What's wrong with corn ethanol?

We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.

The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.

In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more.

In the course of reporting that story, I ran into a dust storm—a phenomenon that is related to the way corn grows and what we have to do to the soil to keep producing massive corn crops year after year.

The wind had started the day full of bluster, and it was positively furious by the afternoon, while the open, empty fields that flanked the highway offered nothing to slow the wind down. This alone wouldn’t have been a big problem. I grew up in Kansas, and I know how to steer a car through a windstorm. The issue was what I could see ahead of me—or, rather, what I couldn’t see. Out of nowhere, a gray cloud rose up to hover over the highway, swallowing semi-trucks and digesting them into sets of disembodied tail lights. I had barely enough time to realize I wasn’t looking at fog before I plunged into the thick of it.

The sun disappeared. Gravel pinged against the car windows. I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t artificially lit. In a panic, I turned on my headlamps just as I drove out the other side of the gritty haze, back into a normal, windy spring day. The “cloud” was made of dirt, and a mile or so up the road, another gray ribbon of it stretched across the horizon. I went through three or four of these dust clouds before I reached the exit for Madelia.

Even in town, the dust was not easily vanquished. I parked my car downtown, beneath the prow of a movie theater awning, and stepped out into air so texturized you could almost gnaw on it. Flecks of dust stuck in my sun block. When I opened my mouth, grit came in.

I had traveled to Madelia to meet with Linda Meschke, the woman who had become the driving force behind the Madelia Model, and I’d left my house dressed for the occasion, wearing the tidy business-casual wear of a young reporter. Those dust clouds knocked me down a peg. By the time I’d walked two blocks through downtown Madelia, my skin was turning pink, and my hair was a winded red whirl glued into place under a layer of grime. Meschke didn’t seem to mind my sorry state. Instead, she just nodded slowly and said, “It’s a little windy out here today.”

At that point, I still didn’t quite understand what I had seen. Dust clouds such as this, I knew, were related to soil erosion, but it wasn’t until I talked to Meschke that I was able to connect the dots between the dust in my hair and the goals of the Madelia Model.

Read the full excerpt at Smithsonian.com.

Read my book, Before the Lights Go Out, to learn more about efforts to localize energy generation.

Side note: It takes a very long time to write a book. Much of what you'll read in the excerpt on Smithsonian is the much-polished version of a story that was first written down in the spring of 2009. In fact, Madelia was the subject of the sample chapter that I wrote up for my book proposal—it was the story that helped sell Before the Lights Go Out to a publisher. That's not a particularly important detail to the discussion on energy, but it seems to be something that people ask me about a lot. From the beginning of the book proposal, I've been working on this book in one way or another since January of 2009. Of all offspring, I'm pretty sure books have the longest gestation process.

Relatedly, the image above is one I took out of Linda Meschke's car window on the day you'll read about in the excerpt. This was not the biggest dust cloud I saw that day. Not by a longshot. It was just the most photogenic.


    1. Yes, me too, but not my granny’s – I love mine. 

      But I only used (and use) corn squeezings occasionally. For vodka I use a thin wash that is sugar based. For light blended whiskey, I use the almost spent grain from my beer making hobby, and add sugar  to the correct gravity. For whisky or whiskey, I use Islay malt and nothing else.  For rum I use, well, varying amounts of sugar and molasses.  My hobby since I was 14….I turn 41 later this month. Of course, the only hard licker I can drink for the next 8 days is brandy and grape-based vodka…

      During the depression-prohibition, my granny’s Polish-Belorussian-Jewish neighbourhood had a communal still passed over fences when needed to avoid detection. Granny said they used potatoes and whatever sugar they could scrounge.  Anyway, corn should not be used for fuel, should not be used for sweetners,  should not be used as a filler for dog/cat kibble or human kibble. And let’s cut the subsidies.  GMO corn? Off with its head!However, I just love  vegetarian cornbread, corn-on-the-cob and other honest corn products.

