An effort to turn agricultural waste into fuel (2023)

An effort to turn agricultural waste into fuel (1)


Climate change provisions in the Anti-Inflation Law have spurred developers to build ambitious renewable energy projects that turn corn into ethanol and dung into methane.

Cattle on Bryan Sievers' farm in Stockton, Iowa. Farmers like Mr. Sievers convert liquid manure into renewable energy.Credit...Lyndon French for the New York Times

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Despite state and federal programs to turn corn into ethanol and soybeans into biodiesel to power cars and trucks, the United States has never before considered agriculture a primary energy producer.

That changed when Congress passed the climate provisions of the Anti-Inflation Act in August, which provides $140 billion in tax incentives, loans and grants to replace fossil fuels with cleaner, carbon-reducing renewable energy.

In addition to wind and solar power, the raw materials needed for a significant portion of that energy come from agriculture: the alcohol from fermenting corn and the methane from the billions of gallons of liquid and millions of tons of solid manure. produced by large pig farms and poultry farms.

Despite opposition from environmental groups concerned about rising pollution from farm waste, developers across the country are seeing opportunities to build ambitious renewable energy projects to convert crops and farm waste into low-carbon energy.

"There is not a single renewable energy producer in the country that is not considering or taking steps to install new technology, expand its facilities or build new facilities in response to the federal tax incentives passed last year," said Geoff Cooper, president and executive director of the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry association.

In January, Avapco, a biofuels company that operates an ethanol refinery in Thomaston, Georgia, about 60 miles west of Macon, received an $80 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a facility that will produce 1.2 million gallons of jet fuel. a year of wood chips. And on a 2,500-acre site near Hennepin, Illinois, Marquise Energy is working with low-carbon fuel maker LanzaJet to build an ethanol and biodiesel plant to produce aviation fuel for jets departing from Chicago's two major airports. .


An effort to turn agricultural waste into fuel (2)



The emphasis on energy production is a major shift in American farm policy that began in the early 1970s when Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon administration, encouraged farmers to plant "row by row of near". Butz's urgency to produce enough food to feed the United States and the world, officials said, has transformed family farms into an industry dominated by export-oriented commodity-producing companies.

The government's plan to convert farm produce into energy is intended to boost economic output, said John E. Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri.

"This new shift in energy and carbon sequestration vastly expands the scale and intensity of agricultural production," he said. "You know, people can only eat so much."

However, environmental groups are concerned about the additional waste the effort could generate. Phosphorus and nitrogen emissions from US farms are "the greatest challenge to our nation's water quality," according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More acres of corn, the more fertilized crop, and more fertilizer from larger poultry and cattle farms could increase nutrient loads.

“The federal government is pouring billions of dollars into an already poorly regulated industry in the name of climate action,” said Emily Miller, an attorney with Food and Water Watch, a national environmental group.

One of the newer projects sits on a 245-acre field on the outskirts of Little Lake Preston, South Dakota. Last September, Gevo, a Colorado developer, broke ground on Net-Zero 1, an $875 million refinery that turns corn into low-carbon jet fuel.

Gevo says its farm-to-fly project will release 80 percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ethanol produced by a conventional plant. A wind farm will power the plant, which will convert 35 million bushels of corn from about 100 South Dakota growers into 65 million gallons of kerosene a year.


Manufacturing practices, including equipment used to capture carbon from air emissions, will offset the carbon released in jet engine exhaust, said Patrick R. Gruber, the company's chief executive. “This will be the cleanest ethanol plant in the world with the lowest carbon footprint,” he added.

None of this would be possible without the support of the government. Virtually every phase of Net-Zero 1 production and a good chunk of its revenue benefits from tax incentives, grants and out-of-pocket payments for low-carbon renewable energy, and the nearly $20 billion Congress has approved for carbon cleanup beginning in 2021. When the plant begins production in 2025, it will be eligible for a clean fuel tax credit of $1.75 per gallon and an $85 tax credit for each ton of carbon dioxide it removes in deep underground caverns.

Thats not all. Congress also provided $40 billion to the Department of Energy for loan guarantees to finance innovative low-carbon projects. Gevo expects the department to approve a $620 million loan guarantee to cover 70 percent of the construction costs of Net-Zero 1.

And in September, the Department of Agriculture awarded Gevo a $30 million grant to pay its corn farmers a bonus if they use "climate-friendly" farming practices to grow their crops.

In neighboring Iowa, Greenfield Nitrogen is developing a $400 million facility near Garner to produce 96,000 tons of carbon-free fertilizer from ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen.

In addition, nearby wind farms will generate the electricity needed to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water molecules, part of the process of making carbon-free fertilizers from ammonia. The Inflation Mitigation Act authorized a tax credit of $3 for each kilogram of this "green hydrogen."

Three dollars may sound small, but it can add up quickly, said Linda Thrasher, co-founder and president of Greenfield Nitrogen, who explained that it takes 176 kilograms of hydrogen to produce one ton of ammonia. "That's $528 per ton of production, which is very lucrative and fundamentally changes the green ammonia industry," she said.



Thousands of livestock farms are also prepared to benefit from tax breaks and subsidies. The American Biogas Council, an industry association, counts 2,300 operating biogas plants in the United States that convert organic waste into methane to be burned in power plants or used as transportation fuel. With the tax credits in the new climate law, the council plans to install 15,000 more, including 8,600 on large dairy, pig and poultry farms.

Roeslein Alternative Energy, a Missouri company, is building six biodigestion plants on large cattle and hog farms in Iowa and Missouri to produce methane for transportation fuel and electricity. The company-paid construction is part of an $80 million carbon reduction demonstration project funded by the Department of Agriculture to produce methane from manure mixed with prairie grasses planted on fringe lands.

A $14 million expansion of an existing biodigestion furnace is underway at the Bryan Sievers cattle ranch in Scott County, Iowa. "It's a new way to combine conservation agriculture and energy production that farmers they will adopt as soon as society accepts it," he said.

Gevo executives say energy-focused farms will be a factor in reducing carbon from agriculture, which now accounts for 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. The contracts Gevo being developed with South Dakota corn growers are designed to keep carbon in the soil by reducing the use of commercial fertilizers, increasing soil fertility, and reducing erosion.

"We will make sure that people continue to develop," Mr. Gruber said. “Some are already doing an excellent job. We want them to do better. As? Rewarding them for doing better.”


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