When the nation’s political staffers, elected officials and journalists have questions about renewable fuels, they are likely to make Monte Shaw one of their first calls. 

The longtime executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association has watched the industry mature from his office in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston, from the halls of the Iowa and U.S. capitols, and from the corn and soybean fields that feed the industry’s plants. 

A Simpson College political science major who liked his minor in history more, the Shenandoah native easily recites the ethanol and biodiesel companies’ talking points. He speaks of cleaner-burning fuel, of boosting farmers’ incomes, of whittling our dependence on foreign oil (at least when that was a bigger issue than it is in these days of fracking in the U.S.).

Not long after his days at Simpson College, Shaw spent a year working on political campaigns in Washington, D.C., before taking a job with the national trade organization Renewable Fuels Association from 2000 to 2005. 

When Shaw and his wife tired of D.C., Shaw joined the Iowa association and they moved to a lake-view lot in Panora for seven years, then to West Des Moines. “We wanted to raise our kids where we wouldn’t just see them on weekends. West Des Moines was ranked as the No. 1 place in America to raise a family, and I actually believe it.” 

Shaw gauges his move from the national biofuels organization to the Iowa branch as during the creation of modern ethanol. The idea of making fuel out of corn — or other organics, for that matter — goes back a long way. Shaw points out that there was a 1908 Ford engine that ran on ethanol. There was a boom during World War II as the United States protected against problems importing fuel.

Then the oil crisis of the 1970s brought ethanol back into the mainstream. The 1979 energy bill in Congress cleared the way for mills to switch to ethanol production. 

But falling oil prices made it hard for ethanol to compete, even with its higher octane. The agribusiness sector asked for and received tax credits, and to this day there is a continuous debate over how much ethanol the federal government will require refineries to blend — and how many small refineries will be exempted from the requirement. 

The biofuels industry is supported heavily by the federal mandate, and is vitally important in Iowa, the nation’s top producer of corn. 

And in the middle of the evolution of the industry is Shaw.

“When you see ethanol today, you think of the locally owned plants every 30 miles north of [Interstate Highway 80],” Shaw said. Iowa now has 43 plants making ethanol and 11 making biodiesel. 

A big turning point for ethanol was finding ways to dry mill at a lower cost. Minnesota farmers pioneered a plan that had farmers paying off bank notes in five years. Co-ops were formed that gave farmers a chance to grow the corn, and benefit from turning it into ethanol. 

When people started building plants that churned out 10 million to 15 million gallons of ethanol a year, “people said that was crazy big — what idiots. [But] they showed the technology worked and you could make money at it,” Shaw recalled. Now, it’s fairly common to build 100 million- and 150 million-gallon plants. 

Membership in Shaw’s association is voluntary and includes representatives from corn ethanol interests, companies trying to make fuels from corn stover or other biomass, and biodiesel companies, which often refine discarded fats and oils to make diesel. 

Has Shaw seen big changes over his career in the biofuels industry? 

“It’s night and day,” he said. “It’s like nothing has changed and everything has changed. The technique is similar but the capacity of the plants is much higher, the energy efficiency is better, the automation is more extensive, and we have software that adjusts with parameters and learns.”

That last part can save energy and it also has other benefits. Like keeping the yeast happy. 

“Yeast is a living organism,” Shaw said. “Happy yeasts make more profitable ethanol.”

And not just any yeast will do. In the early part of his career, ethanol plants were buying yeast from alcoholic beverage distillery suppliers in Tennessee, Shaw recalled. “It was good for flavor, but not good for ethanol,” he added. “It’s just weird. There wasn’t yeast then on the market.”

Other changes: The notoriously thirsty ethanol plants are using far less water now. And it takes less energy to produce a gallon of ethanol.

“The efficiency gains have been fun to watch,” Shaw said. 

He also watched as the ethanol industry turned DDGs — dried distillers grains — from a waste byproduct of making ethanol into a prized mash of sustenance for livestock. “We convinced livestock producers that they could use that.” First, many farmers used DDG for 10% of feed, but when corn prices rose, they used more, he added.

“We tried to call it a co-product, not a byproduct,” Shaw said. “It has a high protein content. Cows really like the stuff, and they do well with it.”

Producers can sell DDGs for 2 to 3 cents per pound, and many will skim off the excess corn oil and sell that for 8 cents per pound for use in diesel, cosmetics, feed or various industrial lubricants, Shaw noted. 

Looking at the next five or 10 years, this is what Shaw sees:

He isn’t sure if he’ll still be doing what he’s doing at the end of that time.

The next year or so will be crucial as the industry fights efforts to allow small refineries to skip blending ethanol. 

Efforts will continue to solidify long-term year-round use of E15, a 15% ethanol blend at the gas pumps.

Cellulosic ethanol, made from anything from corn stalks to algae, could provide a biofuel that has a far lower carbon content — important in an era of climate change debates. 

Corn oils may rise as a source of plastics.