The Importance of Net-Zero Ethanol

ethanol net zero emissions

 

In a world demanding net-zero, the way forward for ethanol is to take advantage of its carbon sinks

 

By Jim Ramm, P.E., EcoEngineers

 

The following column was published in the May/June 2021 issue of Ethanol Today.

Climate change is causing tremendous problems worldwide that oil company shareholders, businesses, governments, and consumer economies are no longer willing to ignore. BP announced goals in February 2020 to reach net-zero carbon operations and a 50% reduction in the carbon intensity of their oil and gas products by 2050. Shell, Exxon, Haliburton, and others in the oil and gas industry later made similar announcements. Businesses like Google have long-established leadership in claiming net-zero operations, and the list of Fortune 500 businesses joining them grows each year.  More than 100 countries have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — including the United States just a few months ago.

In a world demanding net-zero, the way forward for ethanol is to take advantage of the two great carbon sinks available: farm-level soil carbon and underground carbon dioxide storage.

But first, what exactly is net-zero carbon? It is not the same as zero carbon.  “Net” means minimizing our emissions and balancing the economy’s necessary emissions with carbon capture.  Worldwide, 51 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) is emitted each year.  The United States is currently responsible for 15% of worldwide GHG emissions — or 7.7 billion metric tons.  The USEPA has estimated emissions by sector, as seen in Figure 1. Changes across all sectors are necessary to reach net-zero.

Figure 1

Ethanol’s basis in agriculture and yeast fermentation make it an interesting player in this low-carbon world. Today, net-zero or negative-CI (carbon intensity) ethanol is possible through low-carbon farming, ethanol production, and carbon capture. Agriculture will provide low-carbon farming practices and soil carbon sequestration.  Yeast fermentation will continue to convert sugars into alcohol and a pure carbon dioxide stream uniquely well-suited for underground carbon storage.

The American Coalition for Ethanol helped lead the way with their 2018 white paper, The Case for Properly Valuing the Low Carbon Benefits of Corn Ethanol.  Argonne National Laboratory has included farm practices in the 2020 GREET Model, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is considering rulemaking on site-specific farm practices based on the study by POET and Farmer’s Business Network.

The future of ethanol will be based in low-carbon farming including reductions in farming energy, fertilizer, and N2O emissions as well as soil carbon sequestration.  Ethanol production will continue to become more efficient including kernel fiber ethanol and low-carbon process heat and electricity.  And finally, carbon capture and storage in underground reservoirs is becoming an industry reality while leveraging the advantage of the United States IRS 45Q tax incentive.

Net-zero or negative-CI ethanol is coming.  Going forward, let’s pay attention to the positive contributions that ethanol can make to reaching net-zero.  By reaching a net-zero product, ethanol will maintain its importance in the economy for years to come.

Jim Ramm headshot

Jim Ramm, P.E.

Jim Ramm, P.E., is the Director of Engineering and cofounder of EcoEngineers, consulting and auditing firm that specializes in low-carbon fuels and decarbonization strategies. He has over 30 years of experience in civil/environmental engineering including work in the areas of ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and solid waste and renewable fuel production processes. For more information about low-carbon fuels, decarbonization strategies, or EcoEngineers, contact Jim at jramm@ecoengineers.us.