Opinion: The sustainable-energy future has room for biofuels as well as electric vehicles

With the Biden administration and the major U.S. automakers investing heavily in electric vehicles, rural Americans — especially those connected to farming — are concerned about the future of biofuels. Given that ethanol, primarily made from corn, is blended with the gasoline that powers the vast majority of the nation’s vehicles, the prospect of replacing gasoline with electricity has enormous implications for the rural economy. In 2019, the global biofuels market amounted to over $136 billion.

On August 5, General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep) jointly announced their plan to have 40-plus percent of their U.S. fleet be electric by 2030. That same day, President Biden signed an executive order that establishes a goal of having half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 be zero-emissions. Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, which has passed the Senate and is currently before the House, includes $15 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure.

Obstacles remain in this proposed shift to electric vehicles, including their high price. But given the leading role that fossil fuels play in global warming, we should all be heartened by these efforts, especially in light of the dire forecast in the new report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The economic concern in farm country is understandable, but unnecessary. The GOP has framed the shift Biden seeks as a zero-sum game, pitting ethanol and the petroleum industry against electric vehicles. If Biden and Democrats are for electric vehicles, their argument goes, they must be against biofuels.

“President Biden’s short-sighted stance on electric vehicles is undermining Iowa’s renewable fuel industry while simultaneously jeopardizing America’s energy independence,” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said in response to Biden’s announcement. The message resonated. A headline on AgWeb blared: “Ethanol ditched as Biden unveils plan to phase out gas cars.”

So far, the administration and congressional Democrats have offered little retort. Once again, Republicans are winning the messaging war in rural America.

It’s a missed opportunity, because the GOP is offering a false choice. Here’s what the future-of-fuel narrative should be: petroleum industry vs. electric vehicles and renewables, including biofuels. For obvious political reasons, Republicans want to keep ethanol tethered to the dying petroleum industry in the public debate. But with the political will, there is a future for biofuels independent of the petroleum industry.

The goal should be to make advanced biofuels, instead of petroleum, the fuel of choice in all remaining internal combustion engines and all hybrid vehicles. Because even as electric vehicles catch on, there will continue to be a market for liquid fuel. Light vehicles purchased with internal combustion engines in the next decade will stay on the road for many years, for instance. But the most durable market for liquid fuel will be in heavy equipment, aviation and container ships. The fuel will need to be sustainable through the entire lifecycle, including growing the feedstock. And that feedstock will need to be more than just corn, utilizing a diverse mix of plants and cover crops.

The effort to deliver sustainable biofuel at scale is in its infancy, and will take continued innovation and investment—in farm fields, at fuel-processing plants and in vehicle production lines. Some of that innovation is happening just up the highway from us in Des Moines, where the city is using both biofuels and electric to reduce emissions.

Josh Mandelbaum, a member of the Des Moines City Council, tells us the city is moving to electric vehicles for its light-duty fleet, and biofuels for its heavy-duty fleet, through a partnership with Renewable Energy Group (REG), the nation’s largest supplier of biodiesel. As a first step, REG is installing dual-fuel systems on the city’s 35 garbage trucks. “The dual-fuel technology will allow the trucks to run on 100 percent biodiesel,” he said. “The switch is estimated to reduce our CO2 emissions almost 85 percent, from 2,600 tons annually to 400 tons annually once we get it fully implemented.”

Des Moines isn’t alone in betting on biofuels to reduce emissions. Up the road in Ames, the city announced late last year that it would expand a pilot dual-fuel program from five to 12 all-purpose dump trucks. Washington, D.C.’s Department of Public Works, meanwhile, has mandated the use of 100-percent biodiesel in most of the district’s diesel fleet.

Even if the country never succeeds in replacing all liquid fuel with renewables, by working in conjunction with electric vehicles we can greatly reduce the volume of fossil fuels we burn, and the greenhouse-gas emissions those fuels produce.

For Democrats, it’s an opportunity to sow optimism in farm country while standing firmly behind a sustainable-energy future.

Iowa congresswoman Cindy Axne, who co-chairs the bipartisan biofuels caucus, is trying to shift the biofuel narrative. “We’ve had a lot of talk about electric vehicles and all that,” she told us. “We’ve also got to realize that we’ve got clean energy being produced in states like Iowa, in the form of biofuel. So I think it should be part of our clean-energy economy.” But the GOP has targeted her seat as one of the best opportunities to flip in next year’s midterms, so she can only do so much. The Iowa Republican party blamed Axne for Biden’s embrace of electric vehicles in a press release titled Biden Abandoned Iowa and Axne Let Him. She needs help from her party and from the White House.

The Democrats have a good story to tell. This isn’t a government mandate. Private industry, advances in technology and increasing consumer demand are driving the shift to electric vehicles. A majority of Americans say they want more done to address climate change, and transportation, which accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., is a good place to start. There is room in our sustainable-energy future for vehicles powered by both electricity and biofuels. The sooner both parties embrace this idea, the brighter that future will be, not only for farmers and the rural economy, but for the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Matt Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm, near Lacona, Iowa. Robert Leonard is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations.”