December 09, 2023

EVs changing the future of ethanol

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part series on changes to Iowa farming.

As the nation’s largest producer of ethanol, Iowa is preparing to face a total agricultural overhaul as electric vehicles (EV) enter the market.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association reports 57% of Iowa corn is used to make ethanol - nearly 30% of all U.S. ethanol. Iowa’s ethanol industry can produce more than 4.1 billion gallons annually, using more than 1.3 billion bushels of corn. That’s nearly double Nebraska - the second highest producer.

The Warren Cultural Center in Greenfield hosted four guest panelists Thursday to discuss the Farm Bill as a part of their successful community speakers series.

The Farm Bill is a package of legislation passed every five years that has a big impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown and what kinds of foods are grown. The bills also include subsidies or payments to farmers that meet certain criteria. Each farm bill has a unique title. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 expires in 2023.

Panelist and Greenfield farmer Randy Caviness said his great-grandfather never made the switch from horses to tractors in the early 1900s. “Our biggest crop at the time was oats,” Caviness said. “He told my grandfather, ‘If we get rid of the horses, what are we going to feed the oats to?’”

“Ethanol is kind of like oats today,” said panelist Francis Thicke of Fairfield. “Electric vehicles are coming and the industry is not going to admit it.” Thicke is a dairy farmer, member of the Farmers Union, has a Ph.D. in soil fertility and worked in the USDA Extension in soil science.

Thicke said when he asked the Iowa ethanol industry about the changes coming with electric vehicles, they said electric cars didn’t work in the 1970s and they won’t work today.

“There’s a real tendency to fight it and not want to see the reality - it’s a kind of willful ignorance,” Thicke said. “We have to look at what we’re going to do with half of our corn in five years when probably we’re not going to be able to sell ethanol.”

The White House has a goal of 100% electric light-duty vehicles by 2027 and all vehicles by 2035. And California, the country’s largest auto market, has approved a plan to phase out new gas cars by 2035 — a move that will likely lead other to states to follow.

The transition to electric vehicles also has support from the auto industry. General Motors announced it would phase out gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

Caviness said he is unsure if the switch will be able to be made that quickly. “It’s going to be quite a shift if they do,” he said. “Obviously we know that ethanol cleans up the air; it does burn cleaner.”

According to the U.S. Department of energy, nearly 97% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol, typically E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline), to oxygenate the fuel and reduce air pollution.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer said ethanol also displaces known carcinogens and harmful aromatic pollutants in gasoline such as benzene, toluene and xylene. These toxic aromatics, make up as much as 39% of the unleaded gasoline that comes out of the pump.

Thicke said there are a lot of factors not included in that data. “The coal used at the plant to make the ethanol, the diesel fuel and all the whole fertilizer and everything used to grow the corn, they often aren’t putting that into the equation of clean fuel,” he said. “People are starting to realize that ethanol is not that great of a thing. A lot of the drawbacks, for example, USDA data says for every gallon of ethanol we produce from corn, we lose a gallon of soil due to erosion. That’s never put into the equation. For every acre of corn used to make ethanol, we lose 30 pounds of nitrogen to our water resources. Those things are not put into the equation, and I think that’s a real problem.”

Research funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Department of Energy, found ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion.

“We’re at 60% of the electricity generated in Iowa is wind,” Thicke said. “Once we start to power the cars with wind and solar, that’s going to change things too.”

While Caviness agreed he sees where the nation is headed, he’s still cautious about how fast we get there. “We all want to see America prosper,” he said. “How we get there – there’s a lot of challenges.”

Cheyenne Roche


Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.