March 25, 2006
Coal Corn Ethanol Plants Seen As Emerging Trend

Long time readers know I'm not a fan of biomass energy. Well, here's yet another reason to be underwhelmed by the prospect of corn ethanol. Can you say "Defeating the purpose"? Sure!

Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, which supporters call the clean, renewable fuel of the future.

There's just one twist: The plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol - the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction - and 150 others on the drawing boards - it would undermine the environmental reasoning for switching to ethanol in the first place, environmentalists say.

US natural gas production is declining. Coal is a much cheaper source of heat energy - at least in the United States. But burning the coal will release particulates, mercury, and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Even if you are thrilled at the prospect of a warm Antarctica for your own ocean front house (with way more coastline than Florida currently has) the other pollutants are not good. Plus, the corn takes more land for agriculture.

Bottom line: federal corn ethanol subsidies are now going to increase carbon dioxide emissions as well as assorted pollutants. Your tax dollars at work. The article reports that even some existing plants may switch from natural gas to coal since the money savings from the switch are so large.

Recently Dan Kammen and Alex Farrell at UC Berkeley claimed that a switch to corn ethanol would slightly reduce greenhouse gas production.

Despite the uncertainty, it appears that ethanol made from corn is a little better - maybe 10 or 15 percent - than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas production, he said.

"The people who are saying ethanol is bad are just plain wrong," he said. "But it isn't a huge victory - you wouldn't go out and rebuild our economy around corn-based ethanol."

Just plain wrong? I think he spoke too soon. My guess is these guys used an assumption of natural gas to run the corn ethanol plants. With coal producing maybe twice as much carbon dioxide (according to the first article above) corn ethanol is probably worse than gasoline for net carbon dioxide emissions. Though the Christian Science Monitor article suggests the Berkeley people did consider coal for making corn. So maybe the press release leaves out an important qualifier that was in the original paper.

But I agree with the Berkeley guys that when cellulosic technologies are perfected (and venture capital money is funding efforts along those lines) then switchback grass might be able to provide ethanol with much less carbon dioxide emitted by the processing plants.

The transition would be worth it, the authors point out, if the ethanol is produced not from corn but from woody, fibrous plants: cellulose.

"Ethanol can be, if it's made the right way with cellulosic technology, a really good fuel for the United States," said Farrell, an assistant professor of energy and resources. "At the moment, cellulosic technology is just too expensive. If that changes - and the technology is developing rapidly - then we might see cellulosic technology enter the commercial market within five years."

Cellulosic technology refers to the use of bacteria to convert the hard, fibrous content of plants - cellulose and lignin - into starches that can be fermented by other bacteria to produce ethanol. Farrell said that two good sources of fibrous plant material are switchgrass and willow trees, though any material, from farm waste to specially grown crops or trees, would work. One estimate is that there are a billion tons of currently unused waste available for ethanol production in the United States.

Any analysis of biomass energy ought to build into it the assumption that the plant operators will use coal. Either that or they have to show that the biomass itself can provide any heat energy needed to operate the plant and do so at a competitive price.

Also see my previous posts (and knowledgeable contributors in the comments sections of these posts): Corn Ethanol Production Expands In United States, Corn Stoves For Home Heat Are Hot On US Market, High Fossil Fuels Prices Drive People To Wood Pellet Stoves, Biofuels Regulations Destroying Rainforests, Brazil Shifting Toward Ethanol For Car Fuel.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 March 25 04:09 PM  Energy Biomass

Rick said at March 26, 2006 12:24 AM:

I don't get it. If you want to make transportation fuel out of coal, why not just liquify it using the Fisher-Tropsch process?

detribe said at March 26, 2006 1:26 AM:

Randall- I have a full description of celulose conversion technology in the following posts.
Use of coal with these corn plants might at least be better than our present oil sourced from petroleum.

  • Post on world's first cellulose based ethanol plant
  • Post on technology to reduce catalyst costs

  • Also recent papers explaining ethanol energy balances here

  • Post on ethanol energy balances
  • GMO Pundit

    Roland Ansgar said at March 26, 2006 3:57 AM:

    This is pure lunacy and could only be a make-work project through government subsidies. Ethanol is a net negative fuel. It may emit less carbon, but you are expending more energy per unit than you get in return from the process. In an age of energy shortages, this is sheer lunacy.

    Paul Dietz said at March 26, 2006 5:37 AM:

    Ethanol is a net negative fuel.

