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Should Ethanol Mandate be Abolished?

November 1, 2010

The U.S. government has mandated that 36 billion gallons (2.3 million barrels daily) of ethanol be substituted for gasoline by 2022.

This mandate is untenable – and is virtually impossible to achieve. It’s also immoral.

Let’s look at some basic facts.

The U.S. uses around 8.2 million barrels of oil daily for gasoline.

Last year (2009), the United States produced 12.3 billion bushels of corn and used 4.1 billion bushels for producing ethanol.

In other words, 1/3 of the corn crop was used to make ethanol.

Total ethanol production from corn in 2009 was 0.7 million barrels per day (bbl/d), a fraction of the 8.2 million bbl/d of oil we use for gasoline.

That’s worth repeating: Only 0.7 million bbl/d of ethanol was produced from 1/3 of our corn crop.

And, if we used the entire United States corn crop for ethanol, we would only produce around 2.1 million bbl/d of ethanol.

We plant around 80 million acres of corn, so it would require another 240 million acres to produce enough ethanol to replace all 8.2 million bbl/d of oil.

There currently are around 30 million acres of unused U.S. farm land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, but this land is too dry to grow much corn.

Forests could be cut down, but again this land is not well suited for growing corn.

But, what about producing cellulosic ethanol?

Cellulosic ethanol is an experimental process.

If cellulosic ethanol can be developed, then two additional sources of raw material are available for making ethanol.

First, there are the corn stalks, known as Stover.

There are two variables with Stover. How much Stover must be left in the ground to prevent soil erosion and for recycling nutrients? Second, how much ethanol can be made from a bushel of Stover?

With respect to the first question, it would appear that around 60% of Stover can be used for making ethanol.

The best estimate as to the amount of ethanol that can be produced from Stover is around 10 billion gallons per year or 0.6 million bbl/d, according to the World Resources Institute.

The second new source of feedstock for making cellulosic ethanol is switch grass or other fast-growing plants grown on the 30 million acres in the conservation reserve.

Without getting into too much detail, a reasonable estimate of the amount of ethanol that can be produced from switch grass grown on the 30 million acres in the conservation reserve is 0.3 million bbl/day. Some say that switch grass will result in twice as much ethanol as is obtained from corn, which would result in 0.6 million bbl/day of ethanol.

Adding all the ethanol produced from corn and cellulosic materials together there is the possibility that we may be able to produce 1.9 million bbl/day of ethanol.

This is slightly less than the 2.3 million bbl/d (36 billion gallons) mandated by Congress, but achieving even this lower amount is dependent on cellulosic ethanol becoming a reality rather than a dream.

Then there is algae, which might add to this total, assuming it ever becomes a reality.

“The federal government poured money into algae-to-fuels research from 1978 until 1996” without great success, so prospects of algae playing a major role are dim. In 2009, fuel from algae was estimated to cost $30 per gallon, a prohibitive price for a fuel expected to replace gasoline.

It should also be noted that ethanol has 35% less energy content than gasoline, which means more ethanol than gasoline is required to go one mile

Finally, there is the ethical question of making ethanol from corn.

Based on UN population estimates, the world’s population will increase to 9 billion people, up from 6.3 billion today.

Human society is already farming 37% of the global land area and the increased population will have to rely on this land, or on less productive land, including forests to grow food crops.

The United States produces about half of the world’s corn crops, and an even higher percentage of world corn exports.

With millions or billions of people needing food, it’s immoral to use corn to make ethanol.

The 36 billion gallon mandate should be abolished, with production of corn ethanol temporarily maintained at the current level and then gradually eliminated.

© Power America, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Power America with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2010 8:41 pm

    All good points Donn, although it is important to note that corn produtction per acre has been on a huge upswing over the last 15 to 20 years thanks to the work of Monsanto. Now I do not agree with their tactics to deal with small farms but I am impressed that we now have corn (arther dent #2) that can produce 200 bushells per acre just by adding ammoia nitrate to the soil.

    That is an amazing amount when you consider the norm back when I was working on the farm was 40B/acre. I would imagine in the next 15 years we will see even more impressive yields.

    Cellusic ethonal is possible, but we need to improve the technology. Algae seems to be a waste of time, but once again I think it is important to explore all options, although this one has been on the table for a VERY long time and hasn’t yielded any reasonable benifit.

    Basically what I am getting at is ethonal production can likely hit that target with corn alone if cellulistic ethonal becomes an Economical reality, and we make more great strides with Arthur Dent #2.

    Just look at corns humble beginins, it looked more like barley when it first came out of the wild and then blossomed into the corn we all know today, and now we have massive increases in yields thanks to science. Its an amazing plant.

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