Ethanol debates: Renewable fuel standard causes concernWritten by Saige Albert
During the week of July 30, a coalition of meat and poultry organizations and 159 members of the U.S. House of Representatives approached the EPA asking for a waiver of the federal mandate for ethanol production.
Background on the RFS
In 2005, the renewable fuel standard was created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The original standard required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012.
“Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the RFS program was expanded in several key ways,” says the EPA, listing inclusion of diesel, increasing the volume to 36 billion gallons by 2022, and establishment of new categories of renewable fuel as some changes.
EPA adds, “RFS2 lays the foundation for achieving significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from the use of renewable fuels, for reducing imported petroleum and encouraging the development and expansion of our nation’s renewable fuels sector.”
The 2007 mandate requires refiners to utilize 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol this year, with that number increasing to 13.8 billion gallons in 2013. At those levels, 4.7 billion bushels and 4.9 billion bushels of corn, respectively, would be required by the industry.
Cause for concern?
The coalition of livestock groups and Congressmen filed a petition that said, “It is abundantly clear that sufficient harm is occurring now and that economic conditions affecting grain supplies and feed prices will worsen in the months ahead. Both conditions provide an independent basis for a waiver of the RFS.”
With corn prices high, CME Group says livestock producers could be forced out of business in facing high feed costs.
They additionally refer to the EPA position on the RFS as a “wild card,” asking, “At what point does the impact of high feed costs on livestock producers becomes high enough to warrant a temporary waiver of the mandate?”
However, the group acknowledges that the decision is a political one and, in light of the election year, coming to an agreement become more complicated.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) encouraged producers to remember that, while the drought is severe, the corn crop is still in the field, and yield forecasts are just predictions.
“We won’t know the actual size of the 2012 corn crop until months from now. In the meantime, the market is working,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer in a press release. “All corn users are responding to market signals. Ethanol production and exports are down.”
He also added that a current surplus of ethanol in the U.S. will reduce demand on the U.S. corn crop.
“When it comes to the renewable fuel standard for ethanol and other biofuels, now is not the time for changes. It’s working,” comments Niemeyer. “The RFS is revitalizing rural America, reducing our dependence on foreign fuel and reducing the cost of gasoline. Making changes to the RFS now would only ensure that consumers suffer due to significantly higher fuel prices.”
The American Corn Growers Foundation (ACGF) also adds that drought has caused tight corn supplies, not ethanol production, and the by-products of ethanol production are still used as livestock feed.
“Consumers, livestock feeders and politicians all need to acknowledge that only the starch from corn is used in ethanol production,” explains Gale Lush, chairman of ACGF. “The protein, minerals and oil from that same corn kernel still provides abundant feed for the livestock sector, which is where most of the corn supply would have gone in the first place.”
The ethanol industry
From the other side, members of the ethanol industry have said that instituting a waiver or suspension of the RFS is “non-supportive” and “changes the rules of the game in the middle.”
One representative explained that the RFS has incorporated provisions for flexibility to accommodate shortages, such as those that are happening now. The industry is also making adjustments in light of supply concerns.
“The ethanol industry has reduced production by at least 15 percent over the last six months,” he said.
With the RFS a hot topic in the news and the political climate in the U.S. becoming increasingly volatile, the outcome of the RFS and petition to the EPA is still unknown.
Corn prices increase
On Aug. 8, CME Group reported that corn futures for September increased to $8.15. Corn for December delivery rose 16 cents, or two percent, to $8.165 per bushel.
Doane Advisory Services reported on the same day that corn futures closed eight to 14 cents higher overall, garnering strength from high cattle and soybean price action.
“Light rain forecast for portions of the Corn Belt over the next few days held price in check early, but anxiety over prospects for sharply lower production estimates from USDA on Aug. 3 sparked renewed buying,” said Doane Advisory Services.
Prices have increased since the release of the USDA World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), which predicted corn yield to be an additional 20 bushels per acre lower, at 146 bushels per ace. The most recent WASDE report was issued on Aug. 10.
New agriculture technology provides alternative bioenergy for the futureWritten by Saige
Laramie – Don Collins of the Western Research Institute (WRI) suggests that new technology that utilizes bacteria to create biodiesel could help the U.S. eliminate the need for petroleum imports.
Collins, Chief Executive Officer of WRI in Laramie, along with UW Extension Energy Coordinator Milt Geiger, spoke at AgriFuture 2011, providing student attendees with the opportunity to learn more about the nexus between agriculture and energy.
“The Western Research Institute is a research and development center,” said Collins. “Our objective is to help solve problems to make the world a better place. We take science, develop technology and seek for commercialization of those technologies.”
Some current research at the WRI focuses on bioenergy.
