Friday, April 4, 2008

Iowa Bucks National Trend

As a scientist I like having direct evidence and controlling all variables in such a way that a direct cause and effect relationship can be established. And so I think everyone should take today's post with a grain of salt but understand that the indicators have shown a consistent connection between what I am about to tell you.

Today the Revenue Estimating Conference for the State of Iowa increased the state revenue projections for this year by $127 million. This accounts for nearly 2% of the $6.4 billion budget for the state of Iowa, representing a significant increase during struggling economic times. Although strong agriculture revenues are being celebrated as a whole for increasing revenue flowing into the state, the real catalyst for this improvement is most probably ethanol. Like it or not, ethanol has reversed the flow of our dollars to overseas markets and has made the demand for goods made predominantly in our state that much more valuable. While many people understand that higher food prices are mainly due to factors such as high oil prices and a weak dollar, some people still accuse ethanol of having a large impact on those prices. Even so, with these numbers, I don't mind paying extra for milk and cheese because the tax revenue flowing back into the state house is allowing the State of Iowa to continue to fund improving education programs as well as the Iowa Power Fund -- $100 million going towards research into advanced biofuels so that the next step in ethanol production can be realized.

The point is that with increased state revenue coming in and only 3.5% unemployment in the state, I'd say Iowa is doing alright at the moment and a big thank you is deserved for the people who pioneered the establishment of ethanol production in our state.

For the original article:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Best Defense is the Truth

For those of you who have kept up with my posts over the past month or two, you will know that I try to refute misinformation about ethanol whenever possible that is presented in a way that the public who is not consistently surrounded by ethanol news might be able to understand. Although I think I have done a relatively good job, I recently read an article that hits the nail on the head -- not trying to cover all information but rather showing how casting ethanol away as an unaccomplished piece of garbage is not the right thing to do. And even though I enjoy writing my entire posts, this time I'm going to copy and paste the article because it is so well written. Please read Bruce Dale's article "Demonizing Ethanol," found below. Dale is a distinguished professor for chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University and this is what he had to say about recent attacks on the worthiness of ethanol:

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous line: There they go again.On opinion pages around the country, including this one, a procession of critics has taken to lambasting domestically produced renewable fuels in general and ethanol in particular. The latest entrant into the debate is syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, who recently cited a half-dozen wildly distorted reasons for concluding that ethanol is a “cruel hoax on the American consumer.” This is a puzzling spectacle. The price of oil is floating around $110 per barrel—meaning that, as a nation, we are now writing daily checks for the jaw-dropping amount of $1.4 billion to feed our foreign oil habit. And yet the chief object of the critics’ scorn is a clean-burning renewable fuel that is made in America, by American farmers and workers, with American crops and technologies, to the clear benefit of the American economy. It doesn’t make sense. But the critics have created an echo-chamber effect by repeating each others’ recycled canards about ethanol in a way that presents a veneer of validated truth. Take the issue of water use. Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel—the fountainhead of quasi-scholarship for the anti-ethanol movement—makes the bizarre claim that it takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol (if you count rainfall absorbed by corn plants as a bad thing). The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page gleefully repeats it. Walter Williams repeats it again. And so it goes, ad infinitum. Pimentel is also the source of the yarn—repeated by Williams—that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol itself contains. The critics never mention that it takes more energy to produce gasoline than the gasoline itself contains (because it takes petroleum-powered equipment to drill, transport and refine crude oil). Nor do they mention the fact that a substantial percentage of the energy required to produce ethanol is the free solar energy that makes plants grow. Details, details.Another oldie but goodie is the argument that ethanol can’t stand up on its own in the marketplace. Williams hits that theme hard, as does the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, repeatedly. The reality is that the world marketplace for transportation fuels is effectively under the control of state-owned oil companies…and some of these states are actively hostile to us. Even the publicly-traded oil majors are not likely to let in competition unless the government compels them to do so with targets and incentives. The howls of “let the market decide” are remindful of the position Microsoft took during the Internet browser wars of the 1990s—when the company was simultaneously using its total control of computer operating systems to muscle out any competing software. There should no longer be any doubt that America has a national interest in weaning itself off of foreign oil—a national interest that deserves a robust policy response. Congress and the president rightly passed legislation in 2005 and 2007 requiring renewable fuels like ethanol to be blended into the country’s fuel supply, and providing incentives to make it happen. It’s working. American renewable fuel producers supplied nearly 7 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007, and the industry is on track to meet a target of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels of all types by 2022. How is that not a good thing?Critics say: Corn ethanol will only cover 10 percent of our current fuel consumption. But 10 percent is huge. And the reality is renewable fuels like ethanol are just one part of what will have to be a multi-pronged solution to America’s energy problems. We also need more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, alternative vehicle technologies such as batteries good enough to let drivers plug in to the electricity grid—and renewable energy sources to power the grid itself. The big difference between ethanol and a lot of those other technologies is that ethanol is readily available today. We don’t have to wait for some future innovation to start making a dent in the country’s energy problem. By any measure, ethanol is better for the planet than gasoline—and it is getting better all the time. Today’s ethanol made from corn is priming the market for the coming generation of alcohol fuels that will also be made from wood chips, urban waste and other feedstocks, not just agricultural crops. America can invent its way out of its current energy problems. In fact, with renewable fuels, we’re already on our way.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Time's Take on Corn-Ethanol

