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The US Corn-to-Ethanol Program

Willem Post's picture
President Willem Post Energy Consuling

Willem Post, BSME'63 New Jersey Institute of Technology, MSME'66 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, MBA'75, University of Connecticut. P.E. Connecticut. Consulting Engineer and Project Manager....

  • Member since 2018
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  • Oct 15, 2013

renewable fuel standard 

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which includes the Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS-1, was enacted in 2005, to mandate the use of biofuels in America’s transportation sector, such as E10, E15, E85, E-diesel. It was amended to become RFS-2 in 2007. EISA mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels in the US by 2022.

NOTE: E10 is 10% ethanol/90% gasoline; E15 is 15% ethanol/85% gasoline; E85 is 85% ethanol/15% gasoline; E-diesel is 15% ethanol/85% No. 2 fuel oil.


First-Generation Cap: 

Ethanol from corn kernels                                                                                         15 bg by 2015 and beyond. 


It has been in large-scale production for many years. It makes up about 10% of the US gasoline consumption.


Second-Generation Caps:

Cellulosic ethanol from corn husks (stalks, leaves, corn cob, corn kernel fiber)              16 bg by 2022

Biomass-based diesel from switch grass, woodchips, etc.                                              1 bg by 2022

Unspecified biofuel                                                                                                     4 bg by 2022


See page 3 of URL.




Regarding corn ethanol, the first generation process uses only the starch of the corn kernel to produce ethanol, yielding about 2.8 gallons per bushel. The second generation process uses the corn husks.


Currently, the husks are used to reduce soil erosion and to maintain the productivity of the soil, which reduces the use of fertilizers and other chemicals. Using the corn husks for cellulosic ethanol would require increased use of fertilizers and other chemicals, some of which likely would end up in rainwater run-offs.


Current production of cellulosic ethanol is minimal, but that will change in the near future: 


– Dupont is completing a 30 million gallon per year plant near Nevada, Iowa; production to start in 2014; capital cost over $200 million ($6.7 capital cost/gal); will use biomass from within a 30-mile radius; 30 million gal/190,000 acres = 158 gal/acre from stover, plus 150 gal/acre from corn kernels, for a total of 308 gal/acre.


– Abengoa, Spanish, is completing a 25 million gallon per year plant in Hugoton, Kansas; production to start in 2014; received a $132.4 million US-DOE loan guarantee; will use biomass from within a 50-mile radius; $5.30 capital cost/gallon.


– Poet & DSM, is completing a 20 million gallon per year plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa; production to start in 2014; received a $100 million US-DOE grant and $20 million as financial incentives from the state of Iowa; $6 capital cost/gallon. 


The capital cost of just the processing plants to produce the mandated 16 bg/yr by 2022 would require $96 billion, at $6 capital cost/gallon.


Whereas the cost to produce first generation corn ethanol is about $2.54/gallon, the cost to produce second generation cellulosic ethanol is about $3.55/gallon. The ethanol industry is hopeful the price of second generation cellulosic ethanol will match that of first generation corn ethanol by 2016. One would need to believe in miracles for that to happen.


NOTE: Each bushel weighs 56 lb and costs about $4.30. It takes about 20 lb of corn, costing $1.54, to produce a gallon of ethanol plus by-products, i.e., all other production costs are about $1/gallon.




Below is a partial list of major line items and a partial capital cost estimate for the corn-to-ethanol program, first-generation only. Similar investments will be required for the second-generation.


Cropping Phase:

– Farmers to invest in farm machinery to crop corn from about 45,000 sq mi, about the entire state of Mississippi (first-generation ethanol only). 

– Farm equipment suppliers, such as John Deere, etc., to invest in farm machinery production, including spare parts. 

– Maintenance and repair shops to invest in facilities and equipment.

