Ethanol Isn’t Worth the Energy
by Jeremy Brown , Canadian Statistical Assessment Service, CanStats Bulletins (http://www.canstats.org/readdetail.asp?id=781)
July 21, 2005
Through the federal Ethanol Expansion Program and federal and provincial fuel exemptions,
the governments of Canada have been promoting the use of ethanol as a fuel supplement to help meet their Kyoto targets. However,
recent research indicates that using ethanol as a fuel supplement, effectively displacing some gasoline consumption, may do
little to help the environment as it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it contains.
Various levels of government have provided substantial support to expand ethanol production in Canada. At the federal
level, the Ethanol Expansion Program has already allocated $118 million for the construction or expansion of ethanol plants
across the country. Besides direct support for the construction of ethanol plants, the ethanol portion of blended gasoline
receives an exemption from the federal excise tax of 10 cents per litre on gasoline.
The provincial governments of
Alberta and Ontario exempt the ethanol portion of blended gasoline from their taxes, without restriction on the ethanol source
or the percentage of ethanol blended in the fuel. The governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba offer an exemption from their
taxes for ethanol that is both produced and consumed in their respective provinces. The governments of British Columbia and
Quebec have committed themselves to exempting the ethanol portion from their taxes when an ethanol plant is built in their
respective provinces. Furthermore, the Saskatchewan government has passed legislation that will mandated all gasoline contain
a 10% ethanol blend across the province; Manitoba and Ontario are considering similar legislation.
government support, ethanol production has increased from about 200 million litres per year before the Ethanol Expansion Program
began, to a total of about 1.4 billion litres of fuel ethanol per year by the end of 2007; about seven times the level of
production prior to the program. This is enough ethanol to cover the government’s target that 35% of all gasoline in
Canada contain a 10% blend of ethanol by 2010, as outlined in Canadian Climate Change Action Plan.
But Is It Worthwhile?
According to a recent study published in Natural Resources Research, turning plants such as corn, soybeans, and sunflowers
into liquid fuel, such as ethanol, uses much more energy than can be generated from the resulting ethanol. David Pimentel,
professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering
at University of California-Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the ratios of energy input to energy output of ethanol
produced from corn, switch grass, and wood biomass.
In assessing inputs, the researchers considered the energy used
in producing the crop, including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding
and transporting the crop; as well as in fermenting/distilling the ethanol. Comparing energy input to energy output for producing
ethanol, the study found that:
- producing ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
- producing ethanol from switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
- producing ethanol from wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
Although Professors Pimentel and Patzek do not express the net energy return to producing conventional
gasoline, even the American Coalition for Ethanol states that producing gasoline from crude oil requires 15 percent more fossil
energy than the fuel produced; half the net energy loss of ethanol.
This is not the first study to find similar results.
Two panel studies of ethanol production by the US Department of Energy also reported a negative energy return (ERAB, 1980,
1981). Twenty-six scientists independent of the Department of Energy reviewed these reports. Their findings indicated that
the conversion of corn into ethanol energy was indeed negative. All 26 scientists unanimously approved the findings.
a previous article, Prof. Pimentel conducted a review of reports that indicate that producing ethanol from corn yields a positive
energy return (Pimentel, 2003). Prof. Pimentel found that these reports omitted many inputs in the production process. A recent
study by the US Department of Agriculture has indicated a net positive energy return of 67% (Shapouri et al., 2004). However,
this study omits several inputs such as the energy required to produce (and repair) the farm machinery such as tractors, planters,
sprayers, and harvesters; as well as the machinery used for grinding, fermentation, and distillation. This led to an under-reporting
of the energy required to grow the corn and process the starch into ethanol.
makers have justified using Canadians’ money to subsidize the ethanol industry by claiming that using ethanol for fuel
will help prevent “climate change.” Natural Resources Canada reports that gasoline blended with 10 % ethanol reduces
greenhouse gas emissions by 3% to 8% depending on the type of biomass used in the ethanol production (NRCAN, 2004). However,
once one considers the entire production process (not just the final combustion), ethanol may produce more greenhouse gases
than gasoline alone. By citing the environmental benefits of consuming ethanol without accounting for its total energy requirement
from production through consumption, policy makers are deceiving Canadians about the true cost to the environment of using
ethanol. As a net energy loser, ethanol will do little to help Canada meet its Kyoto goals and may, in fact, do the opposite.
