Undercurrents: beneath the obvious

January 2, 2008

Potential Impacts of Increased Corn Production

Filed under: Ethanol,Great Lakes Issues — nemo @ 4:09 pm

An assessment of the current status and trends of corn-based ethanol production and the potential impacts of increasing corn output in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region to meet that demand are the focus of a research paper released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes & Ohio River Division and the Great Lakes Commission. Here’s a quick summary:

Corn acreage for grain production has increased in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region … since 2006, similar to that which is occurring in the United States as a whole. Corn planting projections for the region show nearly 43 million acres for 2007, a 13 percent increase over 2006 figures for harvested acreage … Similarly, the two areas of highest corn production in the region, Illinois and Minnesota, will set new acreage records and are expected to experience record yields this year. These states are followed closely by Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio in total production. Percentage-wise, Ontario, Ohio, and Québec lead the region in the greatest increases in corn production from 2006-2007.

Within the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region, as of December 2007, 39 ethanol facilities have the capacity to produce up to 2.66 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Assuming this capacity was dedicated in its entirety to corn-based ethanol production, approximately 950 million bushels of corn, or roughly 18 percent of current U.S. corn production in the region, would be required per year. As of December 2007, the construction and/or expansion of 28 facilities was underway which, when completed, will nearly double the annual production capacity for the region’s facilities to 4.8 billion gallons per year. To meet this capacity using only corn grain, more than 1.7 billion bushels of corn per year would be required, or roughly 32 percent of the projected 2007 U.S. corn production in the region.

Since an estimated 3.5 to 6 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced is required by ethanol facilities for the production of ethanol, water use by ethanol facilities must also be considered. Of this water, roughly 90 to 95 percent is lost through cooling towers, wet spent grain shipped locally, and exhaust from the spent grain dryers. Many of the newer facilities under construction … will have larger production capacities of 100 million gallons of ethanol per year or more, requiring 350 to 600 million gallons of water per year (nearly 0.96 to 1.65 million gallons per day), depending on their level of water efficiency and ability to recycle wastewater. Thus, even at the most water- efficient facilities, a significant volume of water is required for the production of ethanol.

Without forethought and a careful, balanced approach to the production of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol, residents within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region can expect to see profound impacts (both positive and negative) on the region’s economy, environment, and ecosystems. Some of the anticipated less desirable impacts, such as the return to production of highly erodible lands or the introduction of marginal areas to row crop production, could be difficult to reverse. Thus, a continuing trend toward the increased production of corn – fueled by recent political support – could come at some expense to the region’s ecosystem and natural resources.

Source: The Potential Impacts of Increased Corn Production for Ethanol in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Region (pdf) — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dec 18, 2007.

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