Is Ethanol An Efficient Gasoline Additive?

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VeraSun Energy's new Bloomingburg ethanol production facility
VeraSun Energy's new Bloomingburg ethanol production facility

There’s a new refinery in Bloomingburg, Ohio. It’s an ethanol plant just outside the village of 900 people. Much of the major ingredient for producing ethanol – corn – will come from area farms. But there’s an ongoing debate about whether the energy used to produce ethanol makes it an efficient gasoline additive.

Steam pours from the stack of the new Vera Sun Energy company’s Bloomingburg ethanol plant. The plant began producing ethanol just a few weeks ago on March 28th. In a year’s time, says plant manager Larry Wilson, it will produce 110 million gallons.

“It’s takes about 40 million bushels of corn [a year],” Wilson says. “It will take a good bit of corn from a 20 to 30 mile radius around the plant.”

That’s 110,000 bushels a day, about 105 truck-loads to keep the plant operating 24 / 7. The methods used here may be modern, but the refining process dates back thousands of years. Larry Wilson describes the odor floating through the air this way:

“It’s like smelling rising bread,” he says.

An Ohio State University professor puts it like this:

“Ethanol production is a very fancy version of Uncle Jesse’s still for those who remember the Dukes of Hazzard.”

Ethanol is essentially pure grain alcohol. In large quantities it would be too corrosive to use as a fuel in today’s unmodified cars and trucks. But in smaller amounts it’s helping America use less petroleum.

Matt Roberts is an Associate Professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Developmental Economics at Ohio State.

“It is clearly displacing gasoline use. In 2007, the U.S. used less gasoline than it did in 2006,” Roberts says. “But it consumed more motor fuel. The difference was ethanol.”

But there’ a downside to ethanol. Unlike petroleum that’s relatively cost efficient to pump out of the ground, transport and refine, homegrown ethanol takes a lot more energy to make.

“To make one gallon of ethanol requires roughly 80 percent of the energy that’s contained in that gallon of ethanol. Only a small fraction of that energy actually comes from petroleum though,” Roberts says.

Roberts says the amount of petroleum used is about 6/100ths of a gallon for every gallon of ethanol. Most of the energy used in the production process is natural gas – used to make electricity and for drying the distiller’s grain, a by-product of ethanol which is used as an animal food additive.

Some critics of ethanol complain that government subsidies are the driving force behind ethanol’s manufacture. Bur Professor Roberts disagrees. He says it’s the high price of petroleum.

“The driving factor behind the expansion of the ethanol industry is not the government subsidy. It is $100 or $110 oil. When we have oil, which is the most convenient, most dense, all around best chemical carrier of energy, when it’s prices goes from ten dollars a barrel to 110 dollars per barrel, all forms of energy have become more valuable,” Roberts says.

Including, Roberts says, the price for corn which has been worth about $2.00 per bushel. In this era, he says, corn is now worth at least $3.50 per bushel as a motor fuel.

“There’s not a lot of evidence that we’ll move back to $1.50 gasoline anytime soon so it makes other alternatives more appealing whether this is electric vehicles, whether this is public transportation, whether this is simply people choosing to commute less distance. But as we look over longer and longer time periods, people have more choices about where they live and where they work and the vehicles they drive and the homes that they own. And so over time, something like ethanol is most valuable as a temporary buffer to buffer the shock of high oil and gas prices. 40 or 50 years from now we won’t be using tremendous amounts of ethanol.”

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