Ethanol: Implications & Expectations


May 01, 2008 Print Article

 

Ethanol, along with other renewable and alternative energy sources, has sparked great interest among consumers and industries concerned with global climate change, rising gasoline prices, and the dependence of the US on imported oil. The ethanol industry, after years of languishing, is emerging as a real energy provider, having tripled its production from 2.13 billion gallons in 2003 to 6.48 billion gallons in 2007.1

Summary Performance Indicators

  • Employability: At this time, near-term job demand in Texas is not sufficient to warrant colleges to develop new degree or certificate programs specifically related to ethanol production in the State.
  • Trends: Although the current ethanol-related job opportunities in Texas at present and for the near term are limited, the industry is growing rapidly both in Texas as well as better known ethanol centers such as Iowa and Nebraska. Currently, Texas’ participation in the ethanol industry is based principally on the corn-based agricultural resources in the Panhandle; however, as the industry and technologies evolve over time to deliver greater efficiencies from more diverse feedstocks, ethanol may become a growth sector for other parts of the State.
  • Timing: Despite the recent growth spurt in the Texas ethanol industry, the future of corn-based ethanol, and the crop and production incentives that support it, faces political uncertainty. It has been widely reported that increases in food prices are due to ethanol-related agricultural production. As a result, Governor Perry and other policy makers have called for the suspension of these incentives. The creation of Texas higher education programs to serve the ethanol industry should be considered when the political, economic, and technical concerns surrounding ethanol production are closer to resolution.
  • Relevance: States with established corn-based ethanol industries and market leadership, particularly Nebraska, have made considerable efforts to develop ethanol certificate and degree programs. Some of these offerings will be available online for the 2008 academic year.

Ethanol is grain alcohol and is the same substance as is found in alcoholic beverages. When used as automotive fuel it is denatured, usually by adding 5% gasoline, to make it undrinkable. Most current ethanol production is corn-based but ethanol can also be made from other grains, sugar, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. The process for producing ethanol converts starches into sugars, which, in turn, are fermented. There are two ways to distill corn into ethanol, dry-mill and wet-mill. The figure below illustrates the dry-mill process.

Employability

Ethanol is considered the renewable energy job leader and accounted for 36% of all renewable energy employment in 2006.2 However, most ethanol employment is existing employment in the agricultural sector. Net new employment created by ethanol refineries is relatively modest, particularly outside the corn-belt.

By the end of 2008 in Texas there will be approximately 500 million gallons of ethanol production brought on line.3 Of the 300-400 ethanol-related jobs that will be created, about 30-40% will be in technical fields related to plant operations and the remainder will be comprised of sales, human resources, administration, and management.

According to Nebraska’s Ethanol Training Production and Management Project (ethanoltraining.org), those jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees have salaries ranging from $40,000 to $100,000, those requiring associate degrees have ranges from $30,000 to $60,000, and jobs requiring training certificates range from $25,000 to $50,000.

Skill Sets

A recent review of ethanol job industry postings found 174 open positions. Only six of these postings were located in Texas and were related to construction, logistics, business analysis, and business development. Only one posting for a controls technician requiring a four-year degree and ten years of experience in chemical and petrochemical manufacturing experience mapped well to ethanol.

For a snapshot of the types of technically-oriented jobs for which there could be demand in Texas if the ethanol industry continues to expand, below are two listings for jobs in other states with a more established ethanol presence:

  • Plant Engineer: The Plant Engineer plans, directs, and coordinates activities concerned with design, modification, and operation of process equipment in the ethanol plant by performing duties personally or by coordinating the activities of operations, and maintenance and contract personnel.
  • Maintenance Manager: The Maintenance Manager is responsible for the safe maintenance, repair or replacement of plant equipment and systems, to ensure maximum production quantity and quality, while supporting the policies, goals and objectives of the company.

Ethanoltraining.org provides a number of resources related to jobs available in the ethanol industry and training and skill sets requirements as well as mapping out the educational pathway from high school to post-secondary training, proposing a way for high school curricula to articulate with advanced training.

Ethanol Process-Dry Milling

Source: Renewable Fuels Association

Trends

The growth of the industry as well as a related policy development bear watching. The Energy Security Act, enacted in December 2007, increased in the renewable fuel standard to 36 billion gallons of annual renewable fuel use by 2022, 60% of which will come from advanced biofuels. According to the Renewable Fuels Association 16B of the 36B will come from cellulosic ethanol, which is a much better fit with Texas’ resources and current research programs.

