Our Low Carbon Calling

Ethanol Producer Magazine's editor previews the feature articles in the publication's August issue, including stories on the emergent Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline, new interest in CHP, the possibility of using ethanol for power, and more.
By Tom Bryan | July 25, 2021

Not only is carbon reduction the ethanol industry’s principal and defining accomplishment to date, but its near- and long-term central mission. In fact, lowering the carbon intensity (CI) of corn ethanol production—through greater efficiencies, new tech, greener inputs and sequestration—rises above simply being our industry’s chief focus to, just maybe, its very purpose for existence. That may sound exaggerated, but despite all the good reasons to produce ethanol—you know the list—reducing atmospheric CO2 is, right now, the reason we make the fuel. In fact, if ethanol were not the low-carbon transportation fuel it is, our industry would have little or no political cover and, within time, cease to exist in its current form. Our plants would make something, yes—protein, corn oil, specialty alcohols—but probably not fuel.

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about an alternative reality where corn ethanol isn’t a vital, here-and-now solution to the world’s climate crisis. Ethanol is low carbon today and on a path to becoming ultra-low carbon tomorrow. In our page-14 cover story, “Carbon Connector,” we report on a multi-billion-dollar plan to aggregate and transport CO2 from 30 Midwest ethanol plants via pipeline for permanent geological storage in North Dakota oil wells. The Summit Carbon Solutions pipeline, when completed three years from now, will be the largest carbon capture and storage (CCS) project of its kind in the world. The incentive for producers to tie into the pipeline is a resultant CI score that might be 50% lower than their current mark. With several other CCS projects moving forward at the same time, and favorable agricultural carbon accounting on the horizon, some believe ethanol could soon be the “lowest carbon fuel in existence.”  

The quest for lower CI is pushing ethanol producers to seek new efficiencies in every aspect of their operations. Some solutions are new, and others are old ideas revisited. Combined heat and power (CHP) has been used in ethanol production for years, but never widely. Now, with the payback on CHP looking better due to California paying a premium for low-carbon ethanol, producers are taking a fresh look at this tried-and-true apparatus of industrial energy efficiency. In “Revisiting CHP,” on page 22, we look at how America’s largest ethanol producer, Poet, and others, are turning to cogeneration to cut costs and seriously lower CI. Notably, carbon sequestration may lead to more CHP in the ethanol industry. Read the story to find out why.

Tangential to our energy efficiency theme, we explore the not-so-improbable idea of ethanol being used as a fuel for electric power. In “Ethanol to Electrons,” on page 28, we reveal why ethanol could be—and already is—a suitable feedstock for electricity generation in niche circumstances. Large-scale power generation is conceivable, but smaller applications such as off-the-grid turbines or fuel cells capable of converting ethanol to electricity on demand when electric vehicles need charging are even more intriguing.

Be sure to check out our page-34 story on Aemetis, which is cracking the challenge (pun intended) of collecting and processing almond orchard waste for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, a process that will, in turn, yield a cellulosic sugar feedstock for its ethanol plant in Keyes, California. And, finally, check out our page-40 contribution about a crop forecasting tool that could help producers get an early handle on their local draw.

Author: Tom Bryan