Loser: Coal-Generated Ethanol Plants

Our first technology loser in this month's Winners and Losers list is a product of the times we live in, in which politics trumps common sense. In "Loser: Corn-o-copia", our senior news editor, William Sweet, relates the story of how new production facilities are now being built to make ethanol fuel from corn by burning coal to generate electricity to operate the processing equipment.

With the recent run-up in the price of petroleum (which has since fallen), countries such as the United States have legislated lucrative subsidies for the increased production of bio-fuels, particularly ethanol, for combustion engines. While ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is attractive as a clean alternative fuel resource, it has characteristics that require careful production to pass a cost-benefits analysis. For starters, it's most efficiently made from a crop with a high sugar content, such as sugarcane (think of rum), although it can be made from produce containing less sugar, such as corn (think of moonshine), but less efficiently in terms of energy consumption. Next, it needs to be produced in economies of scale that demand that the raw material be abundant locally, to offset a further energy cost from transportation.

However, when you have government subsidies, you can ignore some of these practical economic concerns. Enter firms such as Red Trail Energy of North Dakota. Red Trail is building an ethanol plant in the corn-rich Midwest that will burn coal, also abundant locally. At first glance, this might sound like a good idea. When you do the math, though, it comes up short—except for that money coming in from the government.

As Sweet notes, the Red Trail plant's inputs, outputs, and balances have been modeled by a team at the University of California at Berkeley, using a software tool called the ERG Biofuels Analysis Meta-Model. The Berkeley Energy and Resources Group found that even using corn from nearby states in the Midwest—about 18 million bushels of it a year—the Red Trail facility will emit more carbon dioxide than other ethanol plants. Moreover, in terms of net energy gain, the postulated carbon-intense plant yields 1.3 megajoule per liter of ethanol produced, roughly a quarter of the 4.6-MJ/L energy yield obtained on average from ethanol plants using today's usual technologies, Sweet writes.

One IEEE Fellow whom Sweet consulted for this story was straightforward in his opinion of why projects like the Red Trail plant are being built, and he put the blame squarely on politics. "The ethanol industry has this big-picture view: we do what's good for the ethanol industry," said T. J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor and a prominent supporter of the Second Harvest food bank. "Using hundreds of millions of dollars of soft political money, they have convinced the world that ethanol is currently a green fuel—which it is not."

So, for taking a food crop and distilling it into a fuel using nearly as much energy to produce it as it will supply, with negligible environmental benefit (but handsome profits thanks to government support), we classify coal-generated ethanol plants technological losers.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.