Jeremy Brown is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at The Fraser Institute,
and manager of CANSTATS
EARB (1980). Gasohol. Energy Research Advisory Board,
US Department of Energy, Washington, DC
EARB (1981). Biomass Energy. Energy Research Advisory Board, US Department
of Energy, Washington, DC
NRCAN (2004). Ethanol: The Road to a Greener Future. Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada
Pimentel, D. (2003). “Thanol Fuels: Energy Balance,
Economics, and Environmental Impacts are Negative.” Natural Resources Research 2, 2: 127-34.
and Tad Patzek (2005). “Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean
and Sunflower.” Natural Resources Research 14, 1 (March): 65-76.
Shapouri, H., J. Diffield, A. McAloon,
and M. Wang (2004). The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn-Ethanol (Preliminary). US Department of Agriculture, Washington,
UC scientist says ethanol uses more energy than it makes
A lot of fossil fuels go into producing the gas
Monday, June 27, 2005
Ethanol, touted as an alternative fuel of the future, may eat up far more energy during its creation than
it winds up giving back, according to research by a UC Berkeley scientist that raises questions about the nation's move toward
its widespread use.
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. California residents use close to
a billion gallons of the alcohol-based fuel per year.
But in a recent issue of the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, UC Berkeley geoengineering professor
Tad Patzek argued that up to six times more energy is used to make ethanol than the finished fuel actually contains.
The fossil energy expended during production alone, he concluded, easily outweighs the consumable energy in
the end product. As a result, Patzek believes that 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.
"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," he said. "But that isn't the case. Fossil fuel
actually drives the whole cycle."
Patzek's investigation into the energy dynamics of ethanol production began two years ago, when he had the
students in his Berkeley freshman seminar calculate the fuel's energy balance as a class exercise.
Once the class took into account little-considered inputs like fossil fuels and other energy sources used
to extrude alcohol from corn, produce fertilizers and insecticides, transport crops and dispose of wastewater, they determined
that ethanol contains 65 percent less usable energy than is consumed in the process of making it.
Surprised at the results, Patzek began an exhaustive analysis of his own -- one that painted an even bleaker
picture of the ethanol industry's long-term sustainability.
"Taking grain apart, fermenting it, distilling it and extruding it uses a lot of fossil energy," he said.
"We are grasping at the solution that is by far the least efficient."
Patzek's report also highlights the potential environmental hazards of ethanol production.
"When you dump nitrogen fertilizer on corn fields, it runs away as surface water, into the Mississippi River
and Gulf of Mexico," he said.
The excess nitrogen introduced into the water causes out-of-control algae growth, creating an oxygen-poor
"dead zone" where other marine plants and animals cannot survive. And while ethanol produces fewer carbon monoxide emissions
than regular gasoline, some researchers have found that ethanol releases high levels of nitrogen oxide, one of the principal
ingredients of smog, when burned.
Ethanol has long been touted not just for its promise as a renewable fuel, but for its usefulness as a gasoline
additive. Fossil fuels blended with it 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 approximately 5 percent ethanol, some cars -- such as the Ford Explorer and Chevy Silverado -- can run
on fuel blends containing up to 85 percent.
Though his work has been vetted by several peer-reviewed scientific journals, Patzek has had to deflect criticism
from a variety of sources. David Morris, an economist and vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance,
has attacked the Berkeley professor's analysis because he says it is based on farming and production practices that are rapidly
"His figures (regarding energy consumed in fertilizer production) are accurate for older nitrogen fertilizer
plants, but newer plants use only half the energy of those that were built 35 years ago," he said. He also cited the increasing
popularity of no-till farming methods, which can reduce a corn farm's diesel usage by 75 percent. "With hydrogen fuel, people
are willing to say, '25 years from now it will be good.' Why can't we also be forward-looking when it comes to ethanol?"
Hosein Shapouri, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has also cracked down on Patzek's energy
"It's true that the original ethanol plants in the 1970s went bankrupt. But Patzek doesn't consider the impact
new, more efficient production technologies have had on the ethanol industry," he said.
