While alternative energy has been hyped for quite some time, one of the more recently hyped alternatives is biofuel. The idea is appealing enough: instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, we will make our own from biological sources. One of the best known biofuels is, of course, corn-based ethanol. While on my way home from work, I bought gasoline that was 10% ethanol—not because I wanted to, but because that was the only option. Most likely you have also bought gasoline blended with ethanol.
The fact that ethanol is now blended with normal gasoline might suggest that corn-based ethanol has been a success. However, this is not the case. Rather, corn-based ethanol has been a failure.
The first matter of concern is in regards to how efficiently an alternative fuel can be created in regards to the cost. This cost, obviously enough, includes the cost of the energy used to create the fuel. In the case of corn-based ethanol, the process of growing corn and then converting it to a usable fuel is rather costly. In 2010 the ethanol industry received $5.68 billion in subsidies and it is only this that allowed ethanol to have the illusion of being commercially viable. While energy industries do typically require subsidies (fossil fuels were and are heavily subsidized), ethanol seems to be a rather poor choice in terms of what is received for the cost.
Ironically, the distillation part of the process of making ethanol typically involves using fossil fuels and this process results in a fuel that has only about two thirds of the energy of conventional gasoline. In fact, ethanol production is so inefficient that experts have estimated it would take farmland equal to three times the size of the continental United States to grow enough corn to replace the fuels used in transportation in the United States. This is, obvious, not an option.
The second matter of concern is the fact that a food crop, corn, is being converted into a fairly inefficient fuel. This has the effect of increasing the prices of foods that make use of corn (ranging from corn on the cob to corn fed beef). As such, the public is getting hit twice by the cost of ethanol: first in subsidizing it and second in paying more for food. The obvious reply to this is that corn is still relatively cheap—thanks, in part, to subsidies. In any case, it would seem to make more sense to use a non-food crop based alternative fuel, preferably one that could be grown where food crops would grow poorly.
The third matter is that when added to gasoline, ethanol reduces the gas mileage of vehicles (it provides less energy than gasoline) and also damages many small motors (such as outboard motors for boats).
As might be imagined, the folks benefiting from the billions in subsidies probably see ethanol as a success. However, it is a clear failure for the rest of us.