This excerpt from an article posted on Wharton’s Law and Public Policy section, “An Earful on Ethanol: Rising Food Prices, Inefficient Production and Other Problems”, captures a lot of my thoughts on the problems with ethanol (boldface added):
Food crops such as grains “are terrible sources of raw material for biofuels,” says Karl Ulrich, a Wharton professor of operations and information management. “Every analysis I have seen shows that grain-based biofuels such as ethanol require more energy to produce than they provide.” Ulrich, who in 2005 devised a system called Terra Pass to allow individuals to buy carbon offsets, notes that “about four calories of energy, usually from fossil fuels, are required to create one calorie of food energy. That is, 100 calories of carbohydrates in corn requires about 400 calories of coal, natural gas, or oil for fertilizer, planting, harvesting, processing, and transportation. As a result, the more likely cause of rising food prices is the rising cost of energy.”
Ulrich says he sees far more promise in the second generation ethanol sources.
But they, too, could have their own unintended consequences, according to Ulku G. Oktem, a senior research fellow at Wharton who has taught a course called Environmental Sustainability and Value Creation. “If you use the whole [corn] plant … you do not return any part of the plant back into the soil, which means you have to feed more nutrition to the crops — and that means more fertilizer. More fertilizer means you have to use more energy to create it. One has to look at the full life-cycle of ethanol production.“