pelleted corn stover Image courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Bioenergy Program

Ethanol byproducts offer billion-dollar business opportunity

In order to be economically viable, corn and ethanol production must be concentrated near coal-burning facilities that can blend the pellets into their fuel mix.

Two new studies show that generating energy from ethanol industry byproducts can fuel a billion-dollar business opportunity for the farm economy. 

Iowa-based Regional Strategic Ltd. examined the economic impact of collecting, processing and delivering corn stover byproducts of ethanol – the stalks, leaves and stems of corn plants – for use in generating electricity. The stover is compressed into biomass pellets that can be burned like coal in existing power plants, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and increasing renewable energy supplies. This is similar to the use of wood pellets in European power plants.

The studies reveal that with modest infrastructure investments, building even a single pellet facility can deliver large, quantifiable economic benefits across farm economies. Developing a broader industry around corn stover represents a multibillion-dollar opportunity.

For farmers, harvesting stover means reaping more value from their crops. For electric utilities, burning biomass pellets provides low-cost emission reductions and renewable energy from existing facilities without the intermittency challenges of wind and solar energy. For ethanol-producing states, expanding bioenergy capacity delivers significant economic benefits, including an increase in jobs, economic output and gross domestic product (GDP).

In order to be economically viable, corn and ethanol production must be concentrated near coal-burning facilities that can blend the pellets into their fuel mix. There are currently six states in the U.S. that produce more than 1 billion gal. of ethanol per year: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and South Dakota. Together, these states produce nearly 11 billion gal. of ethanol per year. 

Trestle Energy has established new fuel pathways under low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) programs in California and British Columbia that enable existing ethanol plants to produce very-low-carbon fuels and command a significant financial premium in the market. These pathways integrate co-production of fuel ethanol and biomass pellets for use in existing coal-fired boilers.

Over the past several years, Larksen LLC has validated the technology and then the process feasibility in the field. Larksen estimates that corn grown for ethanol in the six states noted above could yield roughly 44 million tons of harvestable corn stover per year. It is conceivable that this stover could replace around 37 million tons of coal used for electricity generation. This is equivalent to roughly 5% of the 738 million tons of coal burned by U.S. power plants in 2015.

The studies -- commissioned by Larksen LLC, Trestle Energy's affiliate for biomass supply -- focus on Nebraska and Iowa, two leaders in U.S. ethanol production, with an eye toward how building out a new biomass industry would affect the economies of these states.

Nebraska's ethanol industry produces roughly 8.32 million tons of harvestable corn stover annually, and Iowa's industry produces around 15.6 million tons. Utilizing this stover to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the economy would reduce the overall carbon footprint of ethanol, thus increasing the value of that ethanol in jurisdictions with LCFS or clean fuel standards. This increased value would help farmers earn extra profits from their stover and fuel a new economic engine for agricultural states.

The economic impacts show that building a corn stover industry to complement ethanol production in Iowa could deliver more than $1 billion in additional labor income and contribute $2 billion to Iowa's GDP by 2030. In Nebraska, the analysis shows the potential to generate $840 million in labor income and $1.5 billion in GDP over the same period. This can be achieved using mature technologies.

What is required is modest infrastructure investments to enable coal-fired power plants to blend biomass into their fuel mix. Agricultural states can start reaping the benefits today by enabling infrastructure investments that open the door for this billion-dollar business opportunity.

Reports from the studies are available at http://trestleenergy.com/economic-analysis.

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