Eric Kerby: Photography, Web Design, Programming

Corn Ethanol Rant

April 26th, 2006 at 11:29 pm

Before I start, let me warn you this is a longer post, but please read it all. There has been a lot of mention of alternative fuels in the news lately due to the ever sky-rocketing fuel prices. Always included in the discussion is ethanol, the grain alcohol often made from corn that is currently being mixed with gasoline across the country generally in proportions of less than five percent. If any of you knew me in my senior year of high school and heard my senior speech, you may remember that I am quite opinionated on the topic of using ethanol. Not much has changed since I gave that speech, but I think it worth a little rant to bring everyone reading this site to the same level. First, read this article by Popular Mechanics and this article by U.S. News & World Report. Then make sure you come back and read the rest of what I have to say.

I'll be completely honest with you and say the Popular Mechanics guys seem to know what they are talking about, and the U.S. News & World Report article is a load of crap as far as I'm concerned. The U.S. News guys just seem to do what really pisses me off with a lot of the media that covers ethanol. They just take a brief look at its use as a fuel and say its only downside is the current cost per gallon. Then they go to say something like this:

"So why would I want to use ethanol?
For the greater good of the planet and your conscience. Ethanol produces fewer tailpipe emissions than gasoline. Some people use ethanol because they feel it may help the United States become less dependent on foreign oil. And if ethanol were to become widely used, prices might fall as energy companies increased production."

What these pitiful people fail to realize is that:

  1. They are lucky the price of ethanol isn't even higher than it is.
  2. Huge ethanol production from corn is not sustainable or efficient.
  3. Just because burning ethanol is clean does not mean producing it is.

Let me address the second and third points first. As the Popular Mechanics article states, farmers would need to dedicate "71 percent of the nation's 938 million acres of farmland" in order to produce enough corn and other raw material for ethanol production. That's a whole lot of land! I arrived at similar figures when researching for my speech. As for the third point, farming is a dirty business. Corn depletes nutrients in the soil, commercial fertilizers are very harmful to the environment, and the facilities that would process this stuff would use lots of energy themselves. It takes a lot of effort to grind up the raw materials, ferment it, and distill the result to nearly pure alcohol levels.

The reason I addressed the second two points first is that I believe they are the weakest arguments. Alternatives to corn based ethanol have come a long way. Many well funded efforts are seeing results producing ethanol from things like switch grass and other high-cellulose material in an energy efficient manner. What really ticks me off is that the United States is seemingly rushing in the direction of ethanol. I better start a new paragraph for this one…

You see, our government spends an unbelievable amount of money yearly to subsidize everything from growing corn to producing ethanol to designing vehicles that use ethanol. Huge agricultural corporations like Archer Daniels Midland have major sway in what our government thinks of ethanol. Do you think smaller farmers are seeing much of this subsidy funding? Don't think I'm just angry at the current White House administration. This subsidizing has been going on for years. There is a reason you see corn fields all over this country. I do see value in fuels like ethanol, and especially biodiesel, but the government is spending the big dollars in all the wrong places. The money needs to be aimed more at cellulose ethanol research and more creative alternative fuels that break away from the traditional "burn it up" methodology. Ethanol has its place, but there is no way it will completely replace fossil fuels. Keep this in mind the next time you hear people praising the virtues of ethanol.

I feel much better now 🙂

By the way, if you want to see a copy of my senior speech, feel free to contact me.

3 Responses to “Corn Ethanol Rant”

  1. Dennis Kerby Says:

    Ah, the power of quality education! That was truly a concise, well articulated, logical and persuasive critique of corn based ethanol, politically based economics, superficial media reporting, big business and several other elements of current society.

  2. Seth Says:

    Trinity, Trinity,
    A quintessential luxury,
    From the biodiesel industry.
    If she could talk,
    You'd hear her thank
    Adam for pooping in her tank!
    Trinity! Trinity!

  3. EPKPhoto Says:

    For those of you unfamiliar with the little ditty Seth wrote in his comment…it comes from a theme song of sorts employed by Adam Curry on his popular Daily Source Code podcast ( Adam Curry recently purchased a car by the name of "Trinity" that has a modified engine able to run on biodiesel.

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