Some alternative fuels may cause unintended consequences
April 10, 2007
As the price at the pump escalates, so does research and interest in alternative fuel sources, including organic-based ethanol.
p. At first glance, ethanol-based fuels may appear to be an attractive alternative to expensive petroleum fuels, but a closer look reveals that hidden costs and scientific misrepresentation may make these fuels just as costly as their petroleum counterparts.
Ethanol can be produced using a variety of organic materials, including corn, switchgrass (a perennial grass common in the North American prairie), wood biomass and sugarcane.
p. According to researchers David Pimentel of Cornell University and Tad W. Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley, the amount of fossil fuel energy used to create ethanol exceeds its energy output, leading to a negative net energy gain.
p. This statement of net energy return contradicts statements by United States Department of Agriculture researcher Hosein Shapouri, who claims that returns in ethanol production have “become positive in recent years due to technological advances in ethanol conversion and increased efficiency in farm production.”
Major sources of division on the net energy yield of ethanol stem from which energy components are included in determining the net yield.
p. Pimentel suggests that many of the energy inputs are excluded from USDA and other assessments on ethanol in an effort to make ethanol fuels appear to be a more efficient alternative to traditional gasoline.
p. Inputs that are omitted include fossil fuel energy used in the production of corn and fermentation of ethanol, farm labor costs, farm machinery costs, consumer tax costs for subsidies and the environmental impacts of both producing and burning ethanol.
Many politicians have used ethanol for political purposes, especially in the midwest, where farmers would benefit from increased ethanol use.
p. Senator John McCain, however, has voiced his concern about the efficiency and cost of producing ethanol. McCain states that when direct subsidies for producing ethanol are included, a gallon of ethanol costs around three dollars.
p. Pimentel takes this idea further and suggests that when the low energy return of ethanol is included, the cost of producing a gallon of ethanol that is equivalent to a gallon of gasoline is around $7.12.
p. Currently, biofuels like ethanol are being marketed as more “eco-friendly” than petroleum fuels, but researchers like Pimentel, Bernd Franke of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Guido Reinhardt of German-based Institute for Engergy and Environmental Research suggest that the burning and production of ethanol-based fuels incur significant negative environmental impacts.
p. Producing corn leads to soil erosion and contamination with pesticides, groundwater depletion and contamination, pollution and eutrophication (nitrogen enrichment) of rivers, streams and lakes.
Air and water pollution also result from ethanol fermentation. In 2002, this led the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a warning to plants engaged in the process to reduce emissions or risk being shut down.
p. The burning of ethanol in automobiles combined with the fossil fuel energy necessary to produce ethanol significantly contributes to increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
p. The use of other organic materials, such as switchgrass, soybeans and wood biomass also yields similar negative energy returns and pollution costs.
p. However, ethanol production using sugarcane has been demonstrated to be economically positive in Brazil; other countries that produce sugarcane, like Jamaica, are hoping to increase their ethanol production.
p. Research suggests that ethanol production could be considered an attractive method of transitioning from our current dependence on petroleum-based liquid fuels to innovative future energy sources such as solar, hydroelectric and wind.
p. Ethanol most likely will not be sustainable if its fuels are used simply to replace petroleum fuels; thus fuel conservation methods and innovative approaches to development, like new urbanism (New Town for example), are stressed.
p. For now, consumers can expect to fill their cars with increasing quantities of ethanol as global oil production decreases, but should not expect ethanol to be able to quench our thirst for cheap, liquid energy.