Processing Phase:

A processing infrastructure with a capacity to produce 15 bg/yr of ethanol by 2015. The initial capital costs of a standard 50 million gallon/yr corn-to-ethanol processing plant is about $120 million; $2.4 capital cost/gallon, much less than the $6 capital cost/gallon for cellulosic ethanol plants. The capacity of about 300 such plants is required to produce 15 bg/yr, which requires an investment of about $36 billion during the 2005 – 2015 period, not counting capital costs for plant renewals and enhancements.

Gather/Transport/Blending Phase:

– Transport companies to invest in vehicles to gather corn from farmers and transport it to processing plants and transport the ethanol via rail, or other means, to refineries.

– Refineries to invest in facilities to store the incoming ethanol, and to blend it with gasoline.



The federal and state subsidies in the form of cash grants, tax credits, production credits, renewable energy credits, and accelerated depreciation write-offs are estimated at 35 – 45 billion dollars for the 1978 – 2015 period, most of it since about 2005.

E10 Blender Credit: The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) of 51 c/gallon of ethanol was created in 2004 to provide oil refiners with an economic incentive to blend ethanol with gasoline. As of January 1, 2009, the “blender tax credit” (5.1 c/gallon for E10, and 42 c/gallon for E85) was reduced to 45 c/gallon. The “blender tax credit” expired on 31 July 2011.

As E10 contains up to 10% ethanol, the credit per gallon of E10 was up to 4.5 cent. Eliminating the credit means the pump price of E10 may increase by up to 4.5 c/gallon. The “blender tax credit” distorted the economics in the corn market, which increased the cost of feed corn for cattle, and the cost of food in general.

Note: Corn-to-ethanol processors had been selling ethanol to oil refiners at about $3.00/gallon, but after expiration of the “blender tax credit”, sold at about $2.20/gallon. This price is still artificially low, because of the various OTHER subsidies. At a federal corporate tax rate of 35%, the 80-cent cost decrease would yield the oil refiner a net profit of 52 cent and create a 28 cent federal tax obligation, if they sell the E10 at the same price. Not getting the 80c will cause corn-to-ethanol processors to have less profits, or a loss.

– As about 13.95 bg of ethanol were used to produce the various blends in 2011, the credit would have cost the federal government about $6.975 billion in taxes not collected. A 54 c/gallon tariff on ethanol imports, to protect the US corn-to-ethanol industry, also expired on July 31, 2011.

– Effective July 31, 2011, a tax credit for cellulosic biofuel production, set to expire at the end of 2012, was extended for three years, and expanded to include fuels from other crops and algae.

As a result, the net federal deficit reduction of the two measures was a mere $1.3 billion in 2011.



Below are the ethanol quantities to be blended per EISA 2007 for the years 2008 to 2015.


E10 blending mandate, (bg)………………………9.0….10.5….12.0…..12.6….13.2….13.8…..14.4…..15.0

E15, E85, E-diesel blending mandate, (bg)…0.0…..0.6……0.95…..1.35……2.0…..2.75…..3.75…..5.5  

RFS-2 total blending mandate, (bg)…………..9.0.. .11.1….12.95…13.95…15.2…16.55…18.15…20.50

The RFS-2 total blending mandate increases to 36 bg in 2022, but that quantity is unrealistic, as fuel consumption will significantly decrease by 2025, and the E10 blending ratio likely will remain unchanged, i.e., less than about 13 bg can be blended to produce E10 at present, even less in future years.


Below are the E10 quantities sold by refiners (bg), the ethanol quantities in E10 (bg), and blending ratios (%) for the years 2005 to 2012.  


