Should coal be used to create ethanol? Could ethanol itself be used instead?

Rather than burning dirty coal to power ethanol plants, why not use this same ethanol to make more ethanol? Is this a good idea or a bad idea? What are the pro and cons? — Kenneth M., Rockford, IL

According to a March 2006 Christian Science Article by Mark Clayton, “Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, whose plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol – the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas. An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction – and 150 others on the drawing boards….” In contrast, some ethanol plants are looking towards renewables resources for energy, particularly biomass electricity and thermal. Corn Plus in Minnesota is coming close to completion of a project that will utilize fluidized bed combustion technology to burn the syrup normally put in distillers dried grains (DDGS). They expect it will virtually eliminate the natural gas demand at the plant and the resulting DDGS will lose some fat content but increase in protein content. Another proposed example is in the works at Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op. They are attempting to build a biomass gasification addition to the existing plant that would burn waste wood chips and the plant’s VOCs. I discuss others in my June 2005 article in Ethanol Producers Magazine. Ken, it would make little sense to expend energy to create ethanol, only to expend more energy from the resulting alcohol fuel to make more alcohol. Using the original biomass resource for heat for drying, fermentation, distillation or for direct combustion to electricity is the most efficient use of the biomass resource, which would be from the part of the biomass which cannot be easily converted to ethanol. Biomass can also be used is gaseous forms either through anaerobic digestion or gasification for a cleaner burn for heat or electricity generation. I feel compelled to state emphatically that I disagree with those in the industry and EPA who want to reduce the emissions requirements for ethanol and biodiesel plants so they may utilize coal. Sacrificing human health, land and water resources for a renewable fuel is just plain crazy – particularly when other cleaner, more sustainable options are very available. There is absolutely no reason why biofuels plants should not use biomass resources for thermal and electric energy. There is every reason to utilize combined heat and power, landfill gas and biogas, geothermal and solar thermal, wind and water energy, and photovoltaics to generate renewable liquid fuels. Scott Sklar
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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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