Roadblocks to Producing Ethanol
Ethanol, touted as an alternative and renewable fuel of the future, may eat up far more energy during its creation than it winds up giving back. A clean-burning fuel produced from renewable crops like corn and sugarcane, (ethanol) has long been a cornerstone of some national lawmakers' efforts to clear the air and curb dependence on foreign oil. Fossil fuels blended with ethanol produce fewer carbon monoxide emissions than regular gasoline and have a higher octane rating, meaning they burn more evenly and are less likely to cause engine knocking. While most gasoline sold in the United States now contains between 10 and 15 percent ethanol, some cars can run on gasoline blends containing up to 85 percent ethanol (e85 e-85).
Bio-fuel subsidy frenzy
People tend to think of ethanol and see an endless cycle: corn is used to produce ethanol, ethanol is burned and gives off carbon dioxide, and corn uses the carbon dioxide as it grows. But that isn't the case, fossil fuel actually drives the whole cycle. Taking grain apart, fermenting it, distilling it and extruding it uses a lot of fossil energy. The US Government established a long-range goal of achieving energy independence during the Nixon years, yet importing oil from foreign countries continues, and it is on the rise. It is time for the United States to speed the deployment of ethanol and other biofuels as a "cheap" alternative to gasoline. Senator Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is co-sponsoring a bill to scale back U.S. oil consumption by 50 percent within 25 years. Lugar and other lawmakers have introduced legislation to boost federal loan guarantees for the wider use of E-85, and also require filling stations to sell it.
Nay sayers hold that mandating and subsidizing the use of ethanol does not make economic sense because the costs of producing ethanol do not exceed than the benefits. It is argued that up to six times more energy is used to make ethanol than the finished fuel actually contains. In other words, the fossil energy expended during production alone, easily outweighs the consumable energy in the end product.
Ethanol production is currently running at 4.3 billion gallons a year, and is expected to climb to 6 billion gallons by 2007. At the national level last year, Congress mandated that ethanol production grow to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. There are almost a dozen bills being considered in Lansing Michigan that would provide tax breaks and grants to producers, sellers and users of ethanol and biofuels. Still they say, subsidizing ethanol is wasteful and, those who think using the "green" fuel will reduce fossil fuel consumption are deluding themselves -- and the federal government's practice of subsidizing ethanol by offering tax exemptions to oil refiners who buy it is a waste of money.
How is Ethanol Produced?
Consider how ethanol is produced, corn is grown, harvested and converted to energy. The harvested corn is ground up, mixed with water, fermented and finally, becomes a mixture that is only about 8 percent ethanol. This product must then be distilled repeatedly until it eventually becomes almost pure ethanol. Growing and harvesting the corn, heating and reheating the fermented corn to produce ethanol requires a vast amount of energy and multiple resources. Ethanol production includes the use of fossil fuels and other Renewable Energy Sources to extrude alcohol from corn, produce fertilizers and insecticides, transport crops and dispose of wastewater. The production process results in ethanol that reportedly contains 65 percent less usable energy than is consumed in the process of making it. Ethanol production uses fossil fuels as a primary resource. According to a recent study at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley, it takes 29 percent more fossil fuel energy to make ethanol from corn than the fuel produced. This number is generated based on all the steps necessary to produce ethanol; oil to run the tractors that work the fields, natural gas to heat the fermented corn, and more (oil) fuel to transport the ethanol by truck or railroad to the refineries, and ultimately, the filling stations.
Ethanol Falls Short of the Goal
Ethanol fails miserably in a simple cost-benefit test of energy efficiency, because there is actually a net energy loss in ethanol production from seed to fuel. Without the enormous government subsidies for the production of ethanol, the corn-based fuel could not currently survive in the free market. The current federal subsidy is 54 cents per gallon of ethanol, which is an estimated 30 to 45 percent of its production cost. And 14 states, mainly in the Midwest Corn Belt, provide their own subsidies for ethanol production in addition to the federal subsidy. All of this adds up to billions of tax dollars annually that go to corn farmers and ethanol producers to artificially prop up a product that fails the market test. Therefore, it's hard to see how Michigan taxpayers would gain from jumping on the ethanol bandwagon. Ethanol contains only about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. Thus, when blended with regular gasoline, the heat content of the fuel is lowered. So, while a gallon of ethanol-blended gas may cost the same as regular gasoline, it won't take you as far.
Using ethanol raises energy costs Further, the inevitable economic consequences of capping the use of oil in favor of ethanol would increase energy costs in other ways. Most importantly, because ethanol's fuel performance is so much worse than gasoline, there is a significant decline in fuel performance, adding to fuel costs for motorists who might be forced to use increased amounts of ethanol. Granted, the production of gasoline also has some of the same costs, yet how much of that money goes to the foreign countries? The monies spent on producing corn and ethanol primarily stays in the US.
At a no so distant future point, those same tractors could be running on ethanol produced in the US. Before members of the Michigan Legislature or the U.S. Congress vote on bills to promote the increased use of ethanol in place of oil, they should ask themselves whether the hoped-for benefits justify the significant cost to the nation's economy. The answer should be a clear"No". If the goal is to reduce dependence on Middle East oil, there are better, more effective ways to accomplish this outcome than switching to costly ethanol as a substitute for fossil fuels. A more sensible energy policy for our country would include diversifying our petroleum sources so that individual oil-producing countries cannot pose a threat to our energy security. If government funds become short, subsidies for fuels will be looked at very carefully. When they are, there's no way ethanol production can survive.