E10 sold by refiners, (bg)……………………140.4….141.8….142.3….138.2….137.9….137.9….133.9….134.0 

E10 ethanol blended by refiners, (bg)………4.04……5.62…….6.96……9.84….11.14….12.92….12.90….13.02

Blend ratio, (%)…………………………………….2.88……3.96…….4.89……7.12……8.07……9.37……9.63……9.72                             




CAFE Standards: In May 2012, the US-EPA finalized new standards to increase the corporate average fuel economy, CAFE, of light duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, minivans, 1/4-ton pick-ups) from the current 27.5 MPG, EPA Combined, to:


35.5 MPG EPA Combined, by 2016

54.5 MPG EPA Combined, by 2025 


The already-declining US fuel consumption will be further declining from about 134 bg in 2012 to about 110 bg in 2025 , due to the CAFE standards and all-electric/hybrid vehicles, i.e., at most 11 bg of first + second generation ethanol can be blended, if the E10 blend ratio is maintained, a.k.a., “the blending wall”, but the ethanol mandates are to produce 36 bg in 2022!!! 



– If the 2012 fuel consumption decreases at 1.5%/yr for 13 years, it will be 110 bg in 2025. 

– Actual E10 blending in 2012: 13.02 bg ethanol + 120.98 bg gasoline = 134 bg of E10 sold by refiners

– EPA proposed E10 blending in 2014: 13 bg ethanol, instead of the mandated 13.8 bg

– Realistic E10 blending in 2025: 11 bg ethanol + 99 bg gasoline = 110 bg of E10, if no blend change


“The Blending Wall”: In late 2012, the EPA, despite declining fuel consumption, nevertheless mandated refiners blend 16.55 bg of ethanol in 2013, of which 13.8 bg to produce E10, and 2.75 bg to produce E15, E85, and E-diesel. For a year, refiners complained the:


– Mandates were excessive  

– Demand for so much blended fuel did not exist

– Mandates were costing them several hundred million dollars for buying high-priced RIN compliance certificates on the open market


They had good reason to complain, as the mandated ethanol blending quantity was scheduled to increase from 16.55 bg in 2013 to 18.15 bg in 2014, of which 14.4 bg to produce E10, and 3.75 bg to produce E15, E85, and E-diesel; an even greater grievance!!


However, on November 15, 2013, the EPA, finally having to face market realities, proposed blending a more realistic 15.21 bg of ethanol in 2014, of which 13 bg to produce E10, and 2.21 bg to produce E15, E85 and E-diesel.


Maintaining the E10 blend ratio would ensure no damage to the 500 million gasoline engines in the US. Because of future declining fuel consumption, there will be more such EPA-mandated reductions. As expected, the corn-to-ethanol industry is against, but the oil and automotive industries are in favor of the EPA proposal.


– The US car industry and US oil industry are resisting any change in the E10 blend ratio.

– GM has stated its 2012, 2013 and after models can use E15, but was not “approving” it. 

– Ford has stated its 2013 and after models are approved for E15.


Whereas the EPA authorized the sale of E15 for 2001 and later model cars in January 2011, it does not require gas stations to offer it. A lack of infrastructure (storage tanks, pumps, etc.) prevents significant sales of E15, because:


– New pumps at gas stations would be required.

– It may damage older model cars.

– It will void the warrantee of older cars, per various car manufacturers.

– It may cause operating problems, such as starting, in colder climates.

– It will reduce mileage, making it more difficult to achieve the new CAFE standards.



US corn production in 2012 (dry year): 11,291 million bushels; acreage: 91 million; bushels/acre: 124.

The 13 billion gallons sold in 2012 would require about 13 billion gallon/(124 bushel/acre x 2.8 gallon/bushel) = 3,744 million bushels, about 33% of the 2012 corn crop.

The acreage would be 3,744 million bushel/(124 bushel/acre x 640 acres/sq mi) = 47,180 sq mi, about the entire state of Mississippi.


US corn production in 2013 (est): 13,800 million bushels; acreage: 90 million; bushels/acre: 154.

Assuming 133.9 bg of E10 will be sold in 2013, only 13.39 bg of ethanol could be blended which would require 13.39 bg/(154 bu/acre x 2.8 gal/bu) = 31 million acres, about 34% of the 2013 corn crop acreage.


