Farm Horizons, October 2012

Ethanol fact versus fiction

By Myron Oftedahl
Farm Business Management Instructor, South Central College

In today’s article, I would like to take a look at some facts vs. fiction about agriculture, primarily ethanol.

• Fiction: Ethanol uses all of the corn shipped into the ethanol plant.

• Fact: A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds and produces 18.5 pounds of ethanol, leaving 17.5 pounds of distiller’s grain to be used for livestock feed. Distiller’s grain has all of the protein, fiber, and some oil from that bushel of corn, and is used in diets for beef, dairy, hogs, and poultry. The ethanol process uses only the starch from the bushel of corn, and in most cases, captures the carbon dioxide, which can be used for other uses.

• Fiction: Ethanol will use too much corn, thus reducing corn that would be available for food.

• Fact: Corn yields have increased seven-fold from 1930 to 2010. Ethanol production has tripled from 2002 to 2009. During this same period, corn production met ethanol demand and produced an additional 21 percent more corn for other needs. Also, keep in mind that only one third of the bushel of corn is used for ethanol production, the remainder can still be used for feed. Farm products represent only 19 percent of retail food prices.

• Fiction: Ethanol increases greenhouse gas emissions.

• Fact: 2009 research by the University of Nebraska found that greenhouse gas emissions were reduced 48 to 59 percent as compared to gasoline. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes that ethanol provides a 21 to 52 percent reduction of greenhouse gases, as compared to gasoline.

• Fiction: Ethanol is projected to replace all gasoline.

• Fact: Ethanol from corn replaces 364 million barrels of foreign oil according to 2009 data. It has been estimated that corn ethanol will displace 10 percent of the gasoline used in the US. Ethanol is a beginning technology in the energy field. Other technologies are being developed, including cellulose ethanol. Ethanol is one way to displace foreign oil, and a majority of this foreign oil comes from countries that are not politically stable or friendly to the US. The 10.6 billion gallons of ethanol that were produced in 2009 would displace 10 months of oil from Venezuela.

• Fiction: Ethanol does not contribute to the gross domestic product (GDP).

• Fact: The US ethanol industry supports nearly 400,000 jobs and $53 billion to the GDP. This generated $8.4 billion of federal tax revenue, and nearly $7.5 billion of tax revenue for state and local governments. Minnesota ethanol production accounts for 70,225 jobs and $3.1 billion of economic output.

• Fiction: Ethanol increases gas prices.

• Fact: Ethanol held down the price of gasoline in the Midwest by $1.37 per gallon, and nationwide by $.89 in 2010. Ethanol adds two to three points of octane to gasoline, thus improving engine performance. An increasing number of new vehicles are being built that can utilize up to 85 percent ethanol-blended fuels. There are car models in South America which run on 100 percent ethanol.

• Fiction: Ethanol is not energy efficient.

• Fact: Ethanol has a positive net energy balance. In other words, ethanol contains 77 percent more energy than it takes to produce it, thus a net energy balance of 1.77. Gasoline, on the other hand, has a net energy balance of .81, so it takes more energy to produce a gallon of gas than the gas provides.

• Fiction: Ethanol uses too much water.

• Fact: It takes three to four gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol, and much of that is recycled. In contrast, it takes two-and-one-half to eight gallons of water to produce a gallon of gasoline. This is after the 1,851 gallons of water required to refine one barrel of crude oil. Some studies will report that it takes thousands of gallons of water to produce ethanol, but these studies are including the amount of water required to grow the corn. About 90 percent of the corn grown in the US is grown without irrigation, so the vast majority of the water required to grow corn is rainfall.

There are many more fiction vs. fact statements that could be made, so before you believe a statement, you must decide if it is fact or fiction. There have also been some recent articles and editorials that have quoted old data. An example of this is that 2.3 gallons of ethanol are produced from a bushel of corn, when in actuality, the current industry average is 2.8 gallons of ethanol per bushel. This greatly affects the economics of ethanol production.

Like any industry, the ethanol industry has become more efficient. So, the next time you fuel your vehicle, thank a farmer for growing the 10 percent or more that is ethanol, a truly American fuel.

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