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Making ethanol even greener

For some time, a cloud has
dimmed the greenness farmers see in ethanol. It’s a fog spewed by Washington
interest groups. It leads some to believe that higher corn prices loosely tied
to ethanol also have this environmental side effect: Farmers in poorer countries
slashing rain forests and plowing tropical savannas to plant corn and beans.
That, activists argue, puts more carbon into the air than ethanol saves.

The fog is starting to lift.

The EPA still uses this
theory, called indirect land-use change (ILUC), but has  lowered earlier estimates of its
effects. So ethanol and biodiesel qualify for mandates to be blended with
gasoline and diesel. And a look at ILUC by Purdue University found ethanol’s
carbon footprint 10% to 20% smaller than gasoline’s.

So far, California still
sees ethanol as not so green. To start enforcing its own climate law, the
California Air Resources Board (CARB) created carbon intensity values for
gasoline, ethanol, and other fuels. CARB gives each fuel a score, based on how
much CO2 equivalent it puts out in a unit of energy. Gasoline’s carbon
intensity value is 95.86. The average for Midwest corn ethanol would be 69.4
without ILUC. But CARB adds another 30 points for land use, giving ethanol a
score of 99.4. So gasoline comes out looking greener than most ethanol.

This means Midwest corn
ethanol may become hard to sell in California. Ethanol groups have sued CARB,
challenging the constitutionality of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Meanwhile, an ethanol plant
in Winnebago, Minnesota, is poised to beat CARB at its own game. Corn Plus, a
farmer-owned 49-million-gallon plant built in 1993, has become one of the
nation’s most energy-efficient fuel producers – and it’s aiming to prove that
to CARB.

In 2005, Corn Plus put in a
fluidized bed reactor to burn syrup from distillers’ grains for energy. It
saved almost $30 million in natural 
gas, well over the reactor’s $20-million price if bought today, says
Keith Kor, who recently retired as Corn Plus manager.

Corn Plus gets a third of its
electricity from two on-site windmills financed by John Deere. “That was not so
much cost savings, but it seemed like the right thing to do,” says Bill Drager,
a farmer who is the Corn Plus board president. 

Like other plants, Corn Plus
has had run-ins with EPA and state regulators. In 2002, they said Corn Plus was
polluting the air with volatile organic compounds. Most plants added thermal
oxidizers to destroy them, says Larry Becker, environmental health and safety
manager for Corn Plus. His plant chose the fluidized bed to do that and to save
fuel as well.

Recently, EPA and Minnesota
charged the plant with water pollution. Corn Plus paid $350,000 in fines. Once again, it’s turning lemons to lemonade. It’s installing a new
heat pump to save energy and 10 million gallons of water a year.

Innovation hasn’t stopped
tough times. For part of 2008 and 2009, members covered losses with
below-market prices for their corn. Today, prices are back to normal. And Corn
Plus is aiming for California sales by asking CARB to credit its energy
savings.

Kor says his plant’s carbon
intensity may be as low as 72, “which basically would be the same as Brazilian
sugarcane ethanol.” 

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