01 Aug Anti-ethanol arguments are easily debunked
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part opinion piece on ethanol. Read part two.
Madison, Wis. – There has been a great deal of media coverage on biofuels and ethanol, much of it confusing. I want to save you the trouble of reading all this confusing information, so let’s straighten out all the anti-ethanol arguments. Then I will give you my opinion along with permission to repeat it at cocktail parties.
I’m hardly unbiased. Lucigen, the company I’m part of, is working on enzymes that, we believe, will improve the productivity of the current corn ethanol process by 10 to 12 percent, and other enzymes that will, for the first time, economically convert soy meal carbohydrate into ethanol. I’m a believer, and I have a vested interest.
The first anti-ethanol argument – one that is so old it is hardly worth mentioning, but one that comes up in every ethanol debate – is the energy balance issue. The argument is that ethanol takes more energy to make than it contains. The energy balance of dry mill produced corn ethanol is approximately 1.4, according to recent studies, meaning you get 40 percent more energy out of the process than is put in.
Updating these studies for current corn production numbers renders a balance of 1.8 – even more favorable. Gasoline, by the way, has an energy balance of 0.8.
Furthermore, ethanol production has become consistently more efficient year after year over the last 10 years. Gasoline production, although historically highly efficient, has become less efficient across that same timeframe because the easy places to drill for oil are all gone.
Arnold’s bio-powered fleet
Others believe that ethanol is viable only because the price of oil is at an all-time high. OPEC, they predict, will manipulate prices downward and ethanol will fall from its lofty heights. Ethanol is economically competitive when oil is $40 per barrel or above. Currently oil is at nearly $80 per barrel, China and India are just beginning their march up the consumption curve, and the situation in the Middle East is hotter than ethanol-charged Indy racing fuel.
Does anyone think this will change anytime soon? I’m sure there is an Internet theory somewhere that postulates $35 oil, but even California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is converting his Hummers to biofuels.
Another concern is that making ethanol from corn is going to take food away from the world, and that food should be a priority over fuel. While there may be kernels (sorry) of truth to this, we have time before being concerned and time to manage this. Out of last year’s corn crop of 11 billion bushels, 16 percent was used for fuel ethanol, 55 percent for animal feed, and less than 7 percent for human food.
Most importantly, we had a 2.4 billion bushel surplus, or carryover. If we fast-forward this movie to 2010, we find the percentage of fuel ethanol in the United States Department of Agriculture corn crop projections going up to 26 percent of the total crop, with nearly all of that additional demand being met by additional production.
Other uses of corn remain generally flat in real terms. Furthermore, in 2010 we will still produce a stock reserve of over two billion bushels, or 17 percent of production, according to the USDA.
Do feed the animals
There is no question that the upper limit on plant-based fuels is land use, but we can increase even corn ethanol production into the future while other feedstocks come on line – and still have plenty of food and feed! One thing always missed in this argument is that ethanol production produces animal feed, which is where the bulk (55 percent last year) of the corn crop goes anyway.
The byproduct of ethanol production is a protein-rich animal food that is approximately one third the weight of the corn that comes into the ethanol plant. Although the production of ethanol reduces the corn weight by two thirds, it doesn’t change the protein content. Ethanol production reduces the feed bulk but not the feed value of corn. This byproduct is currently better fed to cows than to chickens or pigs (at least for now), but certainly isn’t taken out of the animal food supply.
In reality, the current concern in the industry is that the boom in ethanol demand will create a glut of this type of feed, not a shortage. The bulk of the corn going into the human food category goes into high fructose corn syrup, which currently sells for more than four times ethanol’s value, making it unlikely that its production will decrease in favor of ethanol.
Biofuels produced incidentally to food-crop agriculture are suboptimal in several dimensions, but their production and consumption in the medium term gives us the time and creates the infrastructure necessary to achieve more optimal production from engineered non-food crops and improved processes.