The story of ethanol starts in the soil.
A few miles outside Malta Bend, Harold Thompson farms the land he has been on for more than 40 years. Some years he plants more soybeans than corn on his 2,000 acres, sometimes not, but he always tries to rotate his crops for the sake of the soil.
For the past few years, though, the percentage of corn Thompson grows has increased along with its price. “We’re getting real good rates now,” he says.
Good rates, indeed. For years the price of corn hovered around $2 a bushel, a price that Thompson says made it hard to break even. Recent demand from ethanol has forced corn prices up to around $4 a bushel.
Ethanol is one alternative to fossil fuels in America’s current push for renewable power. Supporters of ethanol say it is revitalizing communities in the heartland in addition to providing a renewable energy source. Opponents view ethanol as a stopgap measure to dependence on foreign oil at best, a huge contributor to pollution at worst.
To be sure, ethanol is not the only alternative energy source being pursued in the United States. Wind and solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and even the long-promised electric car are also all being explored. But ethanol is rapidly gaining the most attention.
Politicians from the White House on down provide incentives for the production of ethanol, and car manufacturers continue to send more flex-fuel vehicles onto America’s highways and rural roads.
Closer to home, Gov. Matt Blunt supported a mandate in 2006 that requires ethanol to be blended into gasoline whenever it is cheaper than regular gas.
With uncertainty a constant in the Middle East, ethanol looks to be a boon to the state. The Department of Economic Development released a report in February that stated Missouri could reap an additional $542 million per year through 2013 from ethanol and other biofuels.
That financial gift comes from Missouri’s corn, the only economically practical way to make ethanol right now. But does the benefit to Missouri’s farmers come at the expense of others? Following ethanol from plant to crop helps explain the economic, social and political cost of a gallon of ethanol.
FIELD OF DREAMS
A mile past the only stop sign in Malta Bend, population 249, lies the Mid-Missouri Energy Company. The metal and concrete industrial facility, planted in the middle of rural farmland that radiates out for miles, looks out of place. But the plant and the surrounding soil are closely tied.
Ethan Taylor, of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, stresses the impact ethanol production has had on rural communities in the Midwest.
“These plants generate a lot of tax revenue,” he says. Go through these towns, and you’ll see the economic and social growth.”
Signs of that growth can be seen in Malta Bend. At the corner with the stop sign sits the Wagon Wheel, a greasy spoon and convenience store. A few years ago the owners were looking for a buyer, but business has been booming since ground was broken for the mid-Missouri plant. At 11 a.m. on a weekday, pickup trucks line the curb, and there are no open tables.
Not everyone in Middle America is pleased with higher corn prices, though.
The increase translates to higher prices for feed, according to Don Nikidom, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association. “Feed cost can be 80 percent of our prices,” he says. “It can cut into our profits dramatically.” Furthermore, the increased acres of farmland now dedicated to corn come at the expense of crops such as soybeans, another source of livestock feed.
For producers to get a fair price, consumers might pay more at the market. The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts that strong demand for corn from ethanol plants will raise the price of beef, poultry and pork. In Mexico, the same demand has dramatically increased the price of tortillas, a staple there.
The food versus fuel debate might be overblown. After the corn’s energy is taken out during ethanol production, the “food” is still left in the form of dried distillers grains.
Perhaps with ethanol you can have your corn and eat it, too.
But the process is a big environmental problem, says Ken Midkiff, conservation chair of the Osage Sierra Club. “Ethanol production and use arguably emits more carbon dioxide than oil and gas production,” he says.
The energy inputs that go into ethanol — fuel and fertilizer to grow the corn and more fuel to ship it — prevent ethanol, as it is currently produced, from benefiting the environment.
Midkiff says ethanol should be seen as a stopgap measure until dependence on oil is reduced. The only upside to ethanol, he says, is higher corn prices.
Russ Kremer of the Missouri Farm Union worries whether profits will stay with the small farmer. “When there’s money to be made, Wall Street investors come like flies to honey,” he says.
For now, though, farmers feel the benefits. They’d be happy to keep trucking their corn to ethanol production plants at historically high prices.
Patty Kinder says that after a rain, the air around Malta Bend smells like bread.
Kinder is the assistant to the general manager at Mid-Missouri Energy, the third ethanol production plant to open in the state, and was instrumental in bringing the $60 million facility to Malta Bend. Kinder grew up on a farm, and she’s enthusiastic about the advantage ethanol gives farmers.
“When corn prices are low, farmers make money selling ethanol and vice versa,” she says. “They have protection they’ve never had before.”
