I've always liked and trusted Forbes magazine. In fact, I even had a friend who worked as a reporter there. However, a couple months ago they ran an inflammatory story about how the public is being duped into believing biofuels are good for the country.
They're flat-out wrong.
The story said “ethanol uses 29% more energy than it produces.” That comes from old and some say antiquated research by Cornell University's David Pimentel — an entomologist of all things.
It went on to say that “producing soy diesel results in a 27% loss of energy.” That from Tad Patzek, a chemical engineer from the University of California-Berkley and a former Shell Oil Company employee and founder of the UC Oil Consortium, which counts BP, Chevron USA, Mobil USA, Shell and Unocal among its members.
The truth is, since 1995 nine energy balance studies have all found net-energy gains for ethanol of at least 25%.
With biodiesel, the numbers are just as impressive. USDA and the Department of Energy studies show an energy savings of 3.2 to 1 for biodiesel.
In June 2004, USDA updated its 2002 analysis of the issue and determined that the net-energy balance of ethanol production is 1.67 to 1, or a net-energy gain of at least 67%. That means for every 100 btus of energy used to make ethanol, 167 btus of ethanol are produced. Even back in 2002 USDA concluded that the ratio was 1.35 to 1. USDA's finding have been confirmed by University of Nebraska and Argonne National Laboratory studies.
These figures take into account the energy required to plant, grow and harvest corn, as well as the energy required to manufacture and to distribute ethanol.
“Twenty years ago their information may have been correct, but today it couldn't be more wrong,” says Ron Lamberty, vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol. “Pimentel should be taking credit for having helped create today's truly efficient ethanol production process, not using old numbers to shoot it down.”
Other researchers are outspoken on this issue, too.
“Dr. Pimentel's net-energy argument is bogus,” says Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University. “In terms of finer details, Pimentel and Patzek use old data, improper data, and their methods of data analysis are wrong. For example, they don't give proper energy credits to dried distillers' grain. Their studies don't meet the International Standards Organization test of transparency. And they don't submit their work for verification in recognized, peer-reviewed life cycle journals.”
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Pimentel often selectively uses a pre-1989 national average corn yield of 110 bu./acre. The national average in 2004 was 160 bu./acre.
Also, past analysis of Pimentel's work by USDA reveals that the Cornell professor has grossly understated a number of efficiencies of corn and ethanol production as well as grossly overstated the energy needed to grow corn and produce ethanol, says Bob Stallman, AFBF president.
“The inaccurate information published in Forbes could be harmful to the biodiesel industry. And that's truly a shame, given all that biodiesel has accomplished,” says Darryl Brinkman, chairman of the National Biodiesel Board.
The message is clear. Don't believe everything you read, unless of course you're reading The Corn And Soybean Digest.