Skip to comments.Study says ethanol not worth the energy
Posted on 07/17/2005 4:09:40 PM PDT by Graybeard58
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Farmers, businesses and state officials are investing millions of dollars in ethanol and biofuel plants as renewable energy sources, but a new study says the alternative fuels burn more energy than they produce.
Supporters of ethanol and other biofuels contend they burn cleaner than fossil fuels, reduce U.S. dependence on oil and give farmers another market to sell their produce.
But researchers at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley say it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces. For switch grass, a warm weather perennial grass found in the Great Plains and eastern North America United States, it takes 45 percent more energy and for wood, 57 percent.
It takes 27 percent more energy to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel and more than double the energy produced is needed to do the same to sunflower plants, the study found.
"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment," according to the study by Cornell's David Pimentel and Berkeley's Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy.
The researchers included such factors as the energy used in producing the crop, costs that were not used in other studies that supported ethanol production, said Pimentel.
The study also omitted $3 billion in state and federal government subsidies that go toward ethanol production in the United States each year, payments that mask the true costs, Pimentel said.
Ethanol is an additive blended with gasoline to reduce auto emissions and increase gas' octane levels. Its use has grown rapidly since 2004, when the federal government banned the use of the additive MTBE to enhance the cleaner burning of fuel. About 3.6 billion gallons of ethanol were produced last year in the United States, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group.
The ethanol industry claims that using 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year will allow refiners to use 2 billion fewer barrels of oil. The oil industry disputes that, saying the ethanol mandate would have negligible impact on oil imports.
Ethanol producers dispute Pimentel and Patzek's findings, saying the data is outdated and doesn't take into account profits that offset costs.
Michael Brower, director of community and government relations at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, points to reports by the Energy and Agriculture departments that have shown the ethanol produced delivers at least 60 percent more energy the amount used in production. The college has worked extensively on producing ethanol from hardwood trees.
Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine with few or no modifications. It is often blended with petroleum diesel to reduce the propensity to gel in cold weather.
Would this be the subsidy fattened, tax manipulated, cartel dominated market we currently live with, or a hypothetical free market where the consumer (and only the consumer) pays the total cost of the energy consumed at the time of consumption?
Some renewable energy sources are subsidized. Do not make the mistaken assumption that the petroleum industry is also not heavily taxpayer subsidized.
Completely wrong. "Cracking coal" (in reality, a bit more is involved than simple cracking, as a large amount of post-cracking refining is also involved) is FAR more energy intensive than simple distillation of ethanol, and so uses far more coal energy per gallon of "transportation fuel" produced than would the ethanol route. To take JUST the core processe---"cracking" involves temperatures up around 500 Centigrade--distilling ethanol barely takes 100 Centigrade.
There's someone "dim" here, but it's neither me nor IronJack.
Listen Slick, the point here is that it takes MORE energy to produce ethanol than the energy value of the ethanol itself. If you want to rake leaves and then re-spread them be my guest.
"Completely wrong. "Cracking coal" (in reality, a bit more is involved than simple cracking, as a large amount of post-cracking refining is also involved) is FAR more energy intensive than simple distillation of ethanol"
But if coal is cheap, and even better if there is a giant subsidy, then by your arguments for ethanol cracking coal would be a great place to throw away money. You haven't been arguing for lower energy usage, you've just been arguing for replacement of Arab oil at any cost.
Here's a bette idea that fit's your logic: take tar sands and burn off the crude. Then use the sand to make silicon solar cells. Use the electricity to run steam powered agricultural machinery devoted to corn production. Turn the corn into ethanol which politicians drink, allowing them to vote for more rube goldeberg energy schemes.
"You are making one false assumption. You are assuming that if the United States reduces or eliminates it's demand for Arab Oil, that demand will be taken up by other countries so that the worldwide demand for Arab Oil will remain the same.
Which is patently untrue."
Patently untrue?? bwahaha Tell that to the Chinese who are driving demand for oil through the roof. Tell that to India whose economy is starting to take off. Just because you can't understand simple econ doesn't make it false, much less patently false.
