Category Archives: ethanol

How Much Energy is Required to Grow and Harvest Various Crops and How Much Does it Cost?

Some like to say that food equals fossil fuel energy, and while I disagree with that over-simplification, we cannot deny that modern day agricultural methods rely upon fossil fuels. Today’s post comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It breaks down some energy input numbers using data from the USDA as well as the EIA. Interestingly, it also compares energy inputs for growing crops to energy inputs for producing livestock. –Kay M.


Energy for growing and harvesting crops is a large component of farm operating costs

graph of operating expense for various crops, as explained in the article text


The U.S. agriculture industry used nearly 800 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy in 2012, or about as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah. Agricultural energy consumption includes energy needed to grow and harvest crops and energy needed to grow livestock. Crop operations consume much more energy than livestock operations, and energy expenditures for crops account for a higher percentage of farm operating costs.

Agricultural energy consumption includes both direct and indirect energy consumption. Direct energy consumption includes the use of diesel, electricity, propane, natural gas, and renewable fuels for activities on the farm. Indirect energy consumption includes the use of fuel and feedstock (especially natural gas) in the manufacturing of agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Energy makes up a significant part of operating expenditures for most crops, especially when considering indirect energy expenditures on fertilizer, because the production of fertilizer is extremely energy-intensive, requiring large amounts of natural gas. For some crops like oats, corn, wheat, and barley, energy and fertilizer expenditures combined make up more than half of total operating expenses. The proportion of direct to indirect energy use varies by crop. For example, corn, which is also used as an energy input for ethanol production, has relatively low direct fuel expenditures but has the highest percentage of fertilizer expenditures.

graph of U.S. direct energy consumption for crops and livestock, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2014

The energy consumed in livestock operations is almost solely direct energy consumption and is relatively low compared with crop operations, both as a percentage of total operating expenditures and on a total energy basis. Livestock operations consume direct energy for ventilation systems, refrigeration, lighting, heating, watering, motors, and waste handling, whereas crop operations use energy to plant, harvest, irrigate, and dry crops. The energy consumed in the production of livestock feed is not included in this analysis of livestock energy consumption.

Distillate fuel is the dominant fuel for direct energy consumption for both livestock and crop operations. Distillate is used for crop tilling, harvesting, weed control, and other operations that require heavy machinery. Crop drying is another fuel-intensive farm activity, and the amount of fuel used varies by the type of crop and its moisture content. High-temperature dryers are powered by either electricity or propane.

Supplying water can also be an energy-intensive task. Although some farms have access to public water supplies, most farms pump water from wells and groundwater sources. Most pumping is done with electricity, but pumps in remote locations may use diesel or propane.

The chemicals used by the agricultural industry are a subset of the bulk chemical industry and include fertilizers and pesticides. Nitrogenous (ammonia-based) fertilizers require large amounts of natural gas as a feedstock and provide heat and power for processing. EIA’s 2010 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey estimates that the U.S. nitrogenous fertilizer industry consumed more than 200 trillion Btu of natural gas as feedstock in 2010 and another 152 trillion Btu for heat and power.

In addition to being major energy consumers, some farms are using renewable resources to produce energy. Wind turbines, methane digesters, and photovoltaics are the most common on-farm renewables. Renewable energy can help to offset the need for purchased energy. In some cases, the renewable energy produced on farms is sold to electric power suppliers, providing additional income for farmers.

Principal contributor: Susan Hicks

Ethanol Export Expansion Possible


This U.S. Grains Council chart illustrates potential ethanol use if countries enforced their current biofuels mandates.

The U.S. Grains Council is looking to export markets for ethanol expansion…

If countries enforced existing biofuels mandates using ethanol, their gasoline use in 2012 would suggest that the top 10 ethanol consumers would require 3.5 billion gallons of the renewable fuel. The next 10 would add another 393 million gallons of demand.

As examples of the potential ethanol demand that would be driven by enforcement of existing mandates, ethanol consumption in Japan would increase from 9 to 459 million gallons and in Mexico, from 4 to 236 million gallons. Starting this fall, the team will assess Japan and Korea, Latin America and Southeast Asia as potential markets for U.S. ethanol exports.

