Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: Craft Beer Strategy for Renewable Fuel

October 25, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Ethanol is renewable fuel. It has changed public minds about renewable fuels’ legitimacy. The public policy question isn’t, consequently, about ethanol directly but about the research and policy path forward towards renewable energy sources while decreasing reliance on structurally costly legacy energy supplies.

Think of ethanol, figuratively, as craft beer. Distinctively-flavored, robust beer could be found in mid-to-late 20th century America but it was imported from Europe. Those beers, Guinness for example, stood apart in a sea of bland, volume-oriented American lagers. Commodified American beer traded distinctive flavor qualities for mass unobjectionableness. American beer was and is defined by marketing, not taste. The net result is a triumph of image over substance. The losers were beer drinkers seeking better beer.

The craft beer revolution turned weakness into strength. Big American Beer’s triumph was also its Achilles Heel. Focusing on quality, unique characteristics, and flavor, craft beer brewers quietly changed the beer world by giving consumers choices. And, craft beer sales are rising reflecting the broad consumer trend of drinking less but better.

Similarly, ethanol is teaching us that renewable, sustainable energy is not only possible, it’s practical. For Minnesota’s long-term energy future, it’s also necessary.

Minnesota’s northwestern neighbor, North Dakota, produces a lot of coal, oil and natural gas. In fact, they’re rapidly expanding their legacy energy generation fuels production as new retrieval technologies unlock the Bakken Shale. More fossil fuel production accelerates increased climate volatility’s well-documented consequences, however. Short-term success and profits mask the long-term price that everyone eventually pays for looking backwards rather than plotting a forward-focused energy path.

Minnesota, in contrast, yields no legacy energy generation fuels. We don’t drill oil or natural gas, dig coal or mine fissionable material. Energy independence, for us, means wind, solar and renewable fuels. As the cost of legacy fuel sources drifts up, accompanied by growing increased climate volatility mitigation spending, Minnesotans are caught between a rock and a hard place. We’re spending more money and receiving less. That’s never a great economic prosperity strategy. As a result, Minnesota has every economic incentive to develop a better renewable, sustainable, and diverse energy generation solution.

I’ve always thought of starch-based ethanol as a transition fuel technology. It’s a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid derived from fermenting and distilling sugars. In Minnesota’s ethanol industry’s case, those sugars come from home-grown corn. Corn is a starch. Scale and end-use determine the product’s application but, honestly, there’s not much difference between ethanol distilled for auto engines and that directed towards booze.

According to a 2012 report, Midwestern Ethanol Innovation, from the Great Plains Institute, ethanol still has more promise to deliver. Increasing production efficiency saves money, lowers price and improves carbon reduction. Today’s ethanol production looks different than 1993’s efforts. Twenty years from now, it will be better and more efficient yet, reinforcing the lesson that innovation never stops. Most importantly, Minnesota’s experience with ethanol as a renewable energy source informs next steps toward diversifying raw material sources. Specifically, moving faster and more purposefully into cellulosic fuels.

Corn is a starch. It’s fueled alcohol distillation for millennia. As a gasoline alternative, however, ethanol production consumes nearly as much energy as it will deliver in fuel. The GPI report examines increased ethanol production efficiency but it also tacitly supports cellulosic ethanol’s development.

Cellulose is an organic compound that naturally occurs within most plants, serving as a structural component of plant cell walls. It shows a lot of promise as a renewable, sustainable fuel source but, in many respects, it’s a full step behind corn ethanol production. Most any plant can serve as cellulosic ethanol source material but some plants are better than others. The smart long-term plan, however, take advantage of naturally occurring, ethanol-optimal plant sources.

Northern Minnesota’s soil is great for growing pine trees but mediocre, at least compared to most other parts of the state, when it comes to corn and soybeans. Minnesota’s forest and wood products industry serves specialized industry needs. Unfortunately, one of those is magazine paper, a rapidly contracting business. Cellulosic ethanol doesn’t need mature white pine trees, it needs scrubby new and easily gathered pine growth.

Let’s transform a liability, Minnesota’s sputtering forestry industry, into a renewable, sustainable ethanol fuel industry asset. It won’t be easy or fast but Minnesota’s energy independence needs demand a locally grown, locally produced fuel future. Saving money, growing Minnesota’s economy, creating jobs, stabilizing communities and strengthening families; choose one or all five. In every case, Minnesota is safer, stronger and better. If craft beer can do it, so can renewable fuels.

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  • Jeff R says:

    October 25, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Unfortunately, starch-based ethanol is as likely to be a transition fuel as is/was fossil-based oil.  Once systems are supported by government subsidies as fossil-based and starch-based fuels have been, they become entrenched and it becomes nearly impossible to create a shift to anything new.  Furthermore, starch-based and cellulose-based fuels are very land and water intensive to produce.  If you’re going to advocate for this shift you also need to be honest about the trade-offs involved; are Minnesotans willing to trade clean and abundant water to produce cellulose-based ethanol?  Mixed hardwood forests for row cropped pine?

    • Robert Moffitt says:

      October 28, 2013 at 10:17 am

      Direct government subsides to ethanol producers ended some time ago.

  • Robert Moffitt says:

    October 28, 2013 at 10:28 am

    For those unfamiliar with biofuels, it’s important to not that cellulosic ethanol is exactly the same “volatile, flammable, colorless liquid” that we are now making from corn and sugar cane.  However, because of the extra steps currently required to make ethanol from cellulose (which may also require more water, energy, etc.), it is has not been practical to make it commercially on a competitive basis with corn or sugar cane ethanol.

    Everyone (including myself) agrees that making ethanol from a non-food materials such as scrub pine or grasses would be a good thing. The question is, can we find an affordable and efficient way to do it?