I still don’t know how last week’s presentation by Advanced Bioenergy et al was received by anyone who attended, but thanks to comments by Carol Overland, Sean Hayford O’Leary and a few others I received verbally, I found some resources to help consider the pros and cons of locating a bizillion-gallon ethanol plant in the greater Northfield area.
David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.
The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol productionâ€”from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plantâ€”and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gasâ€”from drilling the well, to transportation, through refiningâ€”requires around 22,000 BTUs.
In addition to their findings on corn, they determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. In other words, more ethanol production will increase America’s total energy consumption, not decrease it.
But (SURPRISE!) the National Corn Growers Association disputes these findings and hints that the researchers were in the back pockets of petroleum industry interests.
An article from one of my favorite environmental news sites, Grist.com (“Doom and gloom with a sense of humor”), looks at Ethanomics 101 and also comes to the conclusion that ethanol is a net loss, though for reason of economics rather than physics.
At the risk of sounding like a NIMBY, I’m inclined to view this whole proposal with a jaundiced eye. If it can clearly be demonstrated that Rice County and/or Bridgewater Township and/or the City of Northfield and/or the Northfield Public Schools will get a huge infusion of property tax dollars as a result of building this proposed mega-plant, I will have to take that into consideration. But I suspect that will not be the case. And even if it is, the positive benefit to the local economy needs to be weighed against the detrimental environmental effects, both immediate and long-term.
I’ll conclude with a quote from another Grist.com article:
The real beneficiaries of this twisted system aren’t most corn growers; it’s the buyers, processing giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. That one-billion-bushel surplus of corn in 2004 exerted enormous downward pressure on corn prices. In 2004, a bushel — 56 pounds — of corn brought in $1.95 to the farmer. That’s about 3 cents a pound. At that rate, the only way a farm can make any money at all is to scale up as much as possible and then hope for a government check.
Is this really what we want for our community? I suspect not. But it’s not easy getting the straight story. If I come up with new stuff, I’ll post it here.