Thursday, January 18, 2007

Corn-Based Ethanol - Not A Panacea

This article, which is a summary of findings of a University of Minnesota study, is a good summary of why corn-based ethanol is anything but a panacea for solving energy problems. Here are the five main reasons offered:
  1. Ethanol production requires almost as much energy as it yields. This is a common argument, but the Minnesota study found that the net energy yield from corn based ethanol is 25%.
  2. It isn’t easy being “green” when growing corn. Corn is not a hassle-free crop, and to get high yields you need a lot of fertilizer. I can't imagine too much organically-grown corn is going to go into ethanol production.
  3. Corn crowds out wildlife. Basically, more corn = less wildlife. However, another potential source of ethanol--prairie grass--is essentially wildlife in the sense that it fosters an ecosystem native to the region in which it grows.
  4. Corn ethanol doesn’t cut enough greenhouse gases. It's not much better than regular old gasoline, and in some respects it's worse.
  5. We can’t grow enough corn. This goes back to the "more corn = less wildlife" idea; the energy yield of corn just isn't enough for us to "grow" our way to energy independence. Sorry, corn.
The authors of the study correctly conclude, in my opinion, that corn-based ethanol subsidies should be discontinued. I'd go a step further and say that all energy subsidies (especially those for oil!) should be discontinued, but that's a discussion for another day. In any case, let's leave the corn for food (and maybe biodegradable plastic) and start developing ethanol sources that are actually worth pursuing.