More Evidence of the Ethanol Folly

Previously, I asked "why won't ethanol just go away", lamenting what a stupid program ethanol is and how much subsidy money is poured down that drain, not to mention the effect it seems to have on the Iowa primary every 4 years.  Yet another study has shown that ethanol consumes more energy to make than it actually produces. 

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, and
  • 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.


  1. Ed Borasky:

    Ah, but for years they told us that alcohol and gasoline didn't mix ... now you have to buy it that way during the winter. Stuff tastes terrible, too ...

  2. Michael H.:

    Hi Coyote
    It really doesn't matter how much energy is necessary to produce Ethanol if that energy is not something you can put directly into a car's fuel tank. If you can use coal to make ethanol, it might still be cost effective, because coal is plentiful and inexpensive, but you cannot run a car on it.

    Ethanol derived from sugarcane is probably competive with gasoline at today's prices, ($2.20 a gallon). Here's a nice wikipedia article
    scroll down to the Brazilian experiment.

  3. Greg:

    I agree with Michael that, given the U.S.'s coal and nuclear fuel possibilities, that biomass could be useful, if we're that desperate for motor fuel, and willing to convert one form of energy to another.

  4. Jake:

    Dr. Pimentel calculated the amount of diesel fuel needed to produce an acre of corn at 109 gallons. That is 17,440 gallons on a quarter section and 69,760 gallons on ONE SECTION OF CORN. I am not sure how he figured it, but the only way you could use that much fuel to produce a section of corn is if you were irrigating the corn with diesel fuel.

    I think you need to do a little more research into his numbers Coyote. Do you really think it would be even close to profitable to use 70,000 gallons of fuel to produce a section of corn?

  5. George:

    So what ever happened to oil from shale?

  6. benway:

    A factor that isn't being factored in is the variety of local codes regarding the mixture of ethanol, additives, etc. A major terminal has to jump through insane regulatory hoops to ensure that the additive and ethanol mixture is compliant with local codes. This increases costs.

    The bottom line is this: if ethanol is a cost effective alternative or additive, then let the market decide. The imposition of outside controls on the market is ALWAYS a bad thing, and ALWAYS a costly thing.

    Biodiesel is another story entirely. Even using incredibly wasteful home biodiesel setups (and obtaining the raw materials at little or no cost -- restaurants pay to have their cooking oil removed, so they'll give it to you for free), the cost to produce biodiesel is less than half the current market rate for ordinary diesel.

  7. BridgetB:

    "A major terminal has to jump through insane regulatory hoops to ensure that the additive and ethanol mixture is compliant with local codes."

    I can attest to that! I have been presonally responsible for ensuring terminals are compliant. It takes a crazy amount of time and effort. There seems to never be an end to it since codes change, equipment changes, etc. Ethanol blending is one of the biggest wastes of time and money for a terminal -- there is no net benefit to the terminal OR even the "environment." Just another one on the list of "its a total waste but the government said so." For one terminal we must waste hundreds and hundreds of hours ensuring everything is compliant with the impossibly complicated "codes", and thats not including the tax system state & federal. This includes everything from ethanol blending, additives, the EXACT language that appears on bills of lading, order reports, and how to NAME products -- its endless. Its hugely crappy bull.

    I have more important things to do. And so do the terminals.

    I have a deep deep harted for ethanol blending.

    Imagine if oil companies didnt have to deal with this crap. The terminals work very hard to maintain efficiency (to be able to compete). With all this other nonsense to deal with its even more important that not a drop of fuel goes unaccounted for. They deserve every penny they make! Godblessit.

  8. markm:

    Jake: Most of the energy requirement is probably for fertilizer and pesticide production, not for tractor fuel. There is also some fuel needed for transporting and processing the crop, heating fermenters, and quite a lot for distillation

    Michael: Not all energy requirements can be met by coal or electricity. It is impractical for powering tractors and trucks. Many chemical products start with petroleum feedstocks simply because a certain distillate is much closer to the end product than a lump of coal is. Providing well-controlled process heat (for chemical plants, fermenters, and distillation) with solid fuel is much more difficult than with liquid or gaseous fuels.

    George: The price of oil is still not high enough to make oil from shale competitive. And when it gets that high, it will probably take 20 years to get all the environmental, zoning, construction, etc., permits needed to start building a processing plant.

  9. pm:

    LOS ANGELES -- MEMS USA, Inc. (OTCBB:MEMS), today announced an investor conference call to be held at 4:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Monday, April 25, 2005. MEMS USA's President, Dr. James Latty, will host the call.