“Fossil fuels are just very old biomass,” explained Collins. “The objective is to really displace our dependency on petroleum fuels, but also the biomass.”
Collins added, “The largest growth is in the feedstock area. Projections say that cellulosic ethanol will be far cheaper than crude oil. We have a very competitive position for biofuels.”
He said biofuels have the potential to expand the agriculture industry, as well as the American economy.
“The projection is that there would be more than 400,000 jobs within the agriculture industry and nearly 1.9 million jobs in the American economy as a result of these biofuels,” said Collins.
Multiple aspects of renewable energy and biofuels are being pursued by the Department of Energy to increase chances at a viable, successful program.
“We always establish our goals to be commercially viable without subsidies,” said Collins. “One of the key things we really have been told is that we need to get very aggressive with research and take high-risk projects with high uncertainty, because those have the greatest benefits to society.”
Collins explained several technologies, including gasification and pyrolysis, that are being pursued. Gasification involves a heating process that produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
“We can make gasoline, diesel, ethanol and fertilizer,” explains Collins. “The process results in the formation of the essential building block molecules for these products. That is one of the motivators for gasification – there are more valuable products created than just electrons.”
With gasification, biofuels can be created for a cost of about 55 cents per gallon.
“It is a very involved process, but it provides flexibility,” said Collins. “We have a one megawatt gasifier in Laramie that allows us to operate on biomass, coal or blends of the two to produce the hydrogen and carbon monoxide.”
Pyrolysis can also be used, at the slightly higher cost of 68 cents per gallon, and Collins described the process as being a partial combustion. The partial burning of the biomass allows the products to be stored longer, however, the efficiency isn’t quite as high.
“Basically, we put a char on the biomass,” said Collins. “That gives it a stronger, firmer texture so it is easier to grind. It is also very attractive to the bioenergy industry for storage.”
“It is very suitable for small scale local use, as well as large scale processing,” continued Collins. “We have also found that if we take wood pellets or other biomass and run it through the system, it holds it together better, so there is some attraction to increasing the durability of other biomass.”
Another interesting project the WRI is working on involves the use of bacteria that consumes CO2, creating an oily substance that would be used as biodiesel. The bacteria do not require sunlight and can be grown in tanks beneath the ground.
“The idea is to produce more biodiesel than we can consume in the U.S. with these bacteria,” said Collins. “We would also use the carbon from coal twice – once in burning it and a second time for the creation of biodiesel.”
CO2 resulting from burning coal is captured and used to feed the bacteria. Collins explained this bacterium could also be used to reduce CO2 emissions in the United States and could lessen dependence on foreign oil. He said bioenergy industry and its connection to agriculture allows for potential developments and continued expansion of the industry long term.
Aside from biofuels, Geiger also looked at agriculture as a consumer of energy.
“Food is an important user of energy in the United States,” stated Geiger. “Ag has done a great job since about 1950 in reducing the overall energy intensity of the industry. We produce the same things with less energy.”
Geiger said that, according to the USDA, approximately 15 percent of total expenses on an ag operation are related to energy, only five percent of which is direct energy use. The remaining 10 percent is largely fertilizer use.
Volatility in the energy markets, including electricity, gas and diesel, provides instability for producers, he said, adding that there are opportunities to reduce energy use from these volatile sources, recommending producers start by assessing their energy consumption, then look at conserving energy on their operations. Next, producers should look to change technology and efficiencies and evaluate where energy is used. Finally, after looking at their operation, Geiger mentioned that alternative energy production should be considered.
“Producers would be doing themselves a great disservice by jumping to alternative energy before looking at their energy use or conservation,” said Geiger.
For alternative energy options, Geiger described geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind energies as viable sources. Geothermal energy looks at utilizing pumps based on the temperature gradient in the earth.
“Consumers can use that resource to heat or cool a structure,” said Geiger. “Hydroelectric can also be used on a small scale or a massive scale. Solar power can be used to create thermal energy and heat structures.”
In looking toward renewable energy, Geiger mentioned, “Small renewable energy systems are designed to reduce the costs. The goal is not to generate a revenue, but rather offset the costs.”
Geiger also mentioned that UW and Extension offer energy audits and renewable energy assessments to help producers look at their operation and energy consumption.
E15 push raises cattle country concernsWritten by Jennifer Womack
The letter was sent to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner.
“The blend percentage is currently set at 10 percent,” wrote NCBA, “which is causing significantly more competition for corn and driving up feed costs for cattle producers.”
NCBA asked the decision makers to oppose “any administrative or legislative efforts to increase the amount of ethanol permitted to be blended with gasoline.” Vilsack has stated that an increase into the 12 to 13 percent range could be made at the discretion of the EPA.
