Corn Ethanol, Biofuel's Eldest Poster Child, Is Off To Environmental Reform School


Ethanol plant in Iowa. Image credit:Wikipedia

This week USEPA announced that the maximum ethanol content of motor fuel sold in the USA would be allowed to rise from 10% to 15%. Positives of the Agency's decision are: reduced dependence on foreign oil; less consumption of deep-water rig produced oil; diverting high fructose corn syrup (HCFC) from our guts to our cars; and, more votes for Congressional candidates who support the action. A big negative, however, is amplifying the run-up in corn prices caused by extreme weather in the US corn belt this season. Food will become even more expensive because of the 15% cap...amid a 'great recession.' (Skipping carbon footprint for now, as it distracts from my main points, below.)

There's another equally important ethanol negative that the mass media and environmental groups and bloggers have largely ignored. To understand ethanol's potentially messy and dangerous side effects at the local level, we have to look at reports from corn belt papers (see citations below). Background
This tale begins on the deregulation-focused VP Cheney watch (2001 - 2008), under which, you will recall, the US Congress lavished political attention and investment incentives on the entire corn fuel supply chain. It was in that period that many of today's corn-to-ethanol projects were designed and funded as prototypes, after which, scale-ups and expansions have now spilled over, in some case with their pollutants having measurable effect, resulting in significant penalties being levied.

Here's a sample of the news I refer to. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Five ethanol facilities in Minnesota have been cited in the past 12 months for widespread air and water quality violations. They have paid more than $2.8 million in penalties and corrective actions.
Do investor's in corn ethanol think this is China?
The point of getting a draft permit BEFORE you commit investor capital is to ensure that the process is designed to meet State mandated pollution standards, that the final effluent will not kill fish and wildlife, and that the entire process will be as cost effective as it was originally indicated to be. You just don't do what happened in this example.
In the most recent penalty, Buffalo Lake Energy in Fairmont will pay $285,000. It's a new plant that began production in June 2008 with a wastewater treatment system not permitted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

The subtext I want to focus on in this post is not political or regulatory history. It is that these several anecdotes about poorly managed waste streams at ethanol producing facilities in Minnesota are symptomatic of much broader problems with biofuel development that could be easily averted. I mean "broader problems" in the sense of including the several other corn producing states and encompassing all liquid renewable fuel types that have been discussed: wood ethanol; algae based biodiesel; and so on.

The pain of being new.
Any start-up liquid "renewable fuel" project which will be relying on new technology or even bundling old ones in new ways is prone to drift toward sloppy environmental practices. This happens because design engineers at the pilot and pre-commercial stages focus first on hitting process economics goals (dollars per gallon) while boosting throughput. Once a full scale plant is built, there is a shakedown period of months to years in which operators and engineers are focused on "de-bottlenecking" to meet the yield and quality standards they committed to during design stages.

From the management viewpoint, it's a matter of getting to scale and market before the VC money runs out. Doesn't matter if we're talking corn ethanol or algae oil based diesel, problems come from a mindset of 'we'll apply for the permits later' and 'we got to prove it works.'

How then can this situation - overlooking waste management requirements and not preventing pollution in initial design work - be turned around? Remember I said the solution is relatively easy. I chose three tried and true actions to emphasize.

Product stewardship first.
Preventing pollution is a learned discipline that VC's and start-ups often lack but which larger traditional industrial firms have acquired at great effort. Exxon-Mobil or Shell, for example, would not build a new refinery without carefully evaluating the costs of pollution controls and of safety systems early in the design process. Traditional fuel producers do have the discipline and they know how to ask a few key questions of their suppliers which, if done consistently, would help drive change in the safe and cost effective direction.

Fuel distributing companies - I'm talking about brand name gasoline and diesel - when approached by a potential supplier of ethanol can simply require provision of evidence of proper environmental permitting and of environmental management systems in place. 'No final operating permit, no bid'. That will shake the VC and engineering trees, I promise.

State and local government need to speak up early on in the design process.
Designers of bio-fuel processes need guidance at the get-go from environmental regulators. This is exactly the approach Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has hit upon, albeit belatedly. Other states can do the same. (Local elected officials can arrange for the necessary introductions to State regulators when a new bio-fuel producing site is being considered.)

Finally, major biofuel investors need to ask up-front how environmental standards will be met at operating sites, how pollution will be prevented, and whether cost estimates represent these efforts adquately.
Without proper operating permits and absent a pollution prevention focus during design work, investors are at risk of being deluded into thinking some hot "green" tech is worthy of their money. Some new bio-fuel projects might never deserve their money (save in the fictional world described by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, in which community health safety and environment are totally overlooked). And they will never know until it is too late unless they demand explanation and details up front.

I suggest you read the entire Tribune story before commenting here. If you are pressed for time, this cite kind of nails it.

"This an industry run by a bunch of cowboys who don't know the rules," said Jeff Broberg, an environmental consultant in Rochester who does not work on ethanol plants but has opposed one planned for his area.

A few more posts on biofuels and Minnesota.
POET Uses Zero-Liquid Discharge System to Reduce Ethanol's Water ...***
Minnesota's "Corn Plus" Ethanol Installing Wind Turbines To ...
So Thirsty: Corn Ethanol Uses Up to 300% More Water than ...
Renewable Fuels Association Stands Up For Corn Ethanol After It's ...

Tags: Biofuels | Ethanol | Minnesota

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