These comments are my analysis and discussion of an article on various sides of the “corn ethanol story” published by Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post, with farmers telling us they can’t survive without the subsidies. I guess they’ll inherit the earth when the rest of us have no water to drink. The fact that the dust bowl is likely to be re-created doesn’t seem to bother them, so get ready, California, for a big influx of foreigners from the Midwest. Click the “read more” link below to see the article.

The comments on the story, found on the Washington Post website, are most telling, with some decrying “environmentalists who are never happy.” Well, I don’t see a lot to be happy about when tax dollars are being spent to subsidize a senseless and wasteful corn-ethanol program that pollutes and wastes our fresh water while having no impact on our foreign oil dependence. I have documented much about the problems of corn ethanol on this site. I don’t blame the farmers for taking the subsidies: heck, this is America, where socialism is a crime unless it bails out good farmin’ folk (or big business). Using public funds to save lives through health care, or to save the environment through any number of approaches (mass transit, anyone?), is clearly viewed as evil by many. It is, however, our “energy policies” that are flawed- they certainly have nothing to do with energy.

Corn is food, and will never compete successfully as an ethanol producer unless its non-food parts are added to cellulosic ethanol feedstocks in future biomass-to-ethanol plants. Wasting money on corn-ethanol just delays research on sensible biofuels and pollutes the fresh water that is so short in many parts of the US and the world.

Why is it that everyone is up in arms about chemical companies, oil companies, power companies or mining companies that pollute the environment, but polluting is no problem at all if done by those great family farmers whom we all love so much (and their large corporate cousins)?

Of course, as pointed out in one of the comments to the Washington Post story, ethanol contains about half the available energy that gasoline contains, so you have to burn twice as much ethanol as gas to go the same distance at the same speed.

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© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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  1. Jon K

    I read all the comments on the Washington Post site. I didn’t count them but they must run 95% against the subsidies. Almost everyone knows the story. Ethanol from corn uses about as much petroleum as it replaces, maybe more, and the subsidies are not going to Ma and Pop farmer but to big guys.

    Still we do it and almost all the presidential candidates support it. Things really are topsy-turvy aren’t they?

    Is there any hope for a big improvement in the energy balance from corn ethanol so we get more out than we put in and at least reduce the amount of oil we’re buying from crazy places if nothing else?

  2. Jon, thanks very much for your thoughtful feedback, your insight, and the excellent question.

    I certainly agree: things are all mixed up. I’d says this is because of political spin, big business interests and campaign financing, among other things. We don’t seem to be able to free ourselves of these problems (campaign finance reform is unfortunately either nonexistent or ineffectual).

    The answer to your question about getting more energy out of corn ethanol is, unfortunately, “no”, as far as I can tell. If we really want ethanol, a question we can leave aside for the moment, sugar cane and other crops generate much more ethanol than corn per pound or per unit of energy, water, fertilizer, etc.

    However, sticking with the idea that ethanol is our goal, I really believe that biomass to ethanol conversion is the only way to go. This captures all of the carbon, more or less, and converts it to fuel. There are plenty of good ideas and experiments in this area, but I’m not aware of anything that is ready for large scale commercialization quite yet (I’d be happy to hear about progress in this area).

    I just want to add that there are a few things that make me a little nervous about switching to ethanol as a fuel. I discussed many of these in the post “Harmful Effects of Bioethanol As Fuel”. I don’t think that these are insurmountable problems, but I don’t see any evidence that they are being addressed.

    I have started to conclude that freeing ourselves from foreign oil and helping the environment may not in any way be synonymous. I believe that this problem adds to public confusion on the issues (which big business takes advantage of). What I mean is that I just don’t see how we can put a dent in our oil consumption with biofuels, at least not without seriously damaging the environment in many ways: shrinking the water table, polluting fresh water, destroying grasslands and National Forests, etc. On the other hand, electricity from coal and other sources could power cars and use no oil. Conspiracy theorists claim that the sensible versions of this approach are being suppressed in favor of distribution systems (say for hydrogen) that mimic our current gas stations. This would keep the oil companies in control of our pocketbooks. The conspiracy theorists may be right.

    However, on a more positive note, there are some other approaches to biofuels, including biodiesel, that may help a lot. Some of these could involve engineered bacteria, others could use current waste (say, fish oil) to make biodiesel. These would be complementary to biomass-ethanol conversion.

    Anytime we have food and energy compete, I think that everyone except big business will lose. However, if we can use waste biomass, or remove plant oils while retaining plant proteins for animal feed, we might have a viable system. These are hopeful guesses, not conclusions based on available science and engineering. I feel that much of our solution is going to require conservation of energy, something that Americans as a whole seem defiantly unwilling to do, even though there are many people firmly committed to conservation in this country.

    Best wishes and thanks again for your comments. I’d be delighted to see any further thoughts that you have. Jim

  3. “Conspiracy theorists claim that the sensible versions of this approach are being suppressed in favor of distribution systems (say for hydrogen) that mimic our current gas stations.”

    Gee, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to interpret the expressions on the faces of those California energy commissioners and industry reps when electric cars were mentioned to them in “Who killed the Electric Car?”.

    Decentralization will almost always appear as anathema to concentrators of capital. But it will happen anyway; and, ultimately, money will prove to be entirely inedible…

    I like your blog, Jim.

    risa b

  4. Thanks Risa. You are right on target with your comments. I guess I felt (a) conspiracy theorists can be absolutely right and (b) I didn’t have a good, solid news article to cite in favor of my point, but I still wanted to make it. I’ll try to find some articles to cite that describe that fear of a new distribution system you note (I know they exist).

    Best wishes and thanks for your feedback- it will make this a better blog. Jim

    p.s. I’ve destroyed the tapes of myself writing this blog to protect the innocent …, or was it the guilty?

  5. Great article Jim. It has been proven Maize (corn) simply sucks as an ethanol biofuel, there are a multitude of other crops that easily outstrip it’s holistic energy ratios. What makes it even worse is that maize is a world food staple, choosing fuel over food can only result in a negative impact, one might go so far as to say it is truly madness to do so. Recently the South African government actually removed maize entirely as a source of accepted biofuels for the national biofuel programme. This move prompted me to highlight one of the most underrated sources of sustainable renewable carbon negative energy sources in an article, Human Biogas a solution whose time has arrived on my site The IWH Inquirer. If we truly want to attempt to stabilise our climate it can only be achieved through a host of sustainable energy solutions that take advantage of what is already available to us. And Human Biogas is certainly one of these solutions.

  1. 1 The Problems With Ethanol Fuel | GreenEggsandPlanet

    […] find out more on this subject, read James Bashkin’s “So What’s So Bad About Corn” published at Chemistry for a Sustainable […]

  2. 2 Why Corn Ethanol is Bad « Chemistry for a sustainable world

    […] bit on this topic, so you can find more information by searching this site for ethanol or clicking here,  here, here, here, here, here, here and here.  Feedback is welcome as always. No Comments […]

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