“As you know,” wrote NCBA, “current corn-based ethanol production is capped at 15 billion gallons, which is the equivalent of 10 percent of the U.S. projected gasoline market. Increasing the blend percentage to 15 percent would mean the immediate addition of 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol, and would require an extra 1.6 billion bushels of corn. Based on 2008 yields, to reach this level an additional 10.4 million acres of corn would need to be planted.”
NCBA wrote, “Corn ethanol production is significant to the cattle industry because of its impact on feed grain prices. Since January of 2008, cattle feeders have lost a record $4.3 billion in equity because of high feed costs. The additional 1.6 billion bushels of additional corn needed for an E15 blend percentage is equivalent to the entire amount of corn the cattle industry utilizes in one year.”
Talk of increasing the blend percentage has also earned the attention of the Colorado-based Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC). “USDA, along with ethanol producers,” said a March 20 paper released by the group and written by Mississippi State University Economists under the direction of Dr. John Anderson, “appears to be pursuing an increase in the ethanol blend limit as a means of providing financial relief to the ethanol industry with little consideration of how such an increase might affect participants in related markets.”
The LMIC paper says, “For livestock producers, who have already experienced a dramatic rise in production costs over the past two years, a further increase in ethanol production represents a potentially serious challenge.” Increases, they said, could further drive ongoing contraction in the beef, pork, poultry and dairy sectors.
Early on by-products were thought to be an alleviation factor for ethanol production’s impact on the cattle sector, but according to Anderson’s paper, “…so far byproducts prices and corn prices remain closely correlated. If corn prices move higher, the price of substitutes will move higher as well.”
The National Corn Growers Association supports the increase. A posting on their website from the Illinois Corn Growers Association calls for an immediate increase to E12 or E13 with further consideration for E15 says increasing the blend rate would “stimulate the rural economy.” The group says two billion gallons of capacity are sitting idle in their state. “Many other plants in Illinois are in crisis due to the lack of blending opportunities,” says the group citing plants on the verge of bankruptcy. “Increasing the level of allowable blends will help return these plants to full operation and full employment.”
“The marketplace offers many adequate risk management tools, which when combined with good business practices,” wrote NCBA noting their support for energy independence, “help build a competitive and strong industry. Cattle producers do not support government interventions via subsidies and mandates; these practices disrupt the market and are never substitutes for good business practices.”
Project converts human, livestock waste to energyWritten by Heather Hamilton
Guernsey — A Platte County project would solve landfill challenges and utilize feedlot manure while creating renewable energy for the area.
“What they want to do is build a 35-megawatt power plant. The purpose is to incinerate garbage and deal with landfill issues,” says Dan Brecht with Platte County Economic Development of American Renewable Energy Associates (AREA).
AREA converts municipal solid waste to electrical power and is specifically designed to meet renewable energy criteria. The company’s goals include eliminating landfills for municipal waste, creating temporary and permanent jobs and helping America develop energy independence.
The Guernsey plant is projected to burn 300 tons of garbage daily. To meet the target volume trash will be collected from as far east as western Nebraska and possibly as far south as the Front Range. The northern edge would be Douglas with Casper or Laramie as the western border, explains Brecht.
Brecht adds that Platte and Goshen county residents have been very supportive of the project, which will be located west of Guernsey off Highway 26.
“The facility they want to build would employ several people. They want to put an office in Guernsey and are also talking about putting in housing that would not only help meet their needs but also those of Camp Guernsey and possibly Torrington,” says Brecht.
Heather Foster is Director of Public Relations and Marketing for AREA and says the projected date to be online and producing power is April 12, 2012. She adds that at present AREA has purchased land and is working on permits with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) in addition to contacting municipalities.
“The land AREA purchased has a depression where we should be able to hide the facility. We’re trying to make sure we’re not going to hurt anything like scenic quality or the environment. We want this to be a positive for the area. It will be a very clean and nice facility, but it’s still a facility,” says Foster.
The incinerator will be efficient, according to Brecht. He explains that it will use a moderate amount of groundwater – less than the Laramie River Station coal plant in Wheatland.
“The water needs can probably be taken care of with a moderately sized well. It’s non-polluting and everything is re-looped, filtered and screened,” he says, adding, “Nothing goes into the air or groundwater due to the looping.”
There would be two byproducts generated in addition to electricity. Waste heat is one that could eventually be used to heat buildings. That option is currently used in Denmark, where incinerators are more common than in the United States. The second byproduct is an inert bottom ash. This is a similar ash to what is produced by power plants and every batch is tested for heavy metals. Over 99 percent of batches pass and are used for filler in building and road projects, among other things.
Another viable waste source for the incinerators is manure. Foster explains that a biodigestor bug converts animal waste to a mulch and eliminates methane gas in the process of producing energy. Farmers can utilize the mulch as a fertilizer after AREA has used the raw waste to generate energy.
