Archive for October, 2011

Research inefficiency at U of M: Hill keeps producing misinformation on ethanol

(from an article published by Iowa Watch)

The ethanol industry has boomed in the U.S. largely because of politics, (Assistant Professor Jason) Hill said. There is no credible study proving ethanol decreased greenhouse gases and that it has only a negligible effect on reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, he added.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard to the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel, some of which can come from non-food sources.

Biofuel from corn is capped at 15 billion gallons, so the corn ethanol industry is not expected to expand much once the cap is reached in 2015.

The production of corn ethanol is notably inefficient, but the government continues to subsidize its production. Meanwhile, Brazil produces far more efficient biofuel from sugarcane, but representatives from the Brazilian biofuels industry say the U.S. use of tariffs prevents ethanol development.

The gap in energy yield between corn and sugar cane is stark. One unit of fossil fuel energy is required to produce 1.5 units of corn ethanol, according to a study on bioenergy development published by the World Bank. In sharp contrast, the same amount of fossil fuels will produce eight units of sugar cane ethanol.

Our Take:
Can one be both a scientist and an advocate? Hill’s advocacy against ethanol causes him to gloss over facts that some might consider important.

Ethanol is the most highly tested, completely modeled fuel in history. Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET model, considered to be the gold standard of measuring lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, proves that ethanol is less carbon intensive than the average gasoline product in the US. And the trend lines are towards greater ethanol efficiency and higher carbon intensity for gasoline. 

Hill says ethanol production is inefficient. Yet ethanol producers continue to improve the yield of fuel per bushel of grain and to reduce inputs per gallon. The same cannot be said for oil producers.

How efficient is Hill, repeating the same, tired, opinions dressed as science? If he is concerned about food why advocate for switchgrass or sugarcane ethanol—there is no food co-product from cellulose ethanol, and the cane producers have two choices of product—alcohol or sugar. For every bushel of corn used to make ethanol, the ethanol company also produces 17 pounds of high protein animal feed called distillers grains. The ethanol process removes the starch (sugar) from the grain and leaves the higher food value elements of the grain—its protein and oil.

Hill says that still means ethanol makes two thirds of the food value of corn disappear, but in order to argue this, Hill chooses to ignore how commodity markets work with crop production. With an ethanol requirement in place, the commodity markets know exactly how much grain to allow for ethanol production and how much more demand will be generated by the market for animal feed. The feedback from the market has communicated very effectively to the independent farmer how much corn is needed. If the market knows X-bushels will be devoted to energy, and that the market needs Y-bushels for food, and the farmer comes up with both—how does that mean that the ethanol industry makes food disappear. The grain would not be produced in the first place, if there were not an ethanol industry calling for it.

Hill says ethanol’s GHG reduction is unproved despite Argonne National Laboratory’s work. What is really unproved is his land displacement hypothesis – that corn shoves soybeans and cotton out. Farmers decide on what to plant based on a host of factors. To say that ethanol is driving a wholesale change in cropping is to ignore most of what goes into the farmer’s choices.  

When Hill claims that ethanol does little to offset foreign oil, we would like to point to the stream of negative press about ethanol produced by the government run press in nations like Saudi Arabia. They wouldn’t expend all that energy putting down ethanol unless it was cutting into their market share. Hill knows that the ethanol industry produces ten percent of the US transportation fuel market, and its fossil energy requirements are met by domestically produced natural gas. No one we know puts natural gas in their vehicle. The Center for Agriculture and Rural Development at Iowa State University studied ethanol’s role in the transportation fuels market and found that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, ethanol reduced the price of gasoline by 25 cents per gallon.

The reason Hill criticizes ethanol is that he cannot come right out and say what he thinks: he’d like the government to dictate food production and completely change how farmers go about the business of producing crops and animals.

We know ethanol is not THE answer, but rather a helpful element in a larger picture of moving our country toward energy self-sufficiency.

One reason to beware Hill’s conclusions is that he is telling us he has all the answers. The science we are aware of is a debate. His science is a dictatorship.

E15 won’t conk engines

(Jim Nussle, President of Growth Energy, responds to a letter to the editor in the Washington Times regarding E15)

What is perhaps most egregiously incorrect in “Corn-fueled politics” (Comment & Analysis) is the suggestion that E15 – 15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline – is an untested fuel. That could not be farther from the truth.

There has been more testing of E15 than there has been of any other fuel additive in the history of the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency’s role is to determine whether E15 is a suitable fuel for today’s cars and emissions systems, and only after years of testing did the agency approve E15 for cars from 2001 and newer.

