Is ethanol really green?

Wrong question. Do you mean ethanol made from irrigated corn grown with heavy fertilization and lots of herbicides and pesticides, trucked to a plant that uses coal to distill the beer and to dry the leftover distillers dried grain so it won’t spoil on the way to the cows that eat it? Not very green; you’re not doing the planet much of a favor using it, but you are subsidizing it 50c per gallon. Or did you mean ethanol from low-input corn, brewed up in a plant that sends wet DDG to a feedlot next door and turns the cow poops into methane that runs the plant? That one, about to hit the ground in Nebraska where I just spent the week hanging out with academics and farmers in the corn and ethanol business, will get the same 50c, but it’s a lot better for the planet than gasoline. (You have to like feedlots, which many do not, to feel good about this one.) Both kinds are nice for corn farmers, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland, of course.

Software promised for delivery in six months used to be called “vaporware” in the computer business. Several kinds of vaporol are in the air. One is ethanol from cellulose (grass, wood chips, almost any plant material), which requires another chemical processing step to break the cellulose into pieces yeast considers bite size, but can use whole plants, including varieties that make more sense in many places than corn. Another is butanol, an alcohol that can be transported in pipelines and has more energy per pound than ethanol. Both are between the gleam in the eye stage and real economic products. Going the other way, for simplicity, sugarcane and sweet sorghum produce buckets of sugar water, just what yeast likes, in one mechanical step, and the stalks can be burned or put through a cellulose process. But all of these, like corn, are more complicated than they appear environmentally even though they look like good research and development bets. Sugarcane is actually more of a political than a scientific or engineering issue, having to do with price supports that are Congress’ gift to a few really rich Republicans in Florida (and the corn folks, who sell lots of high-fructose corn syrup that would never survive in a free market against sugar), and import restrictions that forbid the Brazilians to send us cane ethanol at a price that would make us all happy.

Whether it’s petroleum displacement for national security or greenhouse gas emissions you care about, or both, it’s absurd to treat all ethanol the same as a matter of policy. It matters what it’s made from, and how it’s made. Subsidies and regulatory support need to differentiate the good ethanol from bad and mediocre, a task that would be relatively simple if we enact a carbon charge on fossil fuels but will be expensive and complicated if it entails keeping track of multiple streams of ethanol that get mixed together in a commodity market.

In any case, don’t mistake any of this for a solution to the energy crisis, no matter how you understand the latter phrase: if all the corn grown in the US were turned into ethanol, leaving nothing for corn flakes and muffins (but a mountain of DDG for the cows, probably more than they can handle), it would replace less than a fifth of the gasoline we use. Enjoy our current low energy prices while you can, but practice the sure-fire antidote: use less.

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.

9 thoughts on “Is ethanol really green?”

  1. Theer are two issues here that are often conflated, and while in general you do well to seperate them you kind of lump them together at the end. There is the environemtnal question and there is the oil replacement question. While it would be nice to achieve both, doing on or the other has benefits.

  2. I've long been mystified by ethanol. I hear that one nutritional calorie from farm produce requires nine calories of petroleum for fertilizer, trucking, etc.
    Best case it seems that energy-efficient ethanol will require the same land-brutaling farming methods that the Confederacy used.
    Am I missing something?

  3. Why can't we just skip the whole fermentation process and pour the sugar straight into our gas tanks?

  4. "Why can't we just skip the whole fermentation process and pour the sugar straight into our gas tanks?"
    That's not an absurd question. It is in fact possible to build an internal combustion engine, (And a lot easier to build a steam engine!) that runs off sugar, (Though I believe there are coking problems; Have you ever burnt sugar while cooking?) or powdered coal, or finely ground celulose. And it would be considerably more efficient.
    The chief objection to doing so is that gasoline engines require very little modification to run off ethanol, and it's easily introduced into the existing vehicular fuel system.
    But if we really were going to make a break from gasoline, and try to run our vehicles off of biofuels, it might be a reasonable thing to do.

  5. Mike, the sugar boys throw lots of money at the Dems, too.
    Petroleum is such a spectacularly useful fuel, high energy density, you can turn it on and off in an instant, it's a great shame to be wasting it for things like power plants.

  6. Software promised for delivery in six months used to be called "vaporware" in the computer business.
    Today we call that period of time "one Friedman."

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