I see you don't actually understand the topic . We're talking about ways to replace GASOLINE and DIESEL FUEL--(i.e. transportation fuels), NOT "Arab Oil" (or at least not directly). Simple distillation of ethanol using coal energy is certain to be far less expensive than converting coal to gasoline.
And I assume you didn't read Bommer's posting with an alternative set of economics that shows "ethanol only" (i.e. no usage of coal) "IS" an "energy positive" alternative.
And no--I'm NOT (and never have been) "arguing for lower energy usage". I'm all in favor of a "high-energy future", by whatever means prove out. Going back and living in caves, and eating nuts and berries (as the eco-terrorists would have us do) is NOT particularly attractive. My own favorite long-term solution is "nuclear plus solar".
I won't comment on the rest of your asinine remarks about "tar sands".
It has nothing to do with these subsidies that everyone seems to conjur up, but with yield and value. An acre of midwestern land will produce , what, five times as much corn as canola?
"And I assume you didn't read Bommer's posting with an alternative set of economics that shows "ethanol only" (i.e. no usage of coal) "IS" an "energy positive" alternative."
And I assume you didn't read the date of the study Bommer cites, 1995, by Pimental et. al., the same authors of the new study showing a loss of energy to the ethanol cycle. ooooops
Ooops, yourself. Bommer's authors in post 40 are Lorenz and Morris, NOT "Pimental, et al". A quick scan through Bommer's post shows no mention of Pimental.
And the fact that the study was written in 1995 invalidates the ENERGY BALANCES not at all. It might affect the economics, but a BTU in 1995 is still a BTU today.
Even if this is correct, there is a legitimate reason to pursue ethanol, even to reduce demand levels for petroleum..
Allow us a cushion to seek other petroleum resources/ get our own online again that shut down for various reason, so we can starve the middle east into submission. Ariana Huffington and co. are wrong to demonize suv owners, but they are right that we enable those who aid the terrorists by continuing our dependency upon arab petrol.. Lets blocade the Arabian peninsula, embargo the persian gulf, not let one drop of arab petrol (save maybe for Iraqi) out, until the terrorism stops... Manmade famine for the Saudis, aw too bad, maybe some of them need to starve to death--it may not be bombs, but that is real TERROR! Take the battle to the enemy! We need to fight the war on terror on every front!
BILLIONS FOR ETHANOL, but not ONE CENT FOR ARAB PETROL!!!
"Brazil uses ethanol based on a sugar cane manufacturing product cycle. The plant fermenting and distilling the ethanol product produces surplus electricity by burning the stalks. Since embarking on this energy independence path twenty years ago, Brazil is now an energy exporter with a huge number of ethanol running autos. The ethanol is sold side by side with gasoline at local stations, the cost is 30 to 40 per cent less than gas. Acre for acre, cane from the tropics can convert more solar energy to fuel than corn from the temperate zones. This could be a partial solution for Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico, some parts of Texas and La."
And there's the rub. Sugar cane cannot be grown economically anywhere in the continental United States. Were it not for the politically-connected sugar barons (the Fanjul Bros. etc) we would be importing sugar at the much lower world market price. Provided, of course, that you do not consider sugar to be of "strategic value."
"But children grow older; they want their own cars. (How many people really let a 16-year old drive a $40,000 vehicle that they don't even own? And how much is the insurance?) Finally, the children move out. Now there is no need at all for ferrying the children; and the large house out in the 'burbs begins to feel 'empty'
Honey, maybe we should look into a condominium, or a townhouse? And as the large house is downsized, there too goes the need for a wheeled dinosaur to haul lumber, furniture, plumbing. The day of the dinosaurs is done. And (by the way) the automakers will have to turn to another guaranteed profit center. Caveat emptor.
(Full disclosure: SUV's are also good for mashing subcompacts under their tires like a dinosaur stomping a frightened rabbit. The author drives a Nissan Sentra. This fact has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of this article.)"