If all gasoline for light vehicles (cars, SUVs, minivans, ¼-ton trucks) were biofuel, instead of 90% gasoline/10% ethanol, then 10 x 31,504 sq mi x 640 acres/mi = 201,625,600 acres would be in corn for ethanol, plus 90 x 0.775 = 70 million acres in corn for other purposes, for a total of about 270 million acres in corn. The US has about 450 million acres of cropland, including 65 million as pasture and 90 million as corn. It appears not possible to have 100% biofuel from corn.

If the average mileage of light vehicles were 50 mpg (from the current 25 mpg), and the US population were reduced by 50%, then about 202/4 = 50.5 million acres would be in corn from ethanol, plus 70/2 = 35 million acres in corn for other purposes, for a total of 85 million acres in corn, about the same as at present. It appears possible to have 100% biofuel from corn, but if other liquid fuels for transportation (diesel, jet fuel, #6 oil used by US ships, propane) were added, it would not be possible. Similar calculations can be made for each state. 


Energy density is defined as watt per square meter, W/m2. For calculation purposes, the following values are assumed: Corn yield: 150 bushels/acre/yr; Ethanol yield: 2.8 gallons/bushel, or 420 gallons/acre.

NOTES: Corn yields have, on average, increased during the past 10 years, because of plants being altered by genetic modifications, etc. Ethanol yields have, on average, increased during the past 10 years, because of first-generation, processing-phase improvements.

Gross energy density = (150 bushel/acre/yr. x 2.8 gal/bushel) x (88 MJ, HHV/gallon)/(4047 m2/acre) = 9.13 MJ/m2/yr., or (9,130,000 J/yr.)/31,536,000 sec/yr.)/m2 = 0.290 (J/sec)/m2, or 0.290 W/m2.

Net energy input = cropping + ethanol production…………..53,785 Btu/gallon

Less DDGS by-product credit…………………………………….20,409 Btu/gallon; see NOTE

Produce one gallon of ethanol………………………………….. 33,375 Btu/gallon. See page 9 of URL.

Net energy density, wo/by-product credit = {(84,000 – 53,785)/84,000} x 0.290 = 0.104 W/m2  

Net energy density, w/by-product credit = {(84,000 – 33,375)/84,000} x 0.290 = 0.175 W/m2

The actual net energy density is even less, because the energy inputs are greater, as shown below.

NOTE: According to the USDA, a DDGS plant combined with a corn-to-ethanol plant would use about 40,018 Btu/gal of ethanol to produce its products. It uses the process waste materials as feedstock and needs to add only 19,609 Btu/gal of additional energy to produce its finished products. The 40,018 – 19,609 = 20,409 Btu/gallon is 20409/40018 = 51% of the total energy to produce the DDGS products. The USDA selection of the percentage is not explained. Selecting a high percentage would make the Corn-to-Ethanol program “look good” on paper.

NOTE: DDGS = Dried Distillers Grains w/Solubles



Ethanol……………………88 MJ/gal………….79 MJ/gal 

Ethanol……………….84,000 Btu/gal…….76,300 Btu/gal

Gasoline…………………132 MJ/gal………..124 MJ/gal

HHV, the total bio-energy, is used in energy density calculations. 

HHV – H2O formation energy lost via the chimney or tailpipe = LHV energy remaining for producing useful energy. 


The USDA Method

The USDA uses its own unique method to calculate the energy return ratio to make the corn-to-ethanol program “look good” to the lay public, the US Congress and state legislatures. The USDA ratio = 76,300/(53,785 – 20,409) = 2.29. See pg 9 of URL. The ratio looks impressive, but is meaningless.

The Engineering World Method

In the engineering world, the standard method to determine the energy return ratio is as follows:

                                                                  Btu/gal            Btu/gal


Thermal Energy Input                                       

Cropping Phase                                           12,296           15,370

Processing Phase                                        40,019           50,024

Gather/Transport/Blend Phase                       1,470             1,838

Total fossil energy                                       53,785           67,231

Thermal Energy Output

Ethanol energy, LHV                                     76,300 

DDGS  credit                                                20,409

Total                                                            96,709

The output/input ratio = 96,709/53,785 = 1.80, w/o up-downstream.

