The debate over whether ethanol takes more energy to produce than it yields has become somewhat like the debate over the "flat earth" in the 15th century: How much more scientific evidence to people need before they accept fact?
The final report by the Governor's Consortium on Bio-Based Industry, issued Friday, will no doubt spark another round of anti-ethanol chatter in Wisconsin. Because the report sets aggressive goals for alternative fuel use – 25 percent of the state's transportation fuel by 2025 – critics will once again claim ethanol is a net-energy loser.
There are problems with corn-based ethanol, to be sure, but producing a net increase in energy isn't one of them.
In its January edition, the respected journal Science published a study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley that concluded producing ethanol from corn uses much less petroleum than producing gasoline. The researchers deconstructed six separate, high-profile studies of ethanol. They assessed the assumptions of each study, and then reanalyzed each after correcting errors, inconsistencies and outdated information regarding the amount of energy used to grow corn and make ethanol, and the energy output in the form of fuel and corn byproducts.
Once those changes were made in the six studies, each yielded the same conclusion: Ethanol is a net energy winner. Experts can still disagree on the size of the gain, but the overall data suggests a net yield of 25 to 30 percent.
In the same edition of Science, the chief scientist of BP explained why biofuels such as ethanol offer major promise.
"Although fossil fuels will be required and available for many decades, producing supplementary fuels from biomass can simultaneously address three important societal concerns without requiring substantial modification of existing vehicles or of the fuel distribution structure," wrote BP's Steven E. Koonin. He described those three concerns as security of supply ("Biofuels can be produced locally in sustainable systems"), lower net greenhouse gas emissions ("Biofuels recycle carbon dioxide that was extracted from the atmosphere in producing biomass"), and support for agriculture.
None of that means ethanol is without its drawbacks, especially when it's produced from corn. The UC-Berkeley study concluded ethanol was no worse than gasoline, but probably not much better, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. BP's Koonin says other biofuels – switchgrass, poplar and jatropha – have more promise in terms of overall energy yield and their effect on the environment. Still others are worried about intensified soil erosion and higher food prices. But there are ways around those problems.
"It is already clear that large-scale use of ethanol for fuel will almost require cellulosic technology," the UC-Berkeley scientists wrote. While the resulting fuel is the same, cellulosic ethanol can be produced by cheaper materials – straw, switchgrass, even waste from wood products – and it's more energy efficient than corn-based ethanol.
The Wisconsin consortium report urges that Wisconsin become the first state in the nation to build a cellulosic ethanol plant relying on wood products, which could be a natural fit for communities in northern Wisconsin.
Ethanol production is not frozen in time. As researchers learn more and energy economics change, the production of biofuels will become less expensive, more energy efficient and better for the environment. It will provide jobs for Wisconsin and help keep the United States less dependent on outside sources.
"There is substantial 'technology headroom' for advanced biofuels to enhance energy security, reduce emissions and provide economical transport," BP's Koonin wrote. "It exists largely because the world's scientific and engineering skills have not yet been focused coherently on the challenges involved. It is now time to do that through a coordination of government, university and industrial R&D efforts, facilitated by responsible public policies."
Let's get beyond the canard that ethanol is a net energy loser and work on the real challenges facing biofuels production and use. The size of the prize is too big for Wisconsin to be left out of the hunt.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
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