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Improvements in Ethanol Process Result in Lower GHG Emissions

August 25, 2011


America is home to the most innovative, productive and efficient ethanol and grain producers in the world. As I noted in two previous blog posts on improvements in farming practices and ethanol efficiency, the trend line for both industries is toward greater productivity utilizing fewer resources. When viewed as a total system, the improvements at the farm level and the biorefinery have a multiplying effect. The eagerness of farmers and ethanol producers to embrace and implement cutting edge technologies has made American ethanol production the most efficient and cost effective in the world.  In 2008-2010, the ethanol industry was producing some 440 gallons of ethanol per acre, a 50% improvement over the average from just 15 years earlier.  Future projections, which include the use of cellulosic ethanol production from corn cobs and stalks left on the field and the fiber found in the kernel, could approach 800 gallons of renewable fuel per acre. This increasing productivity and efficiency contributes directly to ethanol's ability to lower greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline on a lifecycle basis ("well-to-wheels" or "cradle-to-grave").  Six recent analyses show that corn ethanol reduces GHGs by 28-53% using current technologies.  As the data has demonstrated, these GHG reductions will only increase as new technologies are made available. Meanwhile, the energy intensity and GHG profile of crude oil extraction and refining continues to worsen. Whether it's fertilizer use on the farm or water consumption at an ethanol biorefinery, American farmers and ethanol producers are consciously investing in technology that dramatically lowers their carbon footprint while producing more fuel, feed, and food than ever before. The same cannot be said for petroleum production.  As the "easy" sources of oil are depleted, new sources are proving harder to extract and more costly to refine – both from a financial standpoint and in terms of environmental impacts. As we will look at next week, exploiting tar sands in Canada or endangering marine life in the Gulf are not sustainable approaches to meeting our energy needs in the decades to come.