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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Corn-Based Ethanol Recasts Water's Role

By Lori Ozzello

In the hubbub over ethanol's new celebrity, one of the co-stars hasn't received much attention.

Growing corn and processing it into ethanol requires water, billions of gallons of it.

‘You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see this,’ says Cornell University ecologist and ag scientist David Pimentel, referring to the amount of water it takes to grow, then process corn into biofuel. ‘Just put the numbers down.’

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates Colorado growers planted approximately 25 percent more corn this year to satisfy the growing demand for corn to produce biofuel, created by fermenting the sugar in plants. Biofuel such as ethanol is emerging as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels like gasoline.

As with all energy production, there's a flip side, a tradeoff. Americans use roughly 400 million gallons of gasoline a day, according to the U.S. government, and about 60 percent of it is imported. Gas is the single largest petroleum product consumed.

An acre of bioenergy crops — perennial grass, for instance — yields about 5 dry tons per acre, states the Department of Energy's Office of Science. A dry ton, in turn, yields about 67 gallons with today's technology, so a ton of bioenergy crops may equal about 335 gallons of ethanol. U.S. biofuel producers are able to only produce a fraction of what America demands.

But every day someone is doing something. Farmers plant more corn, researchers experiment with different plants and processes, and people — citizens, activists and government officials — encourage change.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Stulp says, though, that these are not ‘new acres,’ but acreage farmers otherwise might have fallowed or planted with wheat or pinto beans. Some will even take their chances with dryland corn, sowing fewer plants per acre and hoping for enough rain to finish the crop.

‘Farmers will need mother nature's help,’ Stulp says. There is some risk associated with increasing irrigated and dryland acreage, but there's also an opportunity for them to profit.

Ethanol processing plants have been constructed in Windsor and Sterling. Smaller ones are operating at Coors in Golden and in Eads. Others are under construction in Yuma and Walsh.

Ethanol plants generally are located near cattle feedlots. Once the starches are extracted from the corn for use in the production of ethanol, the leftover mash is fed to cattle. Feedlots tend to be near railyards, another advantage for ethanol manufacturers since the biofuel cannot be piped like natural gas. Most companies transport biofuel by tanker or railcar.

The corn required to produce ethanol is grown on the eastern plains, where average annual precipitation ranges from 8 to 14 inches. Depending on the type of corn grown, it may take twice that much water to supplement natural precipitation and finish the crop. The fermentation process also requires water.

Not everyone, though, sees the action as a good thing.

Pimentel has been an outspoken critic of corn ethanol since a Carter Administration task force he chaired, the Gasohol Group, found corn-based ethanol consumed more energy than it produced. Pimentel published a follow-up study in 2001.

In the 2001 paper he reached the same conclusion. This riled critics who said his calculations were simply wrong and counter that ethanol produced a net gain of anywhere from 40 to160 percent. He says he is not opposed to biofuel, but he believes we need to improve the fermenting processes and use plants that are not food crops and do not require irrigation.

It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce one acre of corn. ‘Whether it's rain or irrigation, its water,’ Pimentel says. According to Pimentel's calculations, each gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water to grow and process the corn.

In a March 2007 survey, USDA economists forecast American farmers would plant 90.5 million acres of corn this year, a 15 percent increase. Using corn to feed the biofuel machinery instead of cattle, poultry, dairy, and pork industries means higher costs for farmers to feed animals and possibly diminished meat and poultry production.

In Colorado, 10 eastern plains counties, not known for abundant rainfall, may produce more than 140 million bushels of corn if the additional 25 percent is factored in to past harvests.

During 2005, the USDA reported the top five Colorado corn producing counties—Yuma, Kit Carson, Phillips, Morgan and Weld—produced 96.7 million bushels of corn alone. The next five brought in another 30.7 million.

In a state where water is becoming more scarce and meeting new demands more difficult, why corn?

’We've traditionally grown corn in Colorado,’ says Stulp. ‘Yuma County is often No. 1 in the United States (in corn production), whether the price is high or low. Most of the corn goes into livestock feed. We're a grain deficit state. No matter how much we grow, we've still got to import some from Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa.’

