Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

Iowa City releases new report on Climate Action Acceleration


Tyler Chalfant | November 19th, 2019

Photo from Alan Light, flickr

In August, Iowa City, motivated by student climate strikers, became the first city in Iowa to declare a climate crisis. The resolution updated the emissions goals set by the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan passed in 2018, and directed the City Manager’s Office to develop a report recommending ways to meet these new targets within 100 days. 

Last Friday, City Council released that report, which contains 64 initiatives to reduce carbon emissions in buildings, transportation, and waste, as well as to adapt to more volatile weather, and promote sustainable lifestyles. The greatest number of these initiatives are focused on increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in buildings, which account for approximately 82% of emissions. 

The new targets set in August were based on a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which claimed that human-caused emissions would net to be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Iowa City, that would require a minimum annual decrease of about 22,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions. 


The report also includes recommendations of tax increases to fund incentive programs and public projects and education, as well as a partnership with MidAmerican Energy to install utility-scale solar panels. City Sustainability Coordinator Brenda Nations said that, while these goals are feasible, “the challenging thing is we need a lot of people on board to do it.” City Council will review the report and its recommendations at Tuesday evening’s work session.

North Carolina hurricane victims take a lesson from Iowa Flood Center


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Hurricane Florence as seen from space (via flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2019

A North Carolina mayor hopes to make his city more resilient against flooding following hurricanes using a method he learned from Iowa experts.

At the end of August, the Iowa Flood Center hosted a “flood resilience learning exchange” for 20 scientists, conservationists, farmers and officials from North Carolina communities impacted by devastating flooding from recent hurricanes. The two-day event featured talks from Iowan experts, a tour of Cedar Rapids’ flood infrastructure and a visit to a farm implementing such strategies.

News source kinston.com reported this week that Mayor Dontario Hardy of Kinston, North Carolina had been advocating for increased funding for flood resiliency projects since attending the event almost two months ago.

In just the past few years, Kinston–located along the Neuse River– faced widespread flooding after Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). Though the Iowa Watershed Approach was not developed with hurricanes in mind, the basic concept–implementing conservation practices on land that will reduce the speed at which precipitation enters and floods our waterways– can apply to all types of flooding.

 

 

DNR list of impaired water bodies grows in 2018


Tyler Chalfant | November 14th, 2019

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources found that the number of polluted lakes, rivers, and streams in the state continued to rise in 2018. The DNR has compiled a list of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands that fail to meet water quality standards every other year since 1998. This failure can result from pollutants including, high amounts of bacteria, harmful algae, low oxygen, or high levels of mercury in fish.

Since 1998, the number of impairments on the list has grown every two years. However, officials caution against using these numbers to interpret long-term trends, as methodology changes over time, and each year’s report includes data for the previous five years as well. The most recent survey found 1,110 impairments on 767 freshwater segments, compared to 1,096 impairments on 750 segments in 2016. 

Not every freshwater body is monitored, but of those that were, a majority of lakes and reservoirs, as well as rivers and streams, were found to be impaired. Bacteria was found to be the most prevalent cause of impairment in rivers and streams, while algal growth was the most common in lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands Overgrowth of toxic blue-green algae, which can result from nutrient runoff, was especially prevalent this summer, and Lake Macbride had its first-ever swim advisory in July.

ISU research complicates cover crops


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Cover crops hold onto soil and carbon during the off-season (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska| November 13, 2019

Though cover cropping has proven advantageous for soil and water conservation in Iowa, the practice’s benefits to atmospheric quality may be negligible, new research from Iowa State University found.

When farm fields are left bare during the winter and spring, wind and water transport soil and nutrients off the land and into streams and rivers, degrading both the field and water quality. Exposed soil typically releases carbon into the atmosphere at increased rates compared to planted areas, contributing significantly to climate change.

Cover cropping involves planting alternative crops like rye or clover to cover and nourish the land throughout the off-season. The conservation practice holds soil in place, pulls atmospheric carbon into plant material and adds carbon back into soil upon decomposition. Sequestering carbon in plants and soil is key to combatting climate change.

That carbon may not remain in the soil for long, however. The new study, published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy,  found that the added soil carbon stimulates microbes in the soil that emit carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they digest the organic matter.

The research — conducted by ISU assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Steven Hall and grad student Chenglong Ye —  highlights the need for a variety of solutions for the planet’s numerous natural resource problems. While cover crops are a proven protectors against water pollution, we will need to implement other strategies to make farming carbon neutral, too.

Keystone XL resumes service following major spill


Tyler Chalfant | November 12th, 2019

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline resumed services over the weekend less than two weeks after an oil spill near Edinburgh, North Dakota. Approximately 383,000 gallons of oil spilled into a wetland. This is the pipeline’s second large oil spill two years, after another major leak affected South Dakota in 2017.

A further expansion of the TransCanada Energy pipeline was blocked by a federal judge last year after being approved by the Trump administration. The leak doesn’t appear to pose an immediate threat to public health, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, but opponents of the expansion claim that these spills provide further evidence that the pipeline is not safe. 

The pipeline, which carries oil from Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Texas, first opened in 2010, meaning the sections in which these spills occurred are still fairly new. The 2017 spill was found to be likely rooted in a crack that had formed during the pipeline’s construction. Causes of this spill are still under investigation.

EPA proposes rollback of coal ash regulations


Photo of contaminated water from Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., flickr

Tyler Chalfant |November 7th, 2019

The Trump administration proposed on Monday a rollback of EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants that could prolong the risk of drinking water contamination. The Obama-era rules focused on cleaning up unlined ponds used by companies to store coal ash residue. 

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. These regulations, created following a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, required all unlined coal ash ponds to begin closing last year, but the new proposal extends that deadline three years. Coal ash contamination has been found in at least 22 states, including Iowa.

The EPA also relaxed the limit on the amount of coal plant wastewater that can be discharged, citing improvements in technology which makes removing contaminants easier, as well as the $175 million in compliance costs they claim this change would save the industry. 

This move follows a pattern of efforts by this White House to support the coal industry. Researchers have found that lowering prices for competing energy sources, such as wind and natural gas, are more to blame for the decline of the coal industry in recent years than environmental regulations. 

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make key decisions regarding coal industry standards in the year before the presidential election, according to political experts. These could affect regulation on mercury and air quality standards.