Has ethanol lost its license to drive corn market?

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In the initial depths of the recession, agriculture was performing well, thanks to the demand for grain, and in particular for corn because of the demand for ethanol.  The ethanol mandate was creating demand for corn and prices kept rising, pushing commodity markets to new highs nearly every month.  Ah, those were the good old days.  Now the bloom is off the rose.  Gasoline demand is down, the blend wall is pushing ethanol demand down, and corn prices are not as strong as they once were.  Was Little Orphan Annie correct in assuming “The sun will come out tomorrow?”

When the Congress approved the Renewable Fuel Standard, conventional wisdom said by this time we would be consuming 150 billion gallons of motor fuel annually and a 10% ethanol blend would necessitate 15 billion gallons of ethanol, which would require nearly 5 billion bushels of corn.  But the recession dampened the upward demand curve, and now the current thinking is the need for only 13.4 billion gallons of ethanol to meet the demand.  That has reduced the demand for corn and batted back the price from the nearly $8 high.  The goal of 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol may be a footnote in an economic history book.

There are a number of dynamics working for and against ethanol today as a product that will remain integral to the agricultural economy, says Bob Wisner, biofuels economist at Iowa State University. 

In his recent newsletter   Wisner says domestic ethanol use will be about 11% below the 15 billion gallon ceiling in 2015, when cellulosic ethanol was supposed to kick in and supply the nation with its voracious appetite for motor fuel.  He indicates 2015 may see about 3 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol produced because the industry has had a much slower start to economic efficiency than expected.  But in the meantime, lower demand for gasoline means less demand for ethanol, regardless of its source and less profitability means reduced efforts in reaching the goals.  And he says the US ethanol industry will be capable of producing much more than needed if gasoline demand drops further, either because of the recession or increased fuel efficiency.

The blend wall, which is the ceiling for ethanol demand, could be raised with the use of E-15 or E-85, but there are major problems, mostly related to the lack of pumps at service stations and the reluctance of the auto industry to warrant the use of higher ethanol blends.  That not only retains the blend wall but stifles the demand for cellulosic ethanol.  While EPA has been giving indications it will expand its approval of E-15 that may have little impact if distribution is non-existent.  Wisner says the future of the ethanol industry is keyed on the production and distribution of advanced biofuels, which do not include ethanol made from corn.  That will be capped at 15 billion gallons of basic ethanol.  While that seems like the biofuels market is mature for corn growers, Wisner says there may be an opportunity from advanced biofuels, with the conversion of corn to biobutanol.

Biobutanol is considered a “drop-in” fuel, since does not required a specific blend percentage, can be transported in trucks or pipelines with regular gasoline, and have a much closer combustion and mileage performance to gasoline than does ethanol.  While the octane rating of biobutanol is less than ethanol is more than gasoline, but while the energy content of ethanol is only 66% of gasoline, the biobutanol energy content is 90% of gasoline.  The corn market should benefit, since biobutanol will be an added product and not replace ethanol.  We are likely in the early days of biobutanol, since production costs are not yet established, and Wisner says only 2-3 ethanol plants are being converted to biobutanol plants at this time.  He says, “If it proves to be competitive with ethanol and regulatory issues can be resolved, biobutanol may contribute significantly to future growth in value-added demand for corn.”

Part of the steam lost in the corn market has resulted from the leveling off in the demand for corn by ethanol refiners.  This slowdown came from ethanol reaching the maximum of 10% of the nation’s motor fuel supply, then the demand for motor fuel declining because of the economy.  However, biobutanol, which is an advanced biofuel that can be made at ethanol plants with some modification, has the potential to replace gasoline without a limiting percentage blend.  Its octane rating is higher than gas, its energy content is higher than ethanol, and it provides better mileage than either ethanol or gasoline.

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Charles Higley    
March, 23, 2012 at 09:16 PM

As long as ethanol or butanol production requires food crops or croplands, it is a bad idea. The world needs the food not the fuel. And even if derived from a nonfood source, it is still stupidly more expensive than petroleum-based fuels. We have much more oil and gas than the government wants to admit. As we are realizing that these derive from the Earth's core and are not fossil, the supply is huge compared to our predictions. This fuel source will be found anywhere on Earth that we drill deep enough. Our oil fields are simply rock formation to which the gas and oil have accumulated while trying to reach the surface.

Anna Sternfeldt    
Australia  |  March, 25, 2012 at 11:08 PM

Charles - I agree that using food crops or croplands is not a good idea. But I can't agree on the claim that we should encourage to use more oil sources, when we now know the impacts.

Anna Sternfeldt    
Australia  |  March, 25, 2012 at 11:05 PM

I think biobutanol has a future and we'll likely hear much more on that one shortly. http://www.best-alternative-fuel-sources.com/biobutanol.html Several interesting research is happening in the area for the moment. But I can't agree on using corn, as this crop requires fertile land an high energy inputs which is not sustainable. But there are other plants to use.

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