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Defending corn ethanol around a picnic table

I've had some pretty interesting conversations about the "evils" of corn ethanol with people who find out I'm the managing editor of a magazine about the alternative fuel. Some are more productive conversations than others.
By Holly Jessen | May 23, 2014

Last weekend, we had a special dedication ceremony for my daughter at our church. (It’s like a baby baptism, but without the water.) Afterward, family and friends gathered in the park for lunch.

That’s when one of my friends started asking me questions about the ethanol industry. She’s a graduate student, something in political studies I believe, and was clear that she had heard negative things about corn ethanol. Basically, her impression was that corn ethanol is no good and we’re just waiting on next generation fuels. I was happy to explain to her that, No. 1, corn ethanol isn’t the villain she may have been led to believe and No. 2, cellulosic ethanol is a lot closer than she realized.

One of my main points to her was that advanced biofuels wouldn’t be an option if it wasn’t for the first generation industry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, many of the same companies that now produce corn ethanol are also working to produce cellulosic ethanol. One example is a small plant in Galva, Ill., that is working to start up a bolt on technology that will produce ethanol from the cellulosic material in a corn kernel. Other current corn ethanol producing companies are targeting corn stover for cellulosic ethanol production. My friend was surprised to hear how close some of these companies are to completing construction and producing commercial-scale volumes of advanced biofuels.

I then addressed the “corn-ethanol is bad” impression she had, with analogy I’ve used before. We’re both mothers of young daughters so it’s one that makes sense to both of us. Children don’t come out of the womb walking. They must first master some basic skills like sitting up and rolling over. And then, once they do walk, it’s not like they abandon sitting up and rolling over because they are “bad” skills or things only babies do. The U.S. corn ethanol industry has already done a lot of good for this country, by reducing oil imports and providing jobs, for example, and it will continue to contribute positively in the future. 

Another question she had was about the efficiency of the corn ethanol industry. Has that improved over time? Again, I was glad to be able to say the answer was yes. First generation ethanol plants are, today, producing more ethanol using less thermal energy, electricity and water. We wrote about that back in spring of last year. And, keep in mind that the numbers in that story are averages. Certain leading ethanol facilities have improved on those numbers even further. Another important point is that corn ethanol facilities are installing or considering advanced technologies like anaerobic digesters, combined heat and power, fractionation and more. The same is probably true for a lot of industries. Production of products such as food, fabric or tires is much more advanced today than it was when the industries first started up. It's the natural progression of things. 

It’s always nice when I can talk to someone that is open to learning more about the ethanol industry. Some people have so deeply swallowed the negative propaganda against the industry, that it’s pretty much not worth the time to tell them anything different. My friend may still have reservations about corn ethanol but she certainly knows more about it than before we had our conversation.