The output/input ratio = 96,709/67,231 = 1.44, w/up-downstream.

NOTE: The fossil energy input is primarily NG, LP, Diesel, Gasoline and Electricity from the fuel mix of the US electric grid. 

NOTE: The thermal energy, referred to its source, such as a mine or well, and to its destination, such as a user’s electric meter or plant site, would be about 25% greater than shown by the USDA. Not including it makes corn-to-ethanol look good on paper. See pg 9 of URL.


Mass inflow, kg: Corn 1, Water 2.68, Total 3.68

Mass outflow, kg: Ethanol 0.32, CO2 0.31, DDGS 0.33, Wastewater 2.72, Total 3.68

Weight of ethanol = 0.32 kg X 15 billion gal/yr x 0.789 kg/L x 3.7854 L/gal = 14.336 billion kg

Weight of water = 2.68/0.32 x  x 14.336 billion kg = 120.060 billion kg

Weight of CO2 = 0.31/0.32 x 14.336 billion kg = 13.888 billion kg

Weight of DDGS = 0.33/0.32 x 14.336 billion kg = 14.784 billion kg

Weight of wastewater = 2.72/2.68 x 120.06 billion kg = 121.860 billion kg

– The Cropping Phase and Gather/Transport/Blending Phase have their own mass inflows and outflows, which require energy and emit CO2.
– The USDA assumes the CO2 emissions of corn-to-ethanol fermentation and ethanol combustion are offset by the CO2 uptake of next year’s corn crop. This assumption appears flawed, as no process is 100% effective. A detailed A to Z study of inputs and outputs, including by Mother Nature, would be required to obtain a more accurate percentage. The calculations in this article use the USDA assumption.



The USDA does not account for the energy and associated CO2 emissions for extraction, processing, transportation of:


– Fuels from wells to farmers and to processing plants

– Fuels wells and mines to power plants

– Transmission losses from power plants to farmers and processing plants

The energy inputs and CO2 emissions of the corn-to ethanol program would be significantly greater than claimed by the USDA and various promoters. See below “CO2 Emissions, Including “Upstream and Downstream” section.


The USDA ignores the embedded CO2 emissions to make the corn-to-ethanol program “look good” to the lay public, the US Congress and state legislatures.

Embedded energy and other resources and their CO2 emissions are due to set up, build-out and maintain, as a on-going enterprise, the total enterprise (cropping + corn-to-ethanol processing + gather/transport/blending).


Cropping Phase

The CO2 emissions for the cropping phase are 2,793 g/gallon, as calculated under “Mileage and CO2 Emissions per Mile” below; they were adjusted for upstream and downstream.

Processing Phase

The CO2 emissions for the processing phase are 2,771 g/gal, including up-downstream. See below table.

The NG CO2 emissions were adjusted upwards by about 24.5% to account for the CO2 emissions of extraction, processing, transportation of NG from well to corn-to-ethanol process plant. Resulting NG CO2 equivalent emissions = 1.245 x 1,556 = 1,938 g/gallon.

The electricity CO2 emissions were adjusted upwards by about 8.36% to account for the CO2 emissions of extraction, processing, transportation of fossil fuel (coal and gas) from mines and wells to power plants, plus the transmission and distribution losses from power plant to corn-to-ethanol process plant, about 5%. Resulting CO2 equivalent emissions = 1.05 x 1.0836 x 514 = 584 g/gallon.

By-product credit = 1,304 g/gallon.

Gather/Transport/Blending Phase

Transport CO2 emissions of 111 g/gallon for the “transport” phase. It is assumed the USDA term “transport” means “gather/transport/blending”.

