MAY 2013


(Posted Wed. May 15th, 2013)

May 15: Ethanol not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum but continues to steadily improve upon the levels at which it does so, according to a report released by Dr. Steffen Mueller of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center. In his study findings, which are now available online, Mueller outlines how ethanol has helped the Renewable Fuel Standard meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, due to a uniquely high rate of innovation and technology adoption in the ethanol industry, continues to improve the level of greenhouse gas emission reductions offered by this renewable, sustainable biofuel.

The report, “Corn Ethanol: Emerging Plant Energy and Environmental Technologies,” comes from a study funded by the National Corn Growers Association’s Ethanol Committee, the Illinois Corn Growers Association and Monsanto with research assistance provided by the Renewable Fuels Association. Using the data outlined in the paper, NCGA will submit comments on the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in response to their third white paper, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Environmental Impacts.”

For the full report, click here.

“The study findings are exciting, but they do not come as a surprise to those who have been involved with the ethanol industry for any significant amount of time,” said NCGA Ethanol Committee Chair Chad Willis. “Every day, we see concrete improvements to the technology and practices used to make ethanol and to the final product we provide for America’s driving public. While ethanol already offers a renewable, environmentally responsible fuel alternative, we still strive to continually find even better ways to improve and grow a greener energy future.”

The report answers specific questions about the environmental impacts of ethanol use under the RFS and shows that, even when potential indirect land use change emissions are considered for ethanol, today’s average corn-based ethanol does reduce GHG emissions compared to petroleum.

Using more contemporary feedstock production data from the USDA to update the Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET model which calculates GHG emissions, the researchers found that ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 19 to 48 percent compared to gasoline. Furthermore, when ILUC emissions are excluded, average corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 29 to 57 percent relative to gasoline.

The study also shows that the RFS is encouraging development of even lower greenhouse gas emitting fuels and has had a positive impact on the adoption of new technologies that accomplish this goal at existing corn-ethanol plants. Substantiating this statement, the report outlines how, on average, dry grind plants produce ethanol at higher yields with lower energy inputs in 2012 than they did in 2008. Not only have yields already increased, continued adaptation of new technologies, which is helped in part by the more tangible incentives and also the market certainty provided by the RFS, will allow the industry to build upon the gains already in place.

While the improvements made outlined in the chart (above) may seem small at first glance, it is important to look at their larger-scale impact. Even a nearly one percent increase in ethanol yield is substantial when one considers that for every 50 million gallons produced this increase means an additional half-million gallons of ethanol now enter the market.

The study also details how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s methodology for calculating lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, and the models treatment of indirect land use change, could be improved. Noting that EPA’s current lifecycle analysis relies upon outdated information and data related to energy use and technology application at ethanol plants, the researchers suggest adopting more current data and models such as those developed and updated at Argonne National Laboratory’s Transportation Research and Development Center with consideration given to constantly evolving research accounting for ongoing improvements.

Finally, the researchers found that implementation of the RFS yielded environmental benefits not fully anticipated by the statute. Recent findings show that soil carbon sequestration effects associated with ethanol production in many geographic regions can play an important role in actually improving soil health.

These findings, along with the supporting data included in the full report, will provide an important tool not only in demonstrating the success of the RFS to this point in reducing GHG emissions, and the continued ability to build upon this success, but also in a variety of arenas as increased interest in environmental issues and sustainability continues to grow.