Corn Ethanol Bust Provides an Opening for 2nd Gen Biofuels

It’s a fact. Corn ethanol has lost its luster. Its intrigue has gone from, say, Sean Connery in Dr. No, to the “let’s-just-pretend-they-never-happened” Timothy Dalton years. Each day now brings news of another ethanol plant closure or project put on “hold.” In fact, the stream of bad news for corn ethanol has become so steady that it has largely faded into background noise — just another sign of a crashing economy.

In reality, however, corn ethanol was set up for a crash before the faltering world economy gave it the impetus to go over the edge. I’m not suggesting that corn ethanol is going extinct, just that, as some industry experts have put it, corn ethanol is going through a “major adjustment” where the outcome will be large swaths of consolidation and efficiency improvements within the industry.

In a way, corn ethanol is finally coming of age. To put it crudely, little Timmy has stopped having wet dreams and gone out and met some actual women.

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Just so we’re clear, I think corn ethanol still has a place in the US economy, but it finally seems to have taken on a value related to the true level of its usefulness. Regardless of the food versus fuel political boondoggle, there was never any way we could have grown enough corn at a cheap enough price for some future president to stand in front of a corn ethanol refinery with a banner proclaiming “mission accomplished.”

And I say good riddance to the hype. Corn ethanol was starting to become a distraction. A political toy to dangle in front of the right constituents. A complicated enough issue that you could pay the right person to come up with whatever answer you wanted to support your position.

In fact, I think the corn ethanol bubble bust is actually A Good Thing for the biofuels industry as whole. Corn ethanol was always just a way to get from here to there. Nobody with a good grasp of the big picture ever thought we’d be filling all the cars in the US with 85% corn ethanol fuel. In their quiet moments, when they were really being honest with themselves, even the staunchest corn ethanol supporters would agree.

And with corn ethanol’s downfall, I think the potential major winners are second generation biofuels — biofuels made from non-food crops grown in a sustainable manner, waste agricultural material, or garbage. Biofuels like cellulosic ethanol (can’t we just call it “Celluline”), algae diesel, and perhaps butanol.

Now that attention has shifted from “Woo-hoo corn ethanol!” to “what’s next?”, second generation biofuels might actually get some of the political and investment attention they so desperately need.

If there’s any real hope for us to span the gap from now to when we can all drive, say, hydrogen fuel cell cars, we need biofuels. There’s no way around that folks. It’s a progression that has to happen and biofuels are the only way — and the only truly good biofuels are the ones most folks have never heard about (or have mistakenly confused with corn ethanol). These second generation biofuels are full of promise that they can provide energy independence in a sustainable manner.

I just hope that the bad name of corn ethanol hasn’t harmed the good name of biofuels in general.

Image Credit: tauntingpanda‘s Flickr photostream under a Creative Commons License.

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.