Making the Most of Ethanol Production
According to the latest USDA research, 1 unit of energy invested in the corn ethanol production process results in 2.3 units of usable energy in the form of ethanol.
That means ethanol has a positive energy balance. We get more energy out of a gallon of ethanol than it takes to produce it – including the energy it takes to grow, transport and process the corn used to make ethanol. Improved ethanol production technology and new precision farming practices have dramatically improved the energy balance of ethanol. The amount of thermal energy required to make a gallon of ethanol has fallen 36% since 1995, while electricity use is down 38%. At the same time, producers are squeezing 12% more ethanol out of every bushel of corn.
Nebraska is the nation’s second largest ethanol producer. The state’s 24 ethanol plants have a total production capacity of more than 2 billion gallons annually. Combined, these plants use more than 750 million bushels of corn per year and produce more than 6 million tons of distillers grains, a high protein livestock feed.
Food or Fuel
While many people assume ethanol can come from any type of corn, the type used to make ethanol is not the sweet corn we eat. Some 99% of the corn grown in Nebraska is field corn, which is rarely used for food.
Ethanol production accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s total grain production – just 175 million metric tons out of 3.6 billion. The vast majority of grain is used for livestock feed and corn products.
The food or fuel debate ignited in 2008-2011, when grain prices doubled due to increased demand around the world. Because this coincided with significant growth in grain demand for ethanol beginning in 2002, the blame for price increases in food was placed on the ethanol industry.
But the greatest impact on food prices during this period was the increase in the price of crude oil, which peaked at $145 per barrel in 2008. Spiking oil prices increased the cost to transport grain to processors and transport food products to grocery stores.
The implied connection between ethanol production and food prices is a myth. Today, ethanol production is at a record high – and stockpiles of grain are at some of the highest levels in history.
Ethanol production plants continue to improve their efficiency and get more gallons of fuel out of the same volume of feedstock with less energy. Farmers continue to grow even more grain year after year to meet increased demand for meat and dairy products among the world’s growing middle class. As a result, the percentage of grain devoted to ethanol is expected to decrease even further.
Recycling Distillers Grains Back into Food
Conventional ethanol is produced from the starch within the kernel of that field corn. The protein and fiber that remain become a high-quality animal feed called distillers grains. In fact, nearly 40% of the nutritional value of corn used in ethanol production is retained – and returned to the feed sector in the form of distillers grains and corn oil. That feed is fed to animals to produce meat, eggs and dairy products for a rapidly growing middle class around the globe.
So we really don’t have to make a choice between food and fuel. Because when ethanol is produced from corn, we are producing fuel and food.