Although I really didn't want to weigh in on a gossip magazine article, I've been receiving e-mails from friends and family that shows that this story has had the effect that its authors wanted. For those of you not aware, the most recent issue of TIME magazine has a cover story on corn ethanol that is scathing to say the least. If you haven't read it, follow this link:,9171,1725975,00.html

It's interesting that TIME would write this article -- for a long time I assumed that the magazine was one of the best unbiased sources for journalism. But if you read this article it is easy to see just what kind of agenda they are touting. Before I offer a critique on the article, I want to say just one thing. Even though I am researching ethanol and advanced biofuels and admittedly do support current and future ethanol use, I do not manipulate numbers. I do not blindly relay "truths" and reasoning that is not supported by fact. For example, CNN ran a scathing report on corn ethanol about a month ago with Miles O'Brien as the anchor. Even though they presented a lot of corn-ethanol's faults, I enjoyed watching the show because they interviewed ethanol producers to make sure that both sides were presented. I hope that in the same way those that read my posts feel that although I support ethanol, I will not hesitate to point out its faults because, if you think about it, why would I be a research scientist trying to improve ethanol production if I thought that it was perfect?

Shifting back to the article in TIME, their problem was a story run supported by only one publication -- a recent Princeton article that stated that ethanol emitted more GHG than gasoline. However, even the scientist behind the article admitted later that these findings only applied if forested land in the United States was converted to corn and that this was only the worst-case scenario for a future of corn-based ethanol. If you consistently and professionally look across the studies done on corn-ethanol, the numbers line up with the Department of Energy's numbers that corn-ethanol from seed to fuel emits 16 to 20% less GHGs than gasoline. 20% isn't great but it's a start. Remember, corn-ethanol was started several years ago as a new way to market corn that wasn't worth the dirt it was planted in. As industry leaders have said all along, corn ethanol is a bridge to a future of sustainable biofuels use. That is what researchers like myself are working hard on right now.

So, unlike TIME, let's layout the pros and cons of corn-based ethanol.

1) Ethanol reduces GHGs 16 to 20% over gasoline.

2) Ethanol has a petroleum usage ratio of 1.6:1 meaning that 1.6 gasoline equivalent units exist in the fuel to every one gasoline equivalent units used. (Gasoline itself has a ratio of 0.8:1).

3) Ethanol requires 3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. (By the way, it takes 8 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of gasoline).

4) The fermentation and distillation process requires large amounts of energy, often derived from natural gas but also sometimes by burning coal.