Furthermore, exhaustive data by the Department of Energy has proved that engine performance and durability do not suffer from ethanol blends such as E15. Doubters need look no further than Minnesota, a state that mandates the highest allowable blend of ethanol and yet is full of safely operating vehicles, snowmobiles, snowblowers, lawn mowers and countless outboard motors on their 10,000 lakes.

The U.S. ethanol industry is a cutting-edge industry that continues to get cleaner and more energy-efficient every day. But there are many who don’t know the facts and still accept a decades-old image and the misleading rumors as facts. Studies show that moving to higher-level blends, such as E15, will create jobs that can’t be outsourced, reduce harmful emissions in the air and help free us from our addiction to foreign oil. Every year our economy sends a balance of payments of more than $300 billion to foreign economies – many which are either unstable or hostile to the United States – for their oil. Wouldn’t that money be better invested in America, creating jobs?

Having been unable to dispute the overwhelming science in favor of E15, some critics are now turning to cheap scare tactics to turn American consumers against E15. But American motorists should not be fooled. If we truly want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, create jobs and improve our environment, we must increase the use of clean, renewable fuels like ethanol in all of our engines.

JIM NUSSLE, President and chief operating officer, Growth Energy

Washington, DC

Our Take:
We wanted to pass Jim Nussle’s words along as a helpful response to any doubters you may encounter. Of course, Nussle refers to our own experience here in Minnesota, where E10 has been MN’s year-round, statewide gasoline blend since October 1997. E10 was the wintertime gasoline blend in the Twin Cities and other urban centers prior to 1997 as a tool to combat high levels of carbon monoxide, for which those communities were deemed to be in USEPA non-attainment status. We know that engines large and small have operated without difficulty on this fuel. As Nussle points out, E15 is now the most tested fuel in history and all indicators point to E15’s high quality as a fuel.

Biofuels producers, environmentalists explore common ground at “Innovation in Midwest Biofuels” conference

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Representatives of the Midwest biofuels industry and environmental groups met for a two day forum in mid-September, organized by Great Plains Institute, a Twin Cities-based non-profit group that takes a solution-oriented approach to climate and energy challenges, focusing in particular on policy, technology and infrastructure.

“The area where we found agreement is in improving the carbon intensity of existing fuel plants,” said Brendan Jordan, a key organizer of the event for Great Plains Institute (GPI). Jordan serves as director of bioenergy and transportation programs for GPI. Jordan said, “Many in the biofuels industry are already doing this as a cost-saving measure. Improving the existing fleet does not ask environmentalists to agree to new (grain biofuel) capacity, so environmentalists are more comfortable with that. Economists are trying to quantify the costs and benefits of these investments that reduce the carbon footprint. The question raised by people on all sides of the issue is ‘why isn’t more of this happening, what incentives, policies could be put in place to incentivize this even more?”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, who have argued against the need for the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) brought forward a proposal for a carbon reduction tax credit that would be based on the amount that carbon use/emissions are reduced.

Biofuels industry representatives were receptive to the idea, and impressed with the conciliatory effort, according to Gary Herwick, a transportation fuels expert representing Minnesota Corn Growers Association at the conference. However, such incentives would likely have to be more substantial to offset the front end capital expense of carbon reduction technologies like biomass gasifiers.

Meeting the goals of the Renewable Fuel Standard regulation known as “RFS2” would reduce carbon emissions attributed to transportation fuels by about 7%, according to Herwick, president of Transportation Fuels Consulting, of Milford, Michigan.  He has more than 40 years experience in the auto industry including 5 years of consulting in vehicle emissions, transportation fuel quality and alternative fuels.

“This meeting was an opportunity to look at the potential to reach a ten percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from fuels and to encourage further innovation in the biofuels industry,” said Herwick.

One important message from the meeting was the need for better tools to assess the entire lifecycle of all fuel types, to assure that they consistently and fairly compare the real carbon intensity of the fuel. Presenters offered evidence that efficiencies achieved not only in the ethanol production process itself but in the increasing efficiency of crop production, have resulted in lower carbon intensity.

“It stands out that the biofuel industry, not necessarily motivated by regulations, but by economics, has made great strides forward in energy efficiency which positively impact carbon emissions,” said Herwick. “The GREET model, Argonne National Laboratory’s gold standard tool for evaluation of the biofuels lifecycle, developed a standard number for dry grind ethanol production of 36,000 BTUs of energy input per gallon of ethanol. That number is ranging around 26,000 BTUs today, and some plants are achieving substantially lower energy inputs than that.”

