Ethanol Producers, Advocates Aim for Net-Zero Ethanol by 2050

Source: By Susanne Retka Schill, Great Plains Institute • Posted: Friday, December 17, 2021

As US and world leaders engage on climate change and carbon reduction efforts, leaders in the American ethanol industry have announced pledges and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The country’s largest ethanol producer, POET LLC, and the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), representing another large portion of the industry, have separately pledged GHG reductions of 70 percent within a decade and goals of net neutrality by 2050. The American Coalition for Ethanol also supports state and federal policies that aid in ethanol reaching net neutrality by midcentury.

“We had a spirited conversation among our board of directors about what sort of commitment we were willing to make as ethanol producers,” says Geoff Cooper, CEO of the RFA. The nearly 50-member board had a serious discussion about whether the industry could realistically achieve the goal, he says. “It’s not a small task. We’re at 40 to 50 percent GHG reduction on average now. Going that other 50 percent is going to require substantial investments. And it’s going to require stable and certain policy.”

Cooper cites three studies over the past three years supporting the current state of ethanol carbon intensity:

  • In 2019, a US Department of Agriculture study that determined corn ethanol’s lifecycle analysis showed GHG reductions of 43 percent compared to gasoline. With added improvements in biorefineries and on farms, the report projected that a reduction of more than 70 percent in lifecycle emissions is possible.
  • In another report, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, developers of the GREET model used to calculate carbon intensity scores of fuels and feedstocks, outlined the significant improvements made in corn ethanol both on farm and at ethanol plants. The improvements lowered corn ethanol’s carbon intensity between 2005 and 2019. When compared to gasoline, the results showed a 44 to 52 percent reduction in carbon intensity. (Carbon intensity scores determine the amount of credits a company can generate in a low-carbon fuel policy).
  • About the same time, a group of scientists from Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc., Harvard University, Tufts University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a paper finding that the average gallon of ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 46 percent.

“That’s three major studies showing convergence that typical, run-of-the-mill ethanol today is reducing GHG emissions between 40 to 50 percent compared to gasoline,” Cooper says.

It’s going to take a diverse set of technologies and different approaches to drive the carbon intensity down further, he continues. Several producers are looking at carbon capture and other options, including replacing natural gas with biogas or augmenting electricity with wind or solar.

Making it pay is key, Cooper cautions. “Ethanol producers, like any other business, need to show their investors a return on investment for these sorts of projects. That’s going to be challenging and very hard to do unless a program is in place that creates a financial incentive or reward for reducing CI [carbon intensity].” Models for such programs exist in the low-carbon fuel standards in California and Oregon that are being considered nationally and in several states.

Announced projects

In recent months, several producers have announced projects that illustrate Cooper’s claims.

Multiple ethanol plants are developing individual or group carbon capture projects. These projects are responding to the changes to the 45Q tax incentives and taking advantage of programs like California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions is developing a project to collect carbon dioxide from at least 30 ethanol plants to be transported by pipeline into North Dakota and secured permanently underground through geologic storage. Valero, an oil refiner with 14 ethanol facilities producing about 1.7 billion gallons annually, is developing a pipeline in partnership with BlackRock and Navigator. Valero is expected to be the anchor shipper with eight ethanol plants connected to the system.

Beyond those two projects, ethanol producers with carbon capture operating or under development include Archer Daniels Midland in Illinois, Red Trail Energy in North Dakota, Blue Flint in North Dakota, White Energy in Texas, Alto Ingredients in Illinois, One Earth Energy in Illinois, and Green Plains Inc. with its 13 Midwestern plants.

Two other projects illustrate ambitious plans to expand low-carbon energy. In Illinois, Marquis Energy announced its carbon capture project to reduce the carbon intensity of the 365 million gallons produced annually. The company began drilling a test well this fall to determine the storage capacity of the sandstone underlying its site. In addition, Marquis announced plans to add facilities to produce blue hydrogen and ammonia, plus a soybean crushing facility to produce feedstocks for renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuels.

In California, Aemetis Inc. is collecting and upgrading dairy biogas and installing other carbon intensity-reducing technologies at its 60-million-gallon ethanol plant. It also has a carbon capture project in the planning stages. It is developing a second facility to produce zero carbon intensity sustainable aviation fuel using cellulosic hydrogen from waste forest and orchard wood.

POET pledges net zero by 2050

The country’s largest ethanol producer, POET LLC, announced its commitment this fall to reduce the carbon intensity of its ethanol by 70 percent compared to gasoline by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality at its facilities by 2050. POET operates 33 biorefineries producing about three billion gallons of ethanol annually, representing just under 20 percent of total US capacity.

“I think the goals are very attainable,” says Doug Berven, POET vice president of corporate affairs, adding that, in addition to state and federal policy support, it will require a diverse set of approaches customized to each plant location and multiple steps to achieve the goals.

“They are not just process efficiency steps,” he adds. “To get to net neutrality, we have to go way beyond processing. We have to get into forms of energy and agriculture improvements.”

Carbon capture, carbon dioxide capture for dry ice and beverages, biogas, solar, and other technologies have been implemented or are being considered to lower the carbon intensity at individual plants in the POET group. But with a significant portion of its carbon intensity coming from agriculture, the company is rolling out a program to incentivize carbon intensity-reducing farm practices.

