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Re-Thinking the Carbon Reduction Value of Corn Ethanol Fuel

Submitted by on December 23, 2015 – 11:16 amNo Comment

by Ron Alverson (Ethanol Across America)  It has been seven years since Argonne National Labs (ANL), as part of the Energy Security and Independence Act requirements, first determined the Life Cycle Carbon Intensity of mid-west corn ethanol fuel. ANL, using their Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model determined that Mid-West average corn ethanol fuel had a CI score of 98 grams CO2 eq. emissions per mega joule of energy production. In the subsequent years, ANL has provided several updates to this greenhouse gas accounting that have significantly reduced the CI of corn ethanol fuel. However, low carbon fuel market regulators, such as the U.S. EPA and the California Air Resource Board (CARB) have yet to acknowledge these improvements and update their models with this new science. Because fossil fuel CI is trending higher and corn ethanol fuel CI is trending lower, failure to account for and acknowledge these trends erodes public support for biofuels and unfairly penalizes biofuels in low carbon fuel markets. Conversely, recognizing these new realities would provide us with a home grown advanced biofuel that meets a range of health and public policy objectives.

To their credit, CARB has allowed individual ethanol production facilities to prove reduced carbon pathways. To date more than 100 ethanol production facilities have documented significant reductions in energy use. These production facilities average 86 CI.

ANL Scientists recently determined (GREET version 2.0, 2013) that average ethanol mfg. energy use has decreased 25%, corn farming energy use decreased 24%, corn fertilizer and chemical use decreased by 3%, and that ethanol manufactures are extracting 3% more ethanol from each bushel of corn. ANL affiliated scientists have also updated their Land Use Change calculations (Dunn et al. 2013)1 with recent data and now estimate that soil carbon emissions from LUC are 7.6 grams CI, a 75% reduction from the widely used estimate of 30 grams CI.

Current N2 O emission calculations assume that about 1.5% of applied N fertilizer is converted to N2 O. But corn farmers are responding to market signals (N fertilizer prices are up 3–4X over the past 15 years) and have rapidly adopted precision application technology and employed Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers (EEFs) in order to reduce N application rates, increase N use efficiency and reduce N losses to the air and water. Reviews of Scientific Literature indicate that these actions can reduce N2 O emissions by up to 50%.

Corn residues have a very high carbon to nitrogen ratio, and because of this, N is immobilized by bacteria as this high carbon residue is decomposed.

Peer reviewed University feeding trials have indicated that distillers grains displace 1.2 to 1.4 lbs of corn in cattle rations. ANL’s GREET 1.8b model assumes one pound of distillers grains displace the equivalent of 1.27 lbs. corn. The failure of CARB to acknowledge this science raises corn ethanol CI 2.5 grams in that low carbon fuel market.

Rather, modelers have tabulated an exceedingly low life cycle CI for corn oil biodiesel because they have assigned no portion of the GHG emissions from corn production to the corn oil. This distorts the CI of corn oil biodiesel downward at the expense of corn ethanol fuel CI. Corn ethanol gets all the gasses and corn oil biodiesel gets all the glory.   READ MORE

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