Some people actually need to carry stuff in their cars. SUV's would never have existed but for the "gas guzzler penalty" enacted in the seventies that killed off the all-american family station wagon (remember those?). THIS is what caused automakers to take advantage of the Light Truck exemption.
horse poop.. look at southern Louisiana and the Texas gulf coast (within a hundred miles inland too), well actually the entire gulf coast area for that matter, sugar cane can grow economically QUITE well!
"horse poop.. look at southern Louisiana and the Texas gulf coast (within a hundred miles inland too), well actually the entire gulf coast area for that matter, sugar cane can grow economically QUITE well!"
It's growing ("QUITE well!") because it is the most monstrously subsidized crop in the U.S. of A. Uncle Sam obligingly fixes the price for the benefit of the aforementioned Sugar Barons.
And who still don't consume anything near the amount of oil the United States do. We consume more than five times the amount of oil annually that China and India do combined. For now, we definitely dominate the demand side of the petroleum supply and demand equation.
Granted, as their economies and industries grow, China and India are consuming more and more oil every year. If we end our consumption of Arab Oil, their economies and therefore oil consumption will expand at a faster rate. But they will not instantly expand to the point where they will match the current United States oil consumption. Despite what you might believe, that's simply impossible. It would still take years for China and India's oil consumption to match ours. In the meantime, the Arab oil producers would have to tighten their belts.
In the future, when we represent a smaller percentage of the demand side of the supply and demand equation, our exploitation of alternate energy sources will have less of an impact on the Arabian pocketbook, but not right now. Right now they need us. It behooves us to develop energy alternatives so we no longer need them.
Just because you can't understand simple econ doesn't make it false, much less patently false.
I could say something about glass houses here, but I think everyone but yourself would find it unnecessary.
I wonder why our MN pols don't ax the beer tax. barley and hopps-drink your crops!...drink more beer and help a farmer!
Except that OPEC generally would like to KEEP us dependent on them by pegging the price of oil to a range that keeps alternative fuels non-competitive. Don't forget that there are 2 sides in the Supply-Demand Game.
Of course the crunch comes when production peaks. Some think this has already happened. China is actings as if it has.
We have the most energy intensive farming in the world. It gives the illusion of great productivity. But when it takes a dollar to produce a $1.01 worth of goods, bankruptcy is the only product.
That price being in the neigborhood of $40/barrel (the production cost of Canadian oil sand oil).
Seems like OPEC has'nt been able to hit their target. We'll see for real after the lead time for new wells has passed.
It's United States Agriculture. Therefore, by definition, it has everything to do with subsidies.
An acre of midwestern land will produce , what, five times as much corn as canola?
Possibly that much.
However, the corn from that acre will yield in Ethanol only a tiny fraction of the BTUs that the same acre would yield in BioDiesel made from Canola. We are discussing BTU's produced, not harvest weight.
Ethanol comes from fermenting sugar. BioDiesel comes from transesterifying vegetable oils. There is a lot more energy in oil and the resulting BioDiesel than in sugar and the resulting Ethanol. And a kernel of rapeseed contains a hell of a lot more oil than a kernel of corn contains sugar.
I've heard that $40/barrel production figure quoted before. I guess the energy companies are waiting to see if the current OPEC price is a new longterm price level. I think that it is, but then nobody is asking me to ante up the billions necessary to bring the Canadian oil sands into production.
And let's examine that for a moment. I recently had to move some furniture I inherited a considerable distance ( 935 miles). A friend helped me, and we used his gas guzzling Chevy Suburban and a trailer. On the trip, we averaged about 17 miles per gallon. For the whole trip, we consumed 110 gallons of unleaded.
My car gets 35 miles per gallon. That is more than twice the gas mileage of the gas guzzling Suburban. However, had I used it to move the furniture home I would have had to make 5 trips where the Suburban only needed one. I would have consumed 267 gallons of unleaded.
So which made more sense, from a conservation point of view? The gas guzzling 17 mpg Suburban, or the fuel efficient 35 mpg car?
And which would the enviro notjobs have wanted me to use?
Don't forget butanol.
May I guess that you've just gotten carried away with your poetic license? (or you've never really seen a rapeseed)
An average acre of #2 yellow corn will yield about 416 gallons of ethanol, while (from what I can find on line) an average acre of canola seed will yield about 127 gallons of oil....plus other by products such as gluten or DDG's. High extractable starch corn will do even better, but is generally only grown on contract.