Drivers

As in previous cycles, the rising cost of oil is making renewable energy sources such as ethanol more economically feasible. Environmental concerns may lead to stricter emissions controls and a system of carbon credits, further boosting investment into alternative energy sources. Technological improvements are also generating increased efficiencies. As ethanol production moves away from corn to other feedstock, including algae and particularly cellulosic inputs such as crop wastes, ethanol may become a better option for economic and job development across the state.

Constraints

Texas is not an ethanol production leader and ranks 10th behind Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, and Wisconsin.4 Most ethanol production occurs near the feedstock cultivation site and as such most of Texas’ burgeoning ethanol industry is located in the Panhandle.

Ethanol has drawn a great deal of media attention due to the relationship between ethanol production and rising food prices. Recent studies also claim that the net energy gain of ethanol is negative, meaning it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it yields and challenging the renewability and sustainability of ethanol as a petroleum alternative. There is no scientific consensus on these debates.

Finally, unlike biodiesel, ethanol cannot piggy back on existing pipeline infrastructure because of alcohol’s tendency to absorb water and contaminants from inside a pipeline. Ethanol can also have a corrosive effect on pipes; therefore, it is usually distributed by truck or rail. It also must be stored differently because it is blended at the fuel dispensing site (i.e. more equipment needed for gas stations offering E10 or E85).

Timing

In the near term it appears there is little need for Texas colleges to develop degree or certificate programs specifically related to ethanol production. Although the current ethanol-related job opportunities in Texas at present and for the near-term are limited, the industry is growing steadily both in Texas as well as in better known ethanol centers such as Iowa and Nebraska.

Relevance

Northeast Community College (Nebraska) will launch a seventeen-hour renewable fuels technology certificate program in Fall 2008. The curriculum will include ethanol process fundamentals, mechanical pump fundamentals, piping and instrumentation diagrams, fundamentals of electricity for renewable fuels, laboratory instrumentation and control, and microbial ecology. The certificate program, which will articulate with a planned two-year associate degree, is part of a larger education and outreach effort including six Nebraska colleges and funded by a $2M federal grant. Colleges will eventually offer a full associate degree in Applied Science in Ethanol Production and Management with online course options.

Texas Ethanol Plants
Company Location Feedstock 2008
Capacity
(mgy)
Under Construction or Expansion (mgy)
Levelland/Hockley County Ethanol, LLC Levelland Corn 40
Panda Ethanol Sherman Co. Corn/milo 115
Panda Ethanol Muleshoe Corn/milo 115
Panda Ethanol Hereford Corn/milo 115
White Energy Hereford Corn/milo 100
White Energy Plainview Corn 100
Biofuels Raymondville Cellulosic 4
Texas Bioenery Marketing Associates 5 sites in Central TX Sorghum 60 (12 mgy each)
Blackland Ethanol Corp Temple Corn/milo 50
Panhandle Energies Dumas Corn/milo 30

Central Carolina Community College (North Carolina) will offer an associate degree in biofuels in Fall 2008 and the curriculum will include biofuels analystics, biofuels waste management, chemistry, electrical control systems, welding, bioprocessing practices, and small business development. Graduates of the degree program will be prepared to take employment as plant technicians, plant managers, lab technicians, process coordinators, and business owners. The program is supported by $140,000 in grants to develop the curriculum and a $3.8M grant to build a classroom and lab facility.

West Minnesota Community and Technical College created the first ethanol associate degree program in 2000. West Minnesota partnered with Granite Falls, the builder of approximately 70% of U.S. ethanol plants to develop the curriculum. West Minnesota graduates typically make $14-$15/hr upon graduation and advance quickly to $17-$22/hr. Twenty-five percent of plant operators evolve into process managers with salaries of $60-$80,000/yr.5 West Minnesota also offers an online renewable energy certificate course.

Sources

  1. Renewable Fuels Association Ethanol Industry Outlook 2008
  2. Bezdek, Richard (2007) Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency: Economic Drivers for the 21st Century. Boulder CO: American Solar Energy Society.
  3. State Energy Conservation Office. Texas Ethanol Plants. http://www.seco.cpa.state.tx.us/re_ethanol_plants.htm
  4. Renewable Fuels Association Ethanol Industry Outlook 2008
  5. Eisenthal, Jonathan (2008) College-Level Ethanol Training Program Graduates In-Demand Plant Operators. Minnesota Ag Connection. http://www.minnesotaagconnection.com/story-state.php?Id=72&yr=2008
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