Worldwatch Perspective: Can Biofuels Make or Break Iowa’s Future?

Iowa Corn Field
End of the corn season in Iowa.

A report profiling the impact of the current biofuels boom in the U.S. state of Iowa and painting a more sustainable path forward for the biofuels industry was released Tuesday in the state capital, Des Moines. The report, Destination Iowa: Getting to a Sustainable Biofuels Future, is a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the Sierra Club. It examines the implications of biofuel development for Iowa’s economy and environment as well as for climate change.

Iowa is currently the undisputed leader in U.S. biofuels production, with nearly one-third of the nation’s ethanol capacity. The state is home to 28 ethanol refineries with a combined capacity of 1.9 billion gallons per year, and to 13 biodiesel refineries with a combined capacity of nearly 260 million gallons a year. Nineteen additional corn-based ethanol refineries are under construction that would enable Iowa to produce another 1.4 billion gallons annually, bringing it to a future ethanol capacity of 2.3 billion gallons.

Biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol, have been embraced by many in Iowa as a way to provide economic development while reaching energy security and climate goals. Yet the industry is not living up to its potential. Iowa’s corn ethanol boom has made some farmers better off but is causing a host of other problems, such as increased water pollution and soil erosion and the loss of conservation reserve lands. It is also pricing some farmers out of the market. Ethanol refineries have brought jobs to small towns—though fewer than expected—and some residents are wondering what will happen once the corn frenzy dies down and the market demands more advanced biofuels and different feedstocks.

Biofuels production has complex implications, not just for the economy but also for agriculture, health, and rural development, as well as for air and water quality, biodiversity, and climate change. The lessons from Iowa and from biofuel programs around the world show that it is important to promote “smarter,” rather than just “more,” biofuels development.

Biofuels do have enormous potential. If developed in a sustainable manner, they can improve the environment, promote social justice, and provide a carbon-neutral energy source. Yet they represent only part of the solution to our energy needs. Capturing gains from energy efficiency, improving transport systems, and developing a diverse array of renewable energy sources are other important keys to mitigating climate change and assuring a sustainable energy supply.

The positive potential of biofuels will not be realized unless there is a framework that rewards sustainable production and punishes production that imposes external costs on society and the environment. Without such precautions, biofuels could do as much harm as good. One only has to look to the oil palm takeover in Southeast Asia or the continued clearing of Amazon forests for soy and sugarcane plantations to see the devastation that can arise from poorly considered biofuels production.

Iowa—and the United States overall—needs policies that support more sustainable biofuels. But having the right policies in place is just one step. Another is building awareness of why some biofuels measure up better than others. Blind faith in a concept does little good, because the devil is in the details—in this case, the details of production from the field to the tank.

For example, consumers might think twice about buying ethanol produced in a coal-fired refinery, since these facilities release double the greenhouse gases on average that refineries powered by natural gas do. Consumers may also wish to avoid ethanol derived from corn grown on fragile soils because of the impact this can have on water quality and wildlife habitat, or because of the associated carbon losses and nitrate oxide emissions from cultivating that soil.

Consumers—and producers—might instead choose to invest in the cellulosic ethanol fuels and advanced biodiesel fuels that are now nearing commercialization. These so-called “second-generation” biofuel technologies are much more efficient and sustainable, from an energy and climate perspective, than corn ethanol or soy biodiesel. Moreover, the cellulosic crops—which include certain grasses and woody crops—may be far more effective at promoting rural development in the United States than the current corn-dominated biofuels industry, because more processing will have to be done locally to make their use economical.

The best solution would be to develop a sustainability rating for biofuels—something like a consumer labeling system that rates a fuel based on its life-cycle impacts. Policymakers in the European Union are already working on such a system, which may provide a useful model for the United States. Meanwhile, as the report on Iowa notes, Iowans—and Americans—can demand policies that support sustainable agricultural and fuel refining practices and promote second-generation biofuel technologies.

Raya Widenoja, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute, is the lead author of Destination Iowa: Getting to a Sustainable Biofuels Future.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

A report profiling the impact of the current biofuels boom in the U.S. state of Iowa and painting a more sustainable path forward for the biofuels industry was released Tuesday in the state capital, Des Moines.