices.
Finally, this summer log onto the corn and soybean Web sites of www.ncga.com or www.soygrowers.com. Look for a new sustainability tool being developed by the Keystone Center. This secure, confidential tool will allow you to compare your farm's best practices with others.