    MEMS USA, Inc., a California-based professional engineering and technical services company, recently (February 8, 2005) announced that British Columbia will be the site of the first Can-Am Ethanol One biomass-to-ethanol processing plant. Can-Am Ethanol One is an equal partnership between MEMS and Accelon Energy Systems, a Canadian corporation which has been formed to design, engineer, build, own, operate and maintain the biomass-to-ethanol processing plant in British Columbia. The budget for this project is USD$150,000,000.

    Merrill Lynch has committed to assist the Company in analyzing, structuring, negotiating and securing debt financing for Can-Am Ethanol One. In that capacity, the Global Investment Markets & Investment Banking Department of Merrill Lynch will function as financial advisor in lease negotiations and financial structuring and as senior manager or placement agent for any offering of debt securities sold by or on behalf of the Company.

  10. pm:

    JUNE 14th, 2005

    MEMS USA Plans Second Biomass Plant - to Produce 160,000 GPD

    MEMS USA, Inc. (OTCBB:MEMS) and Central Pacific Power Inc. have entered into a second joint venture to design, build and operate a biomass-to-ethanol facility in Canada. The plant is expected to cost $150 million and be able to produce 160,000 gallons of ethanol a day. MEMS USA is to be primarily responsible for the engineering of the facility, while Central Pacific Power is primarily responsible for sales, distribution and marketing of the ethanol as well as the sourcing of biomass materials and related operational tasks.

  11. pm:

    $175M ethanol plant planned for Hearst, ON

    Hearst – The head of a California eco-energy company, eager to build Ontario’s first forest biomass-to-ethanol fuel plant in Hearst, says they may be kick starting an emerging green fuel industry in the North.

    MEMS USA president Dr. James Latty says Ontario’s “pro-environment” political atmosphere makes it “probably the best spot” in North America to build a $150-million US ethanol plant because of its large population and the provincial requirement that all motor fuel must contain ethanol by 2010.

    “We’re really excited about this opportunity,” says Latty in a phone interview from MEMS head office in Westlake Village, CA. “We believe Canada is leading the world in ecologically responsible conversion of biomass into renewable fuels.”

    MEMS USA broke the news Jan. 4 that the northeastern Ontario community has been chosen as the site of their wood waste conversion facility, targeted to produce 227 million litres of fuel-grade ethanol annually to feed the Ontario market.

    MEMS is an engineering and technical services company serving customers in the oil, gas and utility industries. Most of their core business is to companies along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

    The project team will consist of MEMS USA and Villeneuve Construction Ltd., a well-known Hearst contractor that has come aboard as an equity partner. Villeneuve is providing a 600-acre parcel of land for the facility and to stockpile wood waste inventory.

    A Canadian subsidiary, known as Hearst Ethanol One (HEO), has been formed for the purpose of designing, building and operating the plant.

    How soon the groundbreaking begins depends upon how fast the Ontario government gives their approval to source wood waste. The proposed facility would consume 1,600 “wet tons” of biomass daily.

    Latty says he has been reassured by government regulators and officials that permitting and all necessary early approvals “will go fairly quickly.

    “There’s a lot of issues and frankly we will be meeting with the Ontario Ministry (of Natural Resources) as part of our (mid-January) trip (to Ontario).”

    Latty says the plant should be operational, at the latest, by 2010 when Ontario laws requiring that all gasoline sold in the province must contain 10 per cent ethanol take effect.

  12. J Leonard:

    I wonder. What's the point of producing additives for a fuel source of diminishing supply?

    But why have we found it so difficult to solve this very basic economic problem?

    Here's just one perspective:

  13. J Leonard:

    I wonder. What's the point of producing additives for a fuel source of diminishing supply?

    But why have we found it so difficult to solve this very basic economic problem?

    Here's just one perspective:

  14. Castor Oil:

    How about some of the newer feedstock like switchgrass to produce ethanol? Does the fact that the crop is not used otherwise make it economically more positive for bio-ethanol production?

    Also, in the case of biodiesel, where similar arguments were made for biodiesel production from traditional oilseeds, there have been new developments in producing biodiesel from algae (see Biodiesel from Algae - )...since the oil yield from algae is 200 times that of traditional oil seeds, it is surmised that biodiesel from algae has a realistic chance of replacing a large percentage of petrodiesel

    Vic, Castor Oil Online @

  15. Ecacofonix:

    I too feel that a serious debate is necessary on the alternate fuel is kind of obvious that renewable energy is the way to go, at least in the long-term...the real question I guess is, what are the components that will make up this reneweable energy, most importantly, what will be the source? Nuclear, Hydrogen?

    Talking specifically of biofuels & biodiesel, I think it is time more research and efforts are put into emerging areas such as biodiesel derived from feedstock such as algae...I keep hearing about this now and then, but still am not seeing a lot of research in this site however that does focus on biodiesel from algae is ( )...some good inputs here