Corn for Fuel Ethanol…Really?

The goals of ethanol can be thought of like this:

1.) Reduce the price of gasoline marginally

2.) Reduce automobile pollution

3.) Sell more corn

Sounds great, right? Wait for it, wait for it…not so fast.

There are lots of problems with using corn ethanol for fuel.

Ethanol is less fuel efficient.

In 2007, Consumer Reports ran a comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

When running on E85 there was no significant change in acceleration. Fuel economy, however, dropped across the board. In highway driving, gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 to 7 mpg. You could expect a similar decrease in gas mileage in any current FFV.

Ethanol isn’t as much better for the environment as you’d think.

In 2007, Edmunds ran a very interesting comparison between pure gasoline and E85 (85% ethanol). Here’s an excerpt:

By relating our observed fuel economy to CO2 emission figures found in the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide we determined that our gasoline round trip produced 706.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. On E85, the CO2 emissions came to 703.1 pounds. The difference came out in E85’s favor, but only by a scant 0.5 percent. Call it a tie. This is certainly not the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we had been led to expect.

Burning E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline mixture that is becoming so ubiquitous) can reduce some smog…but is a small reduction in emissions like this even worth going this way? It’s like we think the only way to the energy future is by baby steps so we don’t rock the capitalist cradle.

Ethanol costs the motorist more in the long run.

Again, from the Edmunds article:

A motorist, filling up and comparing the prices of regular gas and E85, might see the price advantage of E85 (in our case 33 cents or 9.7 percent less) as a bargain. However, since fuel economy is significantly reduced, the net effect is that a person choosing to run their flex-fuel vehicle on E85 on a trip like ours will spend 22.8 percent more to drive the same distance. For us, the E85 trip was about $30 more expensive — about 22.9 cents per mile on E85 versus 18.7 cents per mile with gasoline.

Connecting the food supply to fuel supply could be disastrous.

Do we really want to use prime farmland to grow corn so we can put it in our fuel tanks? Prime farmland should be for growing food. Everyone needs food and using a combustion engine is a luxury. We’ve seen that connecting food and fuel can result in global food price scares and those least able to afford food in our world are affected the most. I’ll leave it at that, but really think to yourself about why connecting the food supply and the fuel supply could be disastrous.

Is ethanol an energy-negative premise?

I’m not going to dive in to the specifics or the math because frankly I don’t have the time. However, consider the enormous petroleum inputs that the modern “conventional” way of growing corn uses. Do we really think we’re gaining an energy advantage by growing corn with oil to make ethanol which will replace gasoline made from oil?

A 2007 National Geographic article showed that for every 1 unit of current energy used to make ethanol we get 1.3 units back. That’s not much of an improvement. A team of UC Berkeley researchers showed corn ethanol’s energy balance and greenhouse gas production is “marginally better” than gasoline. Is this really the next great hope?

Ethanol can’t replace gasoline.

If the U.S. converted ALL of the corn and soybeans it grows into biofuels….we’d still only produce about 12% of gasoline needs and 6% of diesel needs. WOW. This just drives the point home that corn ethanol and other biofuels are a waste of time. The furthest endpoint of ethanol production using corn is a paltry 12% of gasoline needs. And there’s no way that all of our corn crop would ever be used for ethanol production.

My Take

If we as people are truly interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and polluted air in our country and the world, we need to think far beyond biofuels. Oil pumped out of the ground was the first and last great biofuel. It’s run its course and we know that abundant cheap gasoline was a one shot deal. We’re nearing the very end of that deal. Oil is too polluting and it’s going to run out soon.

Ethanol from corn isn’t the answer. At most the U.S. could cover only 12% of gasoline engine needs even if we converted every last corn field to an ethanol corn field. That number alone is reason to turn from corn ethanol toward something that can really take America to the next generation of energy. The only way current corn farmers can get the yields on corn grown for ethanol to make the whole enterprise worthwhile is to spray pesticides, herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers on the fields. And then think of all the combustion engines it takes to harvest the corn and transport it to the local ethanol plant and then all the way to your local fuel station. With crude real world testing, Edmunds and Consumer Reports have already shown that E85 vehicles are less fuel-efficient and cost more to drive the same distance. And the CO2 emissions difference is petty. And where are the E100 vehicles, is ethanol destined to always need part gasoline? So far I’ve only heard of a Formula 1 racing car that uses 100% ethanol and some specialized vehicles in Brazil. You’d need an entire new generation of vehicles that could actually use 100% pure ethanol. How is that sustainable? I’m really struggling to see how ethanol is a major improvement?

A lot of people are getting excited about cellulosic ethanol or algae-based ethanol. But ethanol does not confer much of an environmental advantage and any other benefit is only marginal. Why can’t we as a people see this and move on toward electric vehicles (powered by renewable energy) or hydrogen fuel cells or the crown jewel…running on pure hydrogen which is the most abundant element in the universe and would be truly zero emission. Why are we so hung up on advanced biofuels? Why are we more concerned about market restraints than we are about real-world restraints that can exert far more influence than economic theory. Why can’t we have another Manhattan Project that puts a real dent in the global energy problem? Good question.

Bottom line: The marginal benefit of using corn for ethanol is not worth it.