Environmentalists Want to “Stick” It to Farmers

Biofuels & Climate Change

Jason Hill of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment wrote recently in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, asking why the Waxman-Markey climate change bill should treat agricultural emissions differently from energy and transportation emissions, with a “carrot-and-stick approach, one in which fossil fuels suffer the stick while agriculture feasts upon the carrot.” Hill’s primary objection to the bill is the amendments added by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), which exempt agriculture and forestry from carbon caps but provide credits for carbon sequestration that farmers can trade on the market. They also would postpone implementation of the EPA’s analysis of international land use change.

Writes Hill, “Peterson’s amendment is essentially nothing more than a slick accounting trick, one meant to portray biofuels produced in this nation in a better light while making the carbon footprint of agriculture in developing countries look worse.”

This is a bizarre statement, turning even the theory of indirect land use change on its ear. The original calculation of indirect land use change put forward by Searchinger et al held that “when farmers use today’s good cropland to produce food, they help to avert greenhouse gasses from land use change.” Further, in the context of international negotiations for a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the ILUC theory is clearly an attempt to shift accounting of carbon emissions in developing countries onto U.S. biofuels.

Calculations of land use change by current models are completely contradicted by agricultural trade and production numbers, making the models appear to be nothing more than accounting tricks. The model projections look nothing like real outcomes because they rely on several false premises and double count certain sources of emissions. The greatest fallacy of the ILUC theory is that worldwide agricultural productivity has already reached a natural limit and cannot respond to increased demand in any other way than clearing of rainforests. The main premise of the theory – that biofuels have been introduced into a static worldwide agricultural system and therefore are the primary cause of shifting agricultural production – is an assumption that can’t be supported by data.

Using USDA’s modest assumption for growth in yields of U.S. corn over the life of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a simple calculation shows that corn productivity can keep up with demand to produce the conventional biofuel portion of the RFS. This assumes continuation of 2016 to 2018 USDA projections for 2022 – constant total planted acreage of 90.5 million acres, increase of 75 million bushels per year for fuel ethanol, and increase of 1.8 bushel per acre per year yield improvement:

Overall harvested acreage for corn production is projected to remain stable due to continued yield productivity gains

In fact, USDA currently projects a corn yield of 159.5 bushels per acre for this year. And USDA projections from January 2009 show that inclusion of biofuels will stabilize land use, in terms of the acres planted to the eight major crops:

U.S. land planted to eight major crops.

Beyond this, and despite a report) that deforestation in Brazil increased in June, the deforestation rate in Brazil continues to decline. Responding to the Agence France-Presse report, Mongabay noted, “Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon typically peaks during the June-August dry season when ranchers and farmers burn forest to clear land for development.”

A group of scholars – that includes Hill – recently called for a focus on real solutions to climate change. The world needs economic growth, energy and food. We should not premise our search for solutions on the false notion that these three necessities are in direct competition with each other.

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One Response to Environmentalists Want to “Stick” It to Farmers

  1. Aureon Kwolek says:

    Integrated Ethanol vs indirect land use change theory:

    We aren’t done with the evolution of corn ethanol. Corn with a sugary stalk is coming. At this stage of development, we can get a lot of sugar in the corn stalk, but the ears are smaller, and the grain production goes down. So the work continues, until we get no loss of grain. We may be adding another ear or two of corn to the stalk, in order to compensate. Sugar corn stalk will produce several hundred addition gallons of ethanol, from the same acre of corn, without displacing any other acreage. Today, we only take the starch from 25% of the corn crop. The other 75% of the crop goes directly to livestock feed. Tomorrow, we will extract sugar from the entire corn crop to make more ethanol, and we’ll still have all the grain. Another 300 gallons per acre times 90 million acres is 27 billion gallons of additional ethanol a year, derived from the same size crop.

    An acre of corn today averages over 155 bushels at 3 gallons of ethanol per bushel. That’s 465 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. The grain component of an acre of corn is 45% of the dry weight. The rest is corn cobs and corn stover. We get over 1,200 pounds of cobs per acre, and we get an average of 3.75 tons of corn stover per acre (dry). You would take all the cobs and no more than 75% of the stover, leaving the roots and a short, stubby stalk to preserve the soil. That gives you 0.6 tons of cobs and 2.8 tons of stover, or 3.4 tons of corn biomass in addition to the grain. From that same acre of corn, that amount of biomass, using the ZeaChem process, would yield about 450 additional gallons. Or if you gasified it, using the Gulf Coast Energy process, you would get 629 additional gallons of ethanol per acre – from corn. That’s a total of 1,094 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. Plus, from that same acre of corn, you also get 20 gallons of corn oil and 50 bushels of high protein distillers grain animal feed supplement, used to produce dairy products, poultry, meat, fish, and farm raised “seafood”. (Cobs: University of Missouri; Stover: Purdue University)

    Another byproduct of corn ethanol is the waste water “centrate”, containing 6-11% corn solids and waste sugars, now being used in biogas digesters to produce methane. This is converted into CHP production power – electric power for the plant, surplus power for the grid, and waste heat used for distillation. There are also plans to grow algae, either directly on the corn ethanol waste water “centrate” or on the leftover digester effluent.

