A New Look At Ethanol’s Net Energy

Joanna Schroeder

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Merle Anderson for my Between the Lines blog (Three Pieces of Advice From the Father of Ethanol). For those who truly know, love and respect Merle, he is none other than the “Father of Ethanol”. It has been more than a year since I last caught up with him at the 2009 American Coalition of Ethanol’s (ACE) annual conference and it was high time to get his view on a few things and that I did.

One thing of special interest was his new way of looking at an old problem that seems to plague the industry, although usually only when someone is flinging mud, and that is the topic of net energy. Ethanol supporters agree that ethanol is a net energy winner. Ethanol opponents argue that ethanol is a net energy loser. Merle argues when you go the cornfield and play it out, ethanol wins the World Series.

Here is a letter that Merle has written on the topic and is being republished here on DomesticFuel with his permission and to honor his long-time contributions to his work in the industry. Merle – keep up the great work! (BTW – Merle Anderson is the Chairman Emeritus of ACE.)

Ever since area farmers started producing ethanol, opponents have been questioning the total energy balance of ethanol production.  And now more than ever, with gas prices pushing three or even in some parts of the country, four dollars a gallon, it is my understanding that we have widespread agreement that our country needs to reduce our imports of foreign oil. So let me agree that we need to produce and use more ethanol to replace that foreign oil.

Looking at the different types of energy to produce ethanol, there are basically three, natural gas, electricity and fossil fuel. We should understand that most of the energy used to produce ethanol comes from natural gas and electricity. By using natural gas and electricity, we are simply trading in commerce and is only good for the country. So then let’s look at how much fossil fuel are we investing in ethanol production and what are we getting for it. So let’s go to the cornfield and see how it plays out.

1 acre of corn produces 165 bushels (2009 national average)

We get 2.7 gallons from each bushel of corn

165 X 2.7 = 445.5 gallons of ethanol per acre

5 gallons of fossil fuel for traditional farming practices (planting, harvesting, transportation and etc.)

445 gallons divided by 5 = 89 gallons of ethanol per acre

Conclusion is 89 gallons for every 1 gallon of fossil fuel.

Now that is a high gain in replacing foreign oil. But let us look at another practical scenario.

With today’s modern agriculture techniques, there are many farmers where field size are a quarter section. (160 acres) Many areas in the country practice no till farming. And there are many farms that have yields of 200 or more bushels per acre.

160 acres of corn X 200 bushels per acre = 32000 bushels

Most ethanol plants yield 3 gallons per bushel

3 gallons per bushel X 32000 bushels = 96000 gallons of ethanol

3 gallons of fossil fuel for planting, harvesting and transportation

3 gallons of fuel X 160 acres = 480 gallons

96,000 gallons of renewable fuel divided by 480 gallons of fossil fuel = 200 gallons

For each 1 gallon of fossil fuel we are getting 200 gallons of good clean American Made fuel.

Keep in mind we have only used the starch while all the other nutrients remain for our food supply. With our oil imports at near 70 percent. We in agriculture can play a huge role to help our economic problem, job creation and help keep our money in our nation’s heartland in stead of sending money to countries that support terrorism or terrorist acts.  Remember that it isn’t just to produce it we have to use it. Your vehicles will do very well on higher blends of ethanol. The Blend Your Own blender program started by the American Coalition for Ethanol and the Renewable Fuels Association is working on getting more blender pumps installed across the country, if you see one in your neighborhood, please make use of them.

ACE, Ethanol, Opinion