Ethanol and the environment

I finally know more than Mark about a psychotropic drug! At least if you don’t drink it. Ethanol, the characteristic solvent for social distance and shellac, is also a motor fuel with attractive characteristics: it’s made of sunshine and exactly the CO2 we like to take out of the atmosphere, it increases gasoline octane as an additive, it’s environmentally quite benign in spills and such, and it’s not imported from places with fractious and prickly governments.

However, it doesn’t just dribble out of corn plants: to get ethanol requires growing plants (fertilizer, tractor fuel…), hauling corn to a distillery, smooshing it up with yeast and keeping it warm (more fuel), distilling the alcohol out of the mush (more fuel), and various other industrial operations all of which use energy. A debate has been burbling for several years about whether we really wind up ahead in various important ways by substituting ethanol for gasoline in cars, and the issue has been confused by the patchwork of subsidies and regulations that distort market prices for fuels of all kinds.

A gang at the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School at UC Berkeley, who invited me to play with them over the summer and fall while we did the project, have clarified things greatly. In my view our most important finding is that the “net energy” measure, which looks only at the fossil fuel energy consumed to make a unit of energy in the form of ethanol, asks the wrong question. For example, if ethanol provided a means to take 100 joules of energy from coal and obtain 50 joules worth of ethanol, it would not necessarily be a bad idea. Coal is abundant and cheap; the problem with it is that when burned, it releases the “greenhouse gas” CO2. So one would want to ask about the greenhouse gases released (and other costs, of course), not the net energy, and if the CO2 from burning the coal were captured and sequestered, this notional technology would be a prima facie policy winner, allowing us to run cars cleanly on domestic abundant coal rather than imported, scarce petroleum.

Our article in Science (Farrell et al) is behind a paywall (today’s issue, if you have access to it) but also posted here, with the analysis behind it. This LA Times story is a pretty good report. What we found, adjusting six studies of ethanol input demands so they could be compared is that ethanol from corn (maize) as we make it today is a big petroleum saver, and offers modest gains in global warming, compared to gasoline. The specific technology used to make it matters a lot, but what matters more is the crop you start with: ethanol from grass or wood will be a very attractive fuel on energy, global warming, and petroleum displacement grounds.

We are beginning a research initiative that will give us a better look at other considerations like cropland fertilizer runoff, soil protection, and forest conversion to farms. The larger policy debate will be much occupied with conflict between the farm community already in the corn business and quite enamored of the subsidies and regulations that favor it, and the nascent industry of cellulosic ethanol; watch this space for updates.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.