Sustainable Ethanol

One of the great pleasures of working for the Center for Rural Affairs lies in communicating with supporters, activists, and farmers throughout the country. Increasingly, the queries we receive concern renewable energy, biofuels, and, in particular, ethanol.

The energy sector and ethanol are the hottest topic in agriculture today. But the ethanol industry is still in its infancy, and questions abound. Are we capable of seizing this opportunity for rural America? Can we create an industry that is environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and beneficial to family farms and rural communities?

A chance email from a Center for Rural Affairs supporter led me to Jeff and Adrian Goettemoeller’s book Sustainable Ethanol (Prairie Oak Publishing, 2007), and they answer that question with a qualified “yes.” Ethanol offers an opportunity to displace a significant amount of gasoline, and it can do so in an environmentally friendly, energy efficient manner.

That may be contrary to some mainstream media accounts today, but that contradiction is a result of the way we are currently building our ethanol industry, not a reflection of what is actually possible. As the Goettemoeller brothers aptly chronicle, there are many ways of building an ethanol industry, and many ways of utilizing its product. Therein lies the opportunities – and pitfalls – of an ethanol powered world.

If Sustainable Ethanol excels in any particular area, it is the exhaustive documentation of the various innovative and promising research trends and actual projects underway across the country. It is inspiring to read of the incredible projects underway to build an energy future based upon conservation and sustainable use of renewable energy resources.

In addition, Sustainable Ethanol implicitly recognizes the need for proactive public policy that encourages sustainability and conservation today. If we build an enormous ethanol industry with little regard to such considerations, it will be infinitely more difficult to retrofit ethanol plants in the future, when we probably will have little choice anyway.

Sustainable Ethanol provides an excellent overview of the ethanol industry, where it came from, where it is today, and where it is going. But it does not address one aspect of the ethanol industry that the Center for Rural Affairs considers critical to sustainability – local ownership. From the perspective of rural communities, the majority of economic benefits from the ethanol industry must be kept within rural communities if it is to be considered truly sustainable.

Research at Iowa State University has shown that farmer-owned ethanol cooperatives provide nearly twice as much economic benefit to the communities in which they are located as compared to corporate-owned facilities. If rural America is to truly benefit from ethanol, we must not let it turn into yet another extractive industry that thrives on the vibrant natural resources of our rural communities, yet delivers most of its benefit to far-off investors.

But that aspect of the ethanol industry is beyond the scope of Sustainable Ethanol. Jeff and Adrian Goettemoeller have written a great overview of the ethanol industry, and point the way toward a vibrant future for ethanol well utilized and produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. You can order their book on or visit the Prairie Oak Publishing website,

Contact: Dan Owens, or 402.687.2103 x 1017 with comments, questions, or for more information.

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