Energy and CO2 emissions to gather the ethanol from processing plants, transport it to refineries and blending it into gasoline need to be increased by 1.2577. Resulting CO2 emissions = 1.2577 x 111 g/gallon = 140 g/gallon. 

Embedded CO2

The USDA, et al, ignore the embedded CO2 emissions.

Embedded energy and other resources and their CO2 emissions are due to set up, build-out and maintain, as a on-going enterprise, the total enterprise (cropping + corn-to-ethanol processing + gather/transport/blending).


Below is a summary of the CO2 emission impact, CO2/gallon, of adjusting for upstream and down stream CO2 emissions. 


                                      USDA                Up/Down Adj.              


Cropping Phase               2,244                   2,793


Processing Phase

NG                                  1,556                  1,938

Electricity                          514                      584

Other Energy                      166                     209

Capital Depreciation              40                       40

Fermentation                          0                         0

Total                               2,276                   2771 


By-product credit            -1,304                 -1,304


Transport to refinery           111                     140


Embedded                             0                           0


Total                                 3,326                 4,400


The table shows the effects of accounting for the upstream and downstream CO2 emissions. The actual CO2 emission totals are even greater, because not all items of processing were adjusted for upstream and downstream CO2 emissions, and the embedded CO2 emissions were not accounted for at all. 


This will decrease the CO2 emissions percent reduction of E10 to less than 3.56%, a miniscule outcome for spending many billions of dollars per year for the entire Corn-to-Ethanol program. That is not anywhere close to the EISA requirement of 20% reduction in GHG. See below “Mileage and CO2 Emissions” section.

MILEAGE AND CO2 EMISSIONS; E10 vs 100% gasoline


In the below mileage and CO2 emissions calculations, the total CO2 emissions/gallon, and the CO2 emission reduction of E10, equivalent basis, are compared. 

Ethanol = 79 MJ LHV. 

Cropping, g/MJ: 


Fertilizer and Lime                      8.6 

N2O                                          14.1 

Seed & Pesticides                       1.7 

Fuel (mostly diesel)                     2.1 

LP Gas and Electricity                 1.6 

Depreciation Capital                    0.3

Total                                         28.3 g/MJ x 79 MJ/gallon = 2,244 g/gallon.


Corn-to-Ethanol processing, g/MJ: 


NG                                            19.7 

Electricity                                   6.5 

Grain Transport                          2.1

Depreciation Capital                    0.5

Total                                         28.8 g/MJ x 78 MJ/gallon = 2,275 g/gallon. 


By-product credit                  -16.5 g/MJ, or 1,304 g/gallon


Transport to refinery                1.4 g/MJ, or 111 g/gallon 


Net, wo/fermentation                42 g/MJ, or 3,326 g/gallon


Net, w/up-downstream            55.7 g/MJ, or 4,400 g/gallon


Mileage Decrease of E10 Compared With 100% Gasoline:


Gasoline CO2 emission = 92 g/MJ


E10 contains 0.9 x 124 MJ + 0.1 x 79 MJ = 119.5 MJ, which will reduce a vehicle’s mileage by about {1 – (119.5/124)} x 100% = 3.63%, compared to gasoline.  


Gasoline CO2 emissions, wo/up-downstream = 92 g/MJ x 124 MJ = 11,408 g/gallon.

Gasoline CO2 emissions, w/up-downstream = 1.2577 x 92 g/MJ x 124 MJ = 14,348 g/gallon. 


CO2 emissions of E10, equivalent basis: 


– wo/up-downstream = 0.9 x 92 g/MJ x 124 MJ + 0.1 x 42 g/MJ x 79 MJ = 10,599 g/gallon. This value needs to be increased by 3.63% to achieve the same mileage as a gallon of gasoline, i.e., 10,599 x 1.0363 = 10,984 g


– w/up-downstream = 0.9 x 1.2577 x 92 g/MJ x 124 MJ + 0.1 x 55.7 g/MJ x 79 MJ = 13,353 g/gallon. This value needs to be increased by 3.63% to achieve the same mileage as a gallon of gasoline, i.e., 13,298 x 1.0363 = 13,838 g


CO2 emission reduction of E10, equivalent basis:


– wo/up-downstream = (11,408 – 10,984)/11,408 x 100% = 3.72% less per mile than gasoline

– w/up-downstream = (14,348 – 13,838)/14,348 x 100% = 3.56% less per mile than gasoline; even less if all up-downstream and embedded CO2 were accounted for.



