18 April 2007

The Ethanol Myth

The Green technology du jour is ethanol. When the Current Occupant was in South America recently, he "kicked off his tour of the region — the longest of his presidency — by completing an agreement with Mr. da Silva [President of Brazil] to increase the development of ethanol as a leading alternative to oil." [NYT 9 MAR 2007]. Among other things, when

Speaking about the ethanol agreement [Bush] said, “When you’re growing your way out of dependence on oil, you’re dependent upon people who work the land.” He added that “the distribution of wealth, the distribution of opportunity to farmers, particularly the smaller farmers in our respective countries, will enable the economy to be more on a firm foundation.” [ibid]

His speech writers can put all the pretty words they want into his mouth, but what is the truth behind the statements?

Doctors David Pimental, professor of Ecology and Agriculture at Cornell, and Tad W. Patzek, Civil and Environmental Engineering professor at Cal - Berkeley, showed, in a 2005 report [PDF here], that using ethanol (a 10 % mixture blended with gasoline) derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland per car per year - those same acres of corn would feed seven people for a year. Also, 131,000 BTU are needed to make one gallon of ethanol and a gallon of ethanol produces only 77,000 BTU.

So, the energy required to make a gallon of ethanol is almost double the energy produced by using that same gallon. A net loss of energy, per gallon, of 54K BTU. It's not like this is new information (even in 2005, when the report was written). From the introduction to the report:

Two panel studies by the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) concerned with ethanol production using corn and liquid fuels from biomass energy report a negative energy return (ERAB, 1980, 1981). These reports were reviewed by 26 expert U.S. scientists independent of the USDOE; the findings indicated that the conversion of corn into ethanol energy was negative and these findings were unanimously approved. Numerous other investigations have confirmed these findings over the past two decades.

This has been acknowledged for over a quarter of a century, and yet we now have the Current Occupant touting ethanol as our ’savior’ when it comes to ending our ’addiction to oil’. Why would he say such a thing? Hmmm....

...some large corporations, including Archer, Daniels, Midland (McCain, 2003), support the production of ethanol using corn and are making huge profits from ethanol production, which is subsidized by federal and state governments.

Aha! Now it begins to make ‘sense‘.

Some politicians also support the production of corn ethanol based on their mistaken belief that ethanol production provides large benefits for farmers, whereas in fact farmer profits are minimal. In contrast to the USDA [which claims in Shapouri (Shapouri, Duffield, and Wang, 2002; Shapouri and others, 2004) that ethanol production provides a net energy return], numerous scientific studies have concluded that ethanol production does not provide a net energy balance, that ethanol is not a renewable energy source, is not an economical fuel, and its production and use contribute to air, water, and soil pollution and global warming. Growing large amounts of corn necessary for ethanol production occupies cropland suitable for food production and raises serious ethical issues.

Well, if politicians support it, it must be for the common weal!

Based on current ethanol production technology and recent oil prices [~$60/bbl when the report was written], ethanol costs substantially more to produce in dollars than it is worth on the market. Clearly, without the more than $3 billion of federal and state government subsidies each year, U.S. ethanol production would be reduced or cease, confirming the basic fact that ethanol production is uneconomical.

Wha??? Now I’m getting confused. Could you clarify?

...the cost of producing an equivalent amount of ethanol to
equal a liter of gasoline is $1.88 ($7.12 per gallon of
gasoline), while the current cost of producing a liter
of gasoline is $0.33 (USBC, 2003).

Oh. So, what you’re saying is that ethanol uses more energy to produce than it produces by being used and it is an economic loser....

Here’s an idea. Let’s investigate hydrogen power for cars. Hydrogen is plentiful (indeed, the vast majority of the universe is hydrogen) and easily produced from water (see here ). But more on that later.

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