  1. I’ve heard a saying, “we’ve figured out how to burn our food, but we still can’t eat our fuel”

    don’t know who said it, or if that’s even correct… but it’s true, and not good.

  2. EROEI. (Energy Returned Over Energy Input)
    When you add up all the energy inputs that get the ethanol to the pump, you would be better off having not bothered. Unless you are some shit head from Iowa foisting this crap.
    Way less energy than gasoline. So you end up burning more fuel by volume for miles driven. 
    Plus it drives food corn prices up.

    Horrible, horrible waste of precious fuel, farm land, enterprise and dollars squandered at the pump.

    1.  Something tells me there’s a massive army of lobbyists who disagree with you. You know, “on principle”.

    2. Well as a mass marketed fuel yeah the effiency goes all to hell, but as a waste farm product it is a pretty good idea.  On the scale of farms in the midwest it makes sense to have a small distillery that can take excess/waste corn and other high sugar crops and turn them into a fuel you can use.  Obviously once you start using your actual crop to create fuel there is a problem.

      I don’t know where I saw it but I remember someone commenting that with the growing obesity problem in America it won’t be long before liposuction will be the next big green energy source.

      1. “as a waste farm product it is a pretty good idea”

        Why would you be creating this much “waste” product to begin with?

        “Obviously once you start using your actual crop to create fuel there is a problem”


        1. Yesss?…

          There will always be excess when growing crops, damaged ears,  not fully matured ones, not to mention the stalk and husks.  As a farmer if you could take that left over waste and convert it to fuel for your vehicles why wouldn’t you?  And in reality you do, which means you are wasting less and have a renewable source of energy.  The problem exists when you are not just using that say 5% waste to create fuel for yourself, but when you are using the useable/edible 95% of the crop to make fuel for everyone else.

          Imagine being able to mow your yard and then turn those grass clippings into fuel, that is exactly what is going on here.  If you were able to get enough fuel to power each mow great, but if you wanted to also fuel your car you’d need more land to grow more grass….  Land that could be used for something more important than make fuel.

    3. Plus it drives food corn prices up.

      That’s the point. Well, not driving food corn prices up specifically. Just corn prices in general.

    4. It does seem a bit like desperation verging on madness, doesn’t it?
      “Let’s grow the fuel for our cars! What could go wrong?”
      Maybe it could work if we didn’t have something like 3-4 cars per person, or whatever the present ratio is.
      The current energy market “fluctuations” (read: speculation) and looming energy crisEs (yeah, there’s gonna be more than one) seem to have the developed/ing worlds mesmerized like a cobra weaving in front of its next meal. It reminds me of an analogy that (I believe it was) Frank Zappa used to describe something: It’s like we’re all standing in shit up to our necks, and everyone is chanting: Don’t make any waves…Don’t make any waves…..

    5. When the cost of Gasoline exceeds the cost of Ethanol by more than $0.40/gal Ethanol costs less per mile driven than Gasoline.  Isn’t that what it is all about, cost per mile?

        1. What? I think this system exists to the benefit of corn farms whatever their size. I think that if the corn subsidies were removed corn prices would skyrocket the industry would tank and a lot of farmers would be hard pressed to adapt their operations to a more profitable crop.
          And I mention the subsidies because, like Farmer4ez said above, it’s the price of corn ethanol at the pump that makes it the rational choice regardless of the true cost. What did you think I was talking about?

        2. It does exist for the benefit of small business – that is, farmers and the towns that depend on them. Which our Senators depend on to get their votes, in a ridiculous system that gives South Dakota as much political weight in our upper house as California, despite having less than 1/40th the population.

  3. I worked in renewable energy in the 1970s with an outfit that promoted small scale stills to help farmers — only — reduce their oil use. Plenty of science back then showed it was a fool’s errand to try to use corn as a feedstock for a large national program because of the effects on food prices and water supplies.
    But then agri-biz and farm state legislators took the reins and you have the energy inefficient, taxpayer-subsidized monster we have today.