The gluten or DDG's are a by product of the ethanol distillation process, not the canola oil extraction process.
The proto type of the Suburban with the metal side and frame was born in the 1930's. My Dad had the wooden side and frame one in the 1920's to haul his motorcycle, hunting, fishing, camping gear and dogs on the weekends, and he was a salesman during the week.
That's where I'm at. But apparently that puts us at risk of enriching those greedy Midwestern corn farmers.
Yeah. WE'RE dim. You wanna take a shot at how much energy is consumed in "cracking" the coal, compared to how much is used to produce the ethanol?
Here, you need this:
Agreed, by the way.
By the way, keep in mind that a large portion of the "subsidies" ethanol receives is simply the ABSENCE of federal and state taxes.
You mention another important point. The byproducts of ethanol production contain virtually the same protein levels as the original raw material. The substance Lucky refers to as DDG is Distiller's Dark Grain, a nutritious feedstuff for livestock.
So when it's all "boiled down" (heh heh), the corn is STILL fit to be used as animal food, even after the sugars are extracted. So ethanol corn serves a double purpose, reducing its overall energy cost even more.
yes, you burn 7% more for the same energy....
oh well, pork barrel politics
The distillation process not only generates ethanol, it also improves the protein value of the corn.
Neither, because they would have seized the furniture through the death tax they love, and then chastised you for moving 900+ miles from your relatives.
This Cornell professor that so many of our bethren on this board are willing to believe hung the moon is an environmental nut job of the first order. He real complaint with corn is that it feeds cows, cows feed people and that's bad.
It's ALREADY happening. Check into what Konarka is doing. It looks like a major breakthrough in both efficiency and cost is quite close.
A study by Cornell's David Pimentel and Berkeley's Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy.
So crack pot ethenol lobby or crack smoking solar, wind and hydrogen liberal professors? Funny hows there no mention of how much energy it takes to produce hydrogen!
Work up the number of acres of corn required to replace one percent of oil consumption. Remember that about three fourths - four fifths of the energy output of the system is a required input. Work up the acreage required. Check the US arable acreage.
Replacing imported oil, using ethanol as described in the "Corn Growers - Archer Daniels Lobby Study" would take a lot more than the total US arable. Don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself.
Always get a laugh out of folks making believe that a Toyota Prius is fuel efficient. Ha ha.
I have! I can make 190-195 proof all day long for under 30 cents a gallon. Put 39 cents tax on it and that's a long way from $2.00. The problem lies in the gubmint is too afraid I'll take a swig without paying $20 a 100 proof gallon.
Why doesn't anyone ask how much energy does it take to make gasoline? Crackers heat the oil to 900+ degrees. How do they do that, with matches and farts? I can make ethanol at 172 deg ( with the sun if need be).
Everybody immediately jumps on corn as the food stock to use, but never think of cane, beets, sweet taters, Sunchokes, etc. With the new methods they have today, almost anything that you make methanol with can be used to make ethanol,(AKA garbage, grass clippings, pine needles, kudzu, seaweed), but it does take more energy than using high carbohydrate materials. Methanol is not good because it is poison and has less BTU's. Alcohol is the answer, but people that are stuck in the sand just don't get it. Just pass a law that says ADM doesn't get a dime if you want, that's fine with me. Instead of having concerts for Africa, maybe we could buy their cane or refined sugar or something. Central America could also benefit. We could be flooded with cheap fuel in 1 year, if we just made up our minds to do it. The car engines could be modified and turbo-charged if we had a permanent fuel policy. Brazil did it until oil went back to $11 a bbl. Put a 4 cyl in your pickup, with 12-1 compression, fuel injection, and a turbo, and just dial in your HP that you want. 350HP....easy, 450HP not a problemo. Remember 4 cly Offy's in the indy cars had 600+HP using ethanol.
Been there, done that. Did the research. Came to the same conclusion.
But I'm not sure you have done your homework. Did you even bother to follow the link to a previous post of mine on another thread?