These markets represent the potential for a huge growth in global ethanol demand. The Council and its partners have initiated ethanol export market development programs in 2014.

Note that looking to expand the export of ethanol in today’s environment of surplus corn was highly expected. Maybe we should call it exporting our topsoil, exporting our tax dollars, and, exporting our Monarch’s and our songbirds to some forgotten place. Who are the winners? The big agribusiness companies.


source: http://grains.org/news/20140814/top-10-potential-us-ethanol-markets-20142015

Poultry Industry Struggles Since RFS Mandates Went Into Effect

This post (below) is from the USDA. I like this quote from the last sentence of the summary

“The cessation of broiler industry growth, due to slowing growth in population, per capita consumption of chicken, and exports, places new financial pressures on broiler producers and new stresses on industry organization.”

Though the USDA will not tell you that escalating feed prices resulted from using 40 percent of the corn crop for ethanol production, which is the main cause of the decline in poultry meat production here in the U.S., I think that almost any poultry producer will explain that to you rather quickly. (!)

From the USDA…

U.S. broiler production has leveled off after decades of rapid growth

Between 1960 and 1995, annual broiler slaughter in the United States grew from 1.5 to 7.4 billion birds—4.6 percent per year, on average. With birds also getting larger—from an average of 3.35 pounds to 4.66—total live-weight production grew at an average rate of 5.6 percent per year.

While average weights continued to grow steadily after 1995, growth in annual slaughter slowed sharply and then fell in 2009 and again in 2012. Total live-weight production reached 49.8 billion pounds in 2008, but did not exceed that figure until 2013. In all, live-weight production grew by just 1.3 percent per year between 2003 and 2013, one-fourth of the 1960-1995 growth rate.

High produc­tion growth in earlier decades—and slowing growth later—reflected movements in demand for chicken meat. The cessation of broiler industry growth, due to slowing growth in population, per capita consumption of chicken, and exports, places new financial pressures on broiler producers and new stresses on industry organization.

source: usda

More Bad News About Ethanol. It Causes Corrosion and Leakage of Underground Fuel Storage Tanks.

Ethanol got its start as an MTBE replacement when MTBE was found to contaminate groundwater. Both are octane boosters. MTBE, as a gasoline additive, was intended to help curb air pollution but was later found to be a carcinogen contaminant of groundwater.

Fast forward to now. We all know that ethanol policy leads to nitrogen groundwater contamination in corn growing regions, but now we are learning that it may also be contributing to leakage in or around underground gasoline station fuel storage tanks. Furthermore, a São Paulo study suggests that using ethanol in vehicles increases ozone air pollution.

After NIST held a two day workshop here in Boulder a year ago to study how the combination of certain microbes with ethanol may be accelerating the corrosion of steel underground storage tanks of gasoline containing 10 percent ethanol, they have released a new report based on their findings. It focused on sump pumps, among other storage and pumping components. The industry is studying whether certain diesel tanks are now leaking because they previously held gasoline mixed with ethanol.

The ethanol people will probably tell you this is yet another conspiracy by big oil against them. The gas station owners and petroleum distributors, on the other hand, will tell you how expensive it is to replace tanks and pipes and fittings and replace them with fiberglass ones to accommodate this product that is government mandated.

In my view this is an important story. There are good options other than ethanol to be used as octane boosters in our gasoline and it is time to consider them.


Here is the July 29, 2014 article authored by Laura Ost for NIST:

NIST Corrosion Lab Tests Suggest Need for Underground Gas Tank Retrofits

A hidden hazard lurks beneath many of the roughly 156,000 gas stations across the United States.

gas tank sump pump
A NIST study found that corrosion may pose a hazard at underground gas storage tanks at filling stations. The study focused on sump pump components, especially the pump casings (labelled #3 in graphic), which are typically made of steel or cast iron.
Credit: Environmental Protection Agency
View hi-resolution image
Gas Tank Corrosion
Optical micrographs of severe corrosion on steel alloy samples exposed to ethanol and acetic acid vapors — conditions typical of underground gas storage tanks — after 355 hours, 643 hours, and 932 hours.
Credit: NIST
View hi-resolution image

The hazard is corrosion in parts of underground gas storage tanks—corrosion that could result in failures, leaks and contamination of groundwater, a source of drinking water. In recent years, field inspectors in nine states have reported many rapidly corroding gas storage tank components such as sump pumps. These incidents are generally associated with use of gasoline-ethanol blends and the presence of bacteria, Acetobacter aceti, which convert ethanol to acetic acid, a component of vinegar.