  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup.  Makes itself into the stomach of millions of people through a multitude of “food products”, with negative results.  Increased corn production in the US put Mexican farmers out of business causing migration to the US to make a living that they used to make by growing corn for food – they couldn’t compete.  Corn for ethanol as fuel?: You should worry more about getting hit by a meteor.  Also, the husks and stalks are what can be use for ethanol production, not actual kernels, i.e. food.  The US produces enough corn to feed the world but corporations choose to make it into junk food to fatten up consumers.  How about soybean ethanol?:  Talk to Monsanto about that.

    1. Well actually the kernel would be the easiest to make ethanol from, since it contains all/most of the sugar.  Making ethanol is more or less like making any distilled alcohol, like vodka.  With the help of certain bacteria and yeast high cellulose plant parts (husks, stalks, grasses, tree waste) can be used to make ethanol.  However the maximum efficiency will be from things that are high in sugar to begin with, like the fact wine is made from grapes.

      Actually upon re-reading your post perhaps you mean that we don’t use actual edible corn to make ethanol. If so I apologize.

      1. Yes, it is. Not grilled on the ear with a slab of butter – that’s sweet corn. Corn syrup is generally made from #2 yellow dent corn – which can also be ground into corn meal.

        1.  Highly OT I’m sure, but – I recently got back from Brazil, where they commonly eat the same sort of corn you’d make into corn meal, as corn on the cob, boiled or grilled.

          I found I much prefer it to the bland sweet corn we get here, which tastes of sweet and not much else.

  5. Does anybody actually WANT ethanol in their gasoline? It robs power, absorbs moisture out of the air, reduces fuel efficiency, and for older cars it can actually damage your engine.

    1. Don’t forget how it is destroying the boating industry. Literally disolving fiberglass fuel tanks. ANY vehicle left sitting like RVs, motorcycles, winter storage of boats, antique cars are subject to the catastrophic seperation of ethanol when left sitting.
      And now they are talking about raising the percentage to 15%!!! NO boats can use this crap. Yes, they will still make 10%, but only sold at Marina gas pumps. I can just hear the price of this going through the roof!

      Well, maybe there is an upside…companies selling fuel additives like Stabil to help the seperation have escalated.

    2.  I agree that ethanol should not be used in regular pump gas. However, when the fuel system and engine tuning are designed for high amounts of ethanol, it can be a very effective fuel. In forced-induction engines (turbocharged, supercharged) ethanol is a wonder-fuel: it has a very high octane equivalent (113, vs. 91-93 for pump premium) and cools the air charge much more effectively than gasoline. The result is more power and decent efficiency.

      Also, ethanol plants are starting to convert to cellulose-based production. While it took nasty, corn-based ethanol to build up a base market, I believe that in the long run, ethanol-based fuel will be advantageous. There is a lot of plant material that just goes to waste when it could be converted to ethanol.

  6. Living In West Texas, my brain did not realize that the photo was supposed to be of a dust cloud until I read the caption.  At first glance, I only saw the road and the field…

  7. When people in the world are starving, food should not be used for fuel. (I’m talking to you USA, and you know it’s a net energy loss.)

    When people are starving,  new land should not be cleared for crops or switched to crops  that yield a slight energy gain. Rejoice in what you have done, and find a new way for the future. (I’m talking to you Brazil.)

    1.  FYI..there will always be starving people in the world..welcome to earth!
      BTW starving people rarely are starving because of lack of food, just lack of available food. There’s plenty of food, it’s getting it to everyone that is the problem.

  8. “A Boondoggle is a project that is considered to waste time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy motivations.” ~ Wikipedia

  9. Corn ethanol is a crock. I find it ironic that my republican anti-government farmer friend that lives out in the Dakota’s is raking it loads of money from corn subsidies because of it.  Even he thinks it’s a waste.. but hey, who is he to argue when it brings huge profits.

