Ethanol – Hero or Villain?

Ethanol has been characterized as both a hero and a villain when talked about in the media. The truth is – it’s neither one. It falls in the middle. Unfortunately our media has lost its ability to present accurate facts when talking about controversial items and leaves most people with large misconceptions.

Ethanol is one of these controversial issues. It’s drawn a lot of scrutiny because it has ties to the environment, energy, food and politics. You have factions on both sides trying to shape the debate by leveling unfounded or distorted claims. In this article I hope to address most of the major claims and give a truer picture of what ethanol can and can’t do.

Let’s start with the question “why ethanol?” The answer is pretty straight forward – it’s a substitute for gasoline. Concern over our access to or supply of petroleum have opened the door for ethanol. There is an argument that it will become more expensive to extract oil still in the ground, making alternatives more desirable.

Ethanol is clearly superior to gasoline in regards to pollution and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (CO2), the main culprit in the global warming debate, which people can learn more about over at Ethanol burns more completely than gasoline and does not leave behind some of the dangerous residues of gasoline such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic gases and nitrogen oxides. Ethanol does release CO2 back into the atmosphere when it burns, but it reabsorbs it when the corn plant is growing leaving it essentially carbon neutral to the atmosphere. In contrast, fossil fuel adds CO2 back in the atmosphere from carbon that had been stored in the ground millions of years ago.

With ethanol being more environmentally friendly than gasoline, you’d think the environmental movement would be a strong supporter. Wrong. In fact, they seem to be dead set against it. How do we explain this opposition? I think with the environmental bloc, it boils down to ‘we only accept absolutely clean energy.’ That leaves us with wind and solar power or some future technology (like getting oil from algae) that are still waiting around the bend. Now as picturesque as those big white wind turbines are, we would need 1,700,000 of them to produce enough energy to meet our current needs in the U.S. We have been hearing since the 70’s that big solar ‘farms’ could provide all the power we need but 39 years later we are still no closer, and US residents often still look into plans and usage rates from providers such as TriEagle Energy and many others to try and get a cheaper deal for themselves, while innovative energy companies are trying to tackle sustainable and renewable energy issues that should be able to massively decrease future energy bills, as well as allow for self-sustaining production and consumption. A solution is needed for clean energy production and until that has been provided, many homeowners will more than likely have to do the annual energy comparison to keep within their expense budgets.

In the past, this philosophy would have been kept to the fringes, but the specter of global warming has given them clout and kept the general population on the sidelines. Global warming has become the trump card against fossil fuels and the engines they power. Thus the drive to stop using combustion engines and switch to all-electric cars (electricity coming from wind or solar power of course). Solar power can be used for a whole lot of good in the world, components such as inverters will need to be checked regularly and have inverter repair done to make sure it is working to its fullest extent.

Are claims of CO2 causing global warming founded in reality? At first glance of the current data (see chart on page 3) it sure looks that way. We have higher CO2 levels and higher temperatures in the last 40 years. Should we take it as faith that we have accurate temperature readings for the last 150 years (or CO2 levels for that matter)? Were there enough sites and accurate equipment sampling at the same time across the planet to get an accurate average to show an 0.8-degree increase in temperature? Are other global warming/cooling agents such as volcanic activity, solar output or other greenhouse gas emissions screened out to leave the finger-pointing at CO2? Why from 1916 to 1942 did the temperature jump rapidly with only a small jump in CO2 levels?

The modern data we have is just not strong enough to go on. The next step is to look back on historical readings over a long time period. Here scientists have ice core samples that have temperature and CO2 readings they could extract for the last 400,000 years. The data does indeed show that higher temperatures do correlate with higher CO2 levels. Case closed? Not really. What the data does show is that CO2 levels begin to rise after temperature does. Historical rises in CO2 level did not drive temperature increases – it was the other way around!

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

The only thing we know for sure about man-made global warming is that CO2 levels are higher than the last 400,000 years and CO2 does have the potential to have a greenhouse effect on the planet. Predicting its current and future impact would be folly based on the limited and week data we currently have. Keep in mind that we have only changed the levels in the atmosphere of CO2 by 100 molecules per every 1,000,000 molecules or 1/100th of 1%.

