I certainly don’t know all there is to know about ethanol. Prior to starting this job, I knew two things about ethanol to be exact: it is a fuel source, and it is made from corn.
When I read a recent USDA study which stated ethanol reduces Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by about 43 percent, compared to traditional gasoline, I knew for the sake of being a gasoline consumer married into a farm family, I wanted to know more.
So here they are, five awesome things I learned about ethanol:
- Ethanol is an efficient form of fuel. Gasoline, unlike ethanol, is a non-renewable source of fuel, meaning it takes a long, long time for the fossils it comes from to be naturally converted to oil, and the process to get it includes drilling into the earth. Here in Iowa, corn is grown every year, and farmers have successfully improved how it is grown. The amount of corn produced per acre has increased by nearly 14 percent in the last 10 years, and ethanol is a way to put these extra bushels of corn to use in an environmentally-friendly way. Ethanol production itself is also becoming more efficient, using less water and energy to make fuel. Today, the average ethanol plant produces more than twice the energy it consumes.
- No kernel is wasted. Ethanol plants are also extremely efficient in making sure the whole corn kernel is used to benefit not only the environment but Iowa’s livestock. Ethanol is produced from the inside of a corn kernel where the starch is located. The outer part of a kernel is reserved for animal feed because it contains protein, an important nutrient for livestock which gives them energy. It’s kind of like cooking up two pounds of ground beef and being able to use it all up for tacos, chili and hamburgers. Talk about being resourceful!
- Ethanol helps drive the state’s economy (no pun intended). Iowa leads the United States in ethanol production. More than 39,500 jobs in Iowa are related to this ethanol industry, contributing $2 billion to household incomes. But wait, there’s more— overall, ethanol production in Iowa contributes $4.2 billion to our economy, which includes a lot more than jobs and sales at the pump, but also food for animals, transportation trucking companies to move the corn, and the animal feed and construction work for new ethanol facilities.
- As a consumer, ethanol helps me save at the pump. The town I live near doesn’t offer E15 as an option yet, but I take advantage of fueling up with E15 when I’m near Des Moines because it’s easier on my pocketbook than gasoline, saving on average $1.12 per tank. For someone who commutes 70 miles round-trip to work, that adds up. Although I’ve heard from others that ethanol decreases the miles per gallon you get from a tank of gas, research has shown that decrease is teeny tiny. For example, my car gets about 27 mpg on the highway on regular gas and 26.46 mpg on ethanol. However, when factoring in the lower price of ethanol, I’m still ahead.
- Ethanol doesn’t harm your engine. Before I was born, ethanol was introduced as a fuel source. From what I’ve gathered, it was basically like the Back to the Future, rock ‘n roll, Marty McFly of fuels—cars weren’t quite ready for it yet, “but your kids are gonna love it.” Back then, because cars had been using straight gasoline, this clean fuel came along and well, cleaned out gas lines that had residual gasoline gunk that got caught in the cross hairs. Advances in the science of ethanol and engineering of cars has worked out those kinks. Today, E15 is approved by the EPA for cars made in 2001 and later, with E20 being introduced in some markets. As of 2016, cars have driven 150 million miles on E15 fuel without any negative side effects!
It’s also worth noting that by the year 2022, the estimated GHG profile of ethanol will be 50 percent lower than that of gasoline, but if the ethanol tech experts are anything like the farmers I know, the improvements in efficiency could fly beyond that figure. Ethanol plants and researchers are finding ways to improve the efficiency of transporting ethanol, and farmers are implementing conservation practices like reduced tillage to make sure the process from field to fuel has a positive impact on the environment.
So, yes, ethanol is a fuel source and it’s made of corn. But I found out that’s just the beginning of the story, one this Iowan feels good about every time I’m filling up at the pump.
By Caitlyn Lamm. Caitlyn is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations specialist.