Ethanol As Fuel - A Net Energy Loss and Humantarian Disaster

Ethanol as fuel is a environmental, humanitarian and energy disaster yet it lives on, benefiting from political connections rather than any thing that makes rational sense.

As you know from other pages on this site, I’m a believer in biofuels. Corn just shouldn’t be the source.

Ethanol is an alcohol that can be derived from many sources, including corn. Superficially, the idea of producing ethanol as fuel from a common agricultural crop that can be grown on a large scale seems appealing. After all, doesn’t a source of fuel we can grow at home make us energy "independent”.

The problem is that a sensible energy policy needs to go beyond simple slogans. It needs to be comprehensive and also needs to look at global (in both the sense of geography and completeness) effects of and decisions or positions.

To begin, using ethanol for energy doesn’t really make much sense since quite a bit of energy is consumed in the growth of corn and production of ethanol. In terms of energy produced per unit of energy consumed in the production, it’s negative for ethanol.

Professor Ted Patzek, a geoengineering professor at UC Berkley, initially calculated that producing ethanol results in a 65% energy loss. When he looked at it in more detail, including things like fuel used to produce fertilizer, waste water costs, energy used in transportation and other energies involved in ethanol production he concluded that energy consumption may be as high as six times that produced.

He concluded that: "In terms of renewable fuels, ethanol is the worst solution."

Prof. Patzek is not alone. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell has studied the matter in some detail said: "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel."

It’s important to differentiate using biomass to produce a liquid fuel such as ethanol and burning biomass directly to produce energy. As I’ve discussed on other pages, burning biomass can make economic and ecological sense.

Another problem is that even if we converted all arable land in the US to ethanol production, it would only replace about 15% of our oil demands.

In areas requiring irrigation to grow crops (California comes to mind), corn for ethanol is a horrible investment of water resources. Researchers at the University of Minnesota estimate that it takes 1000 (!) gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.

Government mandated use of ethanol blends increases engineering costs since engines need to be ethanol compatible.

Another unintended consequence of ethanol subsidies has been increased food costs.

With subsidized ethanol plants demanding large amounts of corn, the market price naturally increased. This not only raised the price of things that use corn directly, like tortillas (the increased price of which led to riots in Mexico in 2007), but also food stuffs such as eggs and meats because corn is commonly used as an animal feed.

Food prices increased 10% between 2006 and 2008, with a large part of it due to the increased corn prices caused by biofuels. The World Bank estimates that for each 1 percent rise in food prices, caloric intake among the poor drops 0.5 percent. The affect of food prices of a policy that emphasizes ethanol from corn is felt most heavily by those most vulnerable.

I’m all for exploring all kinds of sources of energy, but we know enough about ethanol production now to realize that it does more harm than good. The only reason it exists now is because of ill conceived government subsidies.

Special interests groups lobby strongly to keep the subsidies coming, but doing so is a mistake. That government money going to produce ethanol as fuel can be better spent elsewhere support research into more fuel efficient vehicles and sources of alternative energy other than ethanol.


return to Alternative Energy Primer Home from Ethanol As Fuel

Biomass Energy

Solar Energy

Wind Power

Geothermal Energy