Is Ethanol Better or Worse for the Environment?

by | Aug 29, 2016

corn-based ethanolEthanol may be good for the agricultural community that gets to divert crops to supplement gas but it may not be too good for the environment. That’s according to a study just released from the University of Michigan, which says that crops used to make biofuels only absorb about 37 percent of the carbon that is later released into the atmosphere.

In a story appearing in the London Telegraph, Professor John DeCicco asserts that his findings undercut the very rationale for having ethanol supplements and public subsidies of them.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe,” he told the paper. “When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline.”

To be clear, there are two generations of ethanol: the first is tied to corn while the second is more advanced cellulostic ethanol and associated with things like switchgrass, wood chips and municipal waste. Most of the criticism is tied to corn, which is not only less efficient than cellulosic ethanol but it is also essential food.

Congress has sought to expand ethanol use from a base of 6.5 billion gallons in 2005 to 16 billion gallons by 2022, as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard. As such, ethanol is to comprise 10 percent of gasoline’s blend. The concern: Farmers are replacing other crops with corn, thereby creating shortages of other food products. A transition to cellulosic ethanol would therefore mitigate that scenario.

Cellulosic fibers are abundant and could supply 130 million gallons a year of ethanol that would replace gasoline, although it is still pricey when compared to corn-based ethanol and some early trials have ended in disappointment. To commercialize the fuel additive, developers say that they have to increase scale and to bring down the cost to $2 a barrel — a tough proposition in current market conditions.

To move things along, the U.S. Department of Energy is funding second-generation biomass projects. Beyond Project Liberty revved up two years ago and is supported by a $100 million public investment. There’s also the Indian River BioEnergy Center in Florida that produces 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year from municipal waste. Dupont, meanwhile, is going ahead with an advanced unit in Iowa to create 30 million gallons annually.

“Home-grown biofuels have the potential to further increase our energy security, stimulate rural economic development, and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector,” says Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Broadly speaking, oil giant BP, has said that bio-fuels could provide up to 23 percent of the global demand for transportation fuels by 2030. But is a good move, environmentally speaking?

Right now, ethanol is made mostly from corn. The central criticism has been that it takes an awfully lot of energy to create a gallon of ethanol from corn. Some circles say that when it is all tallied up, it’s a wasteful process. Opponents also say that encouraging farmers to use their land to make fuels will lead to deforestation. That, in turn, increases global warming.

More recent studies refute those findings, including one by the Department of Energy. It says that for every one unit of input, 1.4 units of corn-based ethanol are produced. While not earth shattering, chances are the results will only get better over time. The findings for cellulosic ethanol are a lot better: greenhouse gases are 90 percent less compared to petroleum-based gasoline, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Corn-based ethanol has endured because it has had strong political support. But those first-generation fuel additives may one day lose their sway as the second generation technologies replace them.

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