Changing for cleaner cornA study shows corn ethanol isn’t easy on the climate.
By: Beth Wischmeyer, The Dickinson Press
A study shows corn ethanol isn’t easy on the climate.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced preliminary results of a study which shows it has a worse impact on climate than gasoline when land use changes are considered.
In 2007, Congress required an increase in ethanol use, to as much as 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.
Ethanol was required to have less of a “life cycle” impact on global warming than gasoline, according to the Associated Press. As more land is being used to create crops for ethanol, greenhouse gases are expected to increase, as vegetation that absorbs carbon is replaced.
Red Trail Energy in Richardton produces 50 million gallons of ethanol, using 18 to 20 million bushels of corn and 100,000 tons of coal, annually, according to its Web site.
No immediate changes will be made at the coal-fired ethanol plants such as Red Trail Energy, said Mick Miller, chief executive Officer of Red Trail Energy.
“These are just initial studies and all the scientists that are working on it, there are many different views,” Miller said. “The indirect land use changes are definitely putting a negative impact on our fuel.
“If you look at just fuel production alone it’s much cleaner than gasoline but the land use changes is a countermeasure that we need to overcome as an industry.”
Increasing the amount of land used for growing corn designated for ethanol will have an impact on climate changes, said Cole Gustafson, bioproducts specialist for North Dakota State University.
“I think nationally there is going to be differing levels of ethanol depending on what the carbon footprint is,” he said. “California has already said they will be at the highest level.
“I’m hopeful that eventually the ethanol plants that we have in North Dakota are going to be able to respond and send ethanol through California.”
The carbon footprint is determined in a number of ways, Gustafson said.
“They look at the carbon emissions from raising the corn with respect to the energy used from fuel in the tractors to rubber on the tires and everything else, as well as production in the ethanol plant,” he said.
Other renewable fuels won’t draw as much concern due to smaller carbon footprints, he added.
Plants may also move to cellulosic or clean coal technology, he added.
“I’m quite optimistic that they are going to respond, it’s just going to take some time and a greater investment from the original owners to keep these plants probably, and going on a long-term basis,” Gustafson said.
Cellulosic ethanol uses wheat straw, corn stalks and cobs to produce ethanol, Gustafson said, adding they have a much smaller carbon footprint because part of the energy comes from the plant itself.
Red Trail may consider alternatives once the EPA finishes its research, Miller said.
“I think we’ve got at least another year or so when they’ll be digging into the details on it,” Miller said. “It’s always been on our agenda to decrease the carbon footprint and make things efficient and greener. Whether that’s clean coal or another fuel source, anything we can do to run the plant cleaner and more efficiently is beneficial for Red Trail and our industry.”
In one scenario the EPA examined, corn ethanol emits 16 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline, which takes into account global future land-use changes. In other scenarios, however, corn ethanol accounts for 5 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline.
“The future biofuels are going to have smaller carbon footprints because that’s what everyone is looking for,” Gustafson said. “Traditional corn ethanol plants, there is still going to be a niche for them to operate in, but that niche is starting to narrow a bit.”