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Can US corn ethanol assist Japan in reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

A recently study released by the US Grains Council (USGC) finds that a significant portion of US-produced corn ethanol will likely meet Japan's 50 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction threshold over gasoline, supporting the case for that fuel's competitiveness and its sustainability compared to other fuel sources.

The study “Greenhouse Gas Life Cycle Analysis of US-Produced Corn Ethanol for Export to Global Markets” was prepared by the University of Illinois, Chicago Energy Resources Center for the US Grains Council (USGC). USGC is a private, non-profit corporation comprising of producer organisations and agribusinesses with a shared interest in developing export markets. The study was commissioned to help overcome barriers uncovered during previous market assessments including outdated views on US. ethanol sustainability and it is envisaged that the results will help the USGC and its industry partners dispel myths about US ethanol and help make the case for opening the Japanese market for US ethanol. In particular, the study will help show key Japanese government officials and industry stakeholders that US corn ethanol meets Japan’s rigorous international sustainability requirements.

Japanese window of opportunity for ethanol

Japan has a requirement that all biofuels must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) by 50 percent, and Japanese regulators will decide whether or not to include US corn ethanol in Japan’s biofuel policy in the spring of 2017 for implementation in 2018. According to USGC the information in the new study will be critical in showing Japanese policymakers and industry that they can supply their ethyl tert-butyl ether (ETBE) needs using US corn ethanol as a component in its production. Currently, only sugarcane ethanol, largely from Brazil, meets Japanese standards that were developed a decade ago. Japan has an E3 limit and most ethanol is blended into the supply as ETBE. There are almost no independent dealers in the country’s petroleum market. Instead, a few companies sell contracts through a formalised distribution system. ETBE was selected as the fuel of choice and there is no infrastructure for direct blending.

The ongoing efficiency improvements in corn ethanol production, an increased number of co-products from that production and improvements in US corn cultivation practices have resulted in significant reductions in ethanol’s greenhouse gas life cycle emissions and are widening its environmental advantage over petroleum, according to the study, authored by Dr. Steffen Mueller, Principal Economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Energy Resources Center, and Stefan Unnasch, Managing Director of Life Cycle Associates.

– As one of the world’s largest fuel markets and a major user of ETBE, it would greatly benefit Japan to have a wider range of choices in what ethanol is used in their ETBE production. With US ethanol significantly less expensive than Brazilian ethanol, having it qualified for inclusion in Japan’s policy should reduce the cost of purchasing ETBE from the US or producing ETBE in Japan from imported US ethanol, said Michael Dwyer, Chief Economist for the USGC, who focuses on ethanol export strategy.

≈3.8 billion gallons would qualify today

The study suggests that a 50 percent GHG reduction is currently being achieved by those US corn ethanol plants that adopt a combination of advanced technologies including a) corn oil separation for sale into the biodiesel markets, b) use of corn traits with directly incorporated enzymes, c) carbon dioxide recovery at the ethanol plant for resale into the food or enhanced oil recovery markets, d) sale of wet distillers grains, e) use of anaerobic digesters for energy generation, and f) use of soil carbon sequestering crop rotations and management practices. As mandated by European Union (EU) requirements many of these sustainable agricultural production practices have also been certified by accredited third party organizations and new satellite tools exist that can verify land use, management practices, and zero-deforestation requirements.

Bottom line in the figure shows percent GHG reduction from individual ethanol plant technology combinations over the Japanese gasoline baseline (figure courtesy USGC).

Bottom line in the figure shows percent GHG reduction from individual ethanol plant technology combinations over the Japanese gasoline baseline (figure courtesy USGC).

The analysis in the study suggests that 3.8 billion gallons of US produced corn ethanol will likely meet the 50% GHG reduction threshold over the current Japanese petroleum baseline of 81.7 gCO2e/MJ. Moreover, 6.1 billion gallons of US produced corn ethanol will meet the 50 percent GHG reduction threshold over the current petroleum baseline if direct land use sequestration credits are included.

The USGC and its partners, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), Growth Energy and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have been engaging with the Japanese fuel industry and Japanese policymakers to showcase the value of utilizing US corn ethanol in the fuel supply as part of a global market development effort to promote usage around the world. Other target markets include Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and Peru.



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