Roughly 10 billion gallons ethanol were used in 2009, costing taxpayers about $5 billion in tax revenue the ethanol producers collected as tax credits.
Here's the kicker.
"Because the production of ethanol draws so much energy from coal and natural gas, it can be thought of as a method for converting natural gas or coal to a liquid fuel that can be used for transportation."
Roughly 11 billion gallons of biofuels were produced and sold in the United States in 2009, and ethanol produced from corn accounted for nearly all of that total. Blenders of transportation fuels receive a tax credit of 45 cents for each gallon of ethanol that is combined with gasoline and sold. Although the credit is provided to blenders, most of it ultimately flows to producers of ethanol and to corn farmers —in the form of higher prices received for their products.
Use of corn to create ethanol also results in higher costs for critical food, in some cultures corn is a primary food source.
I've always thought using corn to make ethanol was a economic crime.
The CBO has made it clear.
This is the abomination I always thought it was, to begin with.
Here's more from the blog at CBO.
Similarly, the costs to taxpayers of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the biofuel tax credits vary by fuel: about *$750 per metric ton of CO2e (that is, per metric ton of greenhouse gases measured in terms of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide) for ethanol*, about *$275 per metric ton of CO2e for cellulosic ethanol*, and about $300 per metric ton of CO2e for biodiesel. Those estimates do not reflect any emissions of carbon dioxide that occur when production of biofuels causes forests or grasslands to be converted to farmland for growing the fuels’ feedstocks (the raw material for making the fuel).
If those emissions were taken into account, such changes in land use would raise the cost of reducing emissions and change the relative costs of reducing emissions through the use of different biofuels—in some cases, by a substantial amount.
If it's CO2 we're looking to reduce, corn based ethanol is not worth it. Cellulosic ethanol may require more up front costs, but ends up being one third the cost of using corn. Economies of scale are not being realized in the conversion of cellulosic plant materials to ethanol at this time.
While the CBO did not go into these details, I think it's a given that corn is expensive in terms of energy, chemicals and existing water tables.
The effective yield of corn as ethanol being a way to reduce carbon emissions?
It's an illusion.
[from Sept 2001]
* An acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre, according to Pimentel’s analysis. Thus, even before corn is converted to ethanol, the feedstock costs $1.05 per gallon of ethanol.
* The energy economics get worse at the processing plants, where the grain is crushed and fermented. As many as three distillation steps are needed to separate the 8 percent ethanol from the 92 percent water. Additional treatment and energy are required to produce the 99.8 percent pure ethanol for mixing with gasoline.
* Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion to ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU. "Put another way", Pimentel says, "about 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol. Every time you make 1 gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTU".
Pimentel goes on to point out environmental damage caused by growing corn, higher prices for all manners of food which require corn as part of the cycle.
One can quibble with some of the numbers, but at best it looks like corn based ethanol is truly a boon only to those who stand to profit from it.
There are much more logical alternatives to corn.
Kudzu, cattails, lignocellulosic biomass are amongst the sources which require no fertilizer, no additional water, and are considered to be 'waste' plants, nuisances which sit, rot and die each fall producing methane and outgassing the carbon they've built up during their growing months. We could be capturing this carbon and converting it into useful fuel, rather than simply allowing it to add to the carbon load of the planetary atmosphere.
Cattails do require standing water to grow [marshland]. Cattails are a proven biofilter, as they remove pollution from standing water; they can be used to help clean marshlands on the Gulf Coast.
In Alcohol Week (October 20, 1980!), there is a headline "DOE MAY FUND CATTAILS-TO-ETHANOL TECHNOLOGY: SEES LOWER COST, BIG YIELDS". The unsolicited proposal from a Florida Junior College suggests that one cattail crop will produce 1,000-1,500 gals/acre/year, while two crops would bring 2,100 to 3,100, and three crops 3,100-4,700 gals/acre, the higher figure representing more than 110 barrels ethanol per acre. While I believe these figures are extremely optimistic, I would endorse a serious study of cattails as a potential energy source.
Corn yields at best a fraction of these amounts. We've been discussing these technologies for decades, and nothing is happening. We're stuck on corn based ethanol, and the lobbyists for ADM and their ilk are no doubt quashing shifts away from this horrible waste of taxpayer money. After all, $5B a year is pretty sweet, when you consider you can jack up the price on what you sell otherwise, using 'market demands' as the reason why.
Other reference sources here:
It's time to smash this concept, and use common sense to drive alternative fuels, rather than what makes more profit for corporations.
Maybe someone in Congress will take the CBO report and run with it.
PS: use of alternative plant materials is not 'THE answer' to changing everything.
It is part of the overall suite of answers. Changing what we use to take advantage of the energy of carbon, shifting away from the poisons [oil/coal] we dig up from the ground is a transitional step.
Corn based ethanol never was, is not today, and never will be part of a sustainable green answer to our pressing needs for energy.