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Ethanol isn't (usually) the answer

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  • Photo by "graylight" via Wikimedia Commons

POET, the country's largest Ethanol producer, announced today that it had bought a 90 million gallon-per-year ethanol plant near Cloverdale, with plans to re-open it in about nine months following extensive upgrades.

The purchase makes the Cloverdale plant POET's fourth in Indiana, and looks to create 40 to 45 jobs and "hundreds of secondary jobs," according to a company announcement.

Clearly, jobs are a good thing in this economy.

And clearly, any effort toward expanding alternative fuel resources in this country is a great thing, as the Gulf oil disaster and the war in Iraq so sharply remind us. But now is a good time to also remind ourselves that any news of ethanol's expansion should pretty much always be met with a good deal of skepticism. As several studies have shown, Ethanol production usually consumes more energy than it creates — making it, in aggregate, worse for our economy, our health and our environment than fossil fuels.

(Costly wars in the Middle East not withstanding.)

I wrote about this for another blog site called True/Slant last year, when the ethanol industry was taking some heavy hits:

A study led by the University of Minnesota, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has fueled the already heated debate since its publication in February, with claims that corn ethanol is actually worse for health and the environment than regular gasoline, in part because of the energy and land-usage required to produce it. By the study's estimations:

For each billion ethanol-equivalent gallons of fuel produced and combusted in the US the combined climate-change and health costs are $469 million for gasoline, $472—952 million for corn ethanol depending on biorefinery heat source (natural gas, corn stover, or coal) and technology, but only $123—208 million for cellulosic ethanol.

Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline — PNAS.

Though the terms differ, the general thrust of these findings isn't new. Some scientists have argued for years that ethanol production eats up more energy than it creates. Unsurprisingly, groups like the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) have taken umbrage with these sorts of findings, and have come up with some compelling arguments along the way. But it's clear that the industry now faces a future that looks a lot bleaker than it did just a few short years ago.

POET says the $30 million in upgrades to the plant include installation of a technology called "BPX, POET's patent-pending fermentation process which uses enzymes instead of heat, reducing energy use by 10-15 percent." The company also plans to install "a water recovery system and new pollution control equipment." These are all great developments.

But as noted in the U of M study cited above, the real way forward in terms of health and environmental costs is cellulosic ethanol production. In part, that's because we're not just talking about energy expended when we talk about health and environmental costs. We're talking about other things, too, like taking edible corn out of the food supply, government subsidies, and all the land and resources required to produce that corn that could be used in other ways.

Cellulosic production, by contrast, uses the inedible parts of corn, among other types of "junk" biomass. That includes all that corn stover left strewn across cornfields after the harvest — cobs, stalks and the like. It burns cleaner, requires less energy to produce, and, ideally, doesn't take food out of the food chain. The greatest danger it poses, to my understanding, is that removing all the stover from a harvested cornfield — stover that normnally decomposes and returns to the soild — could remove soil nutrients over time.

POET says "a number of other processes could be installed at the plant in the future, including cellulosic ethanol production." That's encouraging, and to POET's credit, they are among the pioneers in working toward the successful commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. Making the full switch to cellulose nationwide requires completely remaking existing production plants that use corn kernels. That would cost a lot of money, and it's not surprising that ethanol makers are slow to get on board.

But one wonders why, with $30 million in planned expenditures, POET isn't moving forward on the cellulosic conversion right now, rather than some day in the hypothetical future. Goodness knows we have the natural resources, the talent and the need for such innovation in the state. One imagines close partnerships with Purdue, for example, in establishing Indiana as a leader in cellulosic production.

The moment couldn't be riper, so to speak. If energy progress is what we seek, why do it in half-measures?

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