It’s not Either/Or, it’s CORN and CELLULOSE (when it finally gets here, whenever that actually happens)

(“Corn’s biofuel role in question” — Article by: JIM SPENCER, Star Tribune)

WASHINGTON – The biofuel company Gevo is about to break ground in the southwest corner of Minnesota on a system that will make it the first in the country to commercially produce a gasoline additive called isobutanol.

Gevo believes isobutanol could become an important alternative to regular gasoline. It burns more powerfully and efficiently than ethanol and runs just fine in existing automobile engines.

The plant in Luverne appears to be everything the Obama administration wants to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil — except for one thing.

The plant will use corn to produce isobutanol.

So the federal government refuses to provide loan guaranties to support the innovation.

Attempts to dethrone King Corn in the renewable fuels market are more frequent and forceful than they used to be. Corn ethanol no longer qualifies as an innovative technology that garners broad federal subsidies. When the administration recently announced its plans to increase the market share of renewable fuels, it trumpeted “breaking ground on at least four commercial-scale cellulosic or advanced biorefineries over the next two years.”

Those priorities matter in Minnesota, which helped develop the corn ethanol industry and now produces 1 billion gallons a year at 21 corn ethanol plants. Many of them are owned by farmer cooperatives. The state won’t get one of the new biorefineries, although some of its farmers may participate in one in northern Iowa….

At a Senate Energy Committee hearing last week, some speakers questioned the bill sponsored by Minnesota’s two senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, as well as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

The bill requires automakers to build flex-fuel engines and mandates installation of ethanol pumps in service stations nationwide. Critics call the bill an over commitment to corn.

On the day of the hearing, the New York Times published a story that said using corn and other crops for ethanol causes hunger and higher food prices. The day before the hearing, environmental activists of the Environmental Working Group circulated a position paper that claimed corn ethanol cost more to produce than it saved in fossil fuel use.

“That’s just not true,” Franken said in an interview. “The yields go up and up. We’re meeting the need for feed.”

Our Take:
Call us old fashioned, but when the reporter can’t get the name of his source right– Kerry Nixon–we think it reveals a general lack of knowledge and carelessness with facts.

That the writer refers to “King Corn” without it being a quote or placing the phrase in quotes means this piece is an op-ed, not an unbiased news article. Corn is grown on 16 percent of US farms. It’s true that’s more than any other crop. But kings are crowned–this crop has won the votes of farmers, who like the rest of us, vote with their checkbooks and want to grow a crop that is versatile, has a history of success and can make them money. Corn’s profitability is a direct result not of any government program, but the fact that livestock, energy and export markets are filled with consumers who have succeeded by using corn as an ingredient in what they produce.

Yes, Secretary Chu has made no secret of his dislike of ethanol–a 14 billion gallon per year industry–while he favors drop-in fuels that can replace gasoline without need of engine modification. The number of gallons of drop-in fuel being produced from cellulose? Zero.

Hmmm. Does Chu want to have an impact on American energy this decade? We hope drop in fuels come along. They can go in the underground tanks that currently store gasoline, and ethanol can continue to go in ethanol tanks, and that way we’ll have a fighting chance of replacing all our foreign-sourced energy when it really matters–that is in the nearest possible term. Why care about replacing foreign oil? We watch the price on the gas pumps rise toward $4 for regular unleaded and we wonder if anyone doesn’t get the fact that until we replace foreign oil, we are not in control of our energy security–our energy destiny. Energy is the number one issue in maintaining America’s economic strength.

Even Gevo is betting on corn though that means Chu shuts the purse strings against them.

The Renewable Fuels Standard calls for 36 billion gallons of annual renewable fuel use by 2022–to get there we will need every ounce of the 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol stipulated by the law. Cellulose ethanol will be built on top of a strong and abiding foundation of corn-based fuel. To get to 16 billion gallons of cellulose ethanol production between now and then will mean that many, perhaps all existing corn ethanol plants will add a front-end component to brew ethanol from plant cellulose.

Canadian company Iogen and Danish company Inbicon both have ethanol production based on wheat straw, pumping out a million-plus gallons per year at their largest facilities. Nothing exists yet on the scale of today’s smallest dry grind corn ethanol plants. If they want to catch the American cellulose ethanol wave, Iogen, Inbicon, Gevo and others will need to roll out scaled-up versions quickly (Inbicon plans to break ground on an American plant sometime in the next 12 months). They will also require investor groups to purchase the license for this technology and build these projects. Many of these investors will be folks who know the ethanol industry that exists today. In fact, we believe these folks, today’s corn ethanol producers, will have an edge over neophytes who try to jump into the renewable energy business with no previous experience.

Environmental Working Group’s assertion that ethanol costs more to produce than the fossil fuels it replaces is unadulterated nonsense. Their paper goes against research studies by Argonne National Laboratory and the USDA, among others, that find a positive energy balance in ethanol production. Other studies find a phenomenal, positive economic impact from corn-based ethanol. It’s spring, and EWG is fundraising among people who know they love the earth, but who don’t know how much better corn ethanol is than the alternatives EWG’s anti-ethanol policy would push on us (Canadian tar sands oil, for instance).

New York Times thinks corn ethanol is making food more expensive and causing hunger. So they want farmers to grow crops that aren’t food to make into energy? Or they want to take away a key incentive that keeps food production at the highest possible level–yes, it’s a bit counterintuitive but the price strength that comes from all the different markets for corn, including ethanol, assures that farmers and agribusinesses will apply every possible resource to keep achieving higher and higher yields. Take away any element of the demand picture and in short order, farmers will be growing less.

Authorities usually granted unquestioned acceptance by the New York Times–the UN and the World Bank–thoroughly studied the commodity price shock of 2008-2009 and found corn and ethanol had very little to do with food price increases and that biofuels could not be blamed for creating hunger. That the Times continues to saw away at this tune illustrates the fact that even the purveyors of “all the news that’s fit to print” suffer from “fact resistance,” the effect documented by University of Michigan political scientist Brendan Nyhan.

(read more about Fact Resistance at http://articles.boston.com/2010-07-11/bostonglobe/29324096_1_facts-misinformation-beliefs)

When the Times is interested in making something that isn’t just fit to be fertilizer, they should talk to some farmers, and really listen to people who make food that really feeds the world. It’s what we do every day.

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