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Ethanol isnít worth the energy

By Jeremy Brown - posted Monday, 21 November 2005

Through the federal Ethanol Expansion Program and federal and provincial fuel exemptions, the governments of Canada have been promoting the use of ethanol as a fuel supplement to help meet their Kyoto targets. However, recent research indicates that using ethanol as a fuel supplement, effectively displacing some gasoline (petrol) consumption, may do little to help the environment as it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it contains.

Government support

Various levels of government have provided substantial support to expand ethanol production in Canada. At the federal level, the Ethanol Expansion Program has already allocated CA$118 million for the construction or expansion of ethanol plants across the country. Besides direct support for the construction of ethanol plants, the ethanol portion of blended gasoline receives an exemption from the federal excise tax of 10 cents per litre on gasoline.

The provincial governments of Alberta and Ontario exempt the ethanol portion of blended gasoline from their taxes, without restriction on the ethanol source or the percentage of ethanol blended in the fuel. The governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba offer an exemption from their taxes for ethanol that is both produced and consumed in their respective provinces. The governments of British Columbia and Quebec have committed themselves to exempting the ethanol portion from their taxes when an ethanol plant is built in their respective provinces. Furthermore, the Saskatchewan government has passed legislation that will mandate all gasoline contain a 10 per cent ethanol blend across the province: Manitoba and Ontario are considering similar legislation.


Through generous government support, ethanol production has increased from about 200 million litres per year before the Ethanol Expansion Program began, to a total of about 1.4 billion litres of fuel ethanol per year by the end of 2007: about seven times the level of production prior to the program. This is enough ethanol to cover the government’s target that 35 per cent of all gasoline in Canada contains a 10 per cent blend of ethanol by 2010, as outlined in Canadian Climate Change Action Plan (pdf file 82KB).

But is it worthwhile?

According to a recent study published in Natural Resources Research, turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into liquid fuel, such as ethanol, uses much more energy than can be generated from the resulting ethanol. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California-Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the ratios of energy input to energy output of ethanol produced from corn, switch grass and wood biomass.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered the energy used in producing the crop, including production of pesticides and fertiliser, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop: as well as in fermenting or distilling the ethanol. Comparing energy input to energy output for producing ethanol, the study found that:

     producing ethanol from corn requires 29 per cent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;

     producing ethanol from switch grass requires 45 per cent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and

     producing ethanol from wood biomass requires 57 per cent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.


Although Professors Pimentel and Patzek do not express the net energy return to producing conventional gasoline, even the American Coalition for Ethanol states that producing gasoline from crude oil requires 15 per cent more fossil energy than the fuel produced - half the net energy loss of ethanol.

This is not the first study to find similar results. Two panel studies of ethanol production by the US Department of Energy also reported a negative energy return (ERAB, 1980, 1981). Twenty-six scientists independent of the Department of Energy reviewed these reports. Their findings indicated that the conversion of corn into ethanol energy was indeed negative. All 26 scientists unanimously approved the findings.

In a previous article, Professor Pimentel conducted a review of reports that indicate that producing ethanol from corn yields a positive energy return (Pimentel, 2003). Professor Pimentel found that these reports omitted many inputs in the production process. A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture has indicated a net positive energy return of 67 per cent (Shapouri et al., 2004). However, this study omits several inputs such as the energy required to produce (and repair) the farm machinery such as tractors, planters, sprayers and harvesters; as well as the machinery used for grinding, fermentation, and distillation. This led to an under-reporting of the energy required to grow the corn and process the starch into ethanol.


Canadian policy-makers have justified using Canadians’ money to subsidise the ethanol industry by claiming that using ethanol for fuel will help prevent climate change. Natural Resources Canada reports that gasoline blended with 10 per cent ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 3 per cent to 8 per cent depending on the type of biomass used in the ethanol production (NRCAN, 2004). However, once one considers the entire production process (not just the final combustion), ethanol may produce more greenhouse gases than gasoline alone. By citing the environmental benefits of consuming ethanol without accounting for its total energy requirement from production through consumption, policy-makers are deceiving Canadians about the true cost to the environment of using ethanol. As a net energy loser, ethanol will do little to help Canada meet its Kyoto goals and may, in fact, do the opposite.

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First published in CANSTATS Bulletins on July 21 2005.

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About the Author

Jeremy Brown is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at The Fraser Institute, and manager of CANSTATS

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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