The state of California, which has put in place its own Low Carbon Fuels Standard, has accepted the petitions of a score or more of Midwestern corn ethanol plants who proved to the state authorities that their carbon score is lower than the standard rating for gasoline of approximately 95 grams of carbon per megajoule of energy. This process has allowed these ethanol plants to qualify to sell product into the California transportation fuels market–the largest single market for ten percent ethanol blends in the country.

Herwick and Jordan agreed that the dialogue begun at this conference was encouraging and they are both hopeful that continuing discussions among these groups can produce both understanding and influence public policy in mutually beneficial ways.

In a process completely distinct from the biofuels innovation conference, Jordan has worked as a consultant through GPI for the past two years to explore the concept of a Midwest Low Carbon Fuels Standard. Though MGA has decided not to continue the development of its own LCFS, the information developed through the process continues to inform all these stakeholders in the quest to achieve ten percent carbon reduction while enhancing the economic position of farm-based energy.

U researcher thinks current food system is ruining planet

(Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY, Star Tribune)

A study led by a University of Minnesota researcher and published online last Wednesday by the journal Nature provides a snapshot of the perilous state of the world’s food system — and how it has changed the face of the planet.

How do you feed 9 billion people without destroying the planet?

Transform the global food system in the next 40 years by using crops to feed people instead of fattening livestock and producing fuel; eliminate food waste; and overhaul the use of fertilizers like nitrogen that are polluting waters around the world.

Those are some of the conclusions in a study led by a University of Minnesota researcher published online by the journal Nature.

Though the problems described in the paper have been well documented, the study takes the unusual approach of suggesting solutions for all of them simultaneously.

“We wanted to address food and environmental problems,” said Jonathan Foley, the lead author. “Up until now they’ve been treated as separate.”

Unlike some academic research, the paper is getting national attention, and Foley has been making his case in meetings with food industry executives at corporations such as General Mills and Cargill, and international environmental and agricultural groups.

Our Take:

It’s a good story. If it were really true. But why let facts get in the way of a paper that will make a sensation and create a reputation in a world where few people understand agriculture, and therefore you can get away with a lot of fast and loose shots.

Let’s look at a real life story, instead. We know a Northfield farmer who ran the numbers and seriously considered raising wheat on his land–the crop that dominated Minnesota agriculture two generations ago.

He found that even after subtracting the starch from his corn to make the ethanol, the food value that remains–a high protein feed product called distillers grains–represented more protein than a wheat crop would yield. Food and energy produced by an acre, instead of just less food.

There is a reason corn is winning acres. But this attack goes further and posits the idea that we should derive our protein from food crops instead of the livestock industry. I’d like to see Mr. Foley give a hundred dollars to a shopper and see how they spend it. My guess–the shopping cart would head for the meat counter.

And what Prof. Foley does not address is the deleterious effect on our economy of shipping mountains of wealth to OPEC in order to run our vehicles. If we kept that money here it would be capital that puts people to work, and feeds people and increases our wealth instead of the wealth of other nations. Grain ethanol forms the foundation for an even larger biomass ethanol revolution–together they will keep a lot of economic activity happening here, which means more jobs, less hunger and homelessness for Americans.

Nitrogen fertilizer will not ruin the world. Nitrogen efficiency is the next big challenge that American farmers have set their sights on conquering, and our crop science companies are making strides alongside land grant university researchers developing best management practices that get nitrates to plants and not groundwater.

We do agree with the professor on one point. Bringing the productivity of all farm land in the world up to optimum levels is essential. Even American farmers have a little room for improvement. Put agronomic improvements next to yield performance improvements and experts believe American farmers can more than double their output on the same acreage with the same or fewer inputs.

If arable land in the Third World were corrected for pH, properly fertilized and had the benefit of 21st century technology and agronomic know-how geared to each specific region’s climate and growing conditions–we would see vast economic growth–a rising tide that lifts all boats, as President Kennedy once said. The opportunity for self-reliance and environmental preservation would spread to every country.


SE Minnesota Ethanol Producer Re-elected Officer of National Group

(Business news release from Renewable Fuels Association)

Washington – Randall J. Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont, MN, has been re-elected Treasurer of the Renewable Fuels Association, the oldest and largest national trade association for American ethanol producers. 

