The Ethanol Effect

By Richard Snowden

With energy prices soaring and scientific research suggesting strong links between fossil fuels and global warming, ethanol has emerged as a growing player in debates over energy policy.

A form of grain alcohol made from biomass sources such as agricultural plants, ethanol is being increasingly touted as a solution to America’s energy and environmental problems. Advocates say it burns cleaner than gasoline, thus reducing air pollution, and offers higher octane ratings, which can help improve fuel mileage.

Better still, advocates say, ethanol represents a renewable energy source that could decrease or eliminate American dependence on foreign oil supplies.

“With oil prices at such high levels and so much oil being imported, it represents a national security risk,” said Kristin Brekke, communications director at the American Coalition for Ethanol. “If we shifted to an ethanol-based energy economy, we could reduce or eliminate our dependence on oil imports from unstable parts of the world.”

Available to motorists in the form of E10 and E85 – respectively, 10 percent and 85 percent blends of ethanol with petroleum – ethanol could represent a boon for farmers, whose crops can be used to produce ethanol. Such a scenario might also benefit taxpayers by decreasing government spending on farm subsidies.

Ethanol’s economic impact

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that ethanol production helped reduce farm subsidy spending by some $3 billion in 2004, said Matt Hartwig, communications director for the Renewable Fuels Association.

Hartwig said ethanol has had a larger economic impact as well.

“In 2004, the ethanol industry created about 147,000 jobs in all [economic] sectors,” he said. “It also added $1.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenues. With increased usage of ethanol, you’ll definitely see an increased positive impact.”

Increased ethanol usage could provide a particular economic boost to Illinois, one of the nation’s major producers of corn, which is the crop most commonly used in ethanol production.

“If you have an increase in ethanol production, the demand for crops like corn would certainly increase,” said Mike Hardt, assistant manager of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. “That in turn would provide a financial boost to our farmers.”

Mark Lambert, a spokesman for the Illinois Corn Growers Association, agreed.

“The impact of increased ethanol usage would definitely be significant for farmers,” Lambert said. “For one thing, they would benefit from increased demand for their crops. It can also provide farmers an opportunity to profit from another part of the marketing chain if they invest in building an ethanol plant in their area, which gives them another chance to earn money off their crops.”

New facility in Rochelle

There are 93 ethanol production and refinement facilities across the country, with others currently under construction. One such facility is being built in DeKalb County, said Steve Bemis, a DeKalb farmer.

“They’re actually building a new ethanol plant over in Rochelle right now,” Bemis said. “That’ll probably increase our crop price by around a nickel or so per bushel.”

In addition to the economic impact of ethanol, Bemis also believes reducing the nation’s oil imports via increased use of ethanol would be beneficial.

“It’s going to be a positive, since every gallon of ethanol we can produce in this country is one less gallon of petroleum we’ll have to import,” he said. “It would be great if we could reduce our dependence on oil imports.”

State Rep. Bob Pritchard, (R-Hinckley), expressed a similar sentiment.

“If we’re able to produce alternate fuel sources domestically, that helps drive down demand for imported oil, which would provide a definite boost to our nation’s security,” he said.

Pritchard said the economic benefits that could result from increased ethanol use would have a positive impact on the state.

“The number one upside, of course, is additional revenue for Illinois farmers,” he said. “And for every dollar our farmers earn, they’ll turn around and put those dollars back into their local economies, boosting the economy as a whole.”

Cleaner air

As a cleaner-burning energy source than gasoline that also helps gasoline burn more completely when used as an additive, ethanol could also play a major role in reducing polluting emissions from internal-combustion engines.

“Definitely, the air would be much cleaner using biomass fuels instead of fossil fuels,” said Jie Song, an associate professor of geography. “They not only cause less air pollution, but they also don’t contribute to greenhouse gas production. Fossil fuels are often not burned efficiently, and that causes by-products that are bad for the quality of the air.”

Another positive effect of using biomass fuels such as ethanol is the plants used to create biomass fuels help reduce the amount of carbon gases in the atmosphere, Song said. These gases, also known as greenhouse gases, are linked to global warming.

Ethanol naysayers

Despite the many upsides of ethanol touted by advocates, some experts believe ethanol presents more negatives than positives.

According to research conducted by David Pimentel, a professor of agriculture and ecology at Cornell University, and Tad Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, more fossil energy is required to produce ethanol than the amount of energy yielded by the ethanol produced.

Pimentel and Patzek’s study, published in the journal Natural Resources Research, analyzed the energy input-to-output ratios involved in producing ethanol from corn, switch-grass and wood biomass, as well as biodiesel production using soybeans and sunflowers.

The resulting numbers offered a bleak assessment of ethanol’s viability as an alternative energy source. According to the study, corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy to produce than its energy yield in the form of ethanol. That figure increases to 50 percent when switch grass is used and 57 percent when wood biomass is used.

Similarly, when Pimentel and Patzek examined the energy input-to-output ratios involved in using soybeans and sunflowers to produce biodiesel, they found that soybeans require 27 percent more fossil energy to produce than they yield as biodiesel, with the figure rising to 118 percent when sunflowers are used.

The primary reason for the difference between Pimentel and Patzek’s findings and those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and ethanol advocacy groups is the number of factors considered, Pimentel said.

“If you count all the inputs, which the USDA does not, you find it takes more energy to produce the ethanol than the energy yield you get from the ethanol produced,” he said. “As you might imagine, those conclusions weren’t too popular with politicians from farm states.”

Pimentel cited a range of factors he said the USDA’s research fails to take into consideration.

“They [the USDA] leave out several things, such as the energy required to maintain the farm equipment, the energy required to produce the hybrid corn, the energy that goes into the nitrogen fertilizer, the energy used to ferment and distill the product,” he said. “Once you figure in all that, the numbers look a lot different.”