Ethanol as a biofuel - immoral, costly and stupid

The thrust towards biofuel development in nearly every country in the world has intensified in recent years with potentially devastating consequences for the sustainability of the planet - let alone our food supply.

The debate over developing biofuel is fierce as large amounts of taxpayer funds are inevitably involved in the heavy subsidies that accompany such developments, particularly when the feed stock is cereal grains.

Recently the NSW State Government mandated the inclusion of ethanol in transport fuel in a program that will cost the Australian taxpayer $200 million per year. The result will be no net gain in transport fuel, a massive increase in pollution and a huge demand on our critically scarce water supplies.

This echoes events in the USA where George Bush has mandated 15 billion gallons of ethanol for transportation purposes to be blended with petroleum by 2015 at a subsidy of some $US6 billion dollars each year. Within this is a subsidy of 46 cents per gallon and an import tariff of 51 cents per gallon to protect US farmers against ethanol from Brazil.

This will use up around 40 per cent of  US  maize  production  and will virtually dry up net grain exports,  inevitably forcing up the price of cereal  foods and food products dependent on grain such beef, poultry and pork worldwide.

The main victims of this will be the poor who spend a much greater proportion of their income on food. This means that to the subsidy the taxpayer pays to the biofuel industry must be added the great cost of increasing pensions, the dole and other social support measures so people can feed themselves adequately.

The development of biofuel from cereals is an extremely damaging development because it does not yield any more transport fuel then is used in producing the alcohol. It is not important here to go deeply into the technical aspects but clearly from unbiased studies in the USA by Professors Pimmentel and Patzek it takes more energy to produce ethanol from maize then the energy in the ethanol so produced. It is true that there is a net gain of 25 per cent more energy but that is locked up in the byproducts of dried distillers grains plus solubles which are not available for transport fuel. In addition the pollution created at a point source has to be dissipated and the same group has calculated that a distillery capable of meeting the needs of a town of 40,000 people creates pollution, in terms of biological oxygen demand, equal to that from a city of 1 million people. In the USA no costs are assigned to the down stream effects of increased fertilizer run off and the water demands of the distilleries. In this event untold losses occur annually to fisheries and other water-using industries from the huge dead zone that develops from anoxic conditions that extend over thousands of hectares of the Gulf of Mexico.

The misuse of water for biofuel crops alone should disqualify this particular use, given the location of Australia’s wheat growing areas and the critical water balance in these areas. The use of water to grow biofuel crops or to process the grain into alcohol has to be seriously questioned.

Wherever the distilleries are situated, they will compete for scarce water with irrigated agriculture, environmental river flows, drinking water or else they will deplete aquifers that could otherwise be used for food production . The NSW government should require all ethanol distilleries to develop a model of their water use (a water foot print) and their down stream release of water showing its quality and the impact on other ecosystems.

As Patzek has already demonstrated thermodynamically, biofuels made from starchy grains are energy negative when every aspect of their production and consequences of their development is considered. It will involve a huge cost to undo the blunder of cereal ethanol production schemes when the amount of biofuel produced is a fraction of a percent of our transport requirements and this amount could be saved by many other means such as increased engine efficiency. Sweden already imposes a sensible tax on 4WD vehicles to limit their use: why cannot Australia limit the use of 4WD for pleasure or simple transport on tar sealed roads and without detriment to those who have to have them in their daily working lives.

More information:

Pimmental D and Patzek T W(2005) Ethanol production using corn switch grass and wood: biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower. Natural Resource Research 14 65-76

Editor's Note: An opinion provided by Ron Leng. This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from ScienceAlert to reproduce it.