Energy technology is evolving quickly, and the list of biofuels and useful coproducts continues to grow. Today, one biofuel—ethanol—is the focus of attention. Fermenting ethanol from corn or other grains is a proven technology, and engines have already been adapted to burn gasoline-ethanol blends. Currently, there are 116 corn ethanol plants in the United States, and 79 more are being built or are planned. At a conversion rate of 2.8 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn, producing the 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol flowing from today’s plants requires a veritable mountain of the golden grain—nearly 2 billion bushels. And if all the new plants are built, corn ethanol production will double. All of this is moving us toward “30 by 30,” the goal of replacing 30 percent of our nation’s transportation fuel consumption with renewable energy by the year 2030.
But consider that these old and new plants, together with plant expansions, will have a combined need for 4.5 billion bushels of corn. That staggering number represents 42 percent of the 2006 U.S. corn harvest. This new demand will cut into the corn supply that is already being used for animal feed and as a key ingredient (in various forms) in thousands of food products, most notably processed food. Several months ago, when the numbers were added up, speculation arose that someday soon there may not be enough corn to go around. That speculation evaporated during the last State of the Union address, when the president raised the ethanol bar by setting a national goal of producing 35 billion gallons by 2017, an amount more than six times current production. Now there is little doubt that corn supplies will be stretched thin, and a new dimension has been added to the ethanol challenge.
Our nation’s ethanol production goals cannot be achieved solely with corn and other starch grains. It will require the use of new sources of biomass, such as switchgrass, wheat straw, and corn stover (cornstalks and leaves). In each case, the portion of the plant digested to make ethanol is the cellulose—the material that helps give plants their structural support. The ethanol that results from the digestion process is called “cellulosic ethanol.” It is created using specialized enzymes and a series of complex processes.
In the near future, corn and cellulosic ethanol feedstocks may well be competing for the same acres of farmland. This includes land that is now growing wheat, beef, or—in the case of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—ducklings. In the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), the heart of North America’s duck factory, big changes are coming. What will be the net effect on duck populations? As the saying goes, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.