Ethanol could be a ‘bridge’ toward transport electrification, US farmers say

For Ray Gaesser, a farmer from Iowa, ethanol is not only a solution to climate change but also a profitable agricultural business which keeps farmers in the countryside. [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report COP25: Is transport decarbonisation pragmatic enough?.

Until electrification of transport is fully in place, ethanol could be used as a “bridge” to make fuels cleaner, US farmers told on the sidelines of the COP25 in Madrid.

“In the US, there are only 250,000 electric cars manufactured, their resale is not doing well and there are lots of questions about the battery. They’ll keep getting better and better, but as a bridge to get to them, let’s use ethanol to make our fuels cleaner and better,” Fred Yoder, a farmer and chair of North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance said.

“We can improve right now our gasoline in our emissions with ethanol. But we need to get the message here at COP25,” Yoder added.

“If you think of corn or maize as a giant solar panel in the whole Midwest, we’re sequestering more carbon each year than the forests in Brazil,” he claimed.

Yoder, a corn producer from Ohio, noted that last year less corn was planted in the US due to the weather but the country is still swimming in corn. “The US can produce corn like no one else in the world.”

The farmer explained that when corn is processed for ethanol, one third of it goes to the ethanol plant as starch, but the rest goes for animal feed.

“So, it’s not food versus fuel, it’s food and fuel from the same unit of corn,” he said, adding that in fact it’s the best “food security program”.

“Because if we ever get to the point where we need extra food, we can simply switch from ethanol to food. So, it’s always that reserve,” he added.

A profitable business

For Ray Gaesser, a farmer from Iowa, ethanol is not only a solution to climate change but also a profitable agricultural business that keeps farmers in the countryside.

“On our farm in Iowa, our corn goes to our nearby ethanol plant to create fuel for everyone in our neighborhood, and our nation and the world around us. And the end, the protein that’s left over from the process, goes back to feed the animals in our area, and that protein in the animal waste, then comes back on our farm to grow the next crop of corn. So, it really is a great circle of life,” he said.

He said that through this model, resources are reserved, profitability is increased and therefore farmers are motivated to stay on the farm.

Europe’s plans

In a 2018 report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the pace of transition in the transport sector deemed necessary for a 1.5C-consistent pathway must include more biofuels and electricity in transport, the only sector of the economy where emissions continue to increase.

Particularly in Europe, road transport CO2 emissions have been rising since 2013 and road transport, in general, contributes about one-fifth of total CO2 emissions. While these emissions fell by 3.3% in 2012, they are still 20.5% higher than in 1990.

Electricity and biofuels needed in tandem to meet climate goals, UN report says

First generation biofuels such as palm oil diesel gave bioenergy a bad name, but recent scientific reports have confirmed that policymakers must take into account all the available options in the transport sector to win the climate change battle.

In Europe, the revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) capped the use of first-generation biofuels, such as bioethanol and biodiesel, at 7% of the total energy mix in transport by 2030, while more emphasis was given to advanced biofuels and electrification.

The ethanol industry and farmers reacted strongly to the European Commission’s proposal.

The industry said the food versus fuel argument put forward by the Commission and some NGOs was groundless and criticised the executive’s statement that public opinion was taken into account when drafting the legislation.

On the other hand, farmers said the EU proposal deprived them of a market that was helping them increase their income out of the Common Agricultural Policy concept. In addition, they said the proposal risked increasing imports of animal feed from third countries and was contradictory of the EU Protein Strategy.

EU member states are currently drafting 10-year-long National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs). However, a study by industry group Farm Europe recently showed that no EU country has calculated the cost of transport decarbonisation so far, putting EU climate obligations to the test.

Artur Runge-Metzger, director of the Commission’s Climate Action directorate, said at a EURACTIV event last week that it’d be good for the EU executive to re-examine the legislation.

Study: No EU country has calculated transport decarbonisation costs

The EU risks missing its target to decarbonise transport by 2030, as in the current draft plans of member states, there is no cost-effectiveness calculation of the different proposed measures, a study has found.

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