  10. Corn has got to be the most over-rated over-subsided over-planted crop in America.  

    Ethanol from corn is a boondoggle.   We all know it.  But the Farm Bill and the corn farmers make it hard to change the amount of acres put in corn. 

    Something like 80% of all corn planted in the US isn’t eaten.  It’s tossed into the troughs in livestock farms and tax dollars are used to keep it artificially cheap.   
    Most corn is grown in the midwest in land that is highly dependent on irrigation.    Aquifers are being pumped far in excess of the rate it can recover.   Water levels drop feet per year.  The Ogalala Aquifer which feeds much of the midwest drying out.   Eventually we’re going to face a big problem:  the nation’s breadbasket will be dried out and prices for food for people to eat will skyrocket.  

    Ethanol drives some of the fresh water depletion

    And the rest is driven by the demand for too-cheap meat — in a country where Americans overeat on saturated fat    

    And who can forget the corn used to make HFCS.   

    So when America falls out of love with corn-based ethanol, the truth is we also need to admit we don’t need the cheapo meat produced with the subsidized corn — or the cheapo sweetened junk food produced with HFCS.   It all goes back to the Farm Bill and USDA policy; they create these policies and farmers can go broke trying to swim upstream against them.      Food & farm policy seems like such an insignificant thing while Republicans and Democrates are fussing back and forth about the same old partisan nonsense.   But without a long-term sustainable food production policy, we will *all* feel it when food prices skyrocket.  Or when fresh water becomes so scarce in the midwest that we see another Dust Bowl type event.  

  11. In alot of the irrigation dependant regions that currently farm corn, I think it might be a good idea to attempt to incorporate sorghum or a crop like it. Sorghum still delivers a grain crop to market, but the cane can be pressed for it’s sugar rich juice, also providing a feedstock for ethanol, or booze. And the cane once pressed could be utilized either in the biomass syngas process described in this story, or just about anything you’d use conventional crop residue materials. Of course it’d work best used in rotation, but that pretty much goes without saying. Windbreaks, and shelterbelts would also address some of the issues with erosion mentioned in this article. 

  12. Using food to make fuel drives up the price of food and the energy balance of the entire process may be negative (more fuel used making corn ethanol than derived from the ethanol produced).  END ALL SUBSIDIES for this idiocy, subsidies which only exist in the first place because the government is owned by moneyed special interests.

  13. About 80% of corn grown in the US is used for livestock around the world…corn ethanol isn’t a problem and the amount of ethanol produced from corn is capped off as well so it’s not like we will be using more, we will be using less corn because the process will become more efficient with advancements in the production.  

    The problem is that we do consume and produce far too much livestock that is raised on corn. Beef creates even more energy waste because they get fed an energy and water intensive crop.  If you want to make an effect and free up food for others around the world, convince your friends not to eat meat at every meal.I believe that when people try to talk about the “dangers” of corn ethanol, they are doing MUCH more harm than good.  This is because the public will then perceive that all ethanol in the US is corn based, when that is far from true.  Researchers have been working on things considered 2nd generation biofuels, which is bioethanol produced from cellulosic feedstocks or algae and other such feedstocks.  Also, nearly every year, we are breaking corn production records in the US. The same goes for soybean, every year’s crop is nearly a record crop.  Farmers may complain about the biotech companies and purchasing their seeds, but those seeds have increased productivity.  And although you have repurchase those seeds, it is the same in the software industry. You have to purchase a license every year.  Tough luck if you don’t want to buy it every year, get out of the business.  No one forces anyone to stay in one business.  And farmers are not struggling, farmers in general do very well for themselves.  But just like in any other industry, their are bad businessmen who can’t do it correctly and struggle.  And although Monsanto is an overly litigious company,  it is doing great things around the world with food production.  Also, if you hate Monsanto, you better hate Apple too.  Apple is just as overly litigious putting small businesses and inventors out of business and work.  They use nearly slave labor in China in order to reap huge profits…We need to wake up and see that WE, the population is the problem.  Not necessarily these industries, because they can’t take advantage of the planet unless we let them.

