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Friday, April 13, 2012

Ethanol: Off The Radar, But Bigger Than Ever

A race car using American ethanol is displayed during the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Ill. (AP)

Remember when ethanol was the next big thing in energy?

The hype is gone, but ethanol production is exceeding the hype and expectations — last year the U.S. produced almost 14 billion gallons and used up 40 percent of the nation’s corn supply.

More corn now goes to make ethanol than to feed livestock. And production is on the rise, even though the federal government this year phased out the subsidy it had been giving refiners to add ethanol to their product.

The growth worries environmentalists who say ethanol isn’t much cleaner than gasoline. Livestock farmers are also grimacing as more corn goes to fuel and feed prices rise sharply.


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  • Dave Diamond

    I certainly hope that corn is being used more for ethanol than for livestock feed. Cattle should be eating grass, not corn. It doesn’t take much corn to feed all of America’s chickens.

    • Andrew-West Boylston,MA

       That hits the nail right on the head.  Thank you.

  • BHA in Vermont

    Just proves that using our tax dollars to enrich the fuel blenders was totally unnecessary.

  • BHA in Vermont

     Instead of using ethanol to cut the use of gasoline, buy cars that use less gasoline per mile. 

    Ethanol is a 25% to 30% hit. Your car on E10 uses 2.5% to 3% more fuel per mile than it would if you could use real gas. Same car on E15 will use 3.7% to 4.5% more fuel. 

    More frequent trips to the “fuel” station and more money out of your pocket unless the tainted fuel is similarly cheaper per gallon. That certainly was not the case when E10 was pushed on us. The stations selling it charged the same price as those selling real gas.. 

  • Grygwright

    Uses more energy to produce than gained, subsidized, and worst of all, now food prices are tied to energy costs. Must move to using the stalk (cellulose) for fuel and use the grain for food.

  • Kenmill

    I believe 30% (rather than the stated 40%) is a better number for the amount of corn production used for ethanol fuel.  Recent yearly corn production in the US has been approximately 13 billion bushels and 5 billion bushels then goes to the ethanol refinerys.  Dividing 5 by 13 results in 38.5% which rounds to the 40% number.  However, only the starch part of the corn is converted to ethanol and the protein simply passes thru unchanged.  A bushel of corn is made up of 39 Lbs starch and 17 Lbs protein for a total of 56 Lbs.  The 17 Lbs of protein is sold as DDG (Distillers Dried Grains) as a supplement and fed to catltle, hogs, chickens etc.  Therefore,  of the corn purchased by ethanol refiners only 70% (39 divided by 56) is actually used for ethanol with the remaining 30% used as feed.  In conclusion approximately 26.8% or rounded to 30% of the US corn production is used for fuel.

    The program also stated, incorrectly, more corn is now used for fuel than for feed.  Approximately 1 billion bushels is used for human consumption and the balance is used as animal feed.

    The program stated , incorrectly, that engine performance is reduced when using ethanol based fuels.  Ethanol has less energy on a per gallon basis than gasoline however, when used in a flex fuel vehicle the engine computer increases the fuel burn rate resulting in equivalent power to that of gasoline.  Since the fuel burn rate is increased, fuel mileage does decrease.

  • Anonymous

    I find it amazing that Micheline Maynard and her host had a several-minute conversation on fuel ethanol and never once did they mention the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and the role it plays in determining levels of production and consumption of the stuff. It is that federal mandate (along with state-level mandates in numerous states) that is driving the market, “even though the federal government this year phased out the subsidy it had been giving refiners to add ethanol to their product.”

    Ms. Maynard also gets some of the history of government involvement with the industry wrong. It did not start subsidizing ethanol bends until 1978. That’s 34 years ago, not 40. And the first RFS was adopted by Congress in 2005, not 2007. For the full history (through 2006) see: 


    Ms. Maynard makes several other errors. As Kenmill points out, though fuel economy (measured as miles per gallon) declines with rising shares of ethanol in gasoline, in terms of energy in and energy out, it doesn’t. Moreover, acceleration (because of the higher octane value of ethanol) may improve.That said, both sides play fast and lose with the statistics. A 10% blend of ethanol by volume, because of its lower energy content, only reduces gasoline use (all else equal) by 7%, not 10%. And explanations of why we should net out DDGs from the figures neglect an important point: DDGs provide protein, but not energy. Yet a significant portion of the corn used in feed (especially for non-ruminants, which cannot so easily digest high concentrations of DDGs in their diets) is purchased as much for its energy as its protein content. DDGs also don’t store and transport as well as corn, which favors livestock producers in the ethanol-producing areas at the expense of livestock producers (including dairy farmers) in more distant locations, such as New England.

    Finally, here are the stats on ethanol production. According to the USDA’s latest forecasts, they predict that 5 billion bushels of this year’s (CY 2011/12) crop of corn will be used to produce fuel ethanol:


    That’s roughly the same amount consumed for making ethanol as last year. (The first year in which ethanol production has stagnated since CY 1995/96 — so why all the hype about “Bigger than Ever”?) As for production of corn, the USDA forecasts it will be around 12.4 billion bushels — again, about the same as last year. So ethanol-producing plants process just over 40% of the nation’s harvest, or 45% of domestic consumption (after subtracting out net exports).


    If one feels it is meaningful to adjust for DDGs used for feed (some of those are exported too), then the share of production and domestic disappearance drops to, respectively, 28.3% and 31.5%.

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