June 09, 2006
Ethanol Numbers

Conventional wisdom has lately been that ethanol is not all it's cracked up to be, taking more energy to produce than it creates when it's used. The most common opinion I've read/heard is that the current situation is mostly a new subsidy for the corn states of the midwest. It would appear, however, that like most conventional wisdom, there's a lot more to it than that:

Two prominent researchers are chiefly responsible for the energy-efficiency claim: Cornell University's David Pimentel and Tad Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley. In a co-written paper published last year in Natural Resources Research, Profs. Pimentel and Patzek wrote, "Ethanol production using corn grain required 29% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced." By comparison, production of gasoline or diesel uses about 20% more fossil energy than the fuels produce. (For automobiles, ethanol is generally blended with gasoline in either 90-10 or 85-15 proportions, but the studies focused on the energy content of the ethanol itself.)

But the analysis stacks the deck against ethanol in a number of ways. Perhaps most important: The researchers attributed a wide array of energy costs to ethanol production, including the energy required to produce tractors used in cornfields and even all forms of energy consumed by workers for things such as food, transportation and police protection. Equivalent factors generally aren't included in comparable analyses of rival fuels like gasoline. Also, researchers didn't take into consideration the value of ethanol by-products, which can be used in cattle feed.

This guy, and the researchers he quotes, doesn't seem to be in the pocket of the corn lobby, but who knows. Regardless, it's the first cogent counterpoint I've seen to-date.

Via Instapundit.

Posted by scott at June 09, 2006 03:28 PM

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My favorite expert on the subject is Ed Wallace. In an article he wrote for BusinessWeek.com called "Ethanol: A Tragedy in 3 Acts", he had this to say:

Act III: Cue the Fact-Checker
It started with Congress, which mandated that even more ethanol be used to extend the nation's fuel supply. From General Motors, an ad campaign called "Live Green, Go Yellow" gave America the impression that by purchasing GM vehicles capable of using E85 ethanol, we could help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

What GM left out of its ads was that the use of this fuel would likely increase the amount of smog during the summer months (as the EPA's own attorneys had admitted in 1995) -- and that using E85 in GM products would lower their fuel efficiency by as much as 25%. (USA Today recently reported that the Energy Dept. estimated the drop in mileage at 40%.)

Ed's been howling at the moon that ethanol is an inefficient fuel, and even though statistics back up his assertions, no one's willing to admit it. Least of all, the government.

In plain English, if it takes more ethanol blended gasoline to run your car than unadulterated fuel, how does that make us less energy dependent?

Posted by: Nonchalant Savant on June 9, 2006 04:47 PM

Well, depends on how much more. If it's less than 5% less efficient, we're ahead - but only incrementally.

Assuming the article is correct, this is interesting and good science, but not particularly useful yet.

Posted by: ronaprhys on June 9, 2006 05:36 PM
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