Researchers attempted to settle the debate over the net energy balance of ethanol once and for all at a forum hosted by the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Tuesday in the nation's capital. Representatives of both sides in the debate agreed on one point -- the United States desperately needs to find a liquid fuel replacement.
NCGA coordinated the event to address points made in a report issued recently by a Cornell University entomologist who has claimed ethanol uses more energy than it produces. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Michigan State University disagreed and demonstrated why they believe biofuels present an environmentally sound, domestically produced energy alternative to fossil fuels.
Bruce Dale, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering and material science at Michigan State University, and John Sheehan, senior engineer at NREL, say it is time to end this debate and focus on real U.S. energy needs and real energy options.
With recent enactment of new energy policy and skyrocketing gasoline prices, more attention has turned toward renewable fuels, including ethanol, to help solve the nation's energy problems. Yet, some critics of the 7.5-billion-gallon renewable fuels standard contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 continue to question the efficiency of ethanol, claiming ethanol has a "net negative" energy balance. Ethanol supporters disagree, saying that viewpoint is outdated.
"Our focus as a society needs to be on finding replacements for crude oil. Ethanol is now -- and will be in the future -- an important contributor to reducing our petroleum addiction," says Dale.
"With aggressive research and development, biofuels technology offers us the opportunity to deliver environmentally sound, domestically produced fuels for our transportation sector at costs less than or equal to the cost of fuels made from petroleum today," says Sheehan. "Besides improving our energy security, these technologies offer opportunities for economic development in our struggling rural communities."
Long-standing ethanol critic David Pimentel, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Cornell, has authored papers dating back to 1980 stating ethanol production uses more energy than ethanol fuel contains which, he says, creates a negative net energy ratio. Pimentel was joined in this viewpoint by Tad Patzek, Ph.D., professor at the University of California-Berkeley. But both found their research under intense scrutiny at NCGA's forum.
According to Dale and Sheehan, Pimentel and Patzek routinely inflate the energy inputs of both farming and fuel production. "Their estimates of fossil inputs for farm production are twice as high as those estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and their grain-processing input estimate is 40% higher," Sheehan says.
"Their analyses are simply wrong in many important details," adds Dale. "They really need to update their information."
"Pimentel and Patzek ignore the huge benefits of petroleum savings for all biofuels," Sheehan says. "For every unit of petroleum energy consumed in corn ethanol production, more than six units of fuel energy are produced."
"Our focus needs to be on finding replacements for crude oil, and the debate over 'net energy' will mislead us to make irrational choices," says Dale.
Both Pimentel and Patzek agreed with the need to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, but offered few alternatives.
"Our situation is more serious than you think," says Patzek, referring to the United States' ever-increasing energy consumption. "We have to start by cutting down on fossil fuels."