MSU Professor: Corn Ethanol Results in Energy Gain
Agricultural economist Jake Ferris of Michigan State University sparked further interest in the ongoing debate about the net energy gains vs. net losses of corn ethanol production in his op-ed piece for the Lansing Journal.
Ferris sided firmly with the net energy gain faction, despite the energy content (BTUs) of pure ethanol (E-100) being only two thirds that of gasoline. He cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) June 2010 report, where their research found that every BTU of petroleum energy used to create ethanol resulted in 2.3 BTUs of corn ethanol being produced. Not bad, and that is just from corn grain.
How did the USDA come up with such great improvement in corn-ethanol processing efficiency? Ferris claims that the calculations in the study factored in the reuse of waste materials, such as distiller's dried grain with solubles. This byproduct can be used as livestock feed, diminishing the use of gasoline, processing, transportation, and irrigation involved in producing the feed independently.
This accounts for the big increase in productivity. The USDA appears to allocate the energy it would have used to produce the feed toward the energy used to produce the corn ethanol.
An article at consumerenergyreport.com (titled “Fun with Numbers”) provides a more thorough explanation of the USDA's accounting. This article shows that some advances have been made, but takes issue with the USDA's 1:2.3 ratio of energy production.
The USDA figures also do not factor in water consumption for the ethanol production process. Even Ferris states that while he believes both ethanol and biodiesel can have positive effects, these effects are difficult to measure. Claims regarding lifecycle emissions are not easy to measure due to the sheer number of variables, but the USDA report claims it does just that. More analysis is needed.
Here's to looking at cellulosic ethanol.