Energy independence, reducing emissions, and bridging the urban/rural divide

By Tim Raphael of Portland, Oregon. Tim has been a long-time Oregon environmental advocate who now works for Pacific Ethanol - a renewable fuels company.

What do Governor Kulongoski, Congressman Greg Walden, an Eastern Oregon Wheat farmer and a barge operator have in common? They were all among the 500 people in Boardman on October 5th celebrating the grand opening of Pacific Ethanol's state-of-the-art biorefinery, Oregon's first opportunity to produce its own motor fuel. This video shows how renewable fuels are breaking down old political barriers between urban and rural Oregon.

At Boardman, we are working with local farmers to grow corn for the plant, and we are using corn that is already being imported to Oregon to feed livestock, converting the corn starch to ethanol and delivering the remaining distillers grain back to local livestock growers. It's a value-added process. In the future we hope to convert local cellulose feedstocks like abundant wheat straw to ethanol. Skeptics of corn-based ethanol should review the latest research [pdf] on low carbon fuels, including full life-cycle analyses from the University of California, Berkeley.

The research shows that production processes like Pacific Ethanol's--which avoids energy intensive drying of distillers grains and locates plants near food and fuel markets--reduces greenhouse gas emissions up to 40 percent compared to conventional gasoline. By shipping ethanol to Portland in barges that were previously returning empty, we are creating transportation efficiencies.

And by improving farm economics, ethanol can be a driver for more sustainable agricultural practices. Herbicide, pesticide, nitrogen use and soil erosion from corn production are all declining, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

A basic tenet of sustainability is continuous improvement. We can continue to do better, and we are as anxious as anyone to research and develop the next generation of biofuels. But we need access to markets today to be able to finance the next innovations. Oregon is doing biofuels right -- having passed a landmark legislative package that ensures market access and creates incentives for local feedstocks. The policy is already translating into on-the-ground investment. Oregon is well-positioned to reap the economic and environmental benefits of renewable fuels.

  • Garlynn -- (unverified)

    Let me just put this out there: One of my personal pet peeves is the widespread confusion of three terms: "biofuels," "ethanol" and "biodiesel." This above post, in my opinion, does very little to rectify the situation. As somebody with two biodiesel vehicles in my household fleet, I'm only interested in the development of biodiesel. I could care less about ethanol, for now -- it just doesn't interest me much. So, when I read about "biofuels," the first thing I want to know is: ethanol, biodiesel or other?

    So, my question to you is: Are you just doing research into ethanol out there in Boardman? If so, that's great -- any move towards cellulosic ethanol and away from corn is great.

    But I'd be really interested if you were also exploring ways to make cellulosic biodiesel, and your post doesn't seem to answer that question. Maybe you can.


    cheers, ~Garlynn

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I wonder how much water is consumed to produce a gallon of ethanol in a dry environment like Boardman.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Thanks for the comments... 1) Cellulose--yes, our grant application looks at producing cellulosic ethanol, but many of the technologies being researched are aimed at creating syn gas from cellulose that ultimately could be used to produce biodiesel and other renewable fuels. It is not yet clear which technologies/feedstocks/renewable fuels will be commercially viable is an exciting time with many possible avenues.

    2) Water use -- Today, ethanol processing requires approximately three gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol, nearly 50% less than processing needs a decade ago.

    Perhaps more importantly, every gallon of ethanol replaces a gallon of conventional gasoline that requires significant amounts of water for oil extraction and refining. ConocoPhillips recently reported that water usages for refining alone require eight gallons of water for every gallon of unleaded gasoline (December 13, 2006, Iowa State University, Renewable Fuels Panel). And available future sources of petroleum, including shale oil and tar sands, require even greater amounts of water.

  • John DeVoe (unverified)

    Tom's question is the right one to be asking.

    Water supplies are already overallocated in the Boardman area and across much of the state for much of the year. Growing corn in the desert makes little sense from a water perspective, especially after 150 years of water use and policy that has severely drawn down aquifers and dried up streams in the dry season.

    Let's make sure that growing corn in the desert is not the pretext for another attempted water grab from the Columbia, at the expense of fish, hydropower generation and communities dependent on the Columbia's streamflows. Some of the proponents of growing corn in the desert were behind the so-called "Oasis" legislation in the 2007 legislature, an attempt to grab 500,000 acre feet of Columbia water in the dry season while repealing rules to protect sensitive fish stocks and Oregon's bucket for bucket mitigation policy.

    If farmers want to grow corn with existing water supplies, that's their choice. But they should not make new demands on an already overallocated public resource to grow new corn crops in the desert.

    Finally, growing corn in the desert is not an appropriate response to climate change. Expanding large scale production of a thirsty crop in the desert that requires extensive irrigation in the face of predicted effects of climate change seems like a classic western water folly.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    Hi John, Today, our plant at Boardman is a value-added process on corn that is already being imported to Oregon as feed for livestock--we're utilizing the starch from the corn as fuel and returning high protein, high nutrient feed back to local livestock feeders.

    It is unlikely that large amounts of corn will be grown in Oregon for ethanol--that which is grown here is too high moisture, and there are healthy markets for other crops already in cultivation.

    The real opportunity is that our plant is located so close to abundant cellulose feedstocks--wheat straw and wood waste--to make next generation fuels and continue to provide Oregon with a home-grown, low carbon renewable fuel alternative to petroleum.

  • John DeVoe (unverified)

    Thanks Tim.

    I'd appreciate some attribution on the data regarding corn moisture content and consequent lack of utility in Pacific's operation. That would be useful.

    Also, if what you say regarding corn is correct, why are we continually facing DiLorenzo and Campbell's call for more water from the Columbia - ala the "Oasis" bill - to grow corn in the Boardman/Umatilla area for biofuels operations?

    With respect to the "other crops already in cultivation" you refer to, what are they and what are the specific water demands of those crops? Who is seeking to expand production of those crops and by what acreages?

    The proponents of "Oasis" will be back in the short session and in '09 looking to override protections for fish and streamflows in the Columbia so a very narrow set of interests can get large amounts of water from the Columbia. I assume you can assure me that Pacific will not be supportive of those efforts?


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