Coal-Powered Ethanol: A Dirty Shade of Green


The ethanol industry must be in a pretty bad state if cheap and dirty coal plants need to be built to sustain it. The Oil Drum and Biofuels Digest say that two coal-powered plants are being proposed in Iowa, partly to provide power for the state’s ethanol producers. Everyone knows that corn-based ethanol is far from sustainable, but it doesn’t get much dirtier than that.

Advocates of the highly controversial coal plant being proposed in Marshalltown say that, with natural gas prices so high and nuclear power not viable, ethanol producers in the state need the plant in order to provide a large source of cheap power.

Ethanol producers commonly use natural gas to power production plants, but as the margins on ethanol continue to shrink, cheaper coal is getting more attractive. The problem is that coal is one of the dirtiest forms of power around, and The Oil Drum predicts that this is a growing trend for the ethanol industry.

While we understand the economics of switching to a cheaper form of power, the carbon reduction benefits of using ethanol for transportation will be even more undermined by using coal. Corn-based ethanol is already being questioned for not providing enough greenhouse gas emission reductions, and a trend of using coal will just add to those shortcomings.

It’s becoming clear that the ethanol industry is in enough financial trouble that they are more willing to disregard their green images these days — just to cut costs. That’s not a good sign.



Green energy is definitely the best solution in most cases. Technology like solar energy, wind power, fuel cells, zaps electric vehicles, EV hybrids, etc have come so far recently. Green energy even costs way less than oil and gas in many cases.

Michael Caton

These plants should use a combination of reflective solar and wind energy. Although the relative costs of building coal vs. reflective solar plants may make going with solar prohibitive. Reflective solar seems the best way to generate the required heat, it can be sited at the plant to reduce the need for transporting electicity, etc. Another potential downside is need for round the clock production, liquid salt might not retain enough heat to power 3 shifts.

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