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.

Midwest agriculture sector hit by climate change


By Julia Shanahan | October 18th, 2019

The FED central bank released a report this week reviewing the economic strength of various sectors and regions and concluded the agriculture industry is still not doing well economically — a lot of which can be attributed to climate change.

The report said that adverse weather effects has impacted farming conditions, market prices, and has disrupted trade. The Midwest has been hit particularly hard, and the FED reported that midwest sources have concerns about the outcome of this year’s harvest. Iowa experienced heavy flooding in the spring, which damaged grain and farmland. Because Iowa also experienced a period of dry weather over the summer months, some farmers were able to bounce back.

This summer, economic experts at the USDA issued a report that said increasing crop losses will drive up the prices of crop insurance, with climate change being a leading factor in crop loss. There are several government cost-share programs that work to mitigate risk in agriculture, and the average annual cost of these programs amounts to $12 billion using data from the last decade. As severe weather becomes more frequent, the amount of federal dollars is expected to increase.

The report says that all anticipated climate scenarios are expected to lower yields of corn, soybeans, and wheat — but yield volatility is not always impacted by severe weather. In a scenario that greenhouse gas emissions increase at a high rate, the cost of today’s Federal Crop Insurance Program is expected to increase 22 percent.

EPA announced a ​new proposal to update the Lead and Copper Rule


 

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Irrigation (flickr/UTDNR)

 

Kasey Dresser| October 14, 2019

After nearly 30 years of a stagnant Lead and Copper Rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to update the regulation. The new regulations are aimed to increase lead identification, sampling, and strengthen treatment by increasing the number of hours a service provider needs to notify a customer that their water is contaminated with lead.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists have expressed concern that the new regulation allows communities more to time to replace the lead service lines, indicating these regulations may be weaker than the previous. The new proposal also establishes a lower “trigger level” of lead to 10 parts per billion from 15 parts per billion. The main counterargument is health experts have never established that any level of lead can be sustainable. “Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable,” the NRDC said in a statement.

The last major lead pipe exposure in Iowa outbreak was December 2016. More than 6,000 Iowans were exposed to contaminated water for over six months. The issue brought up major incongruency in the method to solve the problem between University of Iowa engineers or Iowa Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources.

Veggie Rx coming to Johnson County


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Kasey Dresser| September 30, 2019

A $50,000 grant from MidWestOne Bank has been awarded to Johnson County community organizations for the creation of the Veggie Rx Pilot Program. This 26-week program aims to help individuals with diet-related diseases by providing them with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Participants of the program will receive care from the University of Iowa Health Care’s upstream clinic and their food from either the Coralville or North Liberty Community Food Pantry. With routine access to locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, individualized dietary guidance, and educational activities related to healthy food, the participants will hopefully see positive changes in their daily life. Food will be purchased directly from Sundog Farm in Solon, Wild Woods in Iowa City, and Echollective in Mechanicsville.

MidWestOne Bank CEO Charlie Funk said the bank was “delighted to lend support to the Veggie Rx Program,” which will give back not only to local residents but provide business to local farms as well.

The world’s protein companies still failing to address their environmental impact


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(Mike Myers/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| September 9, 2019

The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, in its second active year, just released their report analyzing the environmental, social, and governance risks of meat, dairy, and farmed fish producers. One large take away from this year’s study was the lack of attention given to environmental and animal welfare by some of the world’s largest protein producers.

The FAIRR Index looked at 60 different companies and found evidence of lacking sustainability efforts for greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, food waste, conditions for workers, antibiotic use, and animal welfare. Only 30% of the analyzed companies were able to give the researchers specific environmental strategy plans which focused only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One-quarter of the companies refused to even disclose their use of antibiotics on their animals.

As more research regarding climate change emerges, this isn’t just a problem for consumers. The conversation is shifting toward some of the financial consequences of severe weather for these large companies.

“What we’re seeing is that companies in the sector are contributing to many of the risks we discuss in the report, but they’re also deeply vulnerable…to the impacts of climate change,” says FAIRR’s Head of Research, Aarti Ramachandran. In an interview with Forbes, Ramachandran gave an example of an Australian Agricultural Company that lost over $100 million in damages due to extreme flooding.

Ramachandran does leave the report on a positive note acknowledging the increased investments in plant-based proteins by meat and dairy companies. He stated, “we think that, overall, there should be a rebalancing of protein so that animal protein consumption doesn’t continue to grow at the same trajectory, and so that there is a sustainable balance between plant-based and animal-based food.”

Year-round E15 available for consumer access


By Julia Shanahan | June 13th, 2019

President Donald Trump recently approved the sale of year-round ethanol for consumer access – a move that was applauded by Iowa’s Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

In a joint press release from Grassley, Ernst, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, they commended Trump for “keeping his promise” to Iowa farmers.

“[Trump’s] directive to EPA to finalize a rule allowing year-round sales of E15 will allow for an open marketplace with more fuel options, encourage competition and drive down fuel costs — all while improving the environment,” said the June 11 press release.

Trump made an Iowa campaign stop on June 11 in Council Bluffs and West Des Moines, where he touted his approval of year-round E15 to farmers and manufacturers in Council Bluffs. E15 is championed as something that could boost Iowa’s economy because of the use of corn in its manufacturing.

E15, a gasoline blend with 15 percent ethanol, burns cleaner than standard fuel and can be used in all 2001 and newer vehicles. Burning ethanol does result in the emission of greenhouse gas, but when the combustion of ethanol is made from corn or sugarcane, it’s considered atmospheric neutral, because the biomass grows and absorbs CO2.

As of March 2019, Iowa’s ethanol industry has accounted for 43,697 jobs and $4.7 million in GDP, according to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. In 2018, there was 4.35 billion gallon of ethanol production.

In a 2016 editorial from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, a professor of food and agriculture policy wrote that increasing corn production in the Midwest for ethanol use has repercussions on the environment, and questioned the profitably of the ethanol industry. He referenced ethanol production taking off in the mid-2000s and corn prices reaching record highs in 2007.


However, the USDA cites other contributing factors to the high corn prices, including the depreciating U.S. dollar, bad weather, and policy responses on imports and exports of commodities.

On The Radio- Praire can aid farming


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(flickr/L Fischer)

Kasey Dresser| May 13, 2019

This weeks segment looks at a study from Iowa State researching prairie strips on farm fields.

Transcript:

New research will test the impacts of prairie strips on farm fields over time.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Planting strips of native prairie on farms can limit erosion and provide habitat for wildlife, but how much time passes before those benefits take hold? Will the benefits remain if that land is re-planted with corn or soy?

Iowa State University researchers received an over $700,000 grant to study those questions over the next three years. To do it, they’ll plant some existing row crop areas in Iowa and Missouri with prairie plants, and vice versa.

The researchers will use buried tea bags to measure biological activity in the soil. Bags that decay more quickly indicate higher, healthier rates of decomposition. They will also create and test a computer model of statewide topsoil depth to understand how prairie strips affect erosion in surrounding areas.

Most fields have spots that produce low yields and might do better as prairie. Researchers will also weigh lost crop revenue against the economic benefits of converting those areas to prairie.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.