A Philosopher's Blog

The Failure of Ethanol

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2013
English: A combine harvesting corn. Deutsch: J...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


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31 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on September 16, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    You are right on all points regarding ethanol. Even worse, they want to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15% which obviously will exacerbate the existing problems caused by ethanol.

    Ethanol is hygroscopic, i.e., it absorbs moisture from the air. When the percentage of absorbed water reaches a certain point, the ethanol – water mixture separates from the gasoline and settles to the bottom of the tank where it can play havoc with the fuel system. This a serious problem for gasoline – powered equipment which is not used very often or used only seasonally.

    Another problem is that because of its corrosive nature, ethanol is not shipped via pipelines. Rather, it is shipped by tanker car or by tanker truck, both methods of shipment being less efficient than pipeline.

    Originally ethanol was proposed as a gasoline additive to reduce emissions; its effect is similar to making the air – fuel mixture leaner. On older cars, that may have been a slightly valid reason, but it is not with modern cars. Modern cars have fuel injection and the computer controls the mixture based on feedback from an O2 sensor in the exhaust system. So, when a mixture of gasoline and ethanol is burned, the fuel system will automatically make the mixture richer to compensate.

    The ethanol industry, which includes corn farmers and large companies that produce ethanol from the corn, have exceedingly powerful lobbies and are very influential. For that reason, it will be exceedingly difficult to do the only thing that makes sense, i.e., to stop adding ethanol to gasoline.

  2. FRE said, on September 16, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I neglected to point out another problem with ethanol.

    Some owners of plug-in hybrid cars may drive in such a way that ordinarily they would not need to use the engine. That is possible if they take only short trips and recharge daily. However, when ethanol is used, that creates a problem. Although all gasoline will eventually degrade and cause problems with the fuel system, gasoline containing ethanol degrades much faster. I recently learned that the Chevrolet Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid, deals with that by being programmed to run the engine with sufficient frequency to prevent the fuel from becoming stale. Thus, depending on how they are driven, plug-in hybrid cars may burn considerably more gasoline then they would if the gasoline did not contain ethanol.

  3. roguekish said, on September 17, 2013 at 5:19 am

    You can also add that since corn sells for higher prices lots of farmers in the third world farm corn that is converted into fuel instead of food, which makes for the very paradoxical situation of the starving farming something edible that could feed them, but is instead used to fuel our “pleasure” of driving

  4. magus71 said, on September 17, 2013 at 6:18 am

    Imagine that, government tinkering that makes things worse. Chewing up huge swaths of food, contributing to the starvation of millions, all to satisfy the ideological whims of fat elites like Al Gore. The impending doom of Anthropogenic global warming is a fraud, on which a certain few are making millions. Yet another example of “science” seized a Progressive Hive Mind.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      While some environmentalists seem the easy target for ethanol bashing, the subsidizing is also supported by those under the influence of the corn lobby. Ethanol based on corn is not about saving the environment, it is about making money for agribusinesses.

      My main opposition to it is not that it is the result of political corruption, but that it is a poor and costly choice for fuel. We will need to solve the fuel problem and ethanol is siphoning off resources that could be used for a viable solution. Plus, it keeps crapping up the motor my dad uses on his fishing boat.

    • FRE said, on September 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      Corn for producing ethanol started out as an environmental issue, but generally it no longer is. Many environmentalists now realize that from the environmental standpoint, ethanol from corn makes no sense.

      The reason that ethanol is now added to gasoline is that the ethanol industry, which includes farmers, ADM, and others, has undo influence on the government. It is not immigrants, poor people, single mothers, environmentalists, socialists, liberals, Muslims, Atheists, Democrats, Obama, pinkies, or Russians who are causing the problem; rather, it is unduly influential agribusinesses. Constantly blaming everything on a particular group regardless of evidence is intellectual laziness.

