New Corn Ethanol Study Finds Renewable Fuel Standard “Created More Problems Than Solutions”

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A ten-year review of the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) found that the RFS is “too reliant” on corn ethanol, and the production of this biofuel is resulting in additional water and soil problems, as well as “hampering advancements” in other biofuels.

Corn harvestOver the course of the last 10 years, corn ethanol has been lauded as being a bridge fuel solution that could reduce air pollution and increase national energy security in the US, and production of corn ethanol has gone from 4 billion gallons per year in 2005 to some 14.3 billion gallons per year in 2014. But corn ethanol hasn’t lived up to its promise as being a cleaner and more environmentally friendly fuel choice, even after an estimated $50 billion in subsidies, in part because of some of the ‘hidden’ costs of ethanol production, and this focus on corn ethanol has lead to a stagnated advanced biofuels industry, according to researchers.

One of the claims for increased corn ethanol production has been that it can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through its wider adoption as a fuel, but that claim seems to have been refuted in this research, as academic studies have shown that it could actually contribute “to a sharp and overall increase of GHGs,” and that ethanol production and use “emits more particulate matter, ozone (as well as other smog precursors), and other air pollutants than gasoline.”

Additionally, the researchers found that corn ethanol’s net economic benefits “have not been accurately represented,” and that while some studies may show that ethanol refineries can add jobs and economic value to certain rural communities, these studies fail to account for both the environmental damage from their production and the amount of subsidies necessary to support them.

According to the authors of the report, their analysis “shows that the use of corn ethanol has not been the “bridge” to the production and use of advanced biofuels that was anticipated,” and the reliance on corn ethanol has actually worked against innovation in advanced biofuels by crowding out other alternatives.

“From an environmental and energy independence perspective, the subsidies and mandates for corn ethanol would have been better and more effectively used had they been directed towards advanced biofuels.”

According to the Environmental Working Group, the ethanol mandate drove up the price of corn so high that it led farmers to convert some 8 million acres of previously uncultivated land to corn production, resulting in the release of between 85 million and 236 million metric tons of carbon per year, as well as an increase in the application of fertilizers, which also boosts GHG emissions.

“Our analysis shows that the corn ethanol industry, even with its tremendous growth over the past decade and technology maturity, cannot survive in any real commercial sense without mandated fuel volume requirements.” – 10-Year Review Of The Renewable Fuels Standard

The full 60-page report is available to download (PDF) from the UT Bio-Based Energy Analysis Group website, and offers a much different view of corn ethanol as an effective “bridge” fuel, and of the RFS itself, than that of many proponents of the program.

Image: UTIA

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Derek Markham

Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee.

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