Ethanol production makes sense, when you consider the facts

Date: 28 Nov 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Ethanol production makes sense, when you consider the facts

by David Morris

Originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 28, 2004

A recent column by Craig Westover claimed it takes more energy to make ethanol than is contained in ethanol (“Let’s have both sides of ethanol debate,” Nov. 17). The only evidence he offered was a comment from someone who had not yet completed a study on the subject.

Unfortunately, that’s quite common. As someone who has followed the ethanol industry’s development over the past 25 years, I’m constantly amazed at how often a negative perspective is voiced and how rare it is for the person voicing it to have any hard information on the subject.

So, in the interests of accuracy and for the record, let me offer some facts about ethanol.

Ethanol is 200-proof liquor. It would be drinkable except that, just before ethanol leaves the refinery it must be polluted with a small amount of poisonous gasoline to prevent its being diverted to the higher priced beverage market.

Ethanol, like all liquors, is made from fermented sugars. The sugars can come from a wide variety of plants. In Brazil, they come from sugar cane; in the United States, from corn; in Europe, from wheat. In the near future, the sugars will come from cellulosic materials like bagasse, corn stalks, wood waste, wheat straw and prairie grasses.

Corn ethanol is made from cornstarch. The corn’s valuable protein content remains undiminished. Indeed, the byproduct of ethanol production is a high protein, high quality animal feed. There is little or no food versus fuel tradeoff in making ethanol from corn.

In investigating the energetics of ethanol, we should keep in mind that the vast majority of energy used to grow corn (and other crops) is a free gift from nature — sunlight, water, carbon dioxide.

Over the past 25 years, the energetics of ethanol has been the subject of some 20 scientific studies. All have arrived at the same conclusion: Every year the ethanol industry and the American farmer have become more energy efficient. In 1980, the first ethanol refineries were inefficient. It did take more energy to make ethanol than was contained in ethanol (and its high protein byproduct). But as the industry grew, it also, unsurprisingly, became more efficient. An ethanol plant built today consumes up to 80 percent less energy per unit of ethanol produced than one built in 1980. America’s farmers have also improved their resource efficiency. Since 1980, for example, corn yields per acre have increased by about 50 percent while fertilizer use per acre has remained steady.

Virtually all recent studies conclude that ethanol from corn is a net energy winner. My own organization’s estimate, based on case studies, is that the ratio of energy out to energy in for ethanol from farm to refinery is about 1.5 to 1. Only one recent study continues to maintain there is a net energy loss, and that researcher has reduced by 65 percent his loss estimate from his previous study.

The bottom line is this: Corn farmers and ethanol refineries are becoming ever-more energy efficient. In the near future, if ethanol refineries begin to use cellulosic materials, like corn stalks or wood waste to fuel their operations, they could sever their connection to the fossil fuel industry. Likewise, if farmers continue their shift to no-till or low-till cultivation practices, their use of diesel fuel will drop substantially.

Where does this leave us?

Ethanol is a renewable fuel that can be made from plant matter available in most countries and all states. Biorefineries are much smaller than petroleum refineries, enabling local and farmer ownership. We can envision thousands of biorefineries dotting the nation’s countryside, each buying its feedstock locally and selling its products locally. That would not only substantially reduce or even eliminate our dependence on imported oil; it would impressively stimulate the economies of beleaguered rural communities.

What’s not to like?

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.