Just Say No to Ethanol

From a New York Times editorial almost two months ago:

The world’s food situation is bleak, and shortsighted policies in the United States and other wealthy countries — which are diverting crops to environmentally dubious biofuels — bear much of the blame.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of wheat is more than 80 percent higher than a year ago, and corn prices are up by a quarter. Global cereal stocks have fallen to their lowest level since 1982.
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Yet the most important reason for the price shock is the rich world’s subsidized appetite for biofuels. In the United States, 14 percent of the corn crop was used to produce ethanol in 2006 — a share expected to reach 30 percent by 2010. This is also cutting into production of staples like soybeans, as farmers take advantage of generous subsidies and switch crops to corn for fuel.

In addition to the impact on food supplies and prices which is contributing to riots and starvation in certain countries, ethanol has ultimately proven not to be an acceptable substitute for fossil fuels.
> Calculations of the amount of energy ultimately produced range from negative to at most 34% more energy than ethanol consumes in its own production and delivery. And all of the 64% is fossil fuel. This equation alone renders ethanol a questionable propostion.
> Compounding the energy-yield problem is the fact that a vehicle’s fuel efficiency is reduced by 20% – 30% when it runs ethanol.
> In addition to energy, ethanol production consumes water. It also creates dead zones in water bodies (Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, etc.) due to the run-off of fertilizer.
> Finally, the ultimate insult: the burning of ethanol actually poses a greater risk to public health than does the burning of petroleum products.
It was a good experiment and well-intended. But the results are in. Ethanol is a non-starter. Congress must end ethanol mandates.

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Andrew
13 years ago

Calculations of the amount of energy ultimately produced range from negative to at most 34% more energy than ethanol consumes in its own production and delivery. And all of the 64% is fossil fuel. This equation alone renders ethanol a questionable propostion.

Monique,
The 34%-at-best figure is for corn-based ethanol only. Sugar-based ethanol is a proven energy winner, containing about 8 times the energy needed to produce it.
And beware of those negative-energy estimates for corn ethanol — lately, the only one advancing the scientific claim has been a guy by the name of David Pimentel, who believes that alternative energy is a distraction from what government’s true goal should be, centralized population control.
The U.S. government should end the subsidies and the tariffs on foreign sugar-based ethanol. But with oil prices as high as they are now, and unlikely to drop too far back, its only a matter of time before one or more of the biofuel options out there gains a foothold in the market.

Will
13 years ago

I’m not a big fan of government subsidies to begin with, though I think they can be of good use on a temporary basis — the key word being temporary. While I like the idea of being able to “grow” new energy, I’d greatly prefer it not to be done using edible crops, because, as you might guess, it tends to make them more expensive for the people who want to eat them. I like corn. If we’re going to use plant-derived ethanol at all, I’d prefer we focus on using switchgrass instead, which is a remarkably efficient and environmentally friendly biofuel. No one eats switchgrass (except cows and other cattle). Unlike corn, switchgrass requires little or no fertilizer to thrive and can grow just about anywhere. At least according to some studies I’ve read, its a far more efficient source of ethanol than that derived from corn. Another big bonus of switchgrass is that it is perennial, meaning once you’ve planted it once, it will keep coming back year after year. For those unfamiliar with it, switchgrass is that stuff which covers most of the prairie area in the “fly over” area of the country. In addition, I’m a big proponent of nuclear energy. If France can do it successfully, we can, too. We can also further develop clean coal technologies. We’re sitting on so much coal, but we don’t use it as much anymore. Of course, drilling in areas of our country which are currently off limits has to be on the table. A wide variety of energy sources is where the future of energy lies. As countries like China and India further develop, most likely, they will demand more oil-based fuels to fuel their economies. Even the liberals (except for those named Kennedy) can agree with us… Read more »

Monique
13 years ago

“The U.S. government should end the subsidies and the tariffs on foreign sugar-based ethanol.”
But no objection to the subsidies on domestic corn and ethanol, Andrew?
And bigger picture/long term issues. We can set aside for the moment the question of whether pollution equity even makes it worthwhile to turn to ethanol/biodiesel. Isn’t the biggest feasibility problem with ethanols and biodiesels the natural limit on arable land?

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