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.

December 18, 2007

Food and Fuel Compete for Land

Filed under: Ethanol,Great Lakes Issues — nemo @ 1:23 pm

Ethanol manufacturing uses a tremendous amount of water which is why ethanol has been a topic here, here, and here for so long. If you’re new to the debate start here with 10 Things to Know. Then read this New York Times piece on the rising price of food:

For years, cheap food and feed were taken for granted in the United States.

But now the price of some foods is rising sharply, and from the corridors of Washington to the aisles of neighborhood supermarkets, a blame alert is under way.

Among the favorite targets is ethanol, especially for food manufacturers and livestock farmers who seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops.

The results are working their way through the marketplace, in this view, with overall consumer grocery costs up roughly 5 percent in a year and feed costs up more than 20 percent.

Now, with Congress poised to adopt a new mandate that would double the volume of ethanol made from corn, ethanol skeptics say a fateful moment has arrived, with the nation about to commit itself to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use of agricultural land. [From Food and Fuel Compete for Land – New York Times]

I’m not too bothered about the price of corn. It is actually a fairly lousy food source, with low yield of edible bits compared to the volume of the plant. It is not well digested by humans, and it has very little nutritional value, other than the energy value from the sugar content.

The problem is that ethanol subsidies have created an artificial market for corn which is causing agribusiness to convert from farming something that does have some nutritional value to growing feedstock for fuel, This shift in growing has a huge impact on water usage — a 50 million gallon per year ethanol plant would require 265 million gallons of water and reduce our dependancy on oil by only 2.5%.

The problem isn’t ethanol itself, despite its profound drawbacks as a fuel. The problem is the subsidies completely screwing with the market.

February 1, 2007

High tortilla prices in Mexico – Ethanol production to blame

Filed under: Ethanol,Great Lakes News — nemo @ 11:31 am

75,000 protest tortilla prices in Mexico:

Since taking office Dec. 1 … President Felipe Calderon has drawn his greatest criticism for failing to control the largest price spike in tortillas in decades. Tortillas are a staple of poor Mexicans’ diet.

The national uproar has put him in an uncomfortable position between the poor and some agribusiness industries hoping to profit from the surge in international corn prices, driven mostly by the sudden explosion of the U.S. ethanol industry.

The marchers are angry about tortilla prices that have doubled over the last year to roughly 45 cents a pound, causing hardship among the millions of poor Mexicans for whom they are a staple.

In Michigan news: “… the price of corn has doubled in the past year, and as a result, the state Director of Agriculture Mitch Irwin says every-day food items like beef and cereal will soon jump in price.

Under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico used to get cheap corn imports from the US, but with more US corn being diverted into ethanol production, supply is dwindling.

See prior post: Ten things to know about ethanol

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January 3, 2007

Ethanol — Is It Worth It?

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 10:18 pm

I just keep running across these kinds of articles — this time from Chemical & Engineering News:

… corn has many other negative environmental impacts: It erodes more soil, uses more nitrogen fertilizer, and uses more water than any other crop. “Corn is the prime cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the size of New Jersey,” he says, referring to an area off the coast of Louisiana that is depleted of oxygen due to high levels of nutrient-rich agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River. “These are serious problems,” he says.

Then there’s this part:

Meanwhile, today’s fuel-use patterns could be overhauled through vehicle efficiency. A 3% increase in efficiency would displace more gasoline than was saved through last year’s record ethanol production. The current vehicle efficiency standard was set in the 1970s and was required to be met in 1985, more than 20 years ago. In the future, a drive for better efficiency could force ethanol to compete with electric cars and fuel cells, as well as gasoline.

It bears repeating — a 3% increase in vehicle efficiency would solve many problems.

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December 30, 2006

Ethics of Biofuels (Ethanol) – or lack of ethics as the article makes clear

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 9:26 pm

Found this at Energy News and just had to write about it:

Anyone who tells you that we can run all our cars on biodiesel or ethanol is out of their minds. The issue is simple arithmetic.

Lester Brown points out that the average fill up of a 25 gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will requires the same amount of grain as it takes to feed a person for year. Every person in the US, man, woman and child, uses 500 gallons of gasoline per year. So, that means that every American would use enough gas to feed 20 people over the course of the year.