      The idea that government becoming involved in anything always produces negative results is absurd. I’m sure that many of us could produce a long list of things in which government involvement has had desirable effects. The fact that government action sometimes produces negative effects is not a valid argument for eschewing all government involvement.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on September 17, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Still looking for an example of where government meddling in the market actually improved things.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 17, 2013 at 1:46 pm

      Regulation does help in the food industry. I like having my food inspected and regulated-this makes it less likely that it will kill me or make me sick. The government support for the development of new technology, like the internet, can also a big plus.

      To borrow from Aristotle, it is not all government action that is to be condemned, just the bad actions.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 17, 2013 at 1:57 pm

        The government has a legitimate role to play in the market–such as regulation–and this is not what I mean by meddling.

        “Meddling” is when the government starts picking winners and losers.

        Some examples of meddling include:

        – ethanol mandates (the government pays $0.51 per gallon)
        – banning of incandescent light bulbs
        – bailing out one investment bank but not another
        – cash for clunkers
        – millions for Solyndra, A123, etc.

        The list goes on and on.

        • WTP said, on September 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm

          You do notice how every time you make a legitimate point about government overreach, Mike turns the qualified statement you made into the most irrational in the extreme? No matter how often you’ve commented here, no matter what you’ve said that any rational person would take in the context of your past statements? Yet, when we point to Mike’s extremist positions, he insists on qualifications and equivocation, yadda-yadda-yadda. Don’t you, at some point, find this rather personally insulting?

        • magus71 said, on September 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm

          It is difficult for me to believe how exactly wrong the government gets it. I’ll go back to the food pyramid because I’ve found it one of the ways I can make people’s life around me better. It’s *exactly* upside-down. What has more impact on a daily basis than the food we eat? I understand what Mike is saying, I really do. It was Andrew Jackson’s argument; that government is not bad, bad government is bad. And I agree. However, I would categorize government’s picking winners and losers as TJ puts it, as bad government. Why can’t people decide what is good or bad for them. Government is powerful. It’s opinion is incredibly influential on people. Yet it is incredibly bad at determining what is bad for individuals. The US government needs to focus more on killing our enemies and less on restricting its citizens.

          • WTP said, on September 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm

            The government gets it wrong so often because the govnernment is influenced by the weak. Ideas and organizations that understand the real world, how it works, and how to build systems that account for real world action, do not need government help. Those organizations and ideas that do not account for how the world is, that see things as they’d like them to be rather than how they are, will fail without that government support. Consequently, government’s likelihood of going down the wrong path far exceeds that of any group of people who come together to accomplish a task on their own. Sure many of the latter will fail, but the successful ones are not precluded from the set of NGO’s by definition.

            To be clear, when I say weak, I don’t mean physically weak. I mean those with ideas that cannot survive without help. Obviously govnerment has a role in ensuring that brute force does not rule the market. But true instances of such are quite rare. Notice the fall, or significant decline, of mighty behmouths like IBM, GM, MicroSoft, and (possibly soon to follow) Apple. Their own hubris brings them down long before most legislation gets any traction. Though in GM’s case, government supporting unions had much to do with the fall. But government cannot fail. It simply grows larger by claiming more of the private sectors’ wealth to support its failures, thus perpetuationg the problem. Failure is practically a government feature.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 17, 2013 at 4:18 pm

            The screwed up food pyramid serves as a good example of how things go wrong. If you look at the food scientists who work for the government doing the research and making the scientific recommendations, they are doing good work. But, the pyramid is not solely based on the science-it is also subject to the political influence of the food industry lobbyists. So, the government is getting it wrong because the folks with lobbyists are telling them to do it wrong. However, it is “right” for them-they need people to buy what they are selling and but lots of it.

            So, government is bad (in this case) in the sense that the folks who make the decisions are willing to do wrong at the behest of those who benefit from this wrongdoing (in this case, telling lies about food).

            • magus71 said, on September 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

              “But, the pyramid is not solely based on the science”

              And neither was the ethanol idea. I see a pattern forming.;….

