Op-Ed: Ethanol is heading toward obsolescence. Iowa will need a new plan.

Source: By Francis Thicke, Des Moines Register • Posted: Saturday, August 12, 2017


Over 40 percent of Iowa’s corn production goes to making ethanol — for a market that could soon disappear. Futurists predict that the energy and transportation industries are poised for rapid change, and that liquid fuels will soon go the route of telephone landlines.

There are three technology developments coming at us very quickly: 1) electric vehicles will soon be cheaper to buy and operate than gasoline and diesel vehicles, 2) solar and wind are becoming the cheapest forms of energy, and 3) homeowner-sized energy-storage systems will soon be widely available at reasonable prices. In his book “Clean Disruption,” Stanford professor Tony Seba argues that these three trends will soon make gasoline and diesel vehicles obsolete.

A “disruptive technology” is one that comes onboard very quickly, disrupting the status quo. Examples: One hundred years ago the introduction of the car quickly displaced the horse and buggy; today, the rapid adoption of cellphones is displacing telephone landlines.

Technology One: Gasoline and diesel cars have 2,000 moving parts; electric cars have 18 moving parts. Soon electric cars will be cheaper to manufacture, cheaper to operate, and longer-lasting than cars with internal combustion engines. Seba predicts that by 2025 all new cars will be electric, because liquid-fueled cars will not be able to compete on cost, performance, and durability.

Technology Two: Every time world production of solar photovoltaic, or PV, panels doubles, solar PV prices are reduced by 20 percent. Solar prices have dropped 75 percent since 2009, and are continuing to fall. New solar PV systems are now at grid parity in many places and, along with wind, will soon be the cheapest form of energy anywhere. In contrast, fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to extract, and are causing increasing environmental and health problems in their extraction and use.

 Technology Three: Tesla and many other companies are rapidly building massive manufacturing capacity to produce battery storage systems that will be able to store energy from wind and solar production for when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. Residential-scale energy-storage systems will allow homeowners to store energy produced on their rooftops or in their backyards.

The convergence of these three rapidly advancing technologies will cause an energy and transportation “disruption.” Homeowners will have the capability to produce electricity at their own home sites to power their homes and cars, using their own battery banks to even out production and usage. Neighborhoods could share among themselves.

If these predictions unfold as futurists forecast, it does not bode well for corn ethanol. What will Iowa farmers do with the 5 million acres now being used to produce ethanol? Iowa farmers will need to rethink their strategies, as will agricultural policy makers.

FRANCIS THICKE is a soil scientist and farmer from Fairfield, and former National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service.