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A little sunshine in a gloomy fall for ethanol

The Illinois Corn Growers Association announced two new studies Tuesday that show that ethanol already has a much lower carbon footprint than gasoline and that, with potential improvement in corn yields and ethanol plant efficiency, supplying ethanol and food shouldn't be a problem in the future.

One of the studies, conducted by the University of Illinois-Chicago's Energy Resources Center, found that the global warming impact of ethanol made at Illinois Renewable Energy near Rochelle, Illinois, is 40% lower than gasoline production.

The study was based on a survey of how farmers grow the corn that they sell to IRE, as well as a study of the energy balance within the plant, said researcher Steffen Mueller. If the plant used biogas from crop wastes and if farmers used more no-till, the global warming impact might be cut even more, Mueller said, to perhaps 55% of gasoline.

The study used a model developed by Argonne National Laboratory, which is "the gold standard" of measuring energy use in the production of ethanol, Mueller said.

Of course, making such changes will take more capital investments by ethanol plants, not an easy thing to do in today's lending environment and with what one official from IRE called "razor thin margins" in today's ethanol industry.

When the price of gasoline was about $3, oil industry has been paying about $1.65 a gallon for ethanol, said Martha Schlicher, vice president of Illinois River Energy.

"The reason for tight margins is that the blenders are paying very close to the cost of ethanol for the plants," Schlicher said.

Another study by economist Ross Korves of ProExporter, showed that without increasing corn acreage, higher corn yields and more efficient ethanol plants could be producing 33 billion gallons of ethanol by the year 2030. The current production capacity is just under 11 billion gallons, according the the Renewable Fuels Association.

Korves said that after consulting with the seed corn industry, he estimated that corn could average 289 bushels an acre by 2030, with national ethanol production hitting 24.6 billion gallons.

"There will be a tremendous production increase without an increase in acres if these yields are close to right," he said.

The Illinois Corn Growers Association announced two new studies Tuesday that show that ethanol already has a much lower carbon footprint than gasoline and that, with potential improvement in corn yields and ethanol plant efficiency, supplying ethanol and food shouldn't be a problem in the future.

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