Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Ethanol fuels hopes and debate

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By HYONHEE SHIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Could ethanol be the key to Michigan’s renewable energy future?

Ethanol has become more popular as a renewable energy source. It’s promoted as an eco-friendly tool to reduce air pollution because it can be made from common crops such as sugar cane, potato and corn.

In Michigan, ethanol production has increased significantly. The number of gas stations selling E-85 – fuel mixture that typically contains 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline – has also risen from two in 2003 to 117 in 2008.

Currently, there are five ethanol plants in Michigan – in Caro, Woodbury, Albion, Marysville and Riga. They’re able to produce nearly 50 million gallons per year.

However, plans have been abandoned to build more ethanol plants – in Corunna, McBain, Alma, Watervliet and Niles – except for one in Ithaca, where work stopped several months ago, said James Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.

There’s an ongoing debate over how useful ethanol will be in replacing gasoline, said Stanley Pruss, director of the Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth (DELEG), “because we need to utilize food products to make fuel, and it’s questioned whether ethanol has an effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Western Michigan University chemistry Professor Steve Bertman said ethanol from corn is not a long-term solution to transportation fuel.

“This is a very important issue that ties into the entire future energy question,” he said. “We can’t grow enough corn for ethanol. We should be searching for alternative liquid fuels from something other than corn.”

According to a report on biofuels by environmental advocacy groups – Food and Water Watch, the Network for New Energy Choices and the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment – fuel made from corn may have been oversold without considering possible ozone problems.

In 2007, about three billion bushels, equivalent to 23 percent of the country’s corn crop, were used for ethanol, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. That figure is up from 20 percent in 2006. In 2009, the ethanol industry expects to use 4.25 billion bushels.

Even if all the corn grown in the United States were used to make fuel, however, it would offset only 15 percent of gasoline use, the groups reported.

The report said the same reduction could be achieved by increasing fuel efficiency standards by 3.5 mile per gallon for all vehicles.

In addition, a Stanford University scientist found that E-85 creates at least as much greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline, resulting in ozone-related asthma, hospitalization and deaths.

However, Byrum said ethanol still helps minimize the burning of fossil fuels.

He cited a recent study that found corn-ethanol to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent over gasoline. “Unlike oil, ethanol from any source has a positive net energy balance – meaning it gives more energy than what’s needed to produce it.”

Cellulosic ethanol is better for carbon dioxide emissions than corn-based, Byrum said, because it could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 87 percent.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from wood, grasses or the non-edible parts of plants. It’s a second-generation ethanol fuel and has little or no impact on food supplies, said Steven Pueppke, director of the Office of Biobased Technologies at Michigan State University.

Pueppke said a 2007 federal energy law is a good example of renewable energy promotion. “It anticipates slight increases in ethanol production from corn over the next dozen years or so, while mandating very aggressive increases in the use of second-generation fuels.”

The issue of greenhouse gas emissions from various renewable fuels is contentious, particularly with corn, Pueppke said.

“But there are very few people who would argue that we try to solve all of the country’s energy problems by simply turning corn into ethanol,” he said. “There’s agreement, though, that second-generation fuels have significantly stronger greenhouse gas benefits.”

Despite such controversy, ethanol is in high demand, especially when it’s regarded as a viable alternative to gasoline at a time of rising gasoline prices, according to DELEG.

Byrum, a member of the state Renewable Fuels Commission, said existing ethanol plants are doing well. “They are becoming more efficient every year and producing more ethanol from a bushel of corn every year as technology improves.”

He said ethanol plants offer several benefits.

“They bring better corn prices for farmers, a great source of feed for livestock, employment and economic activity, as well as technology such as carbon dioxide capture,” Byrum said. “In addition, profit margins have improved as corn prices fell, while demand remained steady.”

Niles Mayor Mike McCauslin said economic conditions prevented energy developers such as Indeck Energy, an Illinois-based independent power producer, from moving forward on the project in that city.

“When ethanol plants became the rage in Michigan and were supported by the governor with tax abatements, Indeck approached us,” said McCauslin. “But during the planning and permitting process, the cost of natural gas increased significantly, making the plant unprofitable.”

He said, “The economic impact, should the plant have been built, would have been significant. Principally in the construction jobs created to build the plant, later for employees needed to operate and the plant and lastly, an additional and stable market for farmers desiring to sell their corn.”

The volatility of commodity markets, low profit margins and unsuccessful management practices strain ethanol producers, the Renewable Fuels Commission reported. Such obstacles resulted in bankruptcy of ethanol producer VeraSun Energy and the closing of its plant in Woodbury.

However, the Woodbury plant reopened in June creating 40 jobs under Chicago-based Carbon Green BioEnergy, said DELEG Deputy Director Liesl Clark.

Clark said domestic fuel development can lead to energy independence and new capital investment.

“Michigan imports 97 percent of its petroleum needs,” he said. “Thus, virtually every sector of our economy could be touched by our production and use of domestic fuels and the industries that surround them.”

Pueppke, a biotechnology expert, said ethanol is only one part of energy independence.

“There’re many more tools – more fuel-efficient cars, better public transportation, second-generation fuel production from nonfood crops, etc,” said Pueppke. “Even if we use all of these tools, we’re still going to be dependent on petroleum for a long time.”

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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