[Sust-mar] Energy Ethanol Balance

IBS ibs_pei at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 18 15:29:02 EDT 2008

Here is a very interesting letter that was forwarded to me.

Honourable Senators:

I write to share a surprising calculation regarding Bill C-33's 5% 
ethanol mandate: That mandate will displace just 0.7% of the fossil fuel 
currently burned in Canadian cars and trucks. The 5% mandate will not 
displace 5% of the fossil fuel now used, it will not even displace 1%, 
it will displace just 0.7%, and it will do so at a cost of billions of 
dollars. The following concisely details that conclusion.

According to numerous reports published by ethanol supporters (Shapouri 
et al, Wang, Agriculture Canada, etc.), the energy balance for ethanol 
is in the range of 1.1:1 to 1.35:1, with a consensus emerging around 

What does an energy balance of 1.25:1 mean? It means that for every unit 
of fossil fuel energy you put into producing ethanol (in making 
fertilizer, in farmers' fields, in ethanol plants, etc.), you get back 
1.25 units-a net gain of 25%. Many top analysts disagree strongly that 
such a gain exists, but for the purposes of this letter, we can accept 
the estimates of ethanol supporters.

A 1.25:1 energy balance means that for every one unit of fossil fuel 
energy we put in, we get 1.25 units of ethanol energy out. What is the 
significance of that calculation to the current debate around Bill C-33 
and its proposed 5% ethanol mandate?

On the face of it, Bill C-33 would seem to help us replace 5% of our 
fossil fuels (gasoline) with "renewable fuels" (ethanol). But this isn't 
the case. This is where the energy balance comes in. Because that 
ethanol-let's call it 5 units-takes some fossil fuel to produce. How 
much fossil fuel does it take to produce those five units of ethanol? 
Just over 4 units (the math is this: 5 ¸ 1.25). And when we account for 
those 4 units of fossil fuel that went into making the 5 units of 
ethanol, we find that a 5% ethanol mandate does not really displace 5% 
of the fossil fuel in our gas tanks: it displaces just 1% (5 units minus 
4 units, or 5% minus 4%).

But it's even worse than that, because the ethanol mandate is based on 
volume. If the energy density of ethanol were the same as gasoline (if 
there were the same number of BTUs per gallon or megajoules per litre), 
then we actually would displace 1% of our fossil fuel. But the energy 
density is not the same: A gallon of ethanol contains just 70% as much 
energy as a gallon of gas. Thus, a 5% ethanol mandate for Canada does 
not replace 5% of the fossil fuels we burn in our automobiles. It does 
not even replace 1%. It replaces 0.7%-seven-tenths-of-one-percent (1% x 

Surely Canada can find creative ways to cut fossil fuel consumption by a 
paltry 0.7% without triggering the food price crisis that many have 
attributed to ethanol. Surely we can find alternative ways to make that 
0.7% gain that does not require billions in taxpayer spending. Surely we 
can find ways to increase our fuel efficiency by less than 1% that don't 
lay us open to charges of "burning food" in a world where nearly 1 
billion go hungry.

When considering Bill C-33 and its 5% ethanol mandate, it is important 
to think about options. It is important to ask: What other options do we 
have for reducing gasoline use by 0.7%? An average driving speed of 1 
mph slower would cut gasoline use by that amount. Cutting back by one 
driving trip in every 142 would do the same. Just keeping our tires 
properly inflated would do it. According to the Government of Canada, 
"If just one tire is under inflated by 8 pounds per square inch, it can 
increase your vehicle's fuel consumption by 4 percent." ( 
 ) Pumping 
up our tires would save 4%, or more, of the fossil fuels used in 
automobiles. That 4% saving is several times the 0.7% saving that would 
result from a 5% ethanol mandate. And that 4% can be accomplished 
without spending billions, and without risking the food security of 
millions around the globe.

The National Farmers Union would like to appear before Senators to 
discuss this critical issue. We urge you to give adequate and careful 
consideration: Do not rush forward with this legislation based on 
incomplete information.

We look forward to working with you on this issue.


Darrin Qualman

Director of Research

National Farmers Union
 Phil Ferraro and Nancy Willis
Institute for Bioregional Studies Ltd.
114 Upper Prince Street, Charlottetown 
Prince Edward Island Canada  C1A 4S3
"Restoring Community, Protecting the Land and Informing the Earth’s Stewards"

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