            • FRE said, on September 17, 2013 at 5:53 pm

              Another example of undo influence on the government is the tobacco industry.

              From the 1940s on, there was strong evidence that smoking was a serious health hazard. Even so, our foreign policy was influenced by the tobacco lobbies. Trade agreements prohibited developing countries from refusing to permit American tobacco companies from advertising tobacco. I even wrote my U.S. representative about that, but to no avail; he supported forcing developing countries to accept tobacco advertising. That’s how much undo influence the tobacco companies had.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 17, 2013 at 4:21 pm

          Well, yeah-I am against the government throwing my money into the pockets of those who are already rich. I’m also against the government doing things that do not work.

          The government does, however, have a legitimate role in backing new technology. If you look at the history of human civilization, the state has been a significant supporter of advances-mainly because only the state has the resources and scope to make the big things happen. Like roads and the foundation of the internet.

          • WTP said, on September 17, 2013 at 10:02 pm

            Yes. Where would Thomas Edison, Alex G Bell, the Wright brothers, Nicholas Tesla, Eli Whitney, Johann Gutenburg, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Karl Benz, Sergey Brin/Larry Page, Josaphine Cochrane, Thomas Crapper, George Eastman, Edwin Land, Charles Goodyear, Alfred Nobel, Adolph Rickenbacker, had da, had da, had da have been without their government grants.

          • T. J. Babson said, on September 17, 2013 at 10:32 pm

            “The government does, however, have a legitimate role in backing new technology.”

            At least funding the basic research underpinning the technology. Turning research into actual products is the job of private industry, not government.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:25 pm

              In some cases, the state has to assist in getting the tech to a point of viability. Of course, it is fair to consider whether this is a legitimate role. For example, the state backed the development of the US transport systems (from the railroad onward). This is claimed to be instrumental in the US becoming an economic powerhouse, but it could be claimed that the state was just handing cash to spongers in spats and mooches in monocles.

            • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm

              This is claimed to be instrumental in the US becoming an economic powerhouse, but it could be claimed that the state was just handing cash to spongers in spats and mooches in monocles.

              Exactly. Of course you might want to consider this was the position of 19th century leftists in regard to the railroads and the genesis of the “evil corporate robber barons”, etc. A whole other topic of discussion.

              A somewhat aside, but rather informative..As I believe TJ is aware, when government contracts a defense (or I presume any other) corporation, who owns what ideas can get rather interesting.

  6. FRE said, on September 17, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Your statement clearly lacks objectivity. You have chosen a pejorative instead of a word that is emotionally neutral. If you were making any attempt to be objective, you would have written, “Still looking for an example of where government involvement in the market actually improved things.”

    • T. J. Babson said, on September 17, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      “Still looking for an example of where government involvement in the market actually improved things.”

      Except that is not what I meant. I used the word “meddling” to call out a specific kind of government involvement. Other types of government involvement, such as OSHA standards, are reasonable and necessary.

      OSHA standards apply to all companies equally. Giving $500 million to Solyndra is meddling.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm

        Do you mean that the state is meddling because it is supporting a particular company? If so, I agree with what seems to be your general view, namely that the state should not be subsidizing corporations.

  7. martikkk said, on September 18, 2013 at 6:47 am

    A very thought provoking and important blog post! Thanks! I agree with your conclusion – and in my view, the food-fuel competition is the most convincing argument for it. However, I disagree with the cost argument. considering that fossil fuel will eventually run out, the cost argument doesn’t really convince me. Conventional fuel will suddenly and steeply rise in cost when resources are near to exhaustion. One would probably like to be prepared at that moment, which might justify the added cost beforehand. Starting to use alternative means of fuel production like plant oils at that time might be too late.
    I believe that there is no alternative to a radical reduction in consumption for the individual – at least in the west. We’ll be 10 billion people on the planet soon … see:
    There is convincing data that suggest that the planet won’t be able to support us all if we continue to grow like we do. nor even if we simply continue our consumption at the current level.

