World-Herald editorial: Cellulosic ethanol enters the stage

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2015

After years of anticipation, cellulosic ethanol production has taken a major step forward, with Iowa leading the way.

Plants in Iowa in 2014 became the first to produce cellulosic ethanol on a commercial scale. Production was centered at the Quad County Corn Processors plant in Galva and the POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels plants in Emmetsburg.

Meanwhile, DuPont has plans to open a $225 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa, later this year.

The advantage provided by cellulosic production is that it maximizes the conversion of corn byproducts and other inedible plant products into fuel — “more ethanol out of the same kernel of corn,” says Delayne Johnson, CEO of Quad County Corn Processors.

Iowa’s ethanol sector is the nation’s largest, with the state’s 43 ethanol refineries having an annual capacity of some 3.8 billion gallons. The cellulosic component — just 22 million gallons at present — is small but growing. Iowa has 12 biodiesel facilities with an annual capacity of almost 315 million gallons.

In Nebraska, the state’s 24 ethanol plants have a capacity exceeding 2 billion gallons. The facilities provide direct full-time employment for around 3,000 Nebraskans.

How much cellulosic production can expand isn’t clear, given the current uncertainty over what federal regulators may do in regard to the mandated amount of renewable fuels in the nation’s energy supply. A pullback in the current mandate would be unwise.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association notes that the nation’s ethanol output of about 13.3 billion gallons in 2013 meant the United States required 476 million fewer barrels of imported oil.

Energy diversification is in the national interest, which is why the federal government should be wary of undercutting cellulosic ethanol production at the very time it’s making significant progress.