The US has been spending energy and other resources which produced CO2 emissions, and billions of dollars since 2005, about 8 years, to build out the enterprise (cropping + corn-to-ethanol processing + gather/transport/blending), plus spending about 30 – 45 billion dollars in subsidies, tax credits and depreciation write-offs to achieve next to nothing regarding reducing the CO2 equivalent emissions of light duty vehicles. 


Far greater fossil fuel and CO2 emission reduction, at a much lesser use of energy and other resources, and at a much lesser capital cost, would be achieved just by increasing the CAFE requirements. No wonder the US corn-to-ethanol program is seen as an expensive, ineffective folly in foreign lands.




The future production of second generation cellulosic ethanol would have yields greater than 2.8 gallons/bushel, but the total production of first + second generation ethanol could not exceed 11 bg per year, because, by 2025, there would not be sufficient gasoline consumption for blending at the E10 ratio.

That means the first generation production would need to ramp down as the second generation production ramps up, assuming the energy balance becomes sufficiently positive, on an A to Z basis, to significantly reduce the CO2 emissions per mile, and the economics of the transition is sufficiently attractive without excessive subsidies, etc.

It also means less acreage would be required to produce the 11 bg per year, based on a multi-year average yield of 150 bushels per acre. If the bushels/acre yield increases due to cropping improvements, still less acreage would be required.


Based on the above, the subsidy-laden, corn-to-ethanol program, beneficial to farmers and their suppliers, ethanol plant builders and owners, and politicians, appears to degenerate into a multi-billion net loss for the rest of society, and to inflict a net harm to the environment. It appears to be a make-work program for the agricultural-industrial complex. The adverse outcomes of this program were foreseen by some energy systems analysts some years ago, but their views were set aside.

Summary: During the preparation of the article, I found USDA reports, and those of most other pro-ethanol entities:

– Ignore upstream and downstream energy and CO2 emissions

– Ignore embedded CO2 emissions

– Use the USDA-way of calculating energy return ratio, which is greater than the engineering-world way. USDA 2.29; Engineering world 1.80


If all these CO2 emissions are included, the CO2 reduction of corn-to-ethanol may be slightly positive. That is not anywhere close to the EISA requirement of 20% reduction in GHG.


The corn-to-ethanol program is a hugely-expensive, unnecessary subsidy for the agricultural-industrial complex. It should have never been allowed to grow this large. The EISA targets of 36 bg/yr of ethanol by 2022 are optimistic, unrealistic, and unnecessary.


The first-generation program should be phased out and the cellulosic ethanol program (second-generation) should be phased in over a period of years.


As US fuel consumption will be significantly declining to about 110 bg per year by 2025 due to CAFE and EVs, the total ethanol production (first + second generation) should be gradually reduced from present production levels to a cap of about 11 bg per year by 2025 to maintain the E10 blend ratio for the approximately 500 million gasoline engines in the US.


As the US is, and will be for some decades, the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, well ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia, any EISA mandated ethanol production is hardly needed for “energy security” reasons.


Diversion of Resources From Food Production: In foreign lands, the corn-to ethanol program is seen as an expensive, ineffective, inefficient folly that, besides increasing food prices, also diverts food from animals and people, especially from the world’s hungry people.


The resources diverted to the agricultural-industrial complex to produce ethanol from corn to drive vehicles would have been better employed producing nutritious food for the world’s hungry people.


