The past several weeks have seen several presidential hopefuls ‘flip-flopping’ their previously negative position on ethanol.  Just last week, Governors Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Scott Walker (R-WI) indicated their sudden change of heart on corn-based ethanol. Previously negative on the first generation biofuel, Bush commented to Iowans last week that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) “has worked, for sure.” The position of Iowa as the first Presidential caucus state has led some pundits to rehash the claim that the RFS continues to exist only because of this position.  And while this political theater around corn ethanol makes for good reading material – Iowa loves solar, wind and advanced fuels too – and should serve as an example to any Presidential hopeful of what a diverse energy future looks like in the United States.

The idea that all that’s stopping the flourishing of advanced biofuels are established biofuels clogging the market place has led some to see Bush and other candidates’ change of heart on corn-ethanol as causing Bush “a headache as he seeks to court Iowa corn growers.” In the past, Bush has been only supportive of advanced fuels, an unfortunately common paradox that denies the synergies that exist between different feedstocks and pathways in the bioeconomy.  

Iowa may be the state that most quintessentially defines the vision of the RFS – containing both corn and cellulosic ethanol plants, but also significant R&D and demonstration projects for more advanced fuels, such as algae and those sourced from woody crops. Iowa is no slacker when it comes to other renewables, either.  In 2013, it ranked third for non-hydro renewable generation among states, with wind making up 27 percent of generation.  Just for comparison, renewable generation makes up 2.2 percent of total generation in Florida.

Iowa grows a lot of corn and soy, to be sure.  But, as the Biofuels Digest points out, it is also a top advanced fuels producer as well. The state produces 298 million gallons of biodiesel per year (an advanced fuel), and is ramping up to 20 million gallons of cellulosic fuels sourced from crop wastes at POET-DSM’s facility in Emmetsburg, IA.  By the end of 2015, Iowa will be home to three commercial scale cellulosic biofuels plants, a first for any state. First generation corn ethanol facilities in the state are also adding “bolt-on” technologies to their plants to produce cellulosic ethanol and additional corn oil. For instance, Iowa’s Quad County Corn Processors added a cellulosic ethanol "bolt-on" facility to their ethanol plant in 2014.

Currently, Iowa is also installing plants that will convert organics wastes, such as food waste, to biofuels.  Converting other wastes to energy – including industrial processing wastes (such as cheese or food processing), as well as manure and municipal solid waste are being supported through grants from the state’s economic development authority.  All of these fuels would qualify as renewable fuels under the RFS.

There are several demonstration level projects occurring in the state as well; all of these projects use either waste or non-corn based feedstocks. There are demonstration scale projects for renewable chemical feedstocks from wood and agricultural wastes, and two algae-based oils and algae-based products facilities are being built, with capacity expected to reach as high as 40,000 metric tons per year.  Carbon capture and reuse (CCR) is being demonstrated at corn ethanol plants, the carbon dioxide captured will be used in making chemicals and pharmaceutical products.   

As presidential hopefuls tour Iowa, it’s important that they see all the benefits and opportunities presented by the RFS.  It’s equally important they notice the diverse renewable energy portfolio of the state – the wind, solar and other technologies, supported by overall aggressive renewable energy targets. Candidates should be touring farms and bio-refineries, but also seeing the resulting economic and community development, and the jobs and opportunities in science and engineering, which are made possible thanks to the state’s embrace of a diverse renewable energy portfolio.


For more information see: 

The Iowa Renaissance, Biofuels Digest

Jeb Bush’s ethanol past may complicate his Iowa future, Yahoo