Is Ethanol Green?

IS ETHANOL GREEN?….There are probably some of you out there who believe that not everything in the world can be put into chart form. On Thursday, for example, I wrote that “corn ethanol is a boondoggle,” and that probably seems like an un-chartable statement. But it’s not. After all, one can always chart how much of a boondoggle something is.

The chart on the right, provided by Berkeley’s Michael O’Hare from a paper he co-authored last month, doesn’t quite do this, since there are many dimensions to boondogglishness. However, it does measure one aspect of boondogglishness: whether corn ethanol actually provides any green benefits. As you can see, the answer is “it depends on how you make it.”

The thing I’ve labeled Corn 1, for example, is “Coal-fired ethanol production with cogenerated electricity.” Basically, it sucks, producing nearly as much total greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. Other types of corn ethanol are better, the best being “Biomass-powered ethanol production,” which clocks in at about half the GHG production of gasoline. Switchgrass ethanol, the holy grail of the ethanol community, is even better.

There’s more to corn ethanol than this, of course, since ramping up corn production requires big federal subsidies (bad), drives up the price of food (also bad), and demands intensive nitrogen fertilization that produces greenhouse gases of its own (yet badder still). A complete boondogglishness index would take that and more into account. But if it’s basic greenness you’re interested in, this chart tells the ethanol story pretty well.

UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center is here if you want to check them out. The full paper this chart comes from is here. Michael has more at his own blog here.