The Problem With Ethanol

Biofuels, such as ethanol, are often marketed as “sustainable” solutions to the energy crisis – but are they really? The Environmental Protection Agency says that sustainability is based on a simple principle:

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment. “[1]

Ethanol is typically produced from the fermentation of finely ground corn, a process that requires water. In addition, the production of the corn itself requires huge reserves of water for field irrigation. [2] So is the production of ethanol really a sustainable process when the International Energy Agency predicts that by 2035 the water consumed for the production of biofuels will have increased by 242%? [3] According to the EPA’s definition, it is not. Such massive consumption of water when it is already in limited availability to most of the world is a negligent use of our resources, and endangers the well-being of future generations.

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Another disadvantage to the use of ethanol as a biofuel is that growing the corn feedstock requires huge tracks of farmlands that could otherwise be preserved in their natural state or utilized for more pertinent practices such as food production. Up to 35% of the corn crop in the US will go towards producing ethanol this year, an amount that makes many people nervous. [4] The US already imports much of its produce from Mexico, and for us to put so much effort into having a secure fuel supply only to depend on other countries for sustenance simply does not make sense.

The most discouraging thing about ethanol is that all of this massive land and water consumption produces a fuel that is less efficient than gasoline. Almost all cars can run on E10, a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, which only decreases fuel efficiency about 4% compared to when they are run on only gasoline. [5] However, some politicians are pushing the increased use of E85, a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, which causes a huge fuel efficiency drop of 30%. [5]

With all of these issues, the use of ethanol as a biofuel is a debacle. Although it is a renewable fuel, is the vast land use, massive water consumption, and decreased fuel efficiency worth the effort? Policy makers and citizens alike need to meditate on the advantages and disadvantages of this fuel in order to determine if it is worth it to continue pouring our nations resources into its production.


[1] Environmental Protection Agency. “Sustainability Information.” Web. Accessed 02 Feb. 2013.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy. “Ethanol Production and Distribution.” 30 July 2012. Accessed 02 Feb. 2013.

[3] Lavelle, Marianne, and Thomas K. Grose. “Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035.” National Geographic Society, 30 Jan. 2013. Accessed 02 Feb. 2013.

[4] Huffstutter, P.J. “Corn-based Ethanol Grows Anew as Foreign Troubles Fuel Oil Prices.” The Statesman, 8 Mar. 2011. Accessed 03 Feb. 2013.

[5] “Ethanol.” US Department of Energy, 1 Feb. 2013. Accessed 03 Feb. 2013.

[6] Hicks, Matthew. Corn Field. Digital image. Lightflows Photography Guildford, 2009. Accessed 03 Feb. 2013.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Problem With Ethanol

  1. Hey Andrea,
    I enjoyed reading your article on how ethanol really cannot be the fuel of the future. I would like to point out the major policy makers driving corn-based ethanol in the USA are both republicans and democrats alike especially in the midwest. What better for them to tout to their constituents than government subsidies to grow more corn at a better margin than they could before? Never mind the environmental impact and whether or not we have had enough information in the past to warrant such subsidies, when it comes down to getting reelected, whether that person is republican senator from Iowa Chuck Grassley or president Barack Obama, getting the crucial votes from the midwestern states takes a much bigger priority over the actual impact. It has been good though recently for people to start realizing all of the unintended consequences of forcing the government subsidized corn-ethanol industry that you highlighted.
    It would make MUCH more sense to use those subsidy funds to award a “winner” of renewable and sustainable fuels. Basically the subsidy for a period of about 4 years or so is awarded to the energy that looks like it will perform the best with the smalles environmental impact. If it happens to be wind, then so be it. If some miraculous technological advance comes along that makes corn-based ethanol the answer to the future, then so be it.

    As for now, I think this is a prime example of how heavy-handed the government can be. Once you get the politicians involved, it is no longer about saving the earth, but about appearing to save the earth.

    PS We have a boat that we have had engine trouble with. When we took it to the mechanical he blamed it on the ethanol fuel mixing with a small amount of water in the engine. $$$

    -William McCraney

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