RFA’s Cooper: Zero-carbon corn ethanol is coming

Source: By The Hagstrom Report • Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2021

“Mark my words – zero-carbon corn ethanol is coming!” Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper told the National Ethanol Conference on Tuesday, Feb. 16, in what amounted to a defense of ethanol compared to electric vehicles.

“Mother Nature has already given us an extraordinary solar panel that covers several hundred million acres of cropland in America’s breadbasket,” Cooper added. He noted that scientists from National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Agriculture Department and nearly a dozen leading universities have said that “the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth.” The scientists noted, in particular, that “corn plants are very productive in terms of assimilating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

“Proper accounting of soil carbon accumulation in corn fields will shrink the carbon footprint of corn ethanol even further,” Cooper said. “And using biogas for thermal energy or adopting carbon capture and sequestration technologies could make corn ethanol carbon neutral — or even carbon negative.”

But Cooper also said in his virtual speech and a news conference that getting ethanol down to zero carbon emissions will require “smart policy and regulation to get us there. And it’s going to take creativity and determination to ensure ethanol is allowed to live up to its full potential.”

In the news conference, Cooper said the most beneficial development would be a “monetary value for carbon,” which would cause investments in the industry to reduce emissions. He said he believes zero carbon emissions ethanol could be achieved in five to 10 years.

Cooper pushed back against mandates for only electric vehicles, noting that there will be gasoline-powered vehicles on the roads for decades to come and that biofuels already are climate-positive.

But he acknowledged that electric vehicles “will play an important role in reducing transportation-related GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the decades ahead.”

Cooper said that RFA believes “there are tremendous long-term synergies between ethanol and electric vehicles. The technology exists today to combine the best of both worlds. Hybrid flex fuel vehicles, for example, could provide substantial GHG reductions at a relatively low cost. And because ethanol is a hydrogen-rich molecule, it will undoubtedly play a role in the development of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles further down the road.”

But Cooper also pushed back on the idea that electric vehicles are zero emissions vehicles, or ZEVs.

ZEVs “aren’t really ‘zero emissions’ at all. When you consider the upstream emissions associated with electricity generation, rare earth mineral extraction, battery manufacturing and other activities related to producing and operating electric vehicles, it becomes clear that their carbon footprint is definitely larger than a size 0. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, when upstream emissions are properly considered, the average battery electric vehicle is responsible for more than 2 tons of GHG emissions per year and the average plug-in hybrid is closer to 3 tons per year. While that’s less than the nearly 6 tons of emissions per year associated with a vehicle running on gasoline, it certainly isn’t zero. In areas of the country that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity generation, like Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and Utah, as a few examples, the carbon intensity of a battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle isn’t much better than that of a car running on conventional gasoline. Meanwhile, a Flex Fuel Vehicle running on E85 made from today’s average corn ethanol offers similar carbon performance to a plug-in hybrid running on the average electricity mix; and an FFV using E85 made from corn kernel fiber ethanol is right on par with a battery electric vehicle.”

In his state-of-the-industry comments, Cooper said he expects a “slow, incremental recovery in 2021” but is not sure the industry will return to pre-COVID-19 production levels until 2022. Right now, he added, “there is a real mess out there” due to cold temperatures, storms and electricity outages that have led to an idling of industry capacity.

Cooper said he believes that the industry is “off to a good start” with the Biden administration, particularly because Michael Regan, President Biden’s nominee for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has already reached out to the industry.