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.

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