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Ethanol: Viable alternative or waste of time?

sophie b.'s picture

Sophie Balis-Harris 
Over the past decade the world has begun to realize the importance of finding sustainable, renewable forms of energy. One of the most highly prioritized forms of energy is liquid, so that we can begin to manage our dependency on fossil energy. In the midst of this search, ethanol, a fuel additive which can be utilized in a variety of vehicles has become one of the most popular alternatives to fossil fuel. Many view Ethanol as the fuel of the future. Bioethanol, which is currently the most prominent type of ethanol, is made from the fermentation process of crops such as sugar or corn. This can be done in two ways, through dry or wet milling, the main difference between the two being that in dry milling the grains are mashed together, while in wet milling they are soaked in water for 24-48 hours before the process begins. Both of these processes generate C02 emissions; however the C02 is generally captured and used for other things(1).
Many nations, with the United States and Brazil leading in production, have begun to use Ethanol fuel as a renewable liquid energy source. Over the past six years ethanol production in the United States has nearly quadrupled, and the government is spending over three billion dollars in subsidies for the industry(1). However many people believe that the numerous drawbacks of actually producing and utilizing Ethanol outweigh these benefits, and that we should divert our attention and funding towards more viable renewable resources.
The benefits of ethanol fuel seem to be fairly straightforward. The most popular reason cited for using bioethanol is that because it contains a high level of oxygen it is more clean burning than straight gasoline. According to some estimates "ethanol use in the U.S. reduced CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 7 million tons", and is expected to reduce emissions by 1.7 billion tons by the year 2050(2). Such a dramatic reduction of ozone forming materials helps to improve air quality in cities where the fuel is used. Ethanol also does not contain many of the toxins that fossil based gasoline does, making it more biodegradable and safer in the instance of a spill(3). Additionally corn-based fuels are renewable, we have the capabilities to grow large amounts of corn, whereas we cannot produce anymore fossil energy and are limited by the supplies that we already have.
The idea that ethanol is a clean burning, renewable resource sounds lovely in theory, however in practice Ethanol isn't particularly sustainable. While ethanol blends do reduce C02 emissions an estimated 10- 30%, scientists at Berkeley discovered that ethanol from "corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced", meaning it actually takes quite a bit more energy to make ethanol fuel than what is generated by the final product(4). Additionally, at this time Ethanol fuel cannot be run through pipelines, which means that the fuel must be shipped on planes, trucks or ships(5). This means that only the actual process of fermenting the ethanol uses fossil energy, but the actual distribution of ethanol fuel itself uses fossil energy as well. It doesn't seem as though a resource can be considered sustainable or renewable if it a) relies so heavily upon fossil energy (a non renewable resource) for production and b) actually consumes more energy than it produces. Another downfall of ethanol is that it is extremely flammable. While a spill of ethanol blends or pure ethanol would be much less damaging to environment than a spill of pure gasoline, ethanol is much more combustible and poses a greater fire risk(9).
While grains are technically a renewable resource, using farm land to grow corn for ethanol production will most likely produce serious consequences. The United States has been subsidizing ethanol production in an attempt to produce bioethanol domestically. However, as more and more agricultural space becomes converted to ethanol production it means that less and less food is being produced- this is also becoming true across the world(6). The New York Times has reported that India, one of the top sugar producers in the world has been forced to import sugar as their sugar production is being used for Ethanol production(7). This has already begun to dramatically increase the global cost of food- which takes a very real effect on the lives of millions. According to the world bank "for each 1 percent rise in food prices, caloric intake among the poor drops 0.5 percent."(6) Considering that in 2008 Mexico and Pakistan both faced prices of grain products at least doubling (6), this is an extremely troubling figure to look at, and must make us re-examine whether or not we can consider agricultural space expendable.

There is however, another type of ethanol fuel currently being developed that could prove to be a more viable energy source, cellulosic ethanol (5). Cellulosic ethanol can be made from products that are generally considered as waste, such as corn stalks(1). The use of cellulosic ethanol as opposed to bioethanol could potentially cut down on the harm done to the environment from the production of ethanol, as well as allow for more agricultural space (8).
In the end, it seems that bioethanol is not in fact the solution to the global fuel problem, as the media portrays it to be. Though it is easy to focus on the statistics that depict Ethanol to be a good alternative to fossil energy, it is clear after some investigation that the benefits Ethanol supporters are so passionate about are not in fact, legitimate. Though ethanol is a convenient solutions that will create some short term benefits inside the United States, we have to consider the long run environmental effects that Ethanol will have on our environment and being to develop energy sources that can begin to make a real impact on our carbon footprint.

Works Cited


Paul Grobstein's picture


Is there a way to reconcile the stories told by advocates and opponents?  My guess is that neither group are entirely without an agenda of their own ....