    • FRE said, on September 18, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Conventional fuel will not suddenly end. It will gradually become more expensive until eventually using it will no longer make economic sense. It is impossible to predict how long that will take since new technology may make it practical to use sources of fossil fuel that are now too expensive. Also, if the cost of environmental degradation caused by using fossil fuels is added to the cost of fossil fuels, there will be an effect on how much fossil fuel is used.

      Plants are highly inefficient in converting sunlight into energy. Somewhere I read that the efficiency is only about 1%, so obviously the area devoted to energy-producing plants would have to be exceedingly large, to the extent that it would be impractical.

      If we put more effort into R & D to develop better nuclear power technologies and implemented a better nuclear technology, we could solve our energy problems. Our current nuclear technology, despite its problems, could do the job, but there is considerable room for improvement.

      • martikkk said, on September 23, 2013 at 2:52 am

        @nuclear power: R&D into nuclear power started when? 60 years ago, roughly? Maybe more. And are we any closer to having a solution where to put waste from nuclear power plants? I don’t see that. These technologies produce highly toxic waste materials that will emit vast amount of radiations for more than 50 thousand years. That’s close to two thousand generations! We put this stuff into containers trusting the engineering that tells us that these containers will last “forever”. How can engineering know that? We have technological experience in this for max a hundred years . And we claim to know whats working for 50 k years?
        And if all that might be technologically solved … do the next thousands of generations agree with us if we stuff *their* ground full of really, really deadly material? I think I would feel like kicking some ass if my grand-grand-grand dads left me vast amounts of poisonous material under ground that’s emitting deadly radiation. Imagine how future generations will feel about our extremely primitive use of technology that they might view in a completely different light.
        Do we really have to burn everything that falls into our hands just we want to go faster, further, everywhere, anywhere?
        If we had put all these years’ R&D efforts (that we already put into nuke) into solar, wind, tidal, etc energy, we might not even have to worry now.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 23, 2013 at 11:49 am

          There are reactors that can reprocess the waste of other reactors and use them as fuel, which would help a bit with the waste problem. But, as you noted, handling the waste properly is a serious challenge. One factor is the classic Not In My Backyard response-most folks don’t want the waste in their state. There is also the long term problem you mentioned-when we bury the waste, we have a moral obligation to be concerned that our ancestors or successors might dig it up in a thousand years.

        • FRE said, on September 23, 2013 at 8:59 pm

          Promising research was cut off just as it seemed that a better nuclear technology was in sight. I am referring to the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR). Although it is not certain that it would have worked out, the indications from a prototype which was successfully operated made it look promising.

          If successful, the LFTR would solve a number of problems associated with our current pressurized water reactor technology. Because it is able to extract 99% of the energy from the nuclear fuel, as opposed to the less than 1% of the energy that pressurized water reactors are able to extract, the amount of waste would be about 1% as much as our current reactors generate and the waste produced, because it decays more quickly, would need to be sequestered for only a few hundred years rather than thousands of years. With the LFTR, a meltdown would be impossible, a characteristic which would make the LFTR safer without having to have multiple redundant layers of safety precautions. It would also eliminate the need for water cooling and for mining more uranium.

          Renewable sources of power, because of their diffuse and intermittent nature, could not provide adequate power for most large countries. It is likely that as poor countries lift their people out of poverty, the need for power will increase by three or four times. Nuclear power is the only power source that can meet these needs, but we do need a better nuclear technology.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      True-when the fossil fuels run out, the cost could become irrelevant. However, it does make sense to focus on less costly biofuels in place of the more costly (such as ethanol).

      • FRE said, on September 19, 2013 at 3:44 pm

        Actually, the faster ethanol as fuel can be phased out, the better.

  8. […] The Failure of Ethanol (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

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