Why the push for alternative fuels?
August 16, 2007
Ed Browning in an article for the September Ag News and Views Newsletter of the University of Missouri Extension has evaluated some of the alternative fuels and concluded that while ethanol and biodiesel, according to what are considered reputable websites and data sources, have a positive energy balance, the cost of the final product is higher.

Browning cites the study of David Pimentel of Cornell University and Tad Patzek of the University of California-Berkley who led the charge against the use of ethanol and biodiesel as viable fuel alternatives. They concluded in 2005 that neither is energy balanced. In their study they showed that using corn, switch grass or wood biomass for ethanol production required between 29-57 per cent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and for biodiesel production using soybean or sunflower plants required 27 percent and 118 percent more fossil energy than fuel produced respectively.

However, today, Browning says, sources show the Pimentel/Patzek data to be flawed. He seems to come to that conclusion based upon a 2005 report by Renewable Energy Laboratory of Golden, CO in cahoots with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy that forms the basis for current argument that, "Independent third-party peer-reviewed studies show that biodiesel has the highest energy balance of ANY fuel. A prominent USDA/DOE study shows for every unit of fossil fuel used to make biodiesel, 3.2 units of energy are gained in energy output. That's a 320% increase and includes soybean planting, harvesting, fuel production and transportation."

A report cited by Browning from 1995 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that concludes that corn energy is efficient is being used by a group called the Governor's Ethanol Coalition to justify their push for ethanol fuels in 2007. If one wants to take the word of the National Corn Growers Association, they say, "Compared to just five years ago, today's ethanol plants produce 15 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn--and using 20 percent less energy in the process...Better corn varieties, improved production practices and conservation measures also figure into the process." The NCGA further states that "...not all the energy used by an ethanol plant is directed at manufacturing ethanol, thus further improving the net energy balance of ethanol production." Some of the processing energy is directed at distillers grains, gluten feed and sweeteners, they point out.

Undeniably, the cost of alternative fuel production is more expensive. But that's taken care of by tax incentives. But how does one sell the concept of using tax money for subsidies yet paying more at the pump in order to become less dependent upon foreign fuel? Browning concludes that, "If it's independence to a point, the cost shouldn't matter."

For Browning's full article, go here.

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