Is Ethanol Good or Bad?

One of the most confusing aspects of the alternative energy industry has to be the story about ethanol. Simply put, is ethanol good or bad? Does it help or harm the environment?

The confusion and controversy stems from evaluating the net effect on CO2 emissions of ethanol production and use, relative to the production and use of the incumbent fuel, gasoline. Largely, this is driven by questions concerning the energy balance of ethanol — how much energy is really required to fertilize, grow, harvest and process the ethanol, and what are the CO2 emissions associated with these steps. The proper quantification of these factors has seemingly been a matter of dispute between those who favor ethanol and those who see ethanol promotion as merely a means of subsidizing the agricultural sector.

A Reuters summary of an article in the January 2006 issue of the journal Science, written by several researchers from UC Berkeley, indicates that the current corn-based means of producing ethanol is in fact a dubious environmental proposition. However, the use of emerging technologies to convert cellulosic matter — the tougher fibers as found in trees, bark, woody wastes, etc. — in ethanol should be net environmentally positive.

Not surprisingly, the downside is that cellulosic technologies are now on the costly side. But, perhaps with additional clarification of the type on the net environmental benefit (along with the energy supply benefit) that can be generated by cellulosic ethanol, this controversy can be put to bed. With the concerns more definitively allayed, more effort and capital might flow to this potentially important source of energy.

8 replies
  1. Jacob Silber
    Jacob Silber says:

    One of the factors that few people consider in evaluating the viability of ethanol programs is whether all that material can be grown. A number of studies have shown that topsoil is rapidly depleting in the United States, and water supplies are as well. In addition, ethanol still requires things such as farm equipment and fertilizer. Certainly cellulosic sources will be better than corn in terms of resource utilization, but can we support the land infrastructure to produce so much biomass?

  2. Halvo
    Halvo says:

    Jacob, I agree that there are aspects of ethanol that are not being considered as much as they perhaps should be. I personally do not feel ethanol is good or bad, but feel it does make sense to work into current energy policy, especially cellulosic ethanol, and especially in regions where the ingredients are most readily available. Ethanol will never be able to replace petro entirely, but could help balance our current ridicululous energy portfolio and help in the transition to a sustainable future.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    I really think that ethanol is overrated. TV and radio regard it as some sort of miracle fuel that is good for the environment, good for your wallet, and renewable all at the same time. Ethanol turns out to be just like any other fuel – it runs out and doesn’t fall from the sky. Let’s not forget that ethanol gets us only 66% the distance of petrol, and… even so, that’s a lot of corn. We’re talking about 12,000 miles on average for the American driven every year, and 4,000 Lbs. of corn for every 3,000 of those miles. That’s 16,000 pounds of corn on a fuel-efficient car. In terms of farmland, that’s about two and a half acres of corn and nothing else. For the millions of people in the United States who own at LEAST one car to reserve two acres+ of cornfields to power these vehicles for a year simply isn’t practical. Let’s not forget the chickens and the cows and the farm animals who depend on the nutrition of the very same corn we are stuffing in our pumps. As vague as it may seem, the prices would come back to haunt us within both the ethanol itself AND on TOP of that, GROCERIES. Ethanol is an impressive step towards finding a better fuel for the world, but I think it wouldn’t be wise to view it as a conclusion. There are still many flaws within the ethanol concept, and if we keep up the good work I think we can find something even better.

  4. Amber
    Amber says:

    I understand everything said. But my husband works at the ethanol plant, and the ethanol plays a very small role in the grocery rise. The corn may come to them, but they take the ethanol out and then the farmer gets it right back, and can feed it to the animals as if nothing happened. It's not doing anything to the grocery price rise, its the economy doing that.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I own a small engine repair shop and I can tell you first hand that Ethanol is terrible for gasoline engines. I have seen the affects that Ethanol has on engines and I will never recommend it to anyone. No gas stations are forced to use Ethanol. In fact the Ethanol can not be added until the fuel reaches your city. The reason being because Ethanol clogs pipes! it does the same to your engine as well. The only person Ethanol benefits is the franchise owner of the gas station. He/she get a healthy cut of each gallon of Ethanol gas they sell. Ethanol costs 3 times what it produces. $1.50 to make .50 cents worth. Save your corn for food, and enough trees get cut down every year already. Buy real gas, Non Ethanol, Find a station near you and you will be able to feel a difference in the way your car runs, you will get better mileage, and you won't end up with an expensive repair bill caused Ethanol. Just say NO to Ethanol!

  6. Laurel
    Laurel says:

    I haved used gasahol in my small gas engines since it was introduced. I haved had very little trouble other than grime being cleaned out of tanks thus ending up in the carb. I solved this with a better filter.I used gasahol in chainsaws ,mowers car and tractors for as long as its been around .

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You get 3 gallons of ethanol to a bushel of beans. Ethanol does not take 3 times more energy to produce then its worh and thats a lie. That the big oil companies want you to here. I buy one bushel of corn for 4 dollars and get 3 gallons of ethanol i sels and make 2 dollars per gallon. So i now made a 2 dollar profit of one bushel and take that 2 dollars and take it times 6 millions gallons per month. Plus i havent sold all the feed ive produced for animals yet at 120 dollars a ton around 500 tons of feed a day produced for cows chickens and hogs.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You get 3 gallons of ethanol to a bushel of beans. Ethanol does not take 3 times more energy to produce then its worh and thats a lie. That the big oil companies want you to here. I buy one bushel of corn for 4 dollars and get 3 gallons of ethanol i sels and make 2 dollars per gallon. So i now made a 2 dollar profit of one bushel and take that 2 dollars and take it times 6 millions gallons per month. Plus i havent sold all the feed ive produced for animals yet at 120 dollars a ton around 500 tons of feed a day produced for cows chickens and hogs.

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