Producing ethanol requires a large amount of natural gas and other forms of energy. As Midkiff noted, trucks and trains require diesel fuel to ship ethanol. Unlike oil, which can travel through pipelines, ethanol must go out on the road. Pipelines contain water, which binds with ethanol and ruins its value.
Factor in the fuel required to harvest corn, and concerns are raised about the net energy balance of ethanol. According to Midkiff, some studies have shown that producing ethanol requires twice the amount of energy it releases, while others show a positive net balance.
Kinder says that many of the reports that show a negative energy balance are based on older studies. Recent advances in technology have made ethanol production much more efficient. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is on Kinder’s side: A 2004 study showed that ethanol might net 67 percent more energy than it takes to produce.
Scientists might not have decided if ethanol is energy efficient, but it doesn’t appear the debate has slowed production. According to the National Corn Growers Association, 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol were produced in 2005, an increase of more than 139 percent since 2000.
SEED TO SPEED
On a warm afternoon in March, the Break Time gas station on Forum Road bustles. In a 40-minute span, 26 cars pull in to fill up.
The owner of that 26th car is something of a novelty. While everyone else pays $2.49 for a gallon of gas, David French is only paying $2.04. That’s because he’s filling up his 2004 Ford Explorer with E-85.
At the gasoline pump, ethanol is available in two forms: E-10, which contains 10 percent ethanol, and E-85, which contains 85 percent. Any car can run on gasoline blended with a small amount of ethanol, and many do. About 30 percent of the nation’s gas contains ethanol, most of which is E-10, according to the National Corn Growers Association.
By Jan. 1, 2008, all gasoline sold in Missouri will contain 10 percent ethanol by state mandate. Taylor says that at this point the market for E-10 will be “saturated,” meaning supply will exceed demand. The market will then turn to higher concentrations such as E-85.
A special flex-fuel vehicle, similar to French’s Ford Explorer, is required to run on E-85. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, more than 5 million flex-fuel vehicles are on the road today. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have pledged that half of the cars they produce by 2012 will be capable of running E-85.
Owners of a flex-fuel vehicle must find a gas station such as the Break Time on Forum, one of 69 gas stations in Missouri listed on the NEVC Web site that sell E-85. “Given the choice, I’d go out of my way to find a station [with E-85],” French says.
Driving around for a station, though, might wipe out any savings he sees at the pump. Ethanol is slightly less efficient than oil. It contains about 10 percent less BTUs of energy than standard gasoline, according to Taylor.
French claims he doesn’t notice a difference when he drives, but that 10 percent works out to a loss of roughly two to three miles per gallon.
The environmental benefits of ethanol, supporters say, come in the form of lower emissions. When ethanol is blended with gasoline, it adds oxygen, and the resulting fuel burns cleaner. According to the National Corn Growers Association, ethanol reduces tailpipe carbon monoxide emissions by as much as 30 percent.
One person who won’t be purchasing a flex-fuel vehicle on account of these benefits is Claire Garden, who makes an effort to live in an environmentally conscious way. Garden’s grandparents were farmers, and although she is supportive of the small-farming community, she doesn’t think ethanol is the answer to renewable power.
“Corn is not a good crop for the planet,” she says. “What we really need is to drive less, not use bigger vehicles than we need.”
Instead of a flex-fuel vehicle, Garden purchased a Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid car. Other energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydrogen, are truly sustainable and more worthy of investment, she says.
It appears, however, that more flex-fuel vehicles will be rolling off production lines in the U.S. and will be heading to the increasing number of gas stations that offer ethanol.
KERNEL OF TRUTH
Tracing ethanol on its journey from crop to pump creates a complex picture that might raise more questions than answers.
Perhaps the future of ethanol lies not in the corn itself but in the cornstalk. Although the technology is a few years away, ethanol produced from the cellulose of switch grass, wood residue and cornstalks could provide a more environmentally attractive biofuel. Taylor says it will be years before making ethanol from cellulose becomes economically feasible, though.
The goal, of course, is to reduce dependence on foreign oil and begin the long fight against global warming. But even if the U.S. poured all its resources into producing ethanol, the result wouldn’t even come close to quenching the country’s thirst for energy. Midkiff says that if every kernel of corn currently produced was used to make ethanol, only three percent of energy needs would be met.
It is important to remember, then, that ethanol is only a small step to the solution of America’s quest for energy independence; it is not the answer to the problem. Other technologies such as solar and wind power will play a part, along with efforts to increase the fuel economy of our automobiles and to promote the widespread use of public transit.
Anything less would be as helpful as a stalk of corn blowing in the wind.