The future of ethanol in America’s energy market

Ethanol sign
Ethanol sign (Farm and Dairy file photo)

One of modern agriculture’s most beloved offspring, ethanol, received a sharp reprimand Feb. 13 from Iowa’s largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register.

In an editorial titled “Ethanol has been a boon for Iowa’s economy. But it’s time to pivot and figure out what’s next,” The Register chided Iowa Republicans and Democrats alike for supporting ethanol-pushing programs when everyone in the Hawkeye State “would be better served to figure out what comes after ethanol.”

It wasn’t ethanol’s only public slap in the past month or even the past week.

Two days before, Christopher S. Jones, a widely published research engineer at the University of Iowa, lit up Twitter with a blog post titled “Iowa is Addicted to Cornography,” an essay that, in part, compared the energy supplied from an acre of Iowa corn grown for ethanol to that of an acre of solar panels making electricity.

“There are about 75,000 BTU in a gallon of ethanol,” Jones explained, and “it takes about 35,000 BTU to grow the corn and produce the ethanol … ” That means, on average, an acre of Iowa corn will “produce about 500 gallons of ethanol” with a “net energy gain [of] about 20 million BTU per acre.”

That sounds big, noted Jones, until you add in corn/ethanol’s unaccounted costs: “ … soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degraded streams, lakes and drinking water, habitat loss” and farm program subsidies “that keep the herniated system from blowing out.”

By contrast, one acre of solar panels in Iowa “produce 34 times the amount of usable energy as an acre of [corn-made] ethanol … Not twice as much … not 10 times as much. Thirty-four times as much.”

Case closed, right?

Not so fast, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy agency in Cambridge, Mass., known more for its strong endorsement of wind and solar rather than any love of ethanol.

However, in an interview for an episode of the podcast Corn Save America, Jeremy Martin, the director of fuels policy at UCS, suggests ethanol and other “biofuels” may claim a larger share of the fast-shrinking “liquid fuels pie” as electric cars rise to dominate the roads.

For example, farm and commodity groups are lobbying for an updated Renewable Fuels Standard that mandates a 15% ethanol-to-gasoline blend, one and a half times more than today’s 10% blend. If the lobbying succeeds, Martin figures the 15% requirement would hit just as gasoline sales start to plunge, say 2035, due to fast adoption of EVs, or electric vehicles.

“If those two things happen in parallel,” he tells podcast host Sarah Mock, “ … they perfectly cancel each other out.” In short, “We can go to electricity as fast as possible … and still maintain the corn/ethanol program.”

And, he adds, “If we sell no more gasoline-powered cars by 2035, we could see total liquid fuel sales used for transportation fall by 85%.” If most of that remaining market is claimed by biofuels, “Then there’s a huge opportunity to expand corn and other feedstock biofuels.”

Thus Big Ag’s big rush to lock in higher, at-the-pump ethanol blends at state and federal levels: they see EVs as a market maker for biofuels, not a market taker. As such, the biggest fight over future biofuel policy won’t be between corn farmers and solar advocates; it’ll be between Big Ag and Big Oil, two of the oldest, deep-pocketed titans of Capitol Hill lobbying.

That also means the steep environmental costs of biofuel production will likely get buried in the higher-blend fight and the current CO2 pipeline craze.

That would be a mistake. Ever-emerging evidence — like the just-published Environmental Outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standards, (link at — shows ethanol’s cost, when fully tabulated, is substantially more than previously calculated.

Which brings us back to The Register’s and Jones’ original worries: Ethanol’s environmental price is already steep. So steep, in fact, that everyone would be “better served to figure out what comes after ethanol.”


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