If you had, then you'd have seen the following (quoting myself):
First, it is true that the energy per acre potential of corn ethanol is insufficient to meet the fuel needs of the United States.But I went on to say:
ethanol should not be considered a replacement energy source but rather a supplemental energy source in a combined multi source renewable energy economy
But that's not my point or argument in this particular discussion. My point here was that Pimental and Patzek's research is fundamentally flawed and suffers from their prejudicial bias, and their conclusion about the net energy balance of corn sourced ethanol is invalid.
They (and you) are correct in their assessment of the inability of corn sourced ethanol to be a replacement fuel source, but that's not specifically their finding; anyone who knows anything about renewable farmed energy sources knows it. And it's not a valid argument against ethanol fuel.
Only the hard core ethanol zealots, the ignorant (often one and the same), and the large agriculture lobbies (Big Corn) promote ethanol as a replacement for gasoline. Everyone else takes the real world view that ethanol is a supplementary fuel source. Growing corn specifically to produce ethanol for fuel is foolish, but growing corn for cattle feed (or other such products) and producing fuel ethanol as a byproduct makes a lot of sense. And, either way, ethanol has a positive (albeit not a very positive) net energy balance. There are better higher yielding renewable fuels out there than ethanol (as well as a few that are much worse), but they don't all immediately integrate into todays conventional fuel distribution network the way ethanol does (and has), and they don't run in today's conventional gasoline engines the way ethanol does (admittedly sometimes less than ideally).
Ethanol isn't perfect (I don't think anyone here has claimed that), but it does have a place in a renewable energy economy, and it is a start on the road to independence from foreign energy.
Like I said, embargo the OPEC countries of the middle east (save for Iraq they need all the help they can get but till the insurgency stops the oil flow will be inconsistent at best), starve them into submission (rooting out terrorists).
I didn't move. They did. And I can't really blame them in their old age for wanting a little sunny southern warmth on their cold northern bones. And it was so much more environmentaly friendly for them to move than for them to stay put and run the furnace through the cold wet local winters.
I get my data from James Duke's "Handbook of Energy Crops". If you're willing to dig, there's an amazing amount of information there which is extremely useful for comparing various energy crops.
According to Duke (assuming I'm reading his data correctly and my 4 AM math skills aren't totally screwy), rapeseed yelds almost 6.7 times the btu's per hectare as corn.
I'm pretty sure this is because rapeseed requires less fertilization, irrigation, and therefore input energy per hectare than corn, and the resulting oil has many more BTUs per kilogram than ethanol. Rapeseed is also a "doubleable" crop, and can be sown in a field alongside other crops. It's also used as a winter stabilizing crop, and farmers used to just plow it under under in the spring before sowing their "real" crops.
And there are better oil fuel crops out there than rapeseed. My personal favorite would be avacadoes. They produce more than twice the oil per hectare as rapeseed. Of course, the ultimate oil producing crop would be certain strains of algae. The fuel production capacity of some strains of algae is simply staggering. But fueling your car with algae is not nearly as humorous as fueling up with avacadoes.
The term "subsidy" is used to describe a large variety of different types of government economic fun and games used to manipulate, control, and regulate markets. Some are tax breaks, some are payments. Others are even wierder.
Not very many people seem to understand the major purpose of many agricultural subsidies is to reduce the harvest of certain crops and thereby inflate the market price. Just look at the peanut subsidy (and the whole ridiculous business of inheriting a license to grow peanuts!).
Of course, this doesn't mean some subsidies aren't just gigantic taxpayer funded handouts to large agricultural lobbies and the agri-corporations that control them. Some subsidies are a good idea, but many are bad, and many others represent hurdles (not incentives) to developing home grown energy crops.
Rapeseed (nobody really grows rapeseed anymore, by the way. Genetic engineering, and Canadian marketing savvy, have given us canola) does fairly well on dry, marginal land; it does not do particularly well on moist, fertile soils suited to corn. Crop practices in the third world bear almost no relation to crop practices in the US. An average acre of cropland planted to corn in the US will yield 160 bushels per acre (almost twice to figure from 30 years ago and probably 80 bushel less than in 30 years from now.)
