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Ethanol production: energy, economic, and environmental losses.

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  • 1College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 5126 Comstock Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


The prime focus of ethanol production from corn is to replace the imported oil used in American vehicles, without expending more fossil energy in ethanol production than is produced as ethanol energy. In a thorough and up-to-date evaluation of all the fossil energy costs of ethanol production from corn, every step in the production and conversion process must be included. In this study, 14 energy inputs in average U.S. corn production are included. Then, in the fermentation/distillation operation, 9 more identified fossil fuel inputs are included. Some energy and economic credits are given for the by-products, including dried distillers grains (DDG). Based on all the fossil energy inputs, a total of 1.43 kcal fossil energy is expended to produced 1 kcal ethanol. When the energy value of the DDG, based on the feed value of the DDG as compared to that of soybean meal, is considered, the energy cost of ethanol production is reduced slightly, to 1.28 kcal fossil energy input per 1 kcal ethanol produced. Several proethanol investigators have overlooked various energy inputs in U.S. corn production, including farm machinery, processing machinery, and the use of hybrid corn. In other studies, unrealistic, low energy costs were attributed to such inputs as nitrogen fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides. Controversy continues concerning the energy and economic credits that should be assigned to the by-products. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 17.0 billion L ethanol was produced in 2005. This represents only less than 1% of total oil use in the U.S. These yields are based on using about 18% of total U.S. corn production and 18% of cornland. Because the production of ethanol requires large inputs of both oil and natural gas in production, the U.S. is importing both oil and natural gas to produce ethanol. Furthermore, the U.S. Government is spending about dollar 3 billion annually to subsidize ethanol production, a subsidy of dollar 0.79/L ethanol produced. With the subsidy, plus the cost of production, the cost of ethanol is calculated to be dollar 1.21/L. The subsidy for a liter of ethanol is 45-times greater than the subsidy per liter of gasoline. The environmental costs associated with producing ethanol are significant but have been ignored by most investigators in terms of energy and economics. The negative environmental impacts on cropland, and freshwater, as well as air pollution and public health, have yet to be carefully assessed. These environmental costs in terms of energy and economics should be calculated and included in future ethanol analyses. General concern has been expressed about taking 18% of U.S. corn, and more in the future, to produce ethanol for burning in automobiles instead of using the corn as food for the many malnourished people in the world. The World Health Organization reports that more than 3.7 billion humans are currently malnourished in the world--the largest number ever in history.

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