Shapouri's most recent analysis, which the USDA published in 2004, comes to the exact opposite conclusion
of Patzek's: Ethanol, he said, has a positive energy balance, containing 67 percent more energy than is used to manufacture
it. Optimistic that the process will become even more efficient in the future, he pointed out that scientists are experimenting
with using alternative sources like solid waste, grass and wood to make ethanol. If successful on a large scale, these techniques
could drastically reduce the amount of fossil fuel needed for ethanol production.
Other contributors to the debate argue that ethanol's net energy balance should not be the sole consideration
when policymakers are evaluating its usefulness -- factors like the fuel's portability and lower carbon monoxide emissions
need to be considered as well.
"So what if we have to spend 2 BTUs for each BTU of alcohol fuel produced?" reads an editorial in the Offgrid
Online energy newsletter. "Since we are after a portable fuel, we might be willing to spend more energy to get it."
Cornell University ecology Professor David Pimentel, however, sides with Patzek, calling production of ethanol
"subsidized food burning."
"The USDA isn't looking at factors like the energy it takes to maintain farm machinery and irrigate fields
in their analysis," he said, adding that the agency's ethanol report contains overly optimistic assumptions about the efficiency
of farming practices. "The bottom line is that we're using far more energy in making ethanol than we're getting out."
Patzek thinks lawmakers and environmental activists need to push ethanol aside and concentrate on more sustainable
solutions like improving the efficiency of fuel cells and hybrid electric cars or harnessing solar energy for use in transport.
If they don't, he predicts economics will eventually force the issue.
"If government funds become short, subsidies for fuels will be looked at very carefully," he said. "When they
are, there's no way ethanol production can survive."
Page A - 4
Cornell University News Service
||Ethanol and biodiesel from crops not
worth the energy|
Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into
fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University
of California-Berkeley study.
"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David
Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."
Pimentel and Tad
W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield
ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower
plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).
In terms of energy output compared
with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:
- corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
- switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
- wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel
production, the study found that:
- soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced,
- sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel
In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy
used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding
and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred,
such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution
or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.
"The United State desperately needs a liquid fuel
replacement for oil in the near future," says Pimentel, "but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down
the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products."
Pimentel advocates the use of burning biomass to produce thermal energy (to heat homes, for example), he deplores the use
of biomass for liquid fuel. "The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does
not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel. Further, its production
and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming," Pimentel says. He points out that the vast majority
of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations.
"Ethanol production in the United
States does not benefit the nation’s energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment," says Pimentel. "Ethanol
production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits."
He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and
burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.
|Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences|
||Taylor & Francis|
||Volume 23, Number 6 / November-December 2004|
||519 - 567|
|Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle|
Tad W. Patzek A1 CORR1
A1 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 210 Ericsson Building, MC 1716, University
of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
This article defines sustainability and sustainable cyclic processes, and quantifies the degree of non-renewability
of a major biofuel: ethanol produced from industrially grown corn. It demonstrates that more fossil energy is used to produce
ethanol from corn than the ethanol's calorific value. Analysis of the carbon cycle shows that all leftovers from ethanol production
must be returned back to the fields to limit the irreversible mining of soil humus.Thus, production of ethanol from whole
plants is unsustainable. In 2004, ethanol production from corn will generate 8 million tons of incremental CO2,
over and above the amount of CO2generated by burning gasoline with 115%of the calorific value of this ethanol.
It next calculates the cumulative exergy (available free energy) consumed in corn farming and ethanol production, and estimates
the minimum amount of work necessary to restore the key non-renewable resources consumed by the industrial corn-ethanol cycle.
This amount of work is compared with the maximum useful work obtained from the industrial corn-ethanol cycle. It appears that
if the corn-ethanol exergy is used to power a car engine, the minimum restoration work is about 6 times the maximum useful
work from the cycle. This ratio drops down to 2 if an ideal fuel cell is used to process the ethanol. The article estimates
the U.S. taxpayer subsidies of the industrial corn-ethanol cycle at$3.8 billion in 2004. The parallel subsidies by the environment
are estimated at$1.8 billion in 2004. The latter estimate will increase manifold when the restoration costs of aquifers, streams,
and rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico are also included. Finally, the article estimates that (per year and unit area) the inefficient
solar cells produce∼100 times more electricity than corn ethanol. There is a need for more reliance on sunlight, the
only source of renewable energy on the earth.
biofuel, ethanol, fossil fuels, corn, sustainability, thermodynamics, energy, entropy, exergy, solar
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