As President of the Senate, Al Gore cast the deciding vote (1994) to develop and subsidize ethanol from corn. Like all Gore projects, ethanol from corn is absolutely the least efficient means – more efficient only than squeezing ethanol from rocks, which Al Gore would also very much like us to invest in.
Unfortunately, corn only yields a pathetic 300 gallons of ethanol per acre, while sugar beets yield 700 gallons of ethanol per acre in France. Sugar cane in Brazil yields 662 gallons of ethanol per acre. Switchgrass yields 1000 gallons of ethanol per acre in United States trials. Another biomass source trial (U. Illinois) finds Miscanthus producing up to 1500 gallons ethanol per acre.
The net energy gain in ethanol from corn (the energy which comes from the corn) is 21%, the rest of the energy in ethanol from corn comes from conventional sources. But this 21% neglects distribution and overhead costs; when these are considered, corn is a NET WASTE OF ENERGY when converted to ethanol. Which explains why Al Gore likes it. Switchgrass yields a net energy gain of 343%.
An important consideration, as we perhaps enter the Al Gore Sunspot Minimum and Gore Ice Age (as are most indications if not “corrected” by James Hansen, Al Gore’s “science” advisor), is the efficient use of the growing season and cropland. But this aside: if we cannot process Miscanthus today, we should eat the corn anyway, at least as a matter of government policy. This would give us a real gain in energy; not an Al Gore gain (A gain for Al Gore is a loss for everyone else, as history and ethanol from corn shows). However, Al Gore persistently interferes in good government.
Cellulosic Ethanol: a greener alternative
By Charles Stillman, June 2006
… Sugarcane, at 1:8, yields about eight units of energy for every one unit invested to grow, harvest and convert the cane into ethanol. The fibrous cane material that remains after the sugar has been extracted (also known as bagasse) is used to provide heat (read: energy) in the distillation process. In most cases, this eliminates the need for energy from an external source. One unit of energy is used for every five units provided by the Miscanthus-based ethanol fuel. Switchgrass’s net energy yield is slightly less, at about 1:4. Sugar beets yield nearly two units of energy for every one unit that is used to grow and convert the crop into ethanol. Corn lies near the very bottom of the list at 1:1.4.
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, last year the U.S. surpassed Brazil as the largest ethanol producer in the world. Despite having its production title stripped, Brazil remains unparallel in its use of ethanol. Today, ethanol accounts for as much as 40 percent of the non-diesel fuel used in Brazilian vehicles, as opposed to just 3 percent in the US. More than 70 percent of the automobiles sold in Brazil today are flexible-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, capable of running on gasoline, ethanol or a mix of the two.
The U.S. has sugar cane crops of its own that could be used to produce ethanol. In July, the US Department of Agriculture is due to release a study evaluating the economic feasibility of converting US sugar into ethanol. With import quotas that prop U.S. sugar prices at levels twice that found on the world market, it is believed that many farmers will likely continue converting their cane into sugar. In fact, the price of U.S. sugar is expected to continue rising due primarily to the loss of crops caused by last year’s hurricanes as well as reduced imports of Brazilian sugar, prompted by the South American country’s decision to divert more of its cane to ethanol production. Some analysts believe that continuing high oil prices and the current demand for ethanol as an alternative to MTBE will entice some U.S. sugar cane and sugar beet growers to venture into ethanol production nonetheless. In Maui, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company and Maui Ethanol LLC have done just that, forming a partnership that is expected to produce 12 million gallons of ethanol per year from sugar cane. The economics of converting sugar cane to ethanol makes more sense in Hawaii where gasoline prices are about a dollar more per gallon than on the mainland. Growers in Louisiana and Florida also are flirting with the idea, but as of yet none have opted for ethanol over sugar. Jose Alvarez, senior vice president of operations at the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, says that a recent feasibility study indicated that their farmers stood to earn less than half as much for their sugar if it went towards the production of ethanol, rather than being sold as raw sugar.
Dr. Pat Westhoff is the program director with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and a research associate professor in the department of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. When asked for his reaction to corn’s seemingly illogical prominence among scores of superior biomass options such as sugar cane, Dr. Westhoff cited shear economics as the reasoning. “The amount of ethanol that can be produced from an acre of corn is less than from an acre of sugar, but an acre of sugar costs much, much more to produce in this country. Brazilian ethanol has been economical largely because sugar production costs are much lower there.”
Texas is the fourth largest sugar cane growing state, with most of the cane concentrated in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Steve Bearden, President and CEO of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc., says that at this point, the organization is not considering converting its cane to ethanol. Sugar cane growers stand to make more money selling their cane to sugar refineries than to ethanol distilleries, he explains. The organization is, however, conducting a feasibility study to assess the potential of manufacturing ethanol distilleries that would be powered by sugar cane bagasse but produce ethanol from other agricultural feedstocks. (article continues)