“For the past 25 years, the American ethanol industry has grown to become a world leader in ethanol production in large part to the hard work of the RFA and its members,” said Doyal.  “Remaining the world’s leader requires that we aggressively engage policymakers, consumers and the general public. That means promoting smart, progressive ethanol policy, expanding the marketplace for ethanol fuels, and ensuring commercialization for new technologies and advanced biofuels. I am honored to help lead the RFA and the industry in changing how American fuels its future.”

Doyal has served on the Board of Directors of the RFA for 15 years, and has been in ethanol production since the early 1980s.  He was elected to a one-year term at the RFA’s annual membership meeting in Washington, DC this week. 

About the Al-Corn Clean Fuel:  Al-Corn Clean Fuel is a farmer-owned ethanol production cooperative in Claremont, MN. Annually Al-Corn grinds 17.5 million bushels of corn and produces 50 million gallons of ethanol. In addition, the plant produces 132,000 tons of high protein livestock feed and 8.75 million pounds of corn oil, as well as captures carbon dioxide, all of which are resold. The cooperative model allows members and their communities to benefit from a secure local market and the co-op’s earnings and investments. Learn more at

About the Renewable Fuels Association:  The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) is the leading trade association for America’s ethanol industry. Its mission is to advance the development, production, and use of ethanol fuel by strengthening the industry and raising awareness about benefits of renewable fuels.  RFA’s 200 members are working to help America become cleaner, safer, more energy dependent and economically secure. The RFA is governed by a Board of Directors comprised of a representative from each producer member. Learn more at

Our Take:
Randy Doyal is one of the visionaries who have really put the grain ethanol industry on the map. With his leadership and the work of many others who have put so much energy into creating a solid foundation for biofuels, and who continue to build the industry, we are confident about the future of ethanol.

The next great challenge will be to sweep away the misperceptions about biofuels that have been heaped up like so many autumn leaves by vested fossil fuel interests, environmental groups that serve as their unwitting stooges, and industries that have built their business model on purchasing farm products for less than they cost to produce.

We hope everyone will make an effort to see the documentary “Freedom” by Josh and Rebecca Tickell. It provides a very clear picture of what leaders like Doyal have accomplished, and the stakes involved in winning this battle to end our addiction to oil.


Keeping nutrients in place: Research shows stabilizers, inhibitors have promise

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

With the first ten days of October setting temperature records or near records, farm operators have to take special care with application of nitrogen fertilizers, according to experts. At these temperatures the ammonium nitrogen in fertilizer and manure can rapidly convert to nitrate and become susceptible to leaching from rain events in spring.

The addition of the nitrification inhibitor Instinct™ into swine manure used as crop fertilizer has shown promising results, according to soil scientist Jeff Vetsch who conducted the trial in 2011.

“The results so far are promising, but we recognize that this is one year of data,” said Vetsch. He noted that studies are underway in Iowa and Wisconsin as well. He will present the findings at the Crop Pest Management Short Course offered at the Crop Production Retailers Association, at Minneapolis Convention Center, Dec. 13-15.

The research looked at both time of manure application and rate of application of Instinct. They found that waiting a month, when soil temperatures had dropped, boosted yield with or without the inhibitor Instinct, but the inhibitor added an additional 10-12 bushels above the yields experienced from application of the manure alone. Vetsch, working with soil scientist John Lamb, conducted the research at University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca.

The study looked at manure from swine finishing operations, which is the most widely available manure in southern Minnesota, according to Vetsch.

Research into this area of keeping nutrients in place for crops goes far beyond manure application. A range of products are in use with the variety of commercial nitrogen fertilizers–ammonia, urea and others. The University of Minnesota’s nutrient management working group are conducting research into five of the most common products, with research into others on the horizon. The chemical nitrogen inhibitors being tested include DCD, nitrapyrin and NDPT. Minnesota Corn Growers Association has provided funds for a portion of this research.

“A good understanding of the nitrogen cycle is essential to effective use of stabilizers or inhibitors,” said Carl Rosen head of the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate.

The two main categories of inhibitors include those that work chemically to prevent transformation of the fertilizer product into a form more likely to be lost to groundwater or the atmosphere. The other category is polymer coatings that create a physical barrier that delays the solubility of the fertilizer, which then delays  the transformation of fertilizer nitrogen into nitrates–the form both that the plants can use and that is most prone to loss.

“You need to know what part of the nitrogen cycle you are inhibiting,” said Rosen.

Urease inhibitor, for instance, is meant to be used when urea is surface applied on the soil to prevent it from becoming ammonia and disappearing into the atmosphere. If the producer incorporates the urea or UAN, the urease inhibitor will have little if any effect, Rosen said.

