Many sources indicate ethanol production is now becoming very efficient, achieving an energy balance of about 1.67. For every 100 BTU of energy put into ethanol production, the ethanol equivalent to 167 BTUs is created. Is this really true? Is ethanol really the future?

Ethanol in the United Sates is produced from corn. Who is behind this energy balance figure? Why it is the National Corn Growers Association. Yeah, they might have an agenda. An agenda of maintaining their $5.7 Billion dollar tax credit over the next 5 years! They are not going to simply admit ethanol is a marginal idea and volunteer to forgo these credits. They are going to fight, kicking and screaming to convince the government and public that ethanol is the wave of the future offering reduced emissions and sustainability. I have seen more believable numbers indicating an energy balance of about 1.20. I have also seen a U.C. Berkeley study that indicates ethanol actually requires more BTUs of fossil fuel to make than it contains. When you factor in the energy to run irrigation systems, diesel fuel to run tractors and other farm equipment, diesel fuel to truck the corn to an ethanol factory, and the energy the factory needs to produce the ethanol, the lower or even negative energy balance starts to look a lot more believable.

In addition to the questionable energy balance, corn production is the most polluting crop grown in the U.S. While ethanol may reduce the emissions coming out of your tail pipe, the pollution from fertilizer and pesticides used on the corn fields is causing animals drinking runoff from the field to have reproductive problems. (Makes you wonder about eating veggies soaking up the fertilizer and pesticide contaminated water) The ethanol plants themselves use large amounts of water (3.5-6 gallons per gallon of ethanol) and most of it is expelled as contaminated waste water.

Is it cheaper? A quick check of your local gas station might make it seem so, but the per gallon cost is deceiving. Ethanol is very high octane, so it is great for boy-racers who want high horsepower and don’t mind dumping huge quantities of ethanol into their cylinders. If you have a turbocharged vehicle, you could run very high boost with ethanol. The problem is that getting 5 mpg on ethanol pretty much eliminates the cost benefits even though you may make a lot of power. It is a simple fact that burning more of something produces more polluting. Sure ethanol is clean, but you need to (buy and) burn more to travel the same distance. An ethanol powered Chevy Tahoe gets 10 mpg vs the 14 mpg running gasoline. That mean if you pay more than about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of gas for your ethanol, your being ripped off.

Maybe it isn’t great now, but is on its way to being sustainable? Not even remotely. If every acre in the U.S. used to grow corn (70 million) grew corn for ethanol, we would only be able to replace 12% of the countries gasoline usage. Sounds like a pretty poor improvement considering it would mean the end of tacos, corn on the cob, corn bread, and popcorn! Several countries in Central and South America with abundant sugar cane produce ethanol for significantly less cost and energy than the United Sates, forcing ethanol tariffs to ‘level the playing field.’ Ethanol might work for them but it is a total joke for America.

So what SHOULD we do about pollution and petroleum problems? The gasoline engine is actually remarkable efficient when operated properly. Just look at your highway fuel economy. If fuel economy of U.S. vehicle doubled, we could reduce our petroleum consumption (and emissions) by 1/3. The car companies aren’t going to volunteer to spend money developing cleaner more efficient engines. It takes regulation from the government(Take action). These mileage improvements would be very quick to implement. Hybrid technology, although pretty marginal, is already here. As fuel prices rose, it took car companies only months to develop engines that shut down cylinders to improve mileage. In 5-10 years, the roads of America could be filled with radically more efficient vehicles.

If better fuels economy is a simple, short term step to reduce oil dependence and pollution, better hybrid technology is the solution. The rather marginal hybrid Prius can easily achieve 100 mpg if owners plug it in every night (Don’t get me started on electricity generating. We haven’t built a nuclear power plant in this country in 20 years! Sure spent fuel is nasty, but it is easier to store than CO2. If every roof had solar panels on it(Stanford Ovshinsky might single handedly save the world), imagine the reduction in transmission inefficiencies, increase in panel efficiency and reduction in cost. Germany is already leading the world in solar power, yet our government spends $5 billion on corn subsidies!).

How about electric cars, no gas required? The technology is here. It was here 10 years ago and has only gotten better. Rent this: Who Killed The Electric Car