Grain ethanol strikes back

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Criticisms are not all accurate, the ethanol industry retorted today, issuing a report forecasting ethanol, among other things, to produce 55 percent fewer GHG emissions than gas by 2015.

FUENTE – CleanTech – 01/04/09

Claiming corn ethanol data is outdated and inaccurate, the International Energy Agency (IEA) today published a fresh report on the fuel, claiming the biofuel produces fewer greenhouse gases than previously thought.

The IEA, a 36-year old intergovernmental organization which advises its 28 member countries on energy policy, commissioned the study which states greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from corn ethanol are now some 39 percent less than gasoline. The IEA predicts that number will improve to 55 percent fewer GHGs compared to gasoline by 2015.

The report, Examination of the Potential for Improving Carbon/Energy Balance of Bioethanol, credits efficiencies in farming and production techniques for the cuts. Results of the study were announced today by the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA), an organization which represents over 60 percent of the global biofuels production from 30 countries.

“A lot of the stories circulating (about corn ethanol) in the past year were relying on sources that were very old and were inaccurate,” said Robin Speer, vice president public affairs, Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA). Speer served as a spokesman for the IEA on the report.

“A lot of the data people were using was from the late 80s and 90s. Farming practices today are extremely different than how it was back then,” he told the Cleantech Group today.

For example, farmers used to have to run their tractor three times over the same plot of land: once to till it, once to plant the seeds and yet again to fertilize it. New machinery allows farmers to do all three steps in the same pass. Speer also pointed out new manufacturing facilities now coming online are much more water and energy efficient while creating better yields.

Despite today’s rosy report, many industry observers have long maintained the first generation ethanol biofuel actually has a net negative environmental impact.

A senior venture capitalist at one firm pointed out the use of corn disrupts feedstock availability and land use, and is a “transitional fuel” whose days are numbered. His firm is invested in one first generation biofuel company and five second generation companies.

“It’s actually worse than gasoline once you take into account land use patterns. Anytime stuff like this comes up you have to look rigorously at the methodology… what’s the old saying ‘Figures lie and liars figure,” he said. “There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t be using corn ethanol. The corn lobby obviously has a stake,” in promoting it.

Detractors of grain-based ethanol most often cite food-versus-fuel issues (see Why ethanol production will drive world food prices even higher in 2008), concerns about water consumption, manufacturing inefficiencies and a modest net energy balance, i.e. the amount of energy derived from the fuel versus the amount required to make it.

The net energy balance of ethanol, according to the report, is improving. In 2005, the energy balance ratio for grain ethanol was estimated at 1:1.42, meaning every unit of energy used to produce ethanol returned 1.42 units of usable energy to the consumer. By 2015, the energy balance ratio is expected to represent a 55 percent increase in energy efficiency in just 10 years, today’s report said.

“The gasoline energy balance is projected to continue to decline as more synthetic crude oil is incorporated into the refining state. The ethanol energy balance continues to improve as efficiency gains are made both the feedstock production and ethanol manufacturing,” said the CRFA’s Speer.

Battery Ventures Partner Jason Matlof, whose firm backs biofuels company Qteros, conceded that first generation ethanol deserved at least some respect.

“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Corn ethanol has proven on a global basis that biofuels on a major scale can be accomplished,” he said. “Despite the black eye it’s received, it has proven we can move away from a petroleum-based economy.”

Matlof echoed some of the report findings in emphasizing increased water and energy efficiencies, but noted the fluctuating price of feedstock remains a challenge in keeping the first generation fuel competitive.

Despite the growing market for ethanol, the sector has come on hard times of late. Corn-based biofuel producers have struggled in the past year, mostly because of the skyrocketing price of their feedstock (see Using superpowers for the greater cleantech good). Many high-flying vendors have either gone bankrupt, seen their stock prices plummet or been acquired (see Valero eyes cellulosic ethanol with $477M VeraSun buy).

 

Author: L. Wilson

 

The U.S. Renewable Fuels Association estimates that 24 corn-based ethanol plants owned by 10 firms closed in the last three months, representing 15 percent of the U.S. ethanol supply.

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