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Will Biden’s electric car push doom ethanol? U.S. ag secretary says no

ATLANTIC — In a couple of weeks, Elite Octane in west-central Iowa will be swamped with farmers hauling corn in carts, semis and dump trucks.

“This will look like a small city,” CEO Nick Bowdish said on a late August day as he watched early arriving farmers truck in corn and drive out with high-protein livestock feed, a byproduct of ethanol production.

During harvest this fall, the 200 million-gallon ethanol plant will buy about 6 million bushels of corn from farmers within a 30-mile radius, Bowdish said.

He said the 3-year-old Elite plant was built for speed, which is critical when farmers are pushing to combine what could be a bumper harvest around Atlantic. Farmers can dump 60,000 bushels in an hour. “That’s one semi every minute,” he said.

Currently, Elite and Iowa’s 41 other ethanol plants consume roughly half of Iowa’s corn crop, projected this year at 2.44 billion bushels, and Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of both. Under federal law, almost all of the nation’s gasoline is blended with at least 10% ethanol.

But ethanol’s future is uncertain, supporters and critics say, given President Joe Biden’s push toward electric vehicles to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Biden wants half of all new cars and trucks sold by 2030 to be electric, key to achieving his ambitious goals of slashing U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and achieving a carbon-free economy by 2050. The nation’s largest manufacturers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, formerly Fiat-Chrysler, have pledged to achieve that milestone.

To make an electric future feasible, the Biden-backed $1 trillion infrastructure plan awaiting congressional approval designates $7.5 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations around the nation.

Biden has made no mention of spending to expand access to higher blends of ethanol, biodiesel and other renewable fuels, biofuel supporters say — even though a recent Harvard study found that ethanol has nearly 50% lower greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Ethanol supporters have long pushed for widespread use of E15, meaning 15% ethanol, or higher blends.

Ethanol also wasn’t mentioned in the proposed federal rule that will set fuel efficiency goals for vehicles sold from 2024-2026. The administration seeks to improve efficiency 8% annually.

Tanks at Elite Octane, a 200 million-gallon ethanol plant outside Atlantic in western Iowa.

“If President Biden wants to get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to make a real impact on slowing climate change and all this flooding and forest fires and extreme drought,” the U.S. needs to expand use of lower-carbon fuel sources such as ethanol and biofuels as well as EVs, Bowdish said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Iowa’s former governor, said it’s disingenuous to suggest that renewable fuels aren’t a big part of the administration’s climate change agenda.

The nation will need to use more biofuels to increase efficiency under the proposed goals, he said.

“Are they talking about electric vehicles? Yes, of course they should,” said Vilsack, a longtime renewable fuels proponent. “Does that mean we won’t have a need for E15 or E85 in the future? No.”

“You have to look at the totality of what an administration can do,” he said, including helping ethanol producers with $700 million to offset coronavirus losses, spending $100 million to upgrade biofuels infrastructure, and unveiling a massive initiative this month to develop sustainable aviation fuel to power the nation’s jets and other airplanes.

More: In potential boost for Iowa ethanol, Biden administration plans to power airplanes with sustainable fuel

The Biden administration plans to invest $4.3 billion to support production of 35 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel annually by 2050, providing power for 100% of the industry. Ethanol leaders said the initiative is a major opportunity for farmers and renewable fuel producers.

“This is a 35 billion-gallon industry. It’s double the size of the current industry,” Vilsack said of the potential for aviation use of biofuels. “You have to think beyond cars and trucks.”

Electric vehicles: Balancing lower operating costs with ‘range anxiety’

Are Americans really ready to look past the internal combustion engines that have dominated the market since pushing aside early versions of steam and electric vehicles a century ago?

Todd Klindt bought a Tesla S model nearly four years ago because he was intrigued with the technology. The Ames business consultant, who calls himself a “computer nerd,” said he lusted for the high-end Tesla for two years, mostly waiting until it had the range and self-driving features he wanted.

Klindt doesn’t describe himself as an environmentalist, although he said he increasingly appreciates the climate benefits that an electric vehicle offers.

