Okay, No One Cares About Ethanol, the Local Economy, or the Environment

plantmap.gifI 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.

First, I’d like to quote extensively from the Slate.com article referenced by O’Leary in his comment on my previous blog post:

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 production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—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 gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—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.


  1. Tracy Davis said:

    I received a link to this op-ed piece from Agri-News (published by the Rochester Post-Bulletin folks). The says that most politicians have their fingers in their ears when it comes to hearing anything about ethanol that isn’t God and motherhood and apple pie. There are some interesting claims in the piece, such as:

    • Inflating car tires to their proper pressure today will have more impact on U.S. energy independence now than using 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in 2012.

    • If Congress raised car and SUV per gallon mileage (something it hasn’t done since the 1970s) by 3 to 5 miles, total gasoline savings would dwarf “all possible biofuel production from all sources of biomass available in the U.S.”

    • If the average wholesale price of ethanol is $2.94, as it was in late May, current federal, state and local subsidies when combined with farm program payments, raises its true cost to $3.84.

    I’ve asked a couple of farmer friends of mine, whose families are involved in corn-growing and ethanol coops, to comment here and give us the benefit of their perspective as well.

    November 17, 2006
  2. […] More Info on Ethanol and Biofuels, Courtesy of St. Olaf By Tracy Davis There’s a fascinating article in Biodiesel Magazine which summarizes a recently published study by researchers at St. Olaf College and the University of MN. The joint study, “The Environmental, Economic and Energetic Costs and Benefits of Biodiesel and Ethanol Biofuels” has many interesting components, including addressing details of the net-energy argument I’ve mentioned in previous posts. […]

    November 27, 2006
  3. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    I cannot find Kiffi Summa’s recap of the ethanol info meeting at Little Prairie Church. HELP! I need it for inspiration, facing the Wed. Dec. 6 public meeting at Bridgewater Township Hall on Railway Street in Dundas, 7 pm. Not a word on ethanol will be uttered that night, I am told, but the larger question of whether or not the township proceeds to do planning and zoning is the issue for the night.

    Up to now, only Leif Knecht has committed to voting “yes” to township zoning. Supervisors Gary Ebling and Kathleen Doran Norton may vote “no” for reasons of their own. Since both campaigned in support of taking up township planning and zoning, it may be hard for residents to accept if they choose to drop the ball.

    We know what Advanced BioEnergy wants–a “no” vote on Dec. 11, at which time they will activate an application at the county, an EAW (environmental assessment worksheet) at MPCA, and a DNR water permit which will all move forward at a record rate, in the current political climate. Check out their two ads in Wednesday paper.

    S. Henriksen

    December 1, 2006
  4. Stephanie Henriksen said:

    No conversation for three months on ethanol? Griff, where are my most recent posts ending up?

    Advanced BioEnergy has their consulting firm proceeding with an acquifer pump test to establish that there is sufficient groundwater for their plant operations despite the likelihood that ethanol will not be a permitted use in our township ordinance.

    This then, is a lot of DNR staff time and waste of water, plus stress on neighboring wells. All for nothing.

    March 30, 2007
  5. Tracy Davis said:

    Stephanie, you made comments on my“More on Proposed Ethanol Plant” last week…. is that what you’re referring to? I appreciate your keeping us updated on the happenings, and no, we don’t want the discussion to die out.

    March 30, 2007
  6. Paul Fried said:

    It seems the “more on ethanol” thread is not accepting any more comments.

    For those who might be new to the discussion, or for those who are watching recent news coverage about corn ethanol in general, I wanted to post URL’s and brief comments about a few old and new sources to check out:

    Old (June 2006): The New York Times article at the URL below talks about how corn is among the most expensive crops from which to make ethanol, and one of the most heavily subsidised. Companies that blend ethanol with gas get tax credits of 51 cents per gallon, and after two years it’s possible for a new ethanol plant to make 100% profit. The corn ethanol industry is floating high, for now, on a tide of corporate welfare. Democrats and Republicans both tend to love ethanol because they think it helps them get votes, and it helps the economy. It helps some corporations get rich too. But it’s probably not good for the planet, the soil, or the taxpayer.

    Somewhat new (this month): The article and comments at the URL below represents a great deal of the debate over alternative fuels. It includes comments about (the discrediting of?) David Pimental of Cornell.

    New: At the URL below, an article about expectations for next fall’s corn harvest, expected to be the biggest since 1944.

    Old (May 2006): The article at the URL below is an interview with Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who is now pushing for ethanol and biofuel solutions.

    Somewhat new (January 2007): Below, another NYTimes URL, this time to a more recent article about the even stronger drive toward ethanol since Bush unveiled his initiative to increase ethanol and biofuels to substitute for more foreign oil.

    March 30, 2007

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