Farming Bio Fuels: Growing Crops That Can Be Converted into Liquid Fuels Has Come a New Focus of America's Farmers

By Decesaro, Jennifer | State Legislatures, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Farming Bio Fuels: Growing Crops That Can Be Converted into Liquid Fuels Has Come a New Focus of America's Farmers


Decesaro, Jennifer, State Legislatures


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Grant Wood's American Gothic farmer would be holding a gas can instead of a pitch fork if the artist were painting him today. Farmers are no longer solely focused on putting food on the table. Now they are looking at putting fuel in our automobiles.

In early winter, farmers in Iowa and across the country make their planting decisions for the coming year. How many acres of corn? Of soybeans? Usually the demand for food drives these decisions, but in recent years, the demand for ethanol, a fuel made from corn, has entered into the equation.

Garold Den Herder, a farmer who cultivates 2,400 acres in a combination of corn and soybeans is "leaning more toward corn." Den Herder is on the board of directors of Siouxland Energy and Livestock Cooperative, which opened an ethanol plant in Iowa in 2001. In 2005, a bushel of corn in the state sold for $2 and sold for 10 cents higher near the plant; the proximity of the feedstock resulting in lower transportation costs.

The Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute released corn price projections earlier this year. The retail price of corn is projected to be $2.10 in 2006-07 and $2.20 in 2007-08. The institute anticipates that some acres currently planted in soybeans will shift to corn production because of the demand for ethanol. Along with fuel, ethanol production plants produce corn byproducts for livestock feed, which already exceeds the use of wheat, sorghum, barley and oats combined. If current trends continue, domestic ethanol demand will exceed corn exports by 2007-08.

The allure of biofuels in the United States is a result of policies aimed at reducing the country's dependence on imported oil, while at the same time reducing emissions of air pollutants. Both the federal government, through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the states, through a multitude of tax incentives and fuel mandates, are driving the increased production and use of biofuels across the country.

FILL 'ER UP ... WITH BIOFUEL

There are primarily two biofuels in global production today--ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is largely a corn-based fuel that ranges from a 10 percent gasoline additive, used to reduce vehicle emissions, that works without engine modifications, to E85 that contains just 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol that is used to power flexible fuel vehicles that can run on any kind of fuel. Cellulosic ethanol is a variation that uses corn husks and other crop wastes as feedstock (or the raw materials needed to produce biofuels).

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel made primarily from soybeans. It can also be made from other materials such as vegetable oils, animal fats and spent cooking oils. The pure form of biodiesel is commonly referred to as B100, while a blend of 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum diesel is B20.

Biodiescl has the most favorable energy balance of any transportation fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. For every unit of energy needed to produce a gallon of biodiesel, 3.2 units of energy are gained. For purposes of comparison, there is a net energy loss in the production of conventional petroleum diesel of 0.2 units of energy.

The case for ethanol is not as straightforward, however. There's a division in the scientific and green communities over the environmental benefits of ethanol. Industrial corn production, the major component of most U.S. ethanol, uses significant amounts of fossil-fuel-based products such as fertilizers and gasoline for farm equipment. Some say that the fossil-fuels needed to grow corn exceed the energy yield of the resulting ethanol, what they call a "negative energy balance."

Two studies with conflicting results, released by University of California-Berkeley researchers, illustrate the two sides of this issue. The first study, conducted in Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and released in July 2005, concluded that the cumulative energy consumed in corn farming and ethanol production is six times greater than the power the ethanol provides in a car engine. …

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