The Digest’s 2018 Visual Guide to the economics, politics of renewable fuels

March 15, 2018 |

If you’ve ever wondered why corn farmers march, organize and generally are adamant about the Renewable Fuel Standard, this chart will help. It will also explain why you almost never see Wall Street activists pounding the pavement for the RFS.

In this illuminating graphic from the Center for Agricultural & Rural Development at Iowa State, you see right away that the bulk of the money in the ethanol business goes ultimately back into the corn supply chain. Now, that’s far more than growers — it’s the seed business, crop protection, land values (and the state tax revenues that depend on high property values), farm machinery, water, fuels, rural energy and more.

And yeasts and enzymes are important in those operating costs you see broken out separately in purple; and labor is there too.

It’s big business, those 15 billion gallons of ethanol and the associated DDGs, corn oil and CO2 which is produced at these biorefineries. Although more bushelage goes to DDGs and CO2 than to ethanol, some 5.6 billion bushels of corn go to the biorefinery and if the RFS were to go away — Lord knows what would become of corn prices and the Midwestern economy but no one thinks of anything except of a point between recession and a return to the days of Farm-Aid.

In the end, the corn, the dirt, the fossil fuels, the sun and the rain — they all work for free — this money goes back to people: for their assets in IP and real property, or for their labor. And, it goes in a knock-on effect to all the people who depend on the farm system And that’s why the RFS has a staying power way above the number of actual farmers. The RFS floats an entire regional economy and is creating a modern, sustainable Midwest at the expense primarily of fossil petroleum.

About those Wall Street activists. You can see that the returns from the ethanol business rain economic sunshine on the supply chain, but investors have been getting the short end of the stick for a long time. That’s one reason that there’s not too much ethanol plant construction going on (demand constraints are another). You can see in that black line the profitability point at which new plant construction might begin to become feasible, and the industry doesn’t cross it on a consistent basis.

But when we start looking at the economics of cellulosic ethanol in another slide later in this deck, you’ll see why Wall Streeters get much more enthused about that related but not-exact-same sector.

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