Ethanol Not Worth the Energy?

July 18, 2005 at 2:42pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

There is a lot of debate about whether or not ethanol is worth it from an energy standpoint. The question is, does ethanol result in more energy being output than it what it takes to make the ethanol in the first place? A recent study says no.

The Journal Star didn’t make a big deal out of the new report in this morning’s edition, but this is actually a very big deal. If ethanol is a net energy loser, than so-called “green” energy initiatives—such as the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s switch to ethanol and biodiesel—are actually harmful to the environment and to taxpayers’ pocketbooks. If this report and others like it are true, you are paying the government to waste energy, and as a bonus you get to choke on a bunch of excess pollutants as well.

The report says that ethanol requires 29% more energy to make than it outputs. The ethanol industry says there is a net 60% gain in energy. Clearly one or both of those sources are lying. The ethanol industry likely does not include in its numbers the amount of energy required to harvest the corn, water the corn, fertilize the corn (and to make the fertilizer), and so on. That would explain why their numbers are so optimistic. Some reports I’ve seen have included such ridiculous energy inputs as the amount of energy put into the corn by the sun, so their numbers are untrustworthy. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this report:

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the cro

p (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.

It is clear that the public are not being given the straight facts on ethanol by the ethanol industry. That’s not a huge deal to me; any industry will typically provide only those facts to the public that improve the public’s perception of that industry. Fair enough. What does bother me is that both the feds and the State of Nebraska are in bed with the ethanol industry in the form of agricultural


subsidies, marketing, and direct endorsements. We can’t trust the government’s ethanol numbers any more than we can take at face value those from the industry itself. With so much at stake, and with so many people concerned about the issue, we need to force ourselves—and our policymakers—to take a long, hard, fresh look at ethanol policy.

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