California Plan to Cut Greenhouse Gases Will Impact Ethanol

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Jan. 9 that his state will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10% - a move that would provide a boost for ethanol.

A new plan to cut California's motor fuel greenhouse gas emissions by 10% could mean a big boost for the ethanol industry.

David Hallberg, CEO of Prime BioSolutions and founder of the Renewable Fuels Association, says the California plan could boost the state's annual ethanol demand to around 5 billion gallons by 2020.

The potential impact of this executive order goes beyond the volume of ethanol produced, however. Hallberg says that California would not be able to reach its goal of a 10% cut in emissions if it only purchases "conventional" ethanol. This is because California will measure the fuel's "life-cycle benefits" - from the emissions of cars in the state back to the ethanol plant and even back to the farm - and most ethanol plants use fossil fuels to distill ethanol.

Measuring life-cycle benefits would mean that no-till corn being sold to ethanol plants should receive a premium for sequestering carbon. It also means that ethanol plants selling fuel to California would need to reduce their own gas emissions to help California meet its 10% reduction.

Prime BioSolutions happens to have a jump on emissions reductions at their low-carbon ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. Whereas conventionally made ethanol reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions by 15%, low-carbon systems such as this plant can cut emissions by as much as 80%, Prime BioSolutions' Dan Kenny said in a press conference.

The Mead plant includes a feedlot with 30,000 cattle that eat the wet distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production. By being able to feed the distillers grains on site, the plant does not need to power a drier to prepare the grains for transport. Plants that are able to sell the distillers grains wet rather than dry can reduce emissions significantly circumventing drying machines.

The technology at the Mead plant goes farther, however, replacing fossil fuels with methanol given off by microbes' anaerobic digestion of the cattle manure.

Other methods are in place around the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at ethanol plants, including other ways to use manure for energy and a plant that supplements its energy needs with methane gas from a landfill.

California will not begin putting the new standards into place for at least another year, but California universities are already studying how much farther than 10% the state could go.

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