Ethanol report piques public's interest

By Jerry W. Kram | February 05, 2008
A report on the current and future state of ethanol production in Illinois has attracted a great deal of attention since being posted on the University of Illinois FarmDOC Web site in November.

The report, "Corn-Based Ethanol in Illinois and the U.S.," was produced by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and was downloaded more than 30,000 times in the first month it was available. "I was surprised at the number of downloads, particularly given that we are talking about more than 160 pages per download," said Robert Hauser, chairman of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. Most of the report's 14 authors are members of Hauser's department.

Four of the report's nine chapters examine the economics of ethanol. They highlight ethanol's position in the energy and agricultural sectors, the economics of dry-grind plants with a case study of the financial performance of an ethanol plant, and how an ethanol plant affects local economies. Another chapter examines the use of distillers grain by livestock and poultry. Two chapters examine the science and economics of alternative feedstocks such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. The final chapter looks at the role of policy and politics in the ethanol industry. "The point of the report is not to advocate for or discourage ethanol," Hauser said. "It was an attempt to be as objective as possible in analyzing some background information and potential future scenarios."

The genesis of the report came when university Chancellor Richard Herman met with farmers at a large public event, according to Hauser. Many of the questions Herman fielded were about ethanol. "When he came back to campus, he asked, What do we know?'" Hauser said. "So within a year, we were able to put together what are basically nine white papers in some sort of reasonable order, and we published it on the FarmDOC Web site."

With the role of ethanol growing in the agriculture and energy sectors, the university will continue to expand its expertise in ethanol issues. While a follow-up to the entire report isn't planned, the individual researchers will continue to investigate and publish economic and scientific research on ethanol, Hauser said. "I can't imagine there being a higher-profile issue among farmers right now," he said. "The prices we are seeing for our major crops are being driven mostly by ethanol. That makes ethanol just about the hottest topic around."

The report can be downloaded at www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu/policy/research_reports/ethanol_report/index.html.