Opinion: Renewable fuels, and Iowa, have come a long way in 20 years

Source: By Mike Jerke, Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy • Posted: Monday, February 28, 2022

IRFA and biofuels are ready to do more for farmers, rural towns, the environment and energy security.

Watching a child turn 20 is a major milestone. It signifies the end of the teenage years while, at the same time, so much promise remains for the future. Similarly, as the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) celebrates its 20th anniversary today, we are proud of the legacy the association has left behind, but we’re fired up to see what lies ahead.

Two decades ago the ethanol industry was built by farmers working together to create a value-added opportunity to benefit local communities. In that same vein, the IRFA was conceived. Individual plants came together recognizing that we need a common voice in the halls of power. Like the parent of a newborn, we had hopes and dreams for this new organization. Now, 20 years later, we’re amazed at how far the industry, and IRFA, have come.

Twenty years ago, MTBE, a fossil fuel octane enhancer, was leaking and poisoning California’s drinking water. Critics questioned whether the ethanol industry could grow production to replace MTBE in California — a 1 billion-gallon market. Since then the industry has added over 15 billion gallons of production capacity. We proved those early critics wrong, and we will prove today’s critics wrong as well.

And we must. A robust biofuels industry is key to Iowa’s economic future. The impact of biofuels production on Iowa’s economy has never been greater. According to a report prepared for the IRFA this year by ABF Economics, biofuels in 2021:

  • Boosted Iowa GDP by nearly $5.2 billion.
  • Added over $2.6 billion to household income, much of that farm income.
  • Supported roughly 46,000 jobs throughout Iowa’s economy.

Twenty years ago, very little of that existed. And this is only the beginning. From exploring higher blends like E15 and B20 to new markets like sustainable aviation fuel, home heating, fuel cells, rail locomotives, and marine vessels, the sky is truly the limit.

How many times have you heard the climate change scientists say that we must act in the next decade to prevent irreversible harm? Well, anyone honest about this issue knows that the so-called “electric future” won’t be here for more than 10 years. Biofuels are the only viable option to make a meaningful impact this decade in reducing transportation emissions.

When corn and soybean plants grow, they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. With improved efficiencies at the farm and biofuel plant level and carbon sequestration, I firmly believe that one day soon biofuels can and will be net carbon negative.

Critics say it can’t be done. They say biofuels are only “transitional.” Well, we’ve heard that before, and the biofuels community is ready, willing and able to prove the critics wrong again.

And it can start here in Iowa. Last year a federal court threw out the regulation allowing the year-round sale of E15. With no timely federal solution on the horizon, a bipartisan group of governors, led by Gov. Kim Reynolds, is working toward a Midwest solution.

The Clean Air Act allows governors to take action to ensure the regulatory treatment for E10 and E15 is the same. By exercising this authority, governors can restore year-round E15 sales for retailers and motorists. IRFA is proud to be working with Reynolds and groups in other states to push for a Midwest E15 solution.

Being able to offer E15 for sale is the first step. Actually putting it in front of consumers is the ultimate goal. E15, often marketed as Unleaded 88, is higher octane, but lower cost. As we’ve seen over and over, when Unleaded 88 is made available, Iowans will purchase it.

That is why IRFA is working with Reynolds and bipartisan legislative leaders to ensure biofuels are given that chance to compete in the marketplace. We believe that all Iowans deserve the choice of E15 or B20 when they fill up. And the Iowa Biofuels Access bill working its way through the Legislature can make that a reality.

This bill is an innovative example of how states can drive biofuels demand. If enacted, the Biofuels Access bill would cement Iowa as not just the leader of biofuels production, but the leader of biofuels policy as well. It can and should serve as a model for other states.

As a founding board member of IRFA, I have been proud to watch the organization grow and mature over the last 20 years. Like any “parent,” I’m gratified for the report cards and ribbons IRFA has brought home. But like a 20-year-old, IRFA is just getting started.

I believe there is a bright future ahead for biofuels. Even after 20 years of effort, IRFA and biofuels are ready to do more for farmers, for rural towns, for cleaning the air, for reducing fuel costs, for enhancing energy security, and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than we’ve done in the past.

And critics beware, it’s never smart to bet against the American farmer.

Mike Jerke is the CEO of Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy, an ethanol plant near Council Bluffs. In 2002, as general manager of the Quad County Corn Processors ethanol plant near Galva, he helped form the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.