From the first season of The West Wing, the writers of the show have taken several jabs at the U.S. policy on ethanol subsidies, claiming that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it provides. On hearing that today was the first day of the Kyoto Accord, I got to wondering if there was any merit to their criticism. After slogging through a google-space full of hype, it finally dawned on me to check out the Wikipedia, which, unsurprisingly, provides a very balanced look at ethanol as fuel (and occupies a first-page position in a google search for ethanol, if I had bothered to read more carefully).
What does it say?
A 2002 report by the United States Department of Agriculture concluded that corn ethanol production in the U.S. has a net energy value of 1.34, meaning 34% more energy was produced than what went in. This means that 75% (1/1.34) of each unit produced is required to replace the energy used in production. MSU Ethanol Energy Balance Study: Michigan State University, May 2002. This comprehensive, independent study funded by MSU shows that there is 56% more energy in a gallon of ethanol than it takes to produce it.
Though hardly a spectacular result, it is positive. Perhaps ethanol isn’t a complete write-off after all, though ethanol producers seem to be milking the government for all its worth.