Getting realistic about ethanol as fuel

Right now politicians are falling all over themselves to promote ethanol as the solution to America’s “gasoline shortage” problem.

I burn 10% ethanol in my truck, and I kind of like it, but ethanol won’t; it can’t become the solution because there is not enough enough ground to grow the inputs (especially ethanol from corn) and still feed people. Corn is used directly or indirectly in many more food products than almost any American knows. Ethanol is going to have a huge environmental fuel, and it is not really a fossil-fuel-free form energy but so much petroleum is used to produce it.

Here is part of a great editorial in the Missoulian.

(1) It takes one gallon of fossil fuel to produce 1.3 gallons of grain ethanol (not much gain); (2) Corn grain ethanol production promotes soil erosion (280 pounds of soil lost per gallon of ethanol); (3) The amount of corn required to fill one 25-gallon tank of gas could feed a person for a year; (4) Corn is an important export to developing countries. Diversion to ethanol production may strain our capacity to supply these countries; (5) Ethanol cannot be transported by pipeline; (6) Ethanol plants demand large volumes of water and generate wastewater.

Read the rest:  Guest Column: In quest for fuel alternatives, it pays to look before leaping. Missoulian.






  1. Simmons Avatar

    By the way, it’s not a “gasoline shortage”; There’s still plenty of oil left on the earth. That’s a common misconception. It’s all about demand and how fast the companies can get the oil out of the ground.

    Progress is being made on cellulosic ethanol (ethanol not made from sugar or starches). Hopefully, once commercially available, it will add to the alternative fuel market. But currently, it hinders, not helps (see:

    I note that this blog (URL above) is even more pessimistic about ethanol from corn, than I am. Webmaster.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Yes, you are right that there is no gasoline shortage. That’s why I put it in quotes.

    There is only a shortage at prices below the market equilibrium price, distorted though the market may be.

  3. be Avatar

    warring for peace is like
    sc%@#ing for virginity is like
    consuming for conservation

    we burn glutenous amounts of fuel considering the technologiies we have on hand now and the real possibility that the world will not end if we don’t get a hummer – even if we slowed down on every aspect of consumption – in fact, we’re probably going to have to face that reality either way.

    the inefficiency of commercial-corporate-consumerism is happening and it’s only going to get less comfortable… externalizing the real costs of maintaining consumptive lifestyles as joe-six-pack enjoys isn’t cheap – it just kicks the cost into our atmosphere, air, water, land, etc. — er… maybe that’s unfair – maybe it kicks those significant costs to our kids’ air, water, consumptive minds etc.

    ethanol is not a solution because it makes us believe that we can continue to consume our way to a better environment – maintaining that paradigm just means that another consumptive habit of our economy/lives will throw a different system off balance and will threaten our only livable planet in different ways.

    and as others have mentioned, the production of ethanol just re-organizes the ultimately innefficient production of fuel.

    the silver lining for those involved in public lands cow-tipping:

    the increased demand for corn heightens the cost of feed for livestock production –> altering the balance sheet of corporate livestock operations –> buy-out legislation becomes more viable with bottom-lines in corporate-livestock board-rooms across the west…

    push it where-ever you can ; )

  4. dcookie Avatar

    So.. how much ethanol would it take to produce a gallon of ethanol…? In other words, if we lived in an all-ethanol economy (noting that ethanol does not produce as much energy per unit as gasoline) how much ethanol would it take to produce one gallon of ethanol?

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Calculating from the editorial, it would take about 0.77 gal of ethanol to create an additional gallon of ethanol from corn.

    The most optimistic figures I have read are 0.68 to produce one.

    The most pessimistic are close to 1 to 1 (zero net energy).

    No of this takes into account the balance of externalities.

    Cellulosic (sp?) is said to have a better net energy balance, but how that be said when no commercial method of producing it is available?

    – – –

    As BE notes in comment 3, the cheapest source of new energy is still currently more efficient use of energy.

    California’s possible plan to ban the retail sale of old-fashioned tungsten light bulbs in favor the compact fluorescent is but one example of enormous gains through efficiency.

    See: Calif. bill would ban old-style light bulb

  6. kt Avatar

    I think ethanol is a huge distraction. An effort to look like you’re doing SOMETHING when you really aren’t. Bush out on road trip Photo Ops to the Great Red Heartland spewing nonsense about straw.

