In this edition of Fun With Statistics we’ll consider the question of "using more to use less." Earlier this week President Bush signed the new energy bill, which includes a host of incentives and regulations in an attempt to reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. I won’t go into the political and even logical aspects of the various components to the bill. Except for one.
Biofuel, predominantly corn-based ethanol, has become a hot commodity lately. Supposedly the cure-all for our energy ills, but few are looking at the side effect of our new use for corn. Such as the tortilla crisis in Mexico, where the price of that food staple is skyrocketing out of reach of the common folk. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, fooling around with the free market is like pushing on a balloon… there will be an opposite reaction somewhere, and often we can’t predict where.
But there’s another aspect of ethanol that is being hotly debated in the scientific community, especially in the last year or so: does ethanol production actually create a net surplus of energy? Planting, harvesting, and processing corn into ethanol takes energy, and therefore is the energy balance negative or positive.
Cornell University ecology Professor David Pimentel, however, sides with Patzek, calling production of ethanol "subsidized food burning." "The USDA isn’t looking at factors like the energy it takes to maintain farm machinery and irrigate fields in their analysis," he said, adding that the agency’s ethanol report contains overly optimistic assumptions about the efficiency of farming practices. "The bottom line is that we’re using far more energy in making ethanol than we’re getting out."
Up until two or three years ago it was almost indisputably negative, with production and conversion energy required running between 35% and 65% greater than the ethanol energy created. But ethanol plants have become far more efficient and the relative value of the crude energy required versus the refined energy gained has by most estimates created a net positive. But controversy still exists.
"His figures (regarding energy consumed in fertilizer production) are accurate for older nitrogen fertilizer plants, but newer plants use only half the energy of those that were built 35 years ago," he said. He also cited the increasing popularity of no-till farming methods, which can reduce a corn farm’s diesel usage by 75 percent. "With hydrogen fuel, people are willing to say, ’25 years from now it will be good.’ Why can’t we also be forward-looking when it comes to ethanol?"
Some scientists claim that when all inputs are identified and added to the equation, it is still negative. Others, in that same and remarkably balanced article, have data showing it is even more positive. Interestingly enough, both claims are peer-reviewed and published in journals. Others are concerned about the "collateral damage," such as the additional fertilizer required (which requires energy to make, by the way) running off and polluting the environment.
Patzek’s report also highlights the potential environmental hazards of ethanol production. "When you dump nitrogen fertilizer on corn fields, it runs away as surface water, into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico," he said. The excess nitrogen introduced into the water causes out-of-control algae growth, creating an oxygen-poor "dead zone" where other marine plants and animals cannot survive. And while ethanol produces fewer carbon monoxide emissions than regular gasoline, some researchers have found that ethanol releases high levels of nitrogen oxide, one of the principal ingredients of smog, when burned.
But perhaps the most interesting concept, and one that will ring a bell with our lean-oriented readers, is the one of value. And just as manufacturing value isn’t related to price alone, ethanol value isn’t related to energy content alone. We aren’t trying to just create another source of energy, we’re trying to create another source of portable energy. Portability has inherent value.
Other contributors to the debate argue that ethanol’s net energy balance should not be the sole consideration when policymakers are evaluating its usefulness — factors like the fuel’s portability and lower carbon monoxide emissions need to be considered as well. "So what if we have to spend 2 BTUs for each BTU of alcohol fuel produced?" reads an editorial in the Offgrid Online energy newsletter. "Since we are after a portable fuel, we might be willing to spend more energy to get it."
Although a negative 2:1 ratio makes you wonder if we should be looking at other solutions.
Patzek thinks lawmakers and environmental activists need to push ethanol aside and concentrate on more sustainable solutions like improving the efficiency of fuel cells and hybrid electric cars or harnessing solar energy for use in transport. If they don’t, he predicts economics will eventually force the issue.
Some day, perhaps.