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Federal ethanol program tragically misguided, UC Berkeley's Tad Patzek argues at National Press Club forum

Patzek's paper  Tad Patzek: Why corn ethanol uses more energy than it saves (PDF)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The use of ethanol as a gas additive is "one of the most misguided public policy decisions to be made in recent history," argued UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering Tad Patzek at an August 23 National Press Club forum.

Patzek, formerly a petroleum engineer for Shell Development in Houston (considered the Bell Labs of the petroleum industry), documented how there is a net energy loss from every gallon of ethanol produced from corn. When you examine the whole process of producing ethanol from corn said Patzek, it takes more fossil fuel to produce ethanol than the energy that comes from the biofuel.

Increasing the average mileage of passenger cars and SUVs by 3-5 miles per gallon would dwarf the effects of all possible biofuel production from all sources of biomass available in the U.S., said Patzek. Even a measure as simple as properly inflating passenger car tires would have more impact on the nation's energy indepence than ethanol.

Currently, federal and state governments provide some $3 billion in subsidies toward ethanol production in the United States each year. "We ought to take a deep breath and freeze corn ethanol production at or below the 2004 level for several years, while evaluating the long-term consequences of gasohol use," concluded Patzek.

The National Press Club forum was sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association and examined whether ethanol reduces or instead increases the nation's consumption of fossil fuels. Patzek was joined by fellow panelist David Pimentel, professor of entomology at Cornell University, Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, and John Sheehan, senior chemical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In a prepared presentation, Patzek documented why the U.S. and the world "will be facing increasingly harsh problems with energy conservation and supply." His recommendations include the following:

  • The nation should invest in efficient manufacturing technologies for photovoltaic cells. "A mediocre photovoltaic cell is about 100 times more efficient in delivering work than corn ethanol," he said.
  • A small, independent research center should be opened at UC Berkeley "to create the common thermodynamic, chemical, and biological language to describe all major solar (photovoltaic, wind, and biomass), fossil, and nuclear energy capture schemes. This interdisciplinary center will coordinate efforts of several engineers (chemical, mechanical, electrical and agricultural), physicists, chemists, biochemists, biologists, ecologists, geneticists, economists, applied mathematicians, psychologists, and political scientists across the U.S. and abroad. The proposed center ought to be funded in part with public money and in part by independent private foundations."