Following up on the inspectors’ findings, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratory study* has demonstrated severe corrosion—rapidly eating through 1 millimeter of wall thickness per year—on steel alloy samples exposed to ethanol and acetic acid vapors. Based on this finding, NIST researchers suggest gas stations may need to replace submersible pump casings, typically made of steel or cast iron, sooner than expected. Such retrofits could cost an estimated $1,500 to $2,500 each, and there are more than 500,000 underground gas storage tanks around the country.

The NIST study focused only on sump pump components, located directly below access covers at filling stations, just above and connected to underground gas storage tanks. The sump pumps move fuel from underground tanks to the fuel dispensers that pump gas into cars. These underground tanks and pipes also may be made of steel and could be vulnerable, too. “We know there are corrosion issues associated with the inside of some tanks. We’re not sure, at this point, if that type of corrosion is caused by the bacteria,” NIST co-author Jeffrey Sowards says.

Much of the U.S. fuel infrastructure was designed for unblended gasoline. Ethanol, an alcohol that can be made from corn, is now widely used as a gasoline additive due to its oxygen content and octane rating, or antiknock index. A previous NIST study found that ethanol-loving bacteria accelerated pipeline cracking.**

For the latest study, NIST researchers developed new test methods and equipment to study copper and steel alloy samples either immersed in ethanol-water solutions inoculated with bacteria, or exposed to the vapors above the medium—conditions mimicking those around sump pumps. Corrosion rates were measured over about 30 days.

The NIST study confirmed damage similar to that seen on sump pumps by field inspectors. The worst damage, with flaky iron oxide products covering corrosion, was found on steel exposed to the vapors. Copper in both the liquid and vapor environments also sustained damage, but corrosion rates were slower. Steel corroded very slowly while immersed in the liquid mixture; the NIST paper suggests bacteria may have created a biofilm that was protective in this case.

Although copper corroded slowly—it would take about 15 years for 1.2-millimeter-thick copper tube walls to develop holes—localized corrosion was observed on cold-worked copper, the material used in sump pump tubing, NIST co-author Elisabeth Mansfield notes. Therefore, stress-corrosion cracking is a concern for bent copper tubing because it would greatly reduce tube lifetime and result in leaks.

The NIST test equipment developed for the study could be used in future investigations of special coatings and biocides or other ways to prevent sump pump failures and leaks.

NIST held a workshop in July 2013 on biocorrosion associated with alternative fuels. Presentations and information from this workshop can be found atwww.nist.gov/mml/acmd/biocorrosion.cfm.

*J.W. Sowards and E. Mansfield. Corrosion of copper and steel alloys in a simulated underground storage tank sump environment containing acid producing bacteria. Corrosion Science. July, 2014. In press, corrected proof available online. DOI: 10.1016/j.corsci.2014.07.009.
**See 2011 NIST Tech Beat article, “NIST Finds That Ethanol-Loving Bacteria Accelerate Cracking of Pipeline Steels,” at www.nist.gov/mml/acmd/201108_ethanol_pipelines.cfm.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

UPDATE: I have made a correction, since contacted by the author of the NIST article that the NIST conference was actually held in 2013, not a few weeks ago (here in Boulder). I have also added the post from NIST.

Ethanol Profits are Inverse to Corn Profits – For Now

Graph by Don Hofstrand, AgMRC

Ethanol profitability goes up when corn prices go down, and so can serve as a good hedge for corn farmers, provided the ethanol price is strong.

According to Hofstrand, a retired Iowa State University ag economist:

Production and consumption of ethanol remain in relative balance with a slight increase in net exports. This has resulted in a gradual reduction in ethanol stocks which has helped support ethanol price. However, future ethanol usage and price remains clouded due to the ‘blend wall’ and other transportation fuel issues.


source: Do ethanol returns serve as a hedge against low corn prices?