5) Increased corn demand (1/5 the US crop went to ethanol production in 2007), can cause pressure on other crops to increase their prices in order to compete for acreage.

6) US gasoline requires an oxygenate, such as MTBE in the past and now ethanol, in order to increase the octane rating and provide a better fuel. Ethanol satisfies this without increases air pollutants or increasing groundwater contamination.

7) Ethanol is completely domestic. The gasoline offset by ethanol saved the entire US economy billions of dollars just last year.

This short list above is just a quick overview of some of the pros and cons of ethanol. Like I said, ethanol is not a knight in shinning armor but it is a good samaritan -- helping out in any way that it can. As a scientist, we are keenly aware of the problems and there are many solutions that are in the not-so distant future. New production methods will significantly cut the amount of water it takes to produce ethanol as well as the energy used in the distillation process. Cutting energy use will decrease the amount of natural gas or coal used and will improve the amount of GHGs that ethanol reduces. Coskata and GM teamed up last year to announce that by 2010, just two short years away, they will have a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant up and running. Aside from the fact that cellulosic ethanol could have GHG emission reductions near 86%, this would also alleviate the problem of competing for acreage with food crops. And, since cellulosic feedstocks like switchgrass are tantamount to natural prairie, it should decrease erosion and runoff and provide a natural habitat for animals.
In this way, corn-ethanol is a perfect bridge to the future. It isn't harming anything even though it may not be the silver bullet some people wanted it to be. However, research is already moving beyond cellulosic ethanol to "advanced biofuels." These include butanol, (which can be piped along with gasoline unlike ethanol and has a higher energy density), and even some companies are closing in on making synthetic gasoline from cellulosic materials.
The point is that this highly charge and complex issue of ethanol, and transportation fuels as a whole, should not be taking lightly. TIME should not be allowed to stand as a voice of reason, swaying the court of public opinion while they only present one side of an issue. Hydrogen is much harder to make and requires much more energy, but people still talk about a future using fuel cells. Solar panels are still too expensive for the common person to have and their efficiency is only 30-40%, but we still want the scientists to improve on the technology. And finally, high-efficient light bulbs are great at saving energy but contain a very toxic substance -- mercury. I wonder how many studies have been done to see the effects of these new bulbs being disposed of improperly.
I'm no conspiracy theorist and I hate the back and forth of which is worse... the Oil lobby or the Corn lobby -- if either works against the benefit of the American people than they are both in the wrong. It is clear, however, that the oil industry is putting pressure on scientists and the media to try to derail ethanol in whatever way possible. Hopefully people will not be swayed by these "truths" offered up courtesy of TIME and will instead be able to see what the facts are -- that corn ethanol is a cleaner fuel that is helping the American economy.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Farmers Signal Big Year For Soybeans

The results of the much anticipated survey by the USDA of 86,000 farmers has found that the number of acres of corn grown in the United States is projected to fall from 93.6 million acres last year to 88 million acres this year -- approximately what market analysts predicted. 13.2 million of those acres are projected to be planted right here in Iowa, down from 14.2 million acres last year. Farmers sighted several reasons for reducing overall corn acres such as high input costs and a desire to return to a more normal crop rotation schedule. Soybeans, on the the other hand, are projected to see 74.8 million acres planted nationally; up from 63.6 million acres planted last year.
One number to keep in mind with this realignment in ag. planting this summer is that two years ago in 2006 the United States planted 78.3 million acres of corn so the current numbers are still quite high and have the potential to sustain several industries as long as weather-related problems don't jeopardize the yields. What might be more interesting is to see in the coming weeks how commodity prices respond to the news. Corn seemed ready to go higher on the news as futures prices had already climbed into the mid $5 a bushel range. However, soybeans are considered quite volatile in this climate as a large soybean harvest this year could fill storage bins and, with a large crop projected to come out of Brazil this year, could push the price of beans lower.