For scientists in Golden, corn based ethanol ‘is seen by NREL as a stepping stone,’ says George Douglas, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. At the same time researchers are refining corn ethanol processes, they are experimenting with ethanol made from prairie grasses, fast growing trees, and wheat stubble, all plants that require less water to grow than corn.

NREL also is charged with streamlining ethanol manufacturing. One way to do that is to find more productive yeasts to break down the starches in corn or to find other ways to extract sugars. Currently the process uses enzymes to convert starches into simple sugars, and then yeast to ferment them into ethanol.

Douglas says NREL and other labs, including Cornell and Oak Ridge, have had success in using steam and enzymes to break down cellulose, or hard-to-get sugars, in plant fiber. The steam can be condensed and the resulting water used again. NREL was initially established to research solar power in 1977. The Golden facility is now the only federal lab devoted exclusively to renewable energy research.

Renewable energy has gotten a lot more attention since President Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2007.

President Bush announced his Advanced Energy Initiative, along with requests for significant budget increases for biofuel research. Biofuel includes using corn, sugar cane and other plant matter to produce renewable energy.
NREL is positioned to lead the effort and the state supports similar renewable energy efforts. In February, the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, University of Colorado at Boulder and NREL signed an agreement at the state Capitol to develop renewable energy technology. First-year Gov. Bill Ritter ran on a platform to promote renewable energy and is an advocate of the venture. Additionally, in the 2007 legislative session renewable energy was a central theme.

Some scientists, agricultural economists and others have reservations about the current state of biofuel development. The relatively large amount of water and fossil fuels required in the manufacturing process concern them, and they question whether corn-based ethanol is part of a long-term energy solution.

‘It's not going to make a huge dent,’ admits NREL's Douglas.

In 2004, for example, 160 billion gallons of gasoline went to power Americans' vehicles.

‘The most we can make from corn is 17 billion,’ says Douglas, slightly more than 10 percent.

New processes might make it possible to produce another 60 billion gallons, but that level of production may be years away. More efficient vehicles are also part of the solution. Douglas says he expects private industry to step in to take over biofuel production, much like it did in the early days of personal computers.

Douglas sees parallels between renewable fuels and computers.

‘It takes—time and effort, to build up the technological base that's necessary,’ Douglas says. ‘The tech path is similar.’

And the critics?

‘Pimentel has very good questions to look at on land use and land use dedicated to fuel,’ Douglas says. ‘Technology has unintended consequences.’

A window of opportunity opened for the evolution of the technology, and the markets to produce renewable energy. The result: news almost every day of breakthroughs, advances, criticism or praise, differences from one lab to another, new techniques, investments, energy savings, corn market analyses and more.

‘We're just now learning how to fracture and remix molecules,’ Douglas says. ‘For 75 years the oil industry's been very successful doing just that. Now we take sugars and do the same, make ethanol plants into bio refineries. We're going to substitute sugar for petroleum. It's just carbon and hydrogen rearranged.’

‘What remains to be seen is how well this does commercially.’

Growth in the industry has changed agricultural and commodity markets and some say it may revitalize small towns where farming was fading. Stulp sees an improved profitability picture for the farm industry. A Yuma County native and Prowers County farmer and rancher himself, he believes it may signal other changes as well. For instance, during recent years, news of Front Range cities drying up farms for their water was not unusual. Stulp says that may change.

‘Farmers may be better able to hold on to their water,’ he says. ‘Often they get into a situation where they have to sell.’ However, increased farm profits associated with higher corn prices resulting from this new demand, may allow farmers to consider options other than selling their water to meet the needs of growing cities.

At the same time, others question what impact the shifting biofuel trend will have on food production, and what the long-term changes in tillage practices, fertilizer use, increased acreage and crop rotations will have on the land.

Even some of these questions, says Stulp, seem to be working themselves out. For example, the mash, a by-product from ethanol plants, is high in protein and can be used to feed livestock. Feedlots save on feed costs by locating facilities near ethanol plants and take advantage of this newly available protein rich food supply. Ethanol plants also are improving processes to recycle water.

‘It's a rather remarkable new market for grain producers,’ Stulp says. ‘It's easy to pick them out of a crowd now. They have a smile.’

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