    AND a way to keep some of the only still hard core Repub loyalists – the greatly subsidized and corporate spray ag interests – happy.

    But I am happy to hear BE’s observations about how its gonna drive the cost of food for the methane machine bovines higher and higher … competition for corn, and since Corn Is Oil ….

    GEE – maybe all this will help the Nation’s obesity crisis …


    When we have to compete with our cars for “fuel” what will we choose???

  7. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    Ethanol has been Brazil’s fuel of choice for years now. I recently read Bush is seeking a deal with South America to produce ethanol for the United States. I think it’s funny that even when Bush tries to do the right thing the lefties on this site find a way to bash him.

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Let me get this straight, Chris.

    Bush wants to decrease dependence on foreign oil, so he pushes ethanol as a substitute. That’s one matter to discuss.

    But, then you say you read Bush is seeking to import ethanol from South America, and that lefties are bashing him (bad in your way of thinking).

    It doesn’t take a political ideology to figure out that importing ethanol from foreign countries is like importing oil, and that it isn’t a brilliant move.

  9. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    It also doesn’t take political ideology to figure out that ethanol is an environmentally safer fuel. It does take political ideology to bash someone that is trying to do the right thing. I am not a Bush fan, but I think it’s funny the way people go out of their way to blame things on him. Also, if you want to talk politics, Brazil is a far cry from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. I don’t think many would argue that this website is populated by far left leaning ideologues. Are you upset that I made the comment?

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Did you read the posts about ethanol being inefficient and not environmentally safe? Tell us why they are wrong?

    Please explain how importing ethanol is a good thing, especially given recent changes in South American politics?

  11. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    Okay, but first let me just say. Ralph, I am a big fan of the site, and a wildlife lover myself. I am not trying to pick a fight, just stating what I have noticed. I made the switch to this site after the updates slowed on your wolf page. Back to the subject at hand, I am a Mechanical engineer, with a energy systems specialty finishing up my last year in school, and am quite familiar with the fuels we are discussing. Statistics are a funny game, as we all know, and can be used to paint a picture quite different from reality. Without becoming too bogged down in the details, this is how it boils down. Corn is not the answer. Ethanol however is a viable solution but needs to be produced using bio-waste products. Importing ethanol from brazil to me, is a better option than importing oil from the middle east. At the very least, Brazil is not a terrorist supporting or appeasing nation. If you want me to discuss the reason ethanol is a superior fuel I will, but it does not fit easily into a comment.

  12. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I like this comment a lot better because it isn’t political.

    I think everyone so far has agreed that corn derived ethanol is not much of an energy plus.

    Is the Brazilian method (sugar cane?) a lot better? It would be great if you discussed that.

  13. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    Well that depends on your definition of better. Sugar crop produces roughly double the ethanol as corn does when grown on an equal sized lot. However, we all know of the dangers of pesticides used to protect sugar. Ideally, the solution is this. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, and the toyota prius will run on electric power, charged by ethanol burning ICE’s.

  14. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    In addition, ethanol produced from sugar produces roughly 8 times the energy used to create it. Corn, as you have seen is more like a 1.4 to 1 ratio. It just happens that america has a surplus of corn, which is why we use it.

  15. Chris. L. Avatar
    Chris. L.

    I don’t know if i can’t post links or not, just delete this if necessary.

  16. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Your three posts are very informative. Thank you.

    So, I conclude that corn-based ethanol can be no more than a transition (certainly not a feedstock you want agriculture to get locked into).

    Sugar cane/beets is much better, but still, growing food to turn into alcohol for fuel is a bad idea in many ways.

    Enzymes that can break down and allow fermentation of cellulose are the real answer.

    Everyone says that is coming, including the article you posted, but I am old enough to remember the oil crisis of the late 1970s, and everyone said in 30 years we would have all kinds of new energy technologies. We don’t, and 37 years of torpor makes me a bit skeptical.

    It is interesting that high-priced corn (because it is being burned for fuel) could put a big dent into cattle (beef) as KT and BE have opined.

  17. Simmons Avatar

    Was the post really that pessimistic? 🙂

    Cellulosic ethanol is a much better choice of ethanol. Even sugarcane can be made into food products. If you are going to go ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is the only way to go. As C. Scott Miller ( said, there is progress being made. Wood chips, tires and other agricultural waste might soon be able to be used as fuel.

    If you read the other post ( on coal, it states another, temporary, alternative. Nuclear and solar power are also options.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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