As you point out, most subsides related to agriculture are intended to inhibit production and thereby keep prices artificially high. If these subsidy programs actually worked, they would increase, not decrease, the cost of producing ethanol. They generally don't work that well however. The average US farm family receives less than $50 per month in what might be called subsidies. The recipients of the breathtakingly huge subsidies are few, politically connected, and don't really farm all that much to begin with.
Good move on their part to escape the winter cold up here in the North. Hopefully they also saved a bit in taxes (which really would have driven the lieberals nuts).
I prefer to use these long term averages, because they yield more conservative predictions. Using modern peak productions numbers to predict the feasibility of future energy farming is fraught with peril. But using long term worldwide averages yields predictable results that are easily achievable and still show the feasibility of farming energy. And it leave room to be pleasantly surprised when energy farming is put into practice. It also predicts yields that are closer to what is achievable when the crop is grown to maximize the energy out to energy in ratio instead of just the total crop yield.
(nobody really grows rapeseed anymore, by the way. Genetic engineering, and Canadian marketing savvy, have given us canola)
Please. That's like saying nobody grows apples because we now have Golden Delicious. Canola (CAnada Napus Oil Low Acid) is rapeseed. It's still Brassica napus. Calling it Canola is just a clever marketing ploy because Americans get all squirmy when they hear the word "rape" in rapeseed.
You are correct when you say there are modern genetically engineered cultivars of rapeseed that yield massively higher amounts of oil per acre. However, there are other economic issues than just crop yield associated with these cultivars, the most significant being the fact that most of them are patented and highly regulated. The screwy patent enforcement for genetically engineered plants often cause farmers to get sued into oblivion simply because pollen from a genetically engineered field blew (or was carried by bees - the little buggers simply have no respect for patent law) into their own unregulated fields and fertilized their unregulated crops. I prefer to avoid all the sticky patent gobbledygook (and Monsanto legal bastardry) and just rely on numbers from unregulated open cultivars.
As an aside, did you know one of the "intellectual property genomes" Monsanto most often sues over is for a variety of rapeseed that has been genetically engineered to be impervious to Round-Up? I don't know about you, but I think that's more than a little scary. God help us if Monsanto accidentally puts those genes into a dandelion.
As you point out, most subsides related to agriculture are intended to inhibit production and thereby keep prices artificially high.
Definitely. Most subsidies are serious roadblocks to the development of farmed fuels. When added to other government incentive programs for growing farmed fuels, the economics of farmed fuels become so muddled it's often impossible to tell what's economically feasible and what isn't.
The problem with subsidies is that they attempt to maximize farmers profits by controlling the supply side of the supply demand equation. This works for food crops because there are only so many mouths in the country to feed. Profits are not the same thing as market price, though, and where fuel crops are concerned, farmers profits are harmed by limiting the supply (especially when you're trying to jump start a farmed fuel market), because profits from fuel crops are maximized by lowering the consumer cost, thereby increasing the demand and fuel crop consumed. In other words, farmers will make a hell of a lot more money selling billions of gallons of oil as BioDiesel at $1 a gallon than they will get from selling only thousands of gallons of oil as BioDiesel at the subsidy inflated price of $5 per gallon.
Am I the only one who thinks a taxpayer funded government incentive program that helps BioDiesel producers buy vegetable oil at a subsidy inflated $5 a gallon and sell it as BioDiesel at $4 a gallon is economically insane? It's better to just eliminate the subsidy and let the BioDiesel makers buy their vegetable oil at the free market $1 a gallon, and sell it at $1.50 a gallon as BioDiesel. A lot more oil and BioDiesel will be sold at free market prices, and everyone would make a hell of a lot more money (except for the terror funding Arabs that is).
The average US farm family receives less than $50 per month in what might be called subsidies. The recipients of the breathtakingly huge subsidies are few, politically connected, and don't really farm all that much to begin with.
Definitely. Subsidies exists to fatten corporate farm pockets. The individual family farmer gets a pittance. And farmed fuel prices remain artificially high.