Could Ethanol Be a ‘Net-Zero’ Hero?

Already contributing to decarbonization, ethanol is a phenomenal low-carbon molecule that will continue to play an instrumental role in the transition to net-zero emissions. And because it is here today, there is no need to wait until 2035 to act.
By Geoff Cooper | November 27, 2020

Against a backdrop of raging wildfires in California and devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, momentum has been building in recent months for state and national policies that can aggressively reduce our nation’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG).

In separate reports, special committees in both the U.S. House and Senate called for achieving “net-zero” GHG emissions economy-wide by 2050. Similarly, as part of his “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution,” Joe Biden promised to ensure the U.S. “reaches net-zero emission no later than 2050.”

Of course, the U.S. economy cannot achieve net-zero emissions in the next three decades without addressing transportation fuels. After all, the combustion of fossil fuels for transportation is the single largest source of GHG emissions in the U.S.

Some policymakers apparently believe that mandating the sale of electric vehicles (often referred to as zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs for short) is the one and only solution for decarbonizing our transportation system. Bills recently introduced in both the House and Senate would require that by 2025 (yes, just five years from now), half of all new passenger vehicles sold in the country must be ZEVs. By 2035, the legislation would require ZEVs to account for all new vehicle sales. These bills effectively mirror a recent executive order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom mandating that all new passenger vehicles sold in the state must be ZEVs by 2035.

But here’s the deal with so-called ZEVs: they aren’t really “zero emissions.” When you consider the upstream emissions associated with electricity generation, mineral extraction, battery manufacturing and other activities related to producing and operating electric vehicles, it becomes clear that their carbon footprint is definitely larger than a size 0. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, when upstream life cycle emissions are properly considered, the average battery electric vehicle is responsible for more than 2 tons of GHG emissions per year. While that’s less than the 5 tons per year associated with operating a gasoline vehicle, it certainly isn’t zero.

None of this should be construed as the ethanol industry “opposing” electric vehicles. On the contrary, we understand that electric vehicles running on low-carbon electricity will play an important role in reducing transportation-related GHG emissions. We’re simply asking for truth, transparency and fairness in how life cycle carbon accounting is conducted and how the vehicles are marketed to consumers who may not understand the intricacies of life cycle analysis.

We also believe that emerging climate policies should ensure that cleaner, greener liquid fuels like ethanol are afforded the same opportunities as ZEVs to continue delivering significant carbon pollution reductions well into the future.

Ethanol is already making huge contributions to the achievement of state and national decarbonization goals. In California, for example, ethanol has reduced GHG emissions by more than 25 million metric tons since implementation of the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard began in 2011—more than any other low-carbon fuel under the program.

According to California regulators, ethanol used in the state this year has reduced GHG emissions by an average of 41% compared to gasoline. Some corn starch ethanol used in the state delivered GHG reductions in excess of 50%, while ethanol made from the cellulosic fiber in corn kernels registered a 72% reduction on average.

Clearly, we are already on our way to “net zero” with ethanol. Proper accounting of soil carbon accumulation in corn fields will shrink the carbon footprint of corn ethanol even further. And using biogas for thermal energy or adopting carbon capture and sequestration technologies could make corn ethanol carbon neutral—or even carbon negative.

Put E85 made with carbon-neutral ethanol into a flex-fuel vehicle (FFV)—or, better yet, a hybrid FFV—and you’ve got an ultra-low carbon transportation alternative that is every bit as clean as an electric vehicle running on renewable electricity. Let’s also not forget that ethanol itself could one day be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, or it could replace natural gas and coal as a source for generating low-carbon electricity.

The bottom line is that ethanol is a phenomenal low-carbon molecule that will no doubt continue to play an instrumental role in the transition to “net zero” emissions. And because ethanol is here today, we don’t need to wait until 2035 to get started!

 

Author: Geoff Cooper
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association
202.289.3835
gcooper@ethanolrfa.org