On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time — took to streets, college campuses and parks to protest poor environmental conditions and demand a new, cleaner, greener way forward for our planet. This inaugural Earth Day took place in response to environmental crises wreaking havoc across the nation, as oil spills poisoned the oceans, smog blanketed cities and rivers literally caught fire. The event launched a wave of action, including passage of landmark environmental laws in the U.S., and started the environmental movement we know today.
Around the same time, the modern ethanol industry began taking shape as petroleum-based fuel became expensive and environmental concerns involving leaded gasoline created a need for an alternative source of octane. And just over a decade later, the Broin family began commercial production of ethanol at a biorefinery in Scotland, South Dakota as a way to supplement their farming operation in the midst of the 1980s agricultural crisis. Today, what was once a failed one-million-gallon-per-year ethanol production facility has grown into a network of biorefineries across seven states making up POET, the world’s largest producer of biofuels with a capacity of 2 billion gallons of production a year.
On this Earth Day, 50 years after it was established, the event is celebrated in over 190 countries. It is an opportunity for the global community to work together to solve what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time — climate change — the devastating impacts of which are everywhere, from mass extinction to extreme weather events and impacts on human health.
For example, according to NASA, the duration and intensity of hurricanes and the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have all increased since the 1980s. In the Midwest, we’ve already seen increases in extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding, all of which have a substantial impact on agriculture, infrastructure, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Scientists from the University of Arizona also predict that over one-third of all plant and animal species are at risk of extinction in as little as 50 years due to annual increases in temperatures. Diseases like cholera and malaria thrive in warmer temperatures, and as the human population grows, we are expanding into areas that increase the chance of infection from zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
A large contributor to all of these issues is the fact that most of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels like oil that are found deep in the Earth. These nonrenewable resources were formed over hundreds of millions of years from dead plant and animal matter. When oil is extracted and burned it releases greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide, which trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
The extraction process alone can generate air and water pollution and transporting petroleum often leads to oil spills, all of which cause environmental contamination and harm to local communities. When fossil fuels are burned for energy they not only emit GHGs; they also discharge chemicals and carcinogens into the air, which are toxic to humans and linked to a variety of health issues. And it goes without saying that the waste products are just as hazardous, if not more so.
But there are readily available, affordable alternatives that help combat climate change...
On a recent “Food, Farm, Facts” podcast presented by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Jeff Broin, founder and CEO of POET, discussed the environmental benefits of biofuels. “When you burn ethanol, you get carbon dioxide and water, and the carbon dioxide goes into next year's corn plant. It is the only liquid fuel that can ever be in sync with nature. It's significantly cleaner than gasoline,” said Broin.
A 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report states that GHG emissions from corn-based ethanol are 39 percent lower than traditional gasoline—the same annual impact as removing 20 million cars from the road. The study also reports when ethanol is refined at natural gas-powered refineries, which include all of POET’s biorefineries, GHG emissions are even lower—around 43 percent below gasoline.
In addition, the health benefits of using biofuels over gasoline are enormous. Research from the University of California Riverside shows that ethanol blends reduce toxic emissions by up to 50 percent, including smog and ultra-fine particulates. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is making all of us more conscious than ever about our health — especially our respiratory health — it is especially important for us to embrace solutions that help to protect the air we breathe.
“Air pollution affects everyone, healthy or otherwise, but it particularly has impact on people with preexisting lung conditions,” says Robert Moffitt, Director of Clean Air for the American Lung Association of Minnesota. “People with asthma, people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). For those people, pollution can be a risk to their lives.”
Beyond the human health benefits, biofuels like ethanol are also a critical lifeline for the rural economy. The ethanol industry purchases 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop, which directly impacts farm incomes. At the start of 2020, market prices were already low due to continued trade barriers, and since the pandemic, prices have fallen even more. However, biofuels still represent huge market potential for farmers. According to Broin, “We need to make sure that we're all on the same page, fighting for more market to keep prices up for farmers and to clean up the environment.”
Currently, nearly all fuel sold in the U.S. is blended with 10 percent ethanol, and last spring, the Trump Administration lifted a ban that had prohibited the sale of E15—gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol—in the summer months. E15 is approved for all cars manufactured after 2000, which includes 90 percent of the vehicles on the road today, and is available at stations across the country.
The historic victory of achieving year-round E15 was a long-fought effort that has the potential to unlock demand for 2 billion bushels of new corn demand and 7 billion gallons of biofuel demand in the coming years. Plus a nationwide shift from E10 to E15 would displace more destructive, dangerous oil with clean, renewable biofuels in consumers’ vehicles. Biofuels are a win-win-win for farmers, consumers, and the environment, but the industry must continue to fight what Broin refers to as “a battle for the gas tank.”
Over the past three decades, POET has led the way in increasing market access and promoting nationwide use of biofuels, all while improving the company’s own sustainable practices. In just the past decade, POET’s research and operations teams have created a suite of innovations to improve the ethanol production process. For example, POET’s patented BPX process, which utilizes enzymes instead of heat to convert starch into sugar, has cut energy use at each plant by 15%. In addition, POET’s patented Total Water Recovery system continuously filters and treats water until it is of usable quality, which essentially eliminates liquid discharge from the network of biorefineries.
This year, on the momentous 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the occasion will look dramatically different than ever before due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of gathering in the streets to support environmental protection or even coming together in our communities for environmental activism, we must stay apart to prevent the spread of the virus. However, we can all make small changes at home to make a difference, and we must make it a priority to implement sustainable habits moving forward to win the fight against climate change. The future of our planet depends on it.