    This is probably not the case. It's moderately energy positive, if you look at all the studies (not just Pimentel's, which was savaged in a recent critical review). There's also headroom for process improvement, even in corn-based ethanol.

    View corn-based ethanol as a kind of solar-assisted synfuel. You're turning natural gas and coal into fuel usable in existing cars. This could be useful even if the energy content of the fuel were to be less than that of the fossil inputs.

    Randall Parker said at March 26, 2006 6:43 AM:


    Use of coal by itself doesn't give the farmers more revenue. Also, it doesn't come with government subsidies attached.


    My problem with corn is that we do not have enough land to make it a major energy source.

    Corn production costs will fall in the future as agricultural technology advances. But what will happen to natural gas prices? Corn's price probably has less upside risk. For someone choosing a heating energy source for a new building if the choice is between natural gas and corn if one can build the corn feeder to be large enough to allow infrequent corn deliveries the corn might be the more economic choice.

    But can corn make much of a dent in satisfying US energy needs? In the comments section of a previous post I estimated that if yield per acre could be maintained then it would take 36% of the US land mass to produce enough energy from corn to replace US consumption of oil and natural gas. That rough calculation ignored energy conversion losses to make ethanol. The calculation ignored the fact that corn can not grow with as high a yield per acre in the areas where it is not grown. In some areas it can't be grown at all (e.g. where would the water come from?). Plus, what about nature? Massive biomass production would destroy large areas of habitats. Corn for biomass energy can not scale up become a big energy source.

    My take on corn: For individuals looking to switch away from expensive heating oil if you can solve the corn delivery problem to your satisfaction then corn heat will cost less. Comparing corn to natural gas as a heat source the choice is less clear.

    At the level of national energy policy corn has at best a small role to play. Corn for liquid transportation fuel is a politically driven mistake. If corn must be used for political reasons then better to promote it as a heat source.

    Even if we take the Farrell and Kammen view that corn produces net 15% energy doesn't that imply that we'd have to grow 6.6 times as much corn as I calculated above in order for corn to replace oil? We'd have to grow corn to provide energy to grow other corn. So wouldn't we need over 200% of the US land mass to grow enough corn to replace oil and natural gas?

    If I'm missing something obvious please explain it to me. If there are errors in my calculations then correct my errors. But corn for biomass energy looks like a huge mistake to me.

    odograph said at March 26, 2006 7:22 AM:

    We will burn coal. That's obvious. So the obvious response is to push for better emission controls. As it happens I was briefly involved with stack emission monitoring at coal fired power plants. In my experience the working engineers at those plants are happy to clean up their emissions, but they need that political pressure from outside to make it happen. Their management will not, on their own, order the money spent.

    BTW, this article remains a very good summary of coal, and the success of regulation.

    Now, given that we will burn coal, is there anything wrong with burning it in industrial projects like ethanol plants or the Fisher-Tropsch process? I think not, if you've got those emissons standards.

    And which should you do, Fisher-Tropsch process oil, or ethanol? In an ideal world the market would choose the most efficient. It's too bad we have a battle of subsidies here.

    odograph said at March 26, 2006 7:24 AM:

    BTW, you can still get a pizza cooked in a coal oven if you want one. link

    RueHaxo said at March 26, 2006 3:13 PM:

    It would seem to me we may as well gasify coal since we're going to keep using it and cut out the ethanol energy sink all together.

    detribe said at March 26, 2006 3:31 PM:

    I Half agree with you Randall.
    I think that corn should be viewed as a stepping stone to cellulose based plants, possibly using other crops. These can be much more energy efficient than corn, and the same capital investment in fermenters and distillers can be used. Also biodiesel from oilseeds would be more energy efficient (EROI=300%) than existing corn.

    Bob Badour said at March 27, 2006 7:17 AM:


    Growing cellulose and then fermenting it into a sugar to ferment it again into ethanol seems like a convoluted process. I have to figure that all those steps reduce energy efficiency.

    Since you are the GMO pundit, when do you think someone will genetically modify some plant to photosynthesize a liquid fuel directly? Do you think that will develop from an algae or yeast or from some higher organism?

    alan njeru said at March 27, 2006 10:42 AM:

    Why not use the biomass, gas, coal, MSW, refuse derived fuel, tires to make syngas( CO+H) and then catalytically convert that gas into alcohols, alkanes, alkenes, ethers etc. Just tweek the stoichiometry balance, pressure, and/or catalyst and you make a different product using the same reactors. The likes of Fischer tropsch synthesis albeit expensive make the most economic sense based on the following factors: scalability, multiple feedstock some of readily available, wide range of products.