“It’s pretty amazing technology. Farmer’s aren’t losing their fertilizer and we’re able to take something else from it,” says Foster.
“DEQ is nagging feedlots and this can be a real plus for those people as a means of managing manure piles. Once dried, manure is a hotter, more reliable heat source than municipal solid waste because it’s more consistent,” explains Brecht.
Foster adds that AREA has been in contact with Wheatland, Torrington and western Nebraska feedlots and is also working with several dairies in Arizona. Utilizing manure will depend on feedlot proximities and the ability to combine manure from multiple feedlots she explains.
“AREA is a good company to work with. They got a lot of local support once we learned what they are. This could be an answer to rising unemployment and knowing they are non-polluting has really done them well,” says Brecht.
Syngenta CEO Michael Mack: Answers lie in sound scienceWritten by Jennifer Womack
“The biofuel industry is chipping away at petroleum’s market share, especially in recent years as we see a rapid growth in production,” says Aaron Brady of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Inc. In the U.S., ethanol now accounts for eight percent of the U.S. gasoline market. Some, with the support of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, are pushing to end the current ten percent blend cap on ethanol use in the U.S.
“If we were to imagine all of the world’s biofuel producers as one country, this biofuel nation would have been the number three source of incremental liquid fuel supply over the last two years,” says Brady. “This is really an indication of the important role of biofuels, especially ethanol.” Brady says that without ethanol, fuel prices in recent years would likely have climbed higher than they did.
Biofuels aren’t without challenges, but in most cases those challenges are coupled with science-based opportunity. Brady sums them up as:
The need to use land efficiently, harvesting the most liquid fuel per unit of land. Brady says the most optimistic predict that corn yields will once again double by 2030.
Economic challenges in the price of biofuels compared to the cost of fossil fuel.
Product quality, which he explains in saying. “Ethanol has only about 70 percent of the energy content as petroleum.” He says the next generation of biofuels needs to have performance levels equal to fossil fuels.
Brady says biofuels need to be produced in a sustainable fashion. He mentions water use in particular.
“The inherent solution to these challenges is increased technology,” says Brady.
Syngenta CEO Michael Mack agrees. “It is technology that can provide the solution to the persistent and growing problems in food security and environmental sustainability that the world faces today,” says Mack. “To be clear, for us at Syngenta, technology means an entire portfolio of products, techniques and expertise that bring out the best in biotechnology, crop protection products and seed care.”
Syngenta has several promising developments that Mack says “are just around the corner.”
“One,” says Mack, “which can power our cars as opposed to our bodies, is a Syngenta product called Corn Amylase, which we hope will be approved soon by the USDA. It could bring enormous bottom-line benefits to ethanol producers, about eight to 15 cents a gallon, which is a major impact on an industry that is struggling. By reducing the amount of water and energy needed to produce the same amount of ethanol Corn Amylase could improve the carbon footprint of ethanol plants by 10 percent or more.”
The company is also working on new enzymes that can convert the green material of corn, and not just the grain, so that the corn crop itself will be of greater value in ethanol production.
“We’ve also introduced a new variety of sugar beet that produces yields similar to sugarcane but needs less water, can tolerate the tropical climates of India and could be used for food or biofuel,” says Mack. “Plants can be an efficient and truly renewable way of translating the sun’s energy into our gas tanks, and with technology we don’t have to be forced into a no-win choice between growing more food or producing more fuel.”
Mack says, “Take sugar: Today, Brazil has become one of the world leaders in the production of ethanol from sugar, and no one bats an eye. The world is so awash in sugar, which is available from a variety of sources, including corn and beets, that people no longer think of it exclusively as a food crop, and sugar growers have had to actively seek and create new markets for their product.”
“The entire driver is productivity,” says Mack. “One hundred years ago, sugar was a coveted commodity. Twenty years from now, people will scoff at the idea that plants should be used exclusively for food.”
Long-term Brady predicts plants will be required to meet the worldís growing demand for fuels. “The world will likely need a more diversified energy platform for transportation if supply is going to keep up with future demand,” he says. “Undoubtedly, the biofuel industry is going through a painful time right now. There’s overcapacity and low oil prices are hurting the industry. But, at the same time it’s likely the huge growth we’ve seen in the biofuel industry is laying the groundwork for this diversified energy platform of the future, especially if the next generation of biofuels evolve and become a reality over the next several years.”
Noting some country’s opposition to genetic modification of key crops, Mack says, “So far, the United States regulatory system has been the gold standard on encouraging innovation through technology, and I have no doubt that if this nation can hold to its insistence on science-based regulation, we’ll find that other countries, such as Brazil, Argentina and others in Asia, will follow the U.S. lead.”