Ethanol Biofuel Production

Ethanol biofuel plants have been installed in the Midwest, and heavily promoted through Federal subsidies. Is ethanol a serious player in the market for alternative energy?

That ethanol is benefiting our nation’s quest toward energy independence, in the way that it is used today, is a hard argument. Common sense is common sense, why are we using farm lands to make fuel for automobiles? There is still plenty of oil in the Earth, and plenty of room for improvements in efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

Ethanol biofuel, through increased competition in the grains market, has been driving up prices of foods. Farmers should make good money, there is no doubt about that. That the gasoline market is competing with our fundamental food production capability, however, brings a good argument.

An additional disadvantage of ethanol is that it isn’t the most potent source of combustive energy. It’s energy density is only 60% of gasoline (HHV = 12,700 BTU/lb vs. 20,500 BTU/lb), and so pound for pound doesn’t deliver the same amount of useful energy. One could imagine ethanol being used for household heating and hot water, but that is not currently it’s marketed use.

Maybe the final blow against ethanol is that, unlike solar power, wind power, and other alternative energy systems, it is not tapping a source of free energy (unless it is derived from agricultural waste). When one considers the energy consumed in the planting, harvesting, processing, and refining of the grains then ethanol is actually quite expensive as a fuel. It has almost half the energy of diesel or gasoline, and similar amounts of production costs.

In total, ethanol production as practiced today is not as valuable of an alternative energy as some would have us believe. Advanced technologies that generate biofuel from agricultural wastes, on the other hand, is an excellent idea and could prove useful in years to come. It falls in the realm of alternative energy, but in the current way used it is not tapping a free source of energy.