Ethanol vs. gasoline: Which one is better for the environment and the U.S.?
Ideally, America’s energy future would be fueled by a product that’s homegrown, renewable, and better for the environment than regular, petroleum-based gasoline.
Of course, that product would be even better if it was available right now and if it could become even more environmentally-sustainable as technology improves.
Lucky for us, that product already exists – ethanol.
Unfortunately, a few agenda-driven critics just can’t stop hunting for reasons to claim that it’s not effective and needs to be phased out. In fact, one recent study even claims that ethanol is worse for the environment than regular gasoline.
With jarring claims like that one, it’s understandable why there’s so much confusion about America’s homegrown fuel. So let’s address a couple of the most commonly-Googled questions about ethanol.
How is ethanol produced?
Most ethanol is produced from corn. The starch in corn is converted to alcohol via the process shown in this video.
That alcohol (ethanol) is blended with gasoline to provide us with a fuel product that reduces the need for petroleum as well as our reliance on foreign oil.
Ethanol production also results in useful co-products like distillers grain, which is fed to livestock.
Iowa leads the U.S. in corn production, and our state also leads the nation in ethanol production, creating nearly 30 percent of U.S. ethanol.
Is ethanol bad for the environment?
Today’s corn-based ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by roughly 40 – 50 percent compared to regular gasoline, according to recent studies by Harvard, USDA and the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.
And according to a study by Harvard, Tufts University and Environmental Health Engineering Inc., the increased utilization of ethanol and biodiesel (resulting from America’s Renewable Fuels Standard) has resulted in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions that are equivalent to taking 18 million cars off the road.
Myth #1: Farmers are plowing up more land
Opponents of ethanol (including those who claim that ethanol is worse for the environment than regular gasoline) claim that America’s increased demand for ethanol must have resulted in new acres being plowed up for corn production and environmental degradation.
However, according to EPA, total U.S. cropland has actually declined since 2007, and according to USDA, total corn acreage is roughly the same as it was in 2007. If you look back even further, USDA data shows that we’re also well below the number of corn acres U.S. farmers were planting back in the early 1900s.
So how are farmers growing all of the corn America needs for ethanol?
Yes, some existing crop acres across the U.S. have been switched to corn. But most of America’s demand for corn-based ethanol is being met by increased yields on existing corn acres, thanks to innovations in farming.
For example, in 2008, U.S. farmers were harvesting 153.3 bushels of corn per acre. By 2018, that yield had jumped to 176.4 bushels per acre.
Myth #2: Farmers are simply applying more fertilizer to achieve higher yields
Some opponents of ethanol presume that farmers are simply applying more fertilizer to achieve those higher yields. But data from USDA shows that the amount of fertilizer applied to corn is actually a little less than the amount of fertilizer that was applied to corn during the 1970s and 1980s (long before the ethanol boom and the Renewable Fuels Standard).
In other words, farmers are growing a lot more corn, while using roughly the same amount of fertilizer as they did decades ago. As a result, the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow a bushel of corn is down more than 50 percent since 1970 and the amount of phosphate and potash needed to grow a bushel of corn are down nearly 70 percent.
And those figures don’t even account for everything else farmers are doing in and around their fields, to keep nutrients in their fields and out of nearby waterways (both naturally-occurring nutrients and nutrients applied via fertilizer). In Iowa alone, the conservation practices farmers are implementing in their fields have reduced phosphorus loss by up to 27 percent since the 1980s/early 1990s.
So the reality is, ethanol is actually quite good for the environment (much better than regular gasoline). And ethanol becomes even more environmentally sustainable 1) as technology enables farmers to continuously improve their conservation efforts and 2) as other aspects of ethanol production become more efficient. Recently, the President and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association announced that ethanol is on a trajectory to achieve net-zero carbon emissions well before 2050.
What are ethanol’s other benefits?
Two words: energy independence.
In today’s world, there’s nothing more reliable than the abundant harvest America’s farm families provide us, year after year.
Oil, on the other hand, is harder to come by. In 2020, more than 40 percent of the oil processed by U.S. refineries came from foreign sources.
So ethanol isn’t just renewable and more reliable than sourcing oil. It also allows all of us to share in its economic benefits, from jobs and increased household income to savings at the pump.
Ideally, America’s energy future would be good for our bottom line and the environment. Fortunately, America’s current energy reality with ethanol gives us that opportunity.
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