    Philip Sargent said at March 27, 2006 1:25 PM:

    Another tack:

    * biofuels get their energy from sunlight
    * there is lots more sunblight in the tropics
    * transport costs for fuels are generally low (as a % of the energy carried, e.g. oil tankers)
    * growing a crop requires largely labour and/or mechanisation
    * mechanisation, unless carefully controlled, reduces the "climate value" of biofuels (much more so than long distance transport? Yes. I think so.)

    * it makes sense to grow biofuels only in the tropics and subtropics
    * save temperate farming for higher-value crops, not limited by the value of their energy (unless you expect *all* energy costs to rise very dramatically)
    * give employment to countries in the tropics and subtropics
    * ..but also need to add appropriate ecological controls to the industry.

    So I don't think that the sugar beet industry in East Anglia is likely to make a lot of money out of biofuels in the medium term or long run. I suspect corn (by which I guess you mean maize) is similar.

    Bob Badour said at March 27, 2006 1:57 PM:


    If one had a 'crop' that turned sunlight directly into a liquid fuel, why not grow it in greenhouse/hydroponic conditions in the American desert somewhere?

    I really don't care whether people who live in the tropics have jobs. For the most part, they don't either.

    K said at March 28, 2006 11:45 AM:

    Phillip: a biofuel industry dominated by tropical nations keeps us in the fundemental bind of importing our energy. True, the US does have some tropical areas such as Hawaii.

    The often overlooked problem with tropical biofuels is water. Immense areas just don't have any. And they will not grow millions of tons of biomass without it. So you may shift today's disortion of the world economy and political balance from OPEC to a handful of biomass growing nations.

    Beach said at March 29, 2006 10:42 AM:

    Do all of these corn scenarios account for the consumption of natural gas to make the fertiliser for corn production, the energy to irrigate, and the fuel to harvest and bring the corn to the ethanol plant? If the estimates are based solely on the current delivered cost of corn, the economics will be unsustainable as conventional fuels spiral upward. It's like the old saw that shale oil is the next best thing, and always will be.

    Paul Dietz said at March 29, 2006 10:46 AM:

    Do all of these corn scenarios account for the consumption of natural gas to make the fertiliser for corn production, the energy to irrigate, and the fuel to harvest and bring the corn to the ethanol plant?


    Charles said at April 26, 2006 5:22 PM:

    For those interested in biofuels from the tropics: consider palm oil from indonesia to make biodiesel. They have huge oil palm plantations there and produce an excess of palm oil. It is true, however, that they destroy much of their natural forest to grow the palms. To make the biodiesel, you can also get methanol from Trinidad, an island where natural gas is abundant. It's just an idea, someone has to work out the economics of this.
    At any rate you folks in the US have to reduce your consumption. Biofuels from any source will not be able to sustain the current level of consumption in industrial societies when fossil fuels decline. Either lifestyles and levels of consumption have to change drastically, or populations have to be reduced.

    Fred said at May 20, 2006 4:28 PM:

    Global warming is not happening. Its a religious belief on the part of radical environmentalists.Why do I know this ? I am an engineer. I actually know a little science. Also because its patently obvious that "Global Warming" is a product of the Fear Factory. Funding begets studies the must "show" global warming is occuring which begets more funding. Its classic cascade error effect in social action. Now if the most potent greenhouse gas is water vapor what are we going to do ? Run massive dissicant bombing runs over the oceans ? I laugh at you when you bend your knees and pray to your global warming deity. I do not believe in Santa Claus, "God" or Global warming. ( I still believe in the Easter Bunny. Anything to do with chocolate and I am there.) Why not just do an energy budget on ethanol ? If its real it will be here to stay. If not then it will fade. Also note: Ethanol may be 1.50 / gal to produce now but how much will the feedstock commodities cost when everyone has a micro-ethanol plant and is buying corn ?
    Moral of the story: Grow up you crybaby global warming worshippers. You seem to need a cause. Find one that does not impinge upon me, the economy and tax structure. You're a bunch of whinning effeminate liberals.

    Corny said at October 17, 2006 6:47 PM:

    Hey, if ethanol is so good, why not use it to fire the ethanol plant with???? Because there is no such thing as prepetual motion. I rest my case.......

    Post a comment
    Name (not anon or anonymous):
    Email Address:
    Remember info?

    Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
    Site Traffic Info
    The contents of this site are copyright