    1. While its pretty easy to compare the way that Monsanto and Apple both lock in consumers with overly broad patents and huge amounts of litigation there is a huge difference between the practice in the tech industry and in the food industry.
      Monsanto’s fuck-ups lead to mass-starvation. Their crops get hit by diseases, and the world suffers. That doesn’t happen to nearly the same extent if everyone is using different crops. Only when they’re locked into a few grains controlled by one country. It’s very, very dangerous.

  14. In the picture, why does it look like the wind is blowing from the soybean field (easily told from the lack of residue on the field) to the corn field (wear the residue from last year’s corn crop is seen clearly)?  There has been a trend recently in farming (at least from what I can tell) is to leave the soil very black in the fall.  Soybean stubble works up to almost black in the fall with very little left to prevent wind erosion (aka “dust clouds”)  Corn, on the other hand, leaves a considerably more amount of residue that hold the soil together so it doesn’t blow around.  Coincidentally, around the time ethanol started making news was approximately the same time when farm equipment manufactures started selling equipment that was developed to make the ground “blacker” in the fall.  To me, this picture is at best inconclusive that the corn ground and that is if only grass bends INTO the wind.

    Aris: I believe that the percentage of corn used for ethanol is over 30% but that doesn’t change the meaning in your post.

    What confuses me is that despite all the corn used for ethanol and all the corn used for livestock, we are still running a surplus.  I think the last prediction I saw was around 0.9 Billion bushels of surplus corn predicted for the beginning of next summer.  It is a low surplus but still a surplus.  It is the lowest surplus in 16 years.  What happened 16 years ago to make it so low then when there were no ethanol plants using it?

    1. Actually the trend over the last two decades has been to move away from tillage and plant directly into the previous crop residue.  Moldboard plows (which turn the soil completely over to a depth of about 4 inches) have become museum pieces.

  15. There’s an excellent chance that high fructose corn syrup (HFC) that beekeepers feed to their hives is causing colony collapse disorder (CCD) which threaten most fruits and crops that are not self-pollenizing.  This is because the pesticide Imidacloprid, introduced in the 1990’s, is the culprit. Bees also pick the poison up through the nectar they harvest from plants sprayed by Imidacloprid.

    You can read about the just published, damning studies done by Harvard School of Public Health on Science Daily website at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120405224653.htm

    Insects generally have much tougher, more resistant bodies than do we mammals. We can only guess what the effect this neurotoxin has on us.

  16. I suspect that more countries around the world are not buying as much american corn because of GE regulations (which america lacks) so instead of growing something the world wants they have to create a demand around that supply.

  17. Corn ethanol is reverse alchemy: they use gasoline to fuel the production and turn it into ethanol but at a terrible ratio.

    Corn is a terrible crop for this. Look at what Brazil has done with sugar cane. They actually get a lot more energy out than they put it, not so us with the corn.

  18. Another problem with ethanol is that it will break down and destroy fuel lines. Sure, most modern cars have the new type of fuel lines that will last longer, but what about lawn mowers, tractors, chainsaws, farm equipment, etc. ?
    E85 proponents will tell you that the fuel pump / fuel line problem is a myth. Garage managers report another story. The cost to maintain vehicles that use e85 gasoline mixes increases by ~$1000/year. Lexus had to recall vehicles from 2006-2008 stating – “Ethanol fuels with low moisture content will corrode the internal surface of the fuel rails.” (It was causing engine fires). Yet the E85 folk say that any vehicle made since 1985 will have no problems.

  19. AFAIK sugarcane ethanol is more carbon negative than corn since sugarcane produces much more sugar than corn

    but politics wise, no one wants america to be beholden to another new OPEC, this time composed of tropical countries that grow sugarcane

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