Corn-to-Ethanol Harms US Economy: The US economy is beset with a vast array of such wasteful, marginally-effective programs, which, collectively, act as a wet blanket on the economy, preventing it from growing more rapidly and raising living standards, except of the few million well-connected, catered-to, households at the top.


As a result, the Federal Reserve has to provide $85 billion/MONTH of credit to the federal government and banks to keep the present economy afloat, a.k.a. quantitative easing, or QE. The credit is created out of thin air, totaling about $3 trillion since 2008, and counting.


Europe and Japan are stagnating, largely because they also are afflicted by the same maladies and their central banks are similarly “pro-active”.

Photo Credit: US Ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard/shutterstock

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Oct 16, 2013

I believe it is time to adjust the mandated levels of corn crop ethanol production to reflect the the realistic needs of the product itself. If the objective of reduced emissions are being achieved through the pursuit and application of other technologies in the transportation sector this is just another program that has outlived its’ usefulness and has been supplanted with better technology. We would be far better off utilizing the high production levels of natural gas we are currently extracting for fueling the transportation sector. I believe we could say this is not a wise use of limited funds in difficult economic times. We should apply some common sense and judicious evaluation of the ethanol mandated production levels from corn. There are cleaner burning fuels that will cost far less to employ.

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Oct 16, 2013

The President is quite aware of the fact that some DOE programs produce viable results and some  just don’t pan out. He has stated as much in his most recent Televised Speech several months ago, on the US Energy Future.  A DOE Energy and Transportation Future Analysis study document for Projected Fuel and Energy Use Through 2050 by type.  I believe the president humourouly referred to it as “Throwing Stuff At The Wall ; And Seeing What Sticks” ; his “Some Of All Of The Above” approach; knowing full well upon going in on it there would be failures and there would be successes.  Kindly remind those on the hill of this.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Oct 27, 2013

“…but how to get the folks in Congress to own up to this fiasco.”

As opposed to what other fiascoes? The shutdown? The sequester? Snowden? Syria?

Your analysis is spot on, Willem. But this is but one of scores of symptoms of generically dysfunctional government.

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Oct 27, 2013

Hello Lewis. I can only recommend having the congressmen and women review the Presidential Address given during a DOE Energy plan release that plots our energy straregy through 2015-2050. Accumulate irrefutable evidence for citation and request an investigation ro re organize our energy and transportation strategy through 2050. This may not close the door on biofuels completely as there are significant Breakthroughs Weekly. One may , however ; get a readjustment of “mandated” quantities of corn based ethanol derrived of “Food Crop” Biomass included in the energy mix; while meeting targeted quantities of ethanol required from non food crops. Unless there is a viable plan to maintain GHG emissions reductions through a method other than the current ethanol enhanced gasolines in use; we can ill afford to drop the ethanol enhanced gasolines. Ultimately; I believe we should convert all internal combustion engine applications to employ natural gas and hydrogen as well as perhaps some of the syngases and synfuels of the CO H composition. Hydrogen enhanced fueling is a vital area of consideration when addressing GHGs derrived of Hydrocarbon based fuels. The CO H syngas generates 1/2 of the CO2 the CO2 H blend of syngas produces. We have fuel replacement choices. We should make wise ones.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Dec 22, 2013

One of the better uses for ethanol (or methanol) is as an on-demand octane enhancer for petroleum.  By enhancing the octane rating, engines can use more boost and be downsized for the same peak power.  The smaller engine has lower friction and pumping losses at average load, increasing the fuel economy.  Adding alcohol only when required reduces the diversion of starches from food to fuel (which is the opposite purpose of the current scheme, which is a farm price-support program in disguise).  Also, the lower combustion temperature of alcohol cuts NOx formation.

Recent advances in oil/methane dual-fuel injectors for diesels suggest that the same could be done for petroleum/alcohol or gasoline/methane.  Making engines more efficient and more able to use fuels not directly derived from petroleum would increase energy security.

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