There are 300 million people in the US, and 300 million people, each using enough food to feed 20 people to run their cars, would require enough grain to feed 6 billion people. Perhaps that number sounds vaguely familiar. Back in 1999, that was how many people were alive on the earth. We’ve added a few since then, of course, but let’s be realistic. A) We don’t have enough grain to use 6 billion people’s food for our cars for a year and b) it would be obscene if we even tried to come close. …

So realistically, we are not discussing replacing 75% or 50% of our imported oil with biodiesel or ethanol – period. It isn’t possible. And if we are talking about a more realistic number, like 10-15%, that can only happen with policy programs designed to create, encourage, and perhaps require conservation. And it may not be possible at all, if petroleum and natural gas production are near their present peaks.

There’s much much more there. In fact, there are 11 principles explored, the above was a part of principle #1.

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December 23, 2006

Biofuels eat into China’s food stocks

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 3:23 pm

The Asia Times Online reports on China’s growing ethanol production and rising grain prices:

China’s biofuel industry is booming thanks to voracious demand for energy to power the country’s high-flying economy.

Government officials estimate that corn contributes about three-fourths of the raw material used for making ethanol in China.

Industrial processing in China consumed 23 million tonnes of corn in 2005, an annual increase of 16.5% from 2001, while corn production increased at the slower rate of 5% during the same period, according to a circular released this week by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic body.

Yet surging demand for biofuel is now partly blamed for recent price hikes in the food market and for shortages in grain stocks. Wheat prices are at their highest level in a decade, due to poor harvests in key producing countries such as the United States and Australia, while corn prices have surged by up to 20% in local markets.

Experts warn that if ethanol production continues to be corn-based, China will be forced to import the crop by 2008. Relying on crop imports is a sensitive issue as the government policy supports food self-sufficiency for the sake of national security.

The rate of corn usage in China is roughly 3 times the increase in corn production and China risks being unable to feed its people in two years. Is China’s experience a forecast of a similar outcome in the U.S.?

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December 17, 2006

Does ethanol reduce air pollution? Doesn’t look like it

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 9:44 am

The Cultural Economist, in a post titled What is the real cost of ethanol?, explores whether ethanol use will reduce air pollution and result in cleaner air (emphasis is mine):

When most cars had a carburetor, a two percent mix of ethanol supposedly tricked the fuel system into delivering a leaner mixture to the engine. Since proponents tended to ignore the loss of fuel economy, it was assumed that all vehicles running on a 2 to 5 % mix would cause less air pollution. But that was 20 years ago. Today’s fuel injected engines self-adjust to a fixed mixture regardless of fuel composition. In addition, the Department of Energy has reported that E85 can reduce carbon monoxide by four percent and NOx by 59 percent, but it raises total hydrocarbon output, – including acetaldehyde (CH3CHO) – by 43 percent.

And we should consider this concept. Do we release far more pollution into the environment during the production and processing of corn into ethanol than we save in act of consuming ethanol as a motor fuel? Corn is monoculture cultivation on a massive scale, requiring copious quantities of oil and natural gas for herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and fuels, which then deposits as a waste in our rivers and – eventually – our oceans.

So. Does adding ethanol to fuel mix do anything to help in our quest for cleaner air? Cleaner water?

It appears not. Here’s a recap of my prior posts on ethanol:

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December 16, 2006

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) produces 25% of U.S. ethanol

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 1:01 pm

The environmental magazine Grist has covered the biofuel / ethanol topic in depth over the past weeks. Among the topics covered is this one that doesn’t get a lot of play:

The biofuel industry is dangerously concentrated. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) produces a quarter of U.S. ethanol — about eight times the market share of its nearest rival — and is also the leading player in Europe’s growing biodiesel market.

As a result, it exerts tremendous leverage over the choice of feedstocks — and it chooses to use what’s cheapest and most plentiful (corn for ethanol, soy or palm for biodiesel), not what’s easiest on the environment.

Monsanto and Pioneer control 60% of the U.S. corn and soybean seed market.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ethanol production adds 25-50 cents to the value of a bushel of corn.

Ethanol production is the third largest use of U.S. corn.

These top four corporations produce 41% of ethanol (volume in million gallons per year)

  1. ADM = 1,070
  2. Cargill = 128
  3. Aventine Renewable Energy Inc. = 100
  4. VeraSun Energy Corporation = 100
  5. Farmer owned ethanol plants accounted for 1,276 million gallons per year or 37.3% of total capacity.

References:

Hat tip : biopact.com

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