My Home Is Heated By … Corn?

Lynne Kiesling

Check out this very interesting fact from this recent FuturePundit post on using corn as a fuel:

And Dennis Buffington, a professor of engineering at Penn State University, provided these figures in a recent Wall Street Journal story about corn stoves: For 1 million BTUs of heat, it takes $16.47 in natural gas, $33.80 in propane and a mere $8.75 for corn.

Randall then goes on to discuss other aspects of using corn for fuel, including reduced emissions, and how one utility in Iowa is using corn to meet its peak demand instead of spending the money to do environmental upgrades on one of its units. Very interesting.


12 thoughts on “My Home Is Heated By … Corn?

  1. Interesting, but insane. You want to talk about energy subsidies. No way it can make economic sense to use corn kernals as fuel. Farm subsidies are obviously out of control.

  2. Out of control?  Gee, you think?

    The real proof is the mandate for ethanol in motor fuel.  Out of a 390,000 BTU bushel (plus heat for distillation), you get maybe 2-2/3 gallons at 84,000 BTU each.  It really makes more sense to burn the corn for heat and divert natural gas for CNG vehicles, but the subsidies and mandates force us to do it the less-efficient way.

  3. E-P,
    The “spent grain” can still be used for animal feed, within the limits imposed by EPA on permissible spent grain percentage, since the production of ethanol consumes only the sugars and not the carbs. Just think of all the happy steers downstream of ADM; and, all the happy congresspersons.

  4. It will come as a great surprise to the carbohydrate chemist I know that sugars are not carbs (I assume you meant protein), and the problem of distillation energy still applies.

    Given the price of corn, it’s obvious that we don’t really need more animal feed.  I’d rather burn pelletized stalks and cobs than grain, but if we’ve got a glut of corn and byproducts and shortages of heating fuel, it makes a certain amount of sense to go straight from A to B.

  5. Senior moment! Right you are.

    Don’t for get that the more corn you burn, or convert to ethanol, the more natural gas must be converted to ammonia for fertilizer.

  6. Senior moment! Right you are.

    Don’t for get that the more corn you burn, or convert to ethanol, the more natural gas must be converted to ammonia for fertilizer.

  7. At 150 bushels/acre and 390,000 BTU/bu, an acre of corn used for fuel would displace perhaps 58 million BTU of natural gas.  In contrast, corn uses an average of 77 lb of nitrogen per acre; the displaced gas would make up the fertilizer and then some.

    If you used charcoal from corn stover and cobs to fire Rentech’s converted fertilizer plant in E. Dubuque, you’d generate more than enough nitrogen to fertilize it (and enough F-T diesel to cultivate it too).  I analyzed that here.

  8. EP,

    Despite your generally flunking arithmetic with your grain calculations, you are most certainly right in saying that Corn Furnaces are a much more efficient use of grain than ethanol (you don’t have the inefficient distillation process with a furnace)

    Can someone please ask Senators Durbin and Harkin to either drop all their nutty subsidies or at least shift 20% of their largesse from the ethanol industry to homeowners installing corn furnaces.

    These furnaces give off a popcorn odor, incidentally.

    JBP

  9. EP,

    Despite your generally flunking arithmetic with your grain calculations, you are most certainly right in saying that Corn Furnaces are a much more efficient use of grain than ethanol (you don’t have the inefficient distillation process with a furnace)

    Can someone please ask Senators Durbin and Harkin to either drop all their nutty subsidies or at least shift 20% of their largesse from the ethanol industry to homeowners installing corn furnaces.

    These furnaces give off a popcorn odor, incidentally.

    JBP

  10. Ed,

    You were on the right track. It is dried distillers grains, corn gluten feed and corn oil co-products that are often ignored in the ethanol vs. burn-the-corn debate. There are other co-products as well that are just dumped at this time but there are entrepreneurs diligently scheming to find a use and thus a market for them. (I’m one of them since there are 3 ethanol plants within hauling distance of here).

    You are also right that producing corn has energy costs, such as nitrogen fertilizer derived most often from fossil fuel stocks and which consume energy in manufacture etc., but there are other enrgy costs that are less obvious such as the energy to mine and grind calcium carbonate (lime) very fine for ready uptake by plants. In most soils this is necessary to replace calcium used by plants (a very important mineral) and to keep the acid balance of the soil tolerable. You need 4 pounds of lime for every pound of nitrogen just to stay even on acidity. And then there’s water, erosion, pollution etc.

    There are lots of consideration to come up with a useful analysis, but for many of them we don’t have a handle, a measure, or even a fairly complete understanding of the issues. It’s politics not science or even economics at this point.

  11. Ed,

    You were on the right track. It is dried distillers grains, corn gluten feed and corn oil co-products that are often ignored in the ethanol vs. burn-the-corn debate. There are other co-products as well that are just dumped at this time but there are entrepreneurs diligently scheming to find a use and thus a market for them. (I’m one of them since there are 3 ethanol plants within hauling distance of here).

    You are also right that producing corn has energy costs, such as nitrogen fertilizer derived most often from fossil fuel stocks and which consume energy in manufacture etc., but there are other enrgy costs that are less obvious such as the energy to mine and grind calcium carbonate (lime) very fine for ready uptake by plants. In most soils this is necessary to replace calcium used by plants (a very important mineral) and to keep the acid balance of the soil tolerable. You need 4 pounds of lime for every pound of nitrogen just to stay even on acidity. And then there’s water, erosion, pollution etc.

    There are lots of consideration to come up with a useful analysis, but for many of them we don’t have a handle, a measure, or even a fairly complete understanding of the issues. It’s politics not science or even economics at this point.

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