Corn

As EV popularity grows, Illinois farmers look at ethanol for planes

Reid Thompson, a fourth-generation farmer in central Illinois, is in the middle of planting season. Weather permitting, he tends to the fields in the morning, walks home for lunch with his wife and newborn, and then returns to his tractor until sundown. He’ll harvest his corn in early fall, sell it to a nearby ethanol plant, and eventually it will make its way to a car’s gas tank. That’s the routine, at least for now.

Nearly all U.S. gasoline contains ethanol to reduce emissions, and nearly all of that ethanol is made from corn starch. But, electric and hybrid vehicles offer even further emissions reductions. This poses a threat to corn demand that could be devastating for a state such as Illinois, the second-largest corn producer in the country.

The resulting decline in the value of Midwestern farmland and corn prices will hurt farmers and have ripple effects across rural communities, predict University of Nebraska at Lincoln agricultural economists Jeffrey Stokes and Jim Jansen. Rural businesses that cater to the agriculture sector could go under, property taxes that fund local schools will likely plummet and farmers could be forced to default on debts to community lenders, the economists forecast. This would come after farmers have been hit by a series of misfortunes over the last five years: the pandemic, trade wars, inflation and excess supply.

Corn could be the key to solving another clean energy dilemma, though. Unlike cars and trucks, planes are difficult to electrify, and some fuel companies believe the answer to cleaning up aviation lies in America’s heartland.

“(Corn is) the cheapest, most sustainable, most scalable feedstock (raw material),” said Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo, one of the companies with plans to turn corn ethanol into aviation fuel.

Thompson and other corn farmers are eager to seize this opportunity in sustainable aviation fuel, another term for jet fuel made without fossil fuels.

“As I sit here and look at the next so many years of my farming career, as maybe my father starts to retire and maybe one of my kids wants to farm, I wonder what’s going to keep us here longer. And to me, that’s sustainable aviation fuel and the ethanol demand,” said Thompson, a father of three. “I mean, there’s got to be a home for our corn because that’s what we grow.”

But, before corn ethanol-to-jet fuel can be a viable alternative to conventional jet fuel, the emissions associated with corn ethanol production must come down. This will require farmers to change their practices on the field and ethanol plants to implement controversial technologies like carbon sequestration.

The rise of electric vehicles

Since 2005, the federal government has required transportation fuels to be blended with increasing amounts of renewable fuels such as corn ethanol to reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil. The mandate transformed rural economies across the Midwest. Between 2008 and 2016, corn prices rose by 30%, and 26% more land was converted to cropland than would have been otherwise, according to a 2022 study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

Ethanol plants quickly sprang up around corn fields, due largely to investments from farmers eager for the new market to succeed.

“It’s just another avenue of capturing some of that value of my product,” said Thompson, whose parents and grandparents were early shareholders in One Earth Energy, an ethanol plant 15 miles east of his primary farm that he sells to today.

Reid Thompson, a fourth generation farmer in central Illinois, checks equipment for corn planting, near Gibson City, May 8, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Reid Thompson, a fourth generation farmer in central Illinois, checks equipment for corn planting, near Gibson City on May 8, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

The six states that grow the most corn — all in the Midwest — also account for 70% of the nation’s fuel ethanol production, and it’s a huge market. More than 98% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol, and 94% of domestic ethanol is made from corn starch. The rest of the ethanol is mostly derived from wood and field residues, including stalks, stems and leaves.

According to a 2021 U.S. Department of Energy analysis, corn ethanol offers 40% tailpipe emissions reductions compared with gasoline. But, the National Academy of Science study suggests carbon emissions from using land to grow corn may negate, or even reverse, tailpipe emissions reductions. When land use changes are factored in, corn ethanol may be more than 24% more carbon intensive than gasoline, according to the 2022 study.

Electric vehicles, on the other hand, have no tailpipe emissions. So, in pursuit of the national mission to achieve net zero by 2050, the federal government has shifted its efforts from cleaning gasoline-powered cars to promoting battery-powered cars with emissions mandates and tax credits. Electric and hybrid cars accounted for over 16% of new light-duty vehicle sales last year, more than a 3% increase from 2022.

In March, the EPA finalized “the strongest-ever” pollution standards for passenger cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty vehicles. The rule was designed to accelerate the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles.

The EPA’s decision will also “decimate the ethanol industry and corn demand,” the Illinois Corn Growers Association said in a statement shortly after the standards were announced.

Today, roughly 30% of Illinois corn production and 40% of all U.S. corn production is used to make ethanol.

While corn farmers are cognizant of the threat battery-powered vehicles pose to their family businesses, they’re quick to mention the volatility and infrastructure challenges the emergent industry faces. Ford and GM recently scaled back production of electric vehicles and Tesla had mass layoffs.

“I look at the whole EV (electric vehicle) segment as a segment that gets blown around with the winds of change. It may be popular now, but who knows what the future may be harboring,” said Jared Gregg, a seventh-generation farmer from east central Illinois. “EVs have infrastructure challenges that they’ve got to be able to clear to make this a functional reality.”

Regardless of how much electric and hybrid vehicles decrease demand for ethanol in the auto sector, Gregg is looking to opportunities in aviation like Thompson.

“I can’t control how technology comes forward in the future. What I can do is step up to the plate and meet the challenges that are laid before us here and now and adapt like all farmers always have over time,” said Gregg.

The ‘Grand Challenge’

Non-military flights within and departing from the U.S. account for 11% of the nation’s transportation-related emissions. But, aircraft are more difficult to electrify than motor vehicles because of how heavy today’s batteries are. All of the passenger and cargo space in a twin jet airliner would have to be replaced with batteries for it to take off, and even then, the plane could only fly for under an hour, according to the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering department.


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