There was big news in Emmetsburg, Iowa this month—the opening of a major cellulosic ethanol plant. The plant, which is the first commercial-scale cellulosic facility in the US, is a joint venture between Poet and Royal DSM. Code-named Project Liberty, the plant was christened in a ceremony featuring His Majesty Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands, along with a host of others including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Under Secretary Michael Knotek of the Department of Energy, and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
The plant will initially process 570 million pounds of biomass, primarily crop residue in the form of corn stover, each year, converting it to 20 million gallons of ethanol. At full capacity those numbers will increase to 770 and 25 million, respectively.
Traditional corn ethanol production uses the age-old process of distilling starches into alcohol, the same way that distilled spirits are made. The ability to convert the leaves and stalks and other waste material containing lignocellulose was something that had never been done before. The science was difficult and it has taken longer than expected, leading the EPA to revise the numbers in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a mandate for the production of bio-fuels to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Concerns have been raised as to the implications of removing potential nutrition from the soil. This is offset, at least in part, by the fact that crop densities have nearly doubled over the past thirty years. Additionally, only 17% of the residue is currently being taken. Studies have shown a range of impact between a slight decrease in yield to an actual increase.
The entire bio-ethanol program has been under attack since its inception from a variety of sources including the oil industry, which fears the loss of business, environmentalists who are concerned about water and air pollution, and consumer, food industry and anti-hunger groups who have expressed concern that using crops and/or cropland for fuel production could lead to higher prices or worse. This latter concern was realized to some degree last year, with the Midwestern drought leading to a falloff in production. The good news was that much of the shortfall, which primarily impacted animal feed prices, was offset by increased production in other parts of the world. Then of course, there are those people who don’t like the government telling them anything.
People don’t like the heavy-handed RFS, but considering that we are talking about a brand new technology trying to go up against the megalithic oil industry, there is no way it could ever happen without that kind of support. Considering what’s at stake in terms of climate, and in terms of energy security, this is far too important for the government not to get involved in.
Central to the argument has been the fact that by the time all the agricultural inputs are added up: the fertilizers, tractors, and material handling operations, especially if virgin forest is cut down to create the needed acreage, the energy produced from corn ethanol is not a lot more that what went into producing it and carbon impact could be worse.
The move from corn ethanol to cellulosic ethanol changes the math considerably, basically due to the fact that without changing the inputs required to grow the corn, you are now producing significantly more ethanol by utilizing other parts of the plant. Cellulosic ethanol can also be produced from just about any type of plant material from yard clippings, to forestry residues to wheat straw (which is currently being used in Italy) to a variety of fast-growing energy grasses.
This week also saw the opening of a GranBio cellulosic ethanol plant in the Brazilian state of Alagoas. The $190 million plant is expected to produce 22 million gallons per year from sugarcane waste. It is said to be the first cellulosic plant in the Southern Hemisphere.
Central to the pro-ethanol side of the argument is the fact that the plants remove carbon from the air in order to grow, so that when they are burned (or converted to ethanol and then burned) they are merely returning the same carbon into the air. Thus they are often considered carbon neutral in this regard, though there are other carbon emissions associated with its production. But the fuel itself is inherently different from fossil fuel which releases carbon that had been sequestered underground millions of years ago and would have otherwise remained there.
Another point that is often overlooked in the ethanol conversation is the fact that ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline. This means that when used in a properly configured engine, with a higher compression ratio than today’s cars have, it can actually produce more power per gallon. That is why Formula 1 race cars run on ethanol.
Then there is the fact that large scale agriculture, regardless of what is being grown, takes a heavy toll on the environment, especially considering the heavy reliance on chemicals that is employed today.
Yes, this has been a long process, producing a homegrown industry to begin to replace what the oil industry has created over a century’s time (with much government support), and the early stages were not pretty. There are issues to be resolved, to be sure, including the problem with older model cars that contain materials that are incompatible with ethanol. And these first numbers are less than a tiny fraction of the billions of gallons originally promised. However, the cries to shut it down now are, in my opinion misplaced, given how close we finally are to the goal. We need to take the long term view as well as a system perspective. A system of this size and complexity takes time to get the bugs out. Much learning has occurred and there will be major benefits. Car companies are already developing engines with higher compression ratios that will be in a position to take advantage of new higher octane fuels. And much oil that would have otherwise been imported and burned, producing a great deal greenhouse gas along with other pollutants, has already been left in the ground with, hopefully, lots more of the same in the years to come.