POET partnered with the Farmers Business Network, US Department of Agriculture, the California Air Resources Board, the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and others to develop a method of measuring and verifying the farm-level carbon intensity of corn.

The method taps into digital technology to verify a carbon intensity score without boots on the ground, using everything from scanned receipts to precision agriculture data collected by equipment. Weather and satellite data confirm yield claims, and artificial intelligence spots errors and potential fraud. The collected data then gets plugged into the GREET model to generate a carbon intensity score. The scientists at the California Air Resources Board, US Department of Agriculture, and Argonne National Laboratory helped validate the method.

Following a successful pilot test three years ago, POET and the Farmers Business Network launched the new program, dubbed Gradable, last year. All the farmers participating in the pilot project at POET Bioprocessing-Chancellor signed on to continue with the program. With all the ethanol produced at the southeastern South Dakota plant earning carbon credits in California’s low-carbon fuel market, POET was able to pay farmers premiums ranging from $35 to about $50 an acre, Berven says. Overall, the carbon intensity scores for the farms in the program averaged 20 percent lower than the national average.

While POET is planning to implement Gradable at more plants as approvals permit, Berven says there is interest from other sectors in using Gradable to validate carbon reductions on the farm. “There’s a large supply chain out there that has a real interest in this. Most larger companies these days are putting out sustainability reports. And if they take them seriously as we do, they need to have paths to achieve these CI [carbon intensity] reductions rather than buying credits from someone.”

Berven says the ethanol industry is still emerging, with a way to go to reach its goals. “We’re trying to get all our resources from the surface of the land, rather than the center of the earth.” When the industry began growing nearly two decades ago, producers just made ethanol and distillers grain feeds. Today, POET’s facilities and many others are becoming bioprocessing facilities with multiple products—more grades of ethanol, multiple feed products, and products aiming to displace petroleum-based compounds.

“We often describe the corn kernel and biomass as nature’s battery,” Berven says. “We soak up the sun in the leaves, and it goes into the biomass and corn kernel. We can store that indefinitely and then take it into a processing facility like the 33 in the POET family and we can unleash that stored energy into all different types of energy sources and products.”

Validating farm-level carbon reductions

With nearly half of corn ethanol’s carbon intensity bound up in the corn feedstock itself, the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) is focused on farm-level carbon accounting. “To get to net zero or net negative, the big area we need to place more emphasis on is farm-level practices,” says ACE CEO Brian Jennings. “Most dry mill ethanol facilities have already invested in or are currently looking at technology investments that will do as much as you can do within the facility itself to drive efficiency and reduce carbon intensities.”

ACE received a $7.5 million grant this fall through the US Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The grant is for a project to incentivize carbon reduction farm practices among farmers supplying corn to Dakota Ethanol in eastern South Dakota. About two-thirds of the grant will go directly to farmers to support practices that improve nutrient management and build soil carbon. Jennings adds that while all farmers have improved practices, many could do much more. “Making the changes on the farm can be expensive, and that’s one of the reasons we pursued this grant. Some farmers are going to need to be assisted a bit more to see the opportunities.”

The remaining third of the grant will go to partners in the demonstration project. Soil scientists at South Dakota State University will monitor changes in soil carbon content to measure and validate how much particular conservation measures increase soil carbon levels. That data will then be provided to Sandia National Laboratory to compare with current scientific understanding, Jennings says. “They will run the data in existing soil carbon models to see if it jives with what the soil carbon models predict.”

ACE intends to take the findings to Argonne National Laboratory’s scientists who work on carbon intensity modeling in the widely used GREET model, as well as state and federal regulators. “Ultimately, we want to see Dakota Ethanol and other plants like them have access to carbon markets and be paid a premium for their low-carbon ethanol based on these practices,” Jennings says.

Informing the skeptics

ACE’s conservation project is also aimed at informing ethanol’s critics. “Some will always be skeptics of corn ethanol,” Jennings says. “But there are some [that] have been willing to engage with us, through the great stakeholder process the Great Plains Institute has led around a clean fuels policy. It’s through that avenue [that] we hope to share our data, let people ask questions, poke holes in it, and see for themselves.”

Cooper agrees with the approach of meeting skepticism head on. “There’s still a lot of bad information and myths out there about corn ethanol,” he says. “We want to address that head on. We have absolutely nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of. We want to have those hard questions asked of the industry—where we’re at and where we’re headed, what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on.”

“I think Great Plains [Institute] has done a great job of creating a forum—neutral grounds where stakeholders who don’t normally talk to each other can come together and have some important conversations and ask each other some hard questions,” Cooper continues. “The Great Plains Institute has been effective in facilitating those conversations and identifying those areas where there is common ground and where there is misunderstanding and trying to figure out ways to work through that.”

Cooper adds that the RFA has been doing other coalition building as well. “In the last two years, there’s been more interaction and honest dialogue between ethanol, environmental NGOs, and agriculture than there’s been in the prior 10 or 15 years. There’s more engagement and interaction, which is very encouraging to see.”

About the guest author: From her home on a northeastern North Dakota farm, Susanne Retka Schill writes about biofuel policy and technologies for industry publications and now, the Great Plains Institute. Semi-retired for four years, she spent a decade writing for and editing BBI International publications such as Ethanol Producer Magazine, Biodiesel Magazine, Biomass Magazine and Pellet Mill Magazine. She now freelances for companies serving the industry along with several magazines covering biofuels.