The U.S. government has mandated that 36 billion gallons (2.3 million barrels daily) of ethanol be substituted for gasoline by 2022.
This mandate is untenable – and is virtually impossible to achieve. It’s also immoral.
Let’s look at some basic facts.
The U.S. uses around 8.2 million barrels of oil daily for gasoline.
Last year (2009), the United States produced 12.3 billion bushels of corn and used 4.1 billion bushels for producing ethanol.
In other words, 1/3 of the corn crop was used to make ethanol.
Total ethanol production from corn in 2009 was 0.7 million barrels per day (bbl/d), a fraction of the 8.2 million bbl/d of oil we use for gasoline.
That’s worth repeating: Only 0.7 million bbl/d of ethanol was produced from 1/3 of our corn crop.
And, if we used the entire United States corn crop for ethanol, we would only produce around 2.1 million bbl/d of ethanol.
We plant around 80 million acres of corn, so it would require another 240 million acres to produce enough ethanol to replace all 8.2 million bbl/d of oil.
There currently are around 30 million acres of unused U.S. farm land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, but this land is too dry to grow much corn.
Forests could be cut down, but again this land is not well suited for growing corn.
But, what about producing cellulosic ethanol?
Cellulosic ethanol is an experimental process.
If cellulosic ethanol can be developed, then two additional sources of raw material are available for making ethanol.
First, there are the corn stalks, known as Stover.
There are two variables with Stover. How much Stover must be left in the ground to prevent soil erosion and for recycling nutrients? Second, how much ethanol can be made from a bushel of Stover?
With respect to the first question, it would appear that around 60% of Stover can be used for making ethanol.
The best estimate as to the amount of ethanol that can be produced from Stover is around 10 billion gallons per year or 0.6 million bbl/d, according to the World Resources Institute.
The second new source of feedstock for making cellulosic ethanol is switch grass or other fast-growing plants grown on the 30 million acres in the conservation reserve.
Without getting into too much detail, a reasonable estimate of the amount of ethanol that can be produced from switch grass grown on the 30 million acres in the conservation reserve is 0.3 million bbl/day. Some say that switch grass will result in twice as much ethanol as is obtained from corn, which would result in 0.6 million bbl/day of ethanol.
Adding all the ethanol produced from corn and cellulosic materials together there is the possibility that we may be able to produce 1.9 million bbl/day of ethanol.
This is slightly less than the 2.3 million bbl/d (36 billion gallons) mandated by Congress, but achieving even this lower amount is dependent on cellulosic ethanol becoming a reality rather than a dream.
Then there is algae, which might add to this total, assuming it ever becomes a reality.
“The federal government poured money into algae-to-fuels research from 1978 until 1996” without great success, so prospects of algae playing a major role are dim. In 2009, fuel from algae was estimated to cost $30 per gallon, a prohibitive price for a fuel expected to replace gasoline.
It should also be noted that ethanol has 35% less energy content than gasoline, which means more ethanol than gasoline is required to go one mile
Finally, there is the ethical question of making ethanol from corn.
Based on UN population estimates, the world’s population will increase to 9 billion people, up from 6.3 billion today.
Human society is already farming 37% of the global land area and the increased population will have to rely on this land, or on less productive land, including forests to grow food crops.
The United States produces about half of the world’s corn crops, and an even higher percentage of world corn exports.
With millions or billions of people needing food, it’s immoral to use corn to make ethanol.
The 36 billion gallon mandate should be abolished, with production of corn ethanol temporarily maintained at the current level and then gradually eliminated.
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