We’ve all heard this statement a million times from ethanol critics: "Corn-based ethanol is a waste because it consumes more energy to make than it produces."
We’ve known for a long time that the critics’ contention was about as outdated as a 1972 Gremlin. But now, thanks to some new research, we can store that biofuel criticism firmly in the "earth is flat’ category.
The report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and led by Iowa State University economics professor Paul Gallagher, shows that ethanol produces more than two times the energy that it takes to make, far more than critics contend.
That’s just a national average. In the Midwest, and specifically in Iowa, ethanol’s energy balance is nearly double that.
Moreover, ethanol production keeps getting more efficient, the report showed. While its energy balance today is better than in the mid-1990s, it’s also gained since 2008, when biofuel production was kicking into high gear.
Gains all over the system
So what’s changing the energy balance? A big factor, not surprisingly, is that American farmers are getting ever more energy efficient.
The researchers found significant reductions in the per bushel cost of the two main energy components in corn production—nitrogen for fertilizer and fuel used to plant and harvest crops. Nitrogen use, per bushel of corn produced, has fallen about 20 percent since the mid-90s, the report said. The decline was even sharper for diesel and other fuels used in corn production, which are down about 50 percent since the mid-90s on a per-bushel average.
Meanwhile, ethanol plants are ever more efficient at squeezing energy from every corn kernel. Ethanol yields have increased about 10 percent in the past two decades, the report said.
All of those efficiency gains are even better in Iowa, the report said. That’s because Iowa corn production is very efficient; the state’s biofuel plants are strategically located in big corn production regions; a robust livestock feeding sector absorbs the distillers’ grain co-products; and fuel demand is strong here.
So the next time an ethanol opponent spouts off about inefficiency, you can tick off all of the facts that can be found here: 1.usa.gov/1ovgZv6. Or even better yet, show that flat earther a big, round globe.
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