    This is corn ethanol, biogas, and algae production integrated together. Onsite manure can also be part of the mix. See “Farmer’s Ethanol” for the integrated future of ethanol. The digesters mitigate the methane, and the algae mitigates plant CO2. Natural gas or coal, currently being used for production power, is being replaced by this technology. Leftover waste heat will also be exploited.

    The algae grown on the corn ethanol waste stream will be used for numerous value added co-products. The oil can be extracted to make localized biodiesel, bio-plastics, fertilizer, omega 3 nutriceuticals, and exotic medicinal lipids. The algae starch provides more feedstock for ethanol, and that drops into the refinery infrastructure. The algae protein is complete protein that rounds out distillers grains, which is protein-rich, but not complete protein. So the two co-products will be marketed together as complementary livestock feeds. This will have a significant impact. It will improve the quality of feed, provide a bigger supply, and lower the cost. That will provide economic stimulus by increasing farm profits and lowering energy and food prices.

    The blockbuster will be heterotrophic algae grown on the waste stream of ethanol refineries in adjacent, onsite dark tanks – on a very small footprint. This method of growing algae, also used by Solazyme, one of the algae R&D leaders, is up to 1,000 times more concentrated than autotrophic algae grown on sunlight. Duckweed is another prospect, because it’s easier to harvest than microscopic algae. Integrating manure, methane digesters, CHP, algae and duckweed into corn ethanol refineries will dramatically improve the efficiency and the environmental footprint of ethanol. It will also stabilize and diversify the industry with a broader spectrum of co-products.

    Another criticism of ethanol is that it has 30% less BTUs than gasoline and typically gets that much less mileage. That’s debatable. Different engines get a variety of different results. Some engines actually get better mileage on a 20 to 30 percent blend of ethanol than they get on regular gasoline. Furthermore, we would still be breathing the unburned residues of gasoline, if we weren’t using ethanol as an oxygenator.

    Blender pumps are also part of the efficiency equation. Poet, the largest ethanol producer in the world, is implementing a plan to ship ethanol directly to retailers, where the ethanol is blended while you pump it into your fuel tank. Retailers are also sharing all or part of the ethanol blender’s credit with the consumer, in the form of lower fuel prices. Prior to this, ethanol was shipped to a central oil company or fuel distributor, where it was blended with gasoline for the credit, and then shipped to the retailer, often back to where it came from. Compare that with localized production and direct consumption of ethanol, a trend which is becoming more and more widespread.

    Also, the engines that are coming are not just ethanol compatible. They will be “ethanol optimized”. They get better mileage on ethanol than they get on gasoline. They also have all the torque of diesel, but at a lower up-front cost, using a cheaper fuel. When we design an engine around the superior characteristics of ethanol, such as 30% higher octane and much faster flame speed and vaporization rate, ethanol proves to be a superior fuel. It can also combust in conventional engines when mixed half and half with water. Vaporize the mixture, and the ratio can be as high as 2/3 water and 1/3 ethanol.

    We also have efficient, compact, inexpensive ethanol-water fuel reformers in the works – that simultaneously strip all the hydrogen from the ethanol and half the hydrogen from the water. Think about that. You diluted your fuel with water, and then you also extracted half of the hydrogen from the water. We need to implement this.

    Hydrogen can thus be produced onboard the engine, on demand, from ethanol-water. So you fuel-up with a safe, liquid, domestic fuel, without compressing bulky hydrogen into expensive ultra high-pressure tanks and hoses. Onboard ethanol-water-to-hydrogen technology can also be used in range extender engines for the coming plug-in hybrids. And also used in combination with 75% efficient fuel cells. Ethanol-water technology will improve the “end use efficiency” of the fuel, which is part of the footprint – Especially since it will totally eliminate the logistics and the added cost of blending ethanol with gasoline.

    Indirect land use change theory looks like a fairy tale to me.

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