Ethanol is hot in Illinois. Fully one-sixth of the corn grown in Illinois currently goes to ethanol production, we lag only Iowa in that endeavor, and it’s boom time here, compliments of incentives and a phase-out of another gasoline additive.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol is an alcohol made from renewable resources such as corn and other cereal grains, food and other beverage wastes and forestry by-products. Ethanol-blended fuel substantially reduces carbon monoxide and volatile organic compound emissions, which are precursors to ozone. The corn-based substance is added to gasoline blends to meet oxygenate level requirements mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and to raise the octane level.

Other crops can be turned into ethanol, but corn is processed most efficiently. Although plenty of controversy exists over whether the production of ethanol takes more energy to make than what you can get out of it (which may also be true of gasoline) it is clearly a more than ample substitute for the banned gasoline additive MTBE, which aids air quality but has been found to contaminate the water supply. Ethanol biodegrades quickly in water and is also air-friendly.

The Southwest Research Institute determined that a new blend of ethanol and diesel fuel can reduce particulate matter emissions by as much as 41%, nitrogen oxides by as much as 5% and carbon monoxide by 27%.

Ethanol reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 22% more than any other transportation fuel. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 identified carbon monoxide (CO) as a pollutant that threatens public health and the environment.

Ethanol fuels reduce greenhouse gases that cause global warming by approximately 40%.

Most of the ethanol industry is owned by Archer Daniels Midland Co., but a few plants are run by farmer-owned cooperatives. The Chicago Board of trade began listing ethanol futures contracts at the end of May. Hot hot hot, I tell ya.

Any downsides? Sure. As the town of Lena found out, the process of producing ethanol can literally stink. And people in the Champaign-Urbana area are concerned about this industry’s high water usage and the traffic that the plants would generate.

The Champaign council’s concerns involve odor and traffic that such a plant might generate. The city is asking that any plant be required to use a dry-mill process to create ethanol, which uses a grinding process to break down corn, and to install thermal oxidizers to reduce odors.

The city also wants any company seeking to build a plant to provide a traffic impact analysis by a professional licensed engineer.

Council members also expressed concerns about the heavy water usage of an ethanol plant.

Because of the Champaign city council’s concerns, their county board must have a three-quarters majority for any decision to allow ethanol plants on unincorporated land.

I think ethanol is a good thing. I have no objection to expanding the ethanol industry as long as care is taken to minimize negative impacts to the communities near the plants. And it means preservation of more farmland, doesn’t it?

[Update 7/1. New links:
A link to a better article on the Lena ethanol plant story. Read about CAVE people (hint: related to NIMBY). A story here about how our own native switchgrass may yield better net energy results than corn. Here’s how the ethanol industry planted a fake story to make themselves look better than they really are. A listing of plant locations, denoting the farmer-owned co-ops. Champaign & Urbana Protest Amendments requesting requirements for dry mill (yes, as opposed to wet mill) ethanol processing, installment of thermal oxidizers to reduce the smell, and water and traffic studies: http://www.co.champaign.il.us/countybd/ELUC/060508agendafull.pdf Noise is not considered a problem with ethanol production. p.s. The amendments were approved May 18.]