“If we can get people from Point A to Point B while doing less damage to the environment, we should do it,” he said.

Rob Williams of Ankeny gets out of a Tesla electric vehicle after taking a test drive at an event hosted by the City of Ames Electric Services at the Main Street Farmers’ Market in downtown Ames.

In Iowa, electric vehicles account for 75% fewer greenhouse gases on average than fossil-fuel vehicles. It’s more than the national average of 67% because Iowa gets nearly 60% of its electric power from wind generation, the highest percentage nationally.

Klindt, who grew up in northwest Iowa, sees more people buying electric vehicles because they cost less to maintain and drive. He estimates he spends about one-third less per mile to operate his EV than he would with a gas-powered vehicle. 

That’s even with higher upfront costs: A basic Tesla Model 3 starts around $35,690.

Klindt said he doesn’t have to schedule oil changes or tune-ups. A Tesla crew has come to his home the few times he has needed minor maintenance.

He said it took a little more planning when he drove his Tesla to places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Branson, Missouri, but he doesn’t mind the 20 minutes he needs to charge it during stops along the way, giving his family time to use the restroom, get snacks and walk around.

More: EPA fines Iowa diesel repair company $75,000 for disabling equipment to reduce air pollution

Along with the car’s advanced self-driving features, the stops help him feel less fatigued after a long day of driving, he said.

He admits his wife, Jill, still has “range anxiety,” worrying where they’ll be able to find a charging station. She drives the family’s gas-powered minivan, which the couple needs when all five Klindts go on a trip. Biden’s plan to build more charging stations will help, Todd Klindt said.

Electric vehicle sales are growing fast. Registrations doubled in the first four months of 2021 from the same period the previous year, according to J.D. Power. And a Pew Research Center survey this year found 39% of U.S. adults said they would consider an EV the next time they need to buy a car or truck.

But even with a growing number of electric vehicles, Americans could be driving gas-powered cars and trucks for two decades, Klindt said. The U.S. had about 1.8 million electric vehicles registered last year, less than 1% of the 287 million U.S. cars, pickups and SUVs on the road. And cars and truck with traditional drivetrains are lasting longer than ever.

“It will take a long time for those … to roll over,” Klindt said.

Will biofuel producers be able to adapt to changing needs and markets?

Biofuels and electric vehicles both have a part to play in reducing and eventually eliminating transportation emissions, said Matt Russell, executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit that seeks to empower people of faith to take action on climate change.

Take the example of Des Moines, Russell said. The city is buying 18 electric vehicles for neighborhood inspections, undercover police use and other city duties. But it’s also retrofitting about 20 of its 35 garbage trucks so they can use mostly biodiesel. New trucks the city buys will run mostly on 100% biodiesel — or possibly electricity.

“That will significantly reduce our carbon emissions — by 85% when it’s all implemented,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines City Council member and environmental lawyer.

The garbage trucks account for about half of the city’s diesel use, Mandelbaum said.

Ryan Kuhns, a shift leader at Elite Octane, a 200 million-gallon ethanol plant in western Iowa, keeps an eye on the plant's operations.

“There’s still a role for biofuels as we transition to electric vehicles,” he said.

Jeremy Martin, director of fuels policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said more opportunities will emerge as the nation “decarbonizes the economy.”

Petroleum products go into everything from plastics and chemicals to fabrics and cosmetics. 

“I can’t predict the future … but I know replacing petroleum is a big job, and agriculture has a big role to play,” Martin said. “You can’t replace plastic with electricity.”

During Vilsack’s first turn as agriculture secretary, under President Barack Obama, he pushed for biofuels’ use in place of fossil fuels in the military’s air, marine and vehicle fleet.

“You can’t just look at one aspect and say the administration does or doesn’t support” biofuels, Vilsack said, adding that the Biden administration plans to invest in “smart agriculture,” supporting conservation practices that sequester carbon in the soil.

More and more, growers are weighing “carbon farming” opportunities, with a few private companies seeking to establish a carbon credit market by paying farmers to sequester carbon in their fields. Practices include idling less productive acres, no longer tilling land, and planting cover crops each fall to hold nitrogen and phosphorus in place so they’re less able to run off and pollute rivers, streams and lakes.