Initial work suggests that the polymer coated products may be most effective in sandy soils where irrigation is in use, according to Rosen.

“Whenever doing anything to a fertilizer, using either a coating or an inhibitor, you are increasing cost,” said Rosen. “You have to think of it as insurance, if you have a leaching rainfall, or conditions that promote denitrification, then there may be a response, but if you don’t have those conditions, then the inhibitors may not help that much. And of course, you’re making the decision to apply the inhibitors without knowing whether you’ll encounter those conditions in the coming year.”

And inhibitors are not the only route to nitrogen efficiency. Rosen told about comparison work he did where he found that he achieved higher corn yields with a split fertilizer application– starter and then two side-dressed nitrogen post emergence applications –without inhibitor use, compared to a single, pre-plant fertilizer application using an inhibitor. Research on application timing of fertilizers with and without inhibitors or coatings is in progress.

For more information on this and other nutrient research, go to:


We’re paying gas money for Iranians

(article “IEA warns of ballooning world fossil fuel subsidies” by Muriel Boselli, Reuters)

PARIS, (Reuters) – Global subsidies for fossil fuel consumption are set to reach $660 billion in 2020 unless reforms are passed to effectively eliminate this form of state aid, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on last week.

“Governments and taxpayers spent about half a trillion dollars last year supporting the production and consumption of fossil fuels,” the energy watchdog to 28 industrialized countries said.

“In a period of persistently high energy prices, subsidies represent a significant economic liability,” it said in an extract of its annual World Energy Outlook, which is due to be published in full on Nov. 9.

The IEA estimated such subsidies at $409 billion in 2010, compared to $312 billion in 2009. Oil products had the largest subsidies at $193 billion in 2010 while $91 billion went to natural gas. Iran and Saudi Arabia had the biggest subsidies.

“It’s a huge amount of money,” the IEA’s Chief Economist Fatih Birol told reporters at a joint press briefing with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which also presented a report on the issue.

“Without further reform, spending on fossil fuel consumption subsidies is set to reach $660 billion in 2020, or 0.7 percent of global gross domestic product,” Birol added.

In 2010, Birol had forecast that fossil fuel subsidies would reach $600 billion as early as 2015 without further reforms. He said the slower rate of growth was partly due to efforts in certain major countries including China and India.

“This is thanks to the improvements in India, China, Russia. They have made significant efforts. We have to be fair,” he said, adding that only 8 percent of those subsidies reached the poorest population.

Leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies committed in Pittsburgh in 2009 to phase out, over the medium-term, inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption.

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria urged developing and rich nations to phase out the subsidies urgently.

“As they (nations) look for policy responses to the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, phasing out subsidies is an obvious way to help governments meet their economic, environmental and social goals,” Gurria said at the press briefing.

Eliminating fossil fuel consumption subsidies by 2020 would cut global energy demand by 4 percent and considerably reduce carbon emissions growth, the IEA said on last week.       

Our Take:
While we are hearing from the Federal Reserve that our economy is in danger of faltering, the International Energy Agency reports that the Iranians subsidized their petroleum products for their own citizens to the tune of $409 billion dollars in the past year. Where did that money come from? From the Europeans and Japanese who buy the rest of the oil product Iran produces. Our dependence on OPEC helps support the highway robbery prices we must pay, no matter which pusher serves as our source.

Can we afford to be in any way helping a country that holds our citizens hostage and, in defiance of peace treaties are actively developing nuclear weapons capability (Guess where the money for that expensive hobby comes from?). Why are we buying gasoline from the country that produced the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

We pay through the nose so Iranians and Saudis can have cheap gasoline?

And the $660 billion figure most likely does not include the huge military expenditures made by the US, in large part to keep global sea lanes open, so everyone can enjoy a free flow of overpriced oil.

The documentary film “Freedom” estimates that America gives away $150 billion a year in oil subsidies. Congress could not summon the will to touch those subsidies even while it came close to eliminating the subsidies for ethanol, piddling in comparison, at $6 billion a year. Those subsidies come to an end on December 31, and don’t look to Congress to raise a finger to do anything to boost the job-creating renewable energy industry, while oil fat cats collect money that can’t even be called pork–it’s bacon fat. And it’s pushing our economy to the brink again.

Time to wake up and switch over ASAP to cleaner burning renewable energy that will build jobs and economic opportunity in America, instead of financing the high-flying lifestyles of rogue nations like Iran and totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia.