The Oxford dictionary defines a ‘renewable’ source of energy as one not depleted when used. Wikipedia says that it is energy that is collected from resources that are naturally replenished on a human timescale. If you’ve been listening or watching Iowa news the past month or so, you’ve probably heard that ethanol made from corn grain is the renewablist source of energy available thanks to the Iowa farmer who returns like clockwork from Florida each spring to his or her photosynthesis mine where he or she helps untold billions of corn plants convert sunshine into starch and thence the two-carbon-, six-hydrogen-, one-oxygen clear, flammable liquid that has 3/5ths of the energy of the 1/10th of the gasoline that it displaces in our fuel tanks.
Growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel energy. The vast majority (probably 80% or more) of this energy links to nitrogen fertilizer, which is made using natural gas. I heard someone say once that at its essence, corn production is converting natural gas to starch, and I think that is a clean way of stating it.
I get a lot of comments that the fossil fuel energy required to produce corn and corn ethanol exceeds the energy content of the ethanol itself. Based on everything I know about the subject, I do not believe that to be true. There are about 75,000 BTU in a gallon of ethanol; it takes about 35,000 BTU to grow the corn and produce the ethanol; you can get about 500 gallons of ethanol from an acre of corn; and thus the net energy gain is about 20 million BTU per acre.
But it’s just beyond argument that this 20 million BTU comes at a high environmental cost: soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degraded streams, lakes and drinking water, habitat loss, and to top it off, we indemnify corn production with publicly supported crop insurance and a whole host of other economic trusses that keep the herniated system from blowing out. The patient keeps limping along, in obvious pain but nonetheless determined to maintain its stranglehold on the public and on 11,000 square miles of Iowa land, 20% of our state’s area.
Ethanol is a thing because motor vehicles need liquid fuel, in this case organic compounds that ignite in the presence of oxygen to form CO2 and water, producing usable energy in the process. But along come cars that use electrons that power not engines, but electric motors. And the electrons can come from photons intercepted not by corn, but by solar panels that don’t need nitrogen fertilizer, tractors, pesticides, soil, or even farmers. And these solar panels stand ready to mothball the photosynthesis mine. An acre of them in Iowa produce *34 times* (1) the amount of usable energy as an acre of corn headed for the ethanol plant. Not twice as much, not three times as much, not 10 times as much. Thirty-four times as much.
This is causing Iowa politicians, many of whom identify as farmers, to soil not just our rivers but also their drawers, and start suggesting really, really stupid stuff. One is to force all filling stations in Iowa to provide E-15, gasoline blended with ethanol at an 85:15 ratio, above the typical 90:10 blend. Talking about a bill (HF 2128) currently being considered in the Iowa legislature, legislator-farmer Dan Zumbach (R- Ryan), he of the Bloody Run Creek/Supreme Beef fame, said that “This is about Iowa, this is about the people that live in Iowa, this is about supporting Iowans.” Zumbach is chair of the Senate’s agriculture committee. “This is about making Iowa a viable — economically viable — state where fuel is available everywhere (2).” Just a hunch, but I doubt there is an Iowan more than 10 miles from vehicle fuel.
The proposed law requires 50% of fuel pumps to deliver E-15, and fueling stations with just one pump would also have to sell E15 exclusively if there’s only one choice for fuel. Ever the do-gooder, Zumbach said that “We have a real opportunity to do well for Iowans. Good bills come hard. Good bills come with questions. Good bills come with controversy.” Makes you wonder what bad bills come with. Performative politics, perhaps?
Iowa’s governor Kim Reynolds also seems to be stalked by fears of corn ethanol’s demise. She tweeted today (2/10/22): “Charging stations while ignoring a readily-available renewable energy source grown right here in IA. This is why we need increased access to E15.” This was in response to the Biden Administration announcing that the federal government would provide $51 million for electric car charging stations in our state (3).
To say that the ag establishment has the shakes because of ethanol is probably an understatement. I suppose it’s possible that people like Zumbach and Reynolds think they can keep the corn-powered money machine chugging along so it can consume all the junk agribusiness and big ag corporations love to sell, a lot of which keeps Iowa in a polluted condition: seeds, fertilizer, chemicals, grain drying, grain storage, insurance, machinery. But it’s always been inevitable that Isaac Newton was going to turn the Renewable Fuel Standard into the Renewable Fool Standard. And lest you think I’m being partisan here, there are many moronic democrats in the legislature only too eager to vote for this, and do their own performative skit when it comes to the environment.
Also. Water Quality: voluntary. Ethanol: GET ON YOUR KNEES AND TAKE IT LIKE A MAN.
The end of ethanol, whether it comes in 5 years or 50, is going to expose how selfish the industry and the state’s politicians really are. There once was a day when politicians pontificated against government ‘picking winners and losers.’ Those days are clearly gone. We’re just going to go ahead and pick the losers here in Iowa, because we don't give a rat's behind about the common good.
Solar power does not have to displace Iowa agriculture. Solar can co-exist and comingle with all sorts of food production in ways that can and will make Iowa agriculture more prosperous once the statists get the hell out of the way. I’m just going to call it here. We have a generation or two of old and white and rich deadwood that are content to sit in their cozy room with the door closed reading cornography put out by their enablers that tell them they are victims of some grand conspiracy. These fetishists stand in the way of young and creative people that want to farm and who want to make Iowa a better and cleaner place.
- How I calculated solar/ethanol comparison. The West Dubuque solar farm covers 21 acres and produces 200,000 kw hours of energy per acre per year. There are 3412 BTU in a kw hour. So an acre of solar panels in Dubuque County produces the equivalent of 682 million BTUs. An acre of corn producing 175 bushels will generate about 500 gallons of ethanol. That ethanol has 37.5 million BTU of energy but required 17.5 million BTU to produce, for a grand total of 20 million BTU of net energy. 682 divided by 20 is 34.
- Strong, J. Committee clears path for final E15 vote. Iowa Capital Dispatch, February 8, 2022.
- KCCI. Iowa to receive $51M for new electric vehicle charging stations. February 10, 2022.