More: Corn, ethanol groups ask federal appeals court to rehear arguments on allowing higher blend year-round

But those efforts will limit how many corn and soybean acres can be used for biofuels, Russell said. 

“If we’re going to add crops in the rotation to be more sustainable, some of those acres will have to be something other than corn and soybeans,” he said. 

Ethanol can be made from many other feedstocks, such as algae, switchgrass, miscanthus and wood waste.

Companies invested heavily in building two Iowa plants to make a greener, next-generation ethanol from corn husks, stalks and cobs. Both plants closed, primarily because the market didn’t support the higher production costs.

But the quest to make alternative fuels from alternative materials continues. In 2018, a German company purchased the cellulosic ethanol plant in the Story County town of Nevada and, in addition to ethanol, plans to produce renewable natural gas by capturing the biogas that comes from breaking down cornstalks, ears and other crop residue. 

“The biofuels industry has been so focused on corn ethanol … we haven’t thought outside the box enough to reduce carbon emissions,” said Russell, who raises cattle and produce with his partner on Coyote Run Farm, south of Des Moines. “To say that doesn’t mean we hate corn.”

Mandelbaum said there will have to be adaptations. Biofuels production, and the market for it, won’t “necessarily look the same as it has” as the nation transitions to EVs, he said. “And if people try to preserve the exact same role, that’s a recipe for conflict and polarization.”

Is Biden’s vision for an electric future really achievable?

Despite the commitments by major domestic and foreign automakers to an electric future, there is debate about just how realistic Biden’s EV goals are. Bowdish, the Elite Octane CEO, called them “aspirational.”

Many in the ethanol industry agree with him. “He’s dreaming,” said Duane Lauer, a Corning area farmer who recently hauled grain to Elite Octane.

Mike Jerke, CEO of Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs, said the president is thinking too narrowly about climate solutions. “Having a single-source solution is problematic and not a smart direction for the country,” Jerke said.

Bowdish and others raised concerns about the U.S.’ ability to support the added power needs for electric vehicles, given the infrastructure weaknesses exposed in Texas’  February outages, which reverberated across the Midwest, resulting in temporary outages as far away as western Iowa.

More: Iowa’s congressional delegation joins bipartisan, farm-state effort to allow year-round E15 sales

But Iowa’s own wind-powered electric generation proved durable during the big freeze. Adam Jablonski, MidAmerican Energy Co. vice president of resource development, said the Des Moines-based utility will be able to meet the need.

Jablonski said Biden’s goal of having half of all new car purchases be electric vehicles “is a very aggressive target,” but that “I think we’ll see a slow and steady ramp-up over the next 10 to 20 years.”

“We’ll improve and upgrade our systems to make sure we’re serving our customers,” he said.

Elite Octane, a 200 million-gallon ethanol plant outside Atlantic in western Iowa.

MidAmerican, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has invested heavily in wind energy — a total of $13 billion since 2004. About 80% of MidAmerican’s energy generation comes from wind each year. MidAmerican and other Iowa utilities are investing in industrial-scale solar generation, as well.

Jerke, Bowdish and other biofuel executives likewise are weighing proposals that will make renewable fuels even greener. Two companies want to build systems in Iowa and other Midwestern states that will capture carbon dioxide emissions before they escape from ethanol plants and other energy-intensive facilities and contribute to global warming.

Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions and Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures plan to liquefy carbon emissions under pressure and transport them via pipelines to destinations where they can be sequestered permanently in underground rock formations.

Summit plans to sequester the carbon in North Dakota; Navigator CO2 expects to store it in Illinois. Summit plans to hold informational meetings on the proposal in September and October for affected landowners.

Farmers and renewable fuel leaders say that with such innovations and the development of new markets, biofuels will be around for decades.

“Farmers are resilient and we’ll adapt,” said Robb Ewoldt, who farms near Davenport in eastern Iowa. Finding a path to get there, though, is “something that we’ll have to worry about for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457. 


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