Even though the impact of CO2 is far from proven, there are enough people fearful of it to cast the internal combustion engine as a bad guy and whatever fuel drives it. This gives the environmental bloc clout to push their completely clean energy policy, and they have never been shy about attacking things that stand in their way.

ethanol-graphWith ethanol on the enemies list, what arguments are the environmentalists using against it? The most publicized claim is that ethanol takes more non-renewable energy to produce it than the fuel it gives back. To make this claim, anti-ethanol forces have tried to peg every conceivable input into the cost of ethanol. For example, the fuel used to manufacture the tractor the farmer uses. One website I checked even looked like it used the solar power the corn used to grow as one if its costs. While this argument has basis in logic, it only seems to be applied to ethanol and not to all energy sources. What about the hidden costs of extracting oil from the Middle East such as the fuel used to produce the super tankers and fuel spent projecting our military muscle in an effort to keep that region stable? What about the fuel spent to construct the mining equipment to harvest elements used in the batteries of our new hybrid cars? USDA’s own study (which uses the reasonable inputs one would expect, including fertilizer and seed cost production) have ethanol producing 1.67 times more energy than the non-renewable fuel used to produce it. Higher corn yields and improvements in ethanol plants should drive this number even higher. Of course we want to see the number much higher but the 1.67 ratio is far from a losers game that anti-ethanol groups want us to believe.

For comparison purposes, petroleum under best-case scenario would have a ratio of 5.However when you start factoring in shipping, exploration, and extraction from more hostile places on the earth that ratio rapidly drops and can even go less than 1.

The next attack on ethanol is that it will turn environmentally desirable land into corn fields. Conceivably this could happen but it is not likely here. In the U.S. we still produce more corn and soybeans than we use domestically, so we need to have ethanol tap into that excess first before we would start seeing more marginal land come back into production. Even with ethanol a major force in the industry, we are still losing farm acres, not adding them.

After the environmental arguments are spent, other arguments are used against ethanol. One such argument is that ethanol will reduce our food supply. Here again we should look at how much excess production of soybean and corn we have in the world. Soybean carryover has been at a historic high and corn is building. We are projected to have over 7,000,000,000 extra bushels of corn and over 2,000,000,000 extra bushels of soybeans this year. Those numbers translate to 100,000,000 acres that could be turned over to ethanol production before it would start constricting the food supply. That acre number is actually very low as you would still be recovering feed (distillers grain) from those acres even under ethanol use. People are not starving because we can’t produce food, it’s because we can’t always get the food to them. Ethanol is not going to change that equation.

Will ethanol increase the cost of food? Yes, adding a competitive buyer for corn will tend to increase the raw price for corn and have a trickle effect for other crops. However, the extent of impact on the consumer is not that strong. With few exceptions the cost of grain is just not a large component of the cost of food. The price of crude oil has probably a stronger link to end food prices than the raw agricultural inputs.


The last main argument is that ethanol contains less energy per gallon than regular gasoline. It is true that ethanol does indeed have 66% less raw energy than gasoline. If you can use E85, you should expect around 27% less miles per gallon and you should pay accordingly. The current mix of 10 and 15% has only seen relatively small decreases in gas mileage; far less then the 15% decrease predicted by raw energy calculations.

Long-term ethanol is not the solution for solving our energy concerns. We could never replace our need for petroleum with ethanol. Even if we turned every corn acre in the U.S. to ethanol production, it will only offset 20% of our need for oil (coincidently that is the amount we import from the Middle East). What ethanol can do is give us an environmentally superior product over current gasoline and allow us to keep billions of dollars circulating in our own economy instead of shipping it overseas to buy foreign oil. That should be reason enough for continued support of ethanol. We should not allow environmentalists to derail that with the promise of some future technology. I would love to drive an electric car and reduce pollution, but I don’t think it’s in our best interest to take current technologies off the table while waiting for newer and better technologies to develop.