Last week at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Ill., I had the opportunity to speak with Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, a trade association made up of ethanol producers and support businesses as well as about 30,000 “growth force members” — anyone who wants to help support ethanol.
Buis was a “full-time” farmer in central Indiana until he went to Washington D.C. nearly 25 years ago. His two brothers handle the farming chores in Indiana these days.
Growth Energy was formed 3 years ago “basically to challenge a lot of the misinformation that was being perpetuated against ethanol out there. And as you know, we certainly have our challenges on doing that,” Buis says.
While you may believe a group like Growth Energy may oppose the move to eliminate the tax subsidies for ethanol and the tariffs on foreign ethanol, which will probably take place at the end of this year, he says he agrees with getting rid of them.
“As a matter of fact,” Buis says, “over a year and a half ago, we actually proposed reforming ethanol tax credits and eliminating them by July 1 of this year. Had Congress done that in the debt-ceiling deal, it would have saved taxpayers about $1.5 billion. It would have reformed ethanol tax policies to give us what we think is the biggest barrier to future growth, and that’s access to the marketplace.
“We want to promote the sale of flex-fuel vehicles and blender pumps at the retail level where the power’s in the hands of the consumer. Let them choose their blend based on price and performance and help reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, create jobs here in America.”
On the “food vs. fuel” debate, Buis explains, “People say that ethanol is taking food from hungry people. Number one, we produce ethanol from number 2 yellow corn. Its primary use is for livestock feed. It’s not canned corn, it’s not sweet corn, it’s not popcorn. The irony is the only thing we take out of that kernel of corn is the starch. All the nutrients, all the fiber, all the oil, all the protein gets returned in a co-product called distiller’s grains, which is a higher value, less expensive animal feed. Most people aren’t making this connection,” he says.
Buis says the biggest challenge for ethanol is dispelling all the misinformation out there. “This is one of the reasons that we’ve partnered with NASCAR; to demonstrate that ethanol is a high performance fuel and to dispel a lot of that misinformation about its performance.
“We're already showing that your car’s going to run better on ethanol than it does on gasoline, and NASCAR is proving that. They’re seeing an increase in horsepower on the performance side, and they’ve not seen a decrease in fuel mileage, which is another myth out there. They’re two-thirds of the way through the season and their cars haven’t had any problems.”
Buis adds, “If we can get E15 into the marketplace, this alone would reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 7 billion gallons. And we can do better than that. We have to continue to move forward on opening that marketplace so consumers can make a choice. That’s all we’re asking.”
What about the criticism from the small engine manufacturers about the effects of ethanol on their products?
“Number one,” says Buis, “all small engines are warranted for E10 use. They can produce those engines for whatever blend they want to in the future, but they need a clear signal about what those blend levels are going to be and they’ll adapt. The approval for E15 that EPA granted this year does not include E15 for small engines. They don’t have to burn it. It’s completely voluntary.”
He says that we need to start somewhere to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
“If we really want to succeed and start making our fuel out of renewables, it’s going to take corn and cellulosic feedstocks. There will continue to be a role for corn especially as yields to continue to climb. We produce more corn from less acreage with fewer inputs all the time and the yield trend is almost vertical into the future,” he says.
One of the challenges for cellulosic ethanol is making it price competitive. Cellulosic brings a lot more to the table politically because it represents a 50-state solution to our energy.
“I can’t state strongly enough how the American farmer and American agriculture made this nation great and it will continue to make the nation great,” Buis added. “And not only can we produce food and fiber, we can produce fuel. Give farmers a price and they’ll produce. The future’s bright and we’re the answer to the nation’s problems. We’re not the problem.”