May 22, 2022

Study finds improved ethanol energy balance

ELLISVILLE, MO. — A new analysis by the Renewable Fuels Association found corn ethanol now provides nearly three times the energy used to produce it.

The average energy balance ratio for corn ethanol in 2021 is estimated to be 2.8 to 3, compared to the 2.1 to 2.3 found in the 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The ratio for the top-performing quartile of biorefineries is 3.7 to 4, according to the RFA analysis.

The energy balance ratio is a measure of how much energy a particular fuel source provides to the user compared to the amount of energy needed to produce and distribute the fuel.

“We have more evidence that ethanol’s environmental footprint is improving. We concluded that on average for the industry, ethanol provides users with three times as much energy as is needed to produce it,” Scott Richman, RFA chief economist, said in RFA’s The Ethanol Report podcast.

“It reflects continued improvements by ethanol processors, as well as by corn producers who supply the feedstock for ethanol production.”

Food Vs. Fuel Debate

The latest RFA analysis refutes USDA’s 2016 energy ratio. Richman also addressed a World Bank policy research paper released in 2008 that concluded that “large increases in biofuels production in the U.S. and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices,” resulting in the food versus fuel debate.

“There were accusations pretty well unfounded about the land use change that would result from ethanol production. There were also accusations that ethanol did not have a positive energy balance,” Richman said.

“It’s interesting with the internet today and everybody having a voice, these things still get dredged up from time to time. These things we thought were resolved 10 and 15 years ago such as the energy balance and we have to provide updates and provide people with substantiated numbers and show what the real numbers are.”


The EPA recently approved an emergency waiver that allows E15 to be sold during the summer of 2022.

The move came after President Joe Biden issued a national emergency waiver to lift the restriction. Without this action, E15 could not be used in most of the country from June 1 to Sept. 15.

“When the president made his E15 waiver, some of these (food versus food) allegations kind of came out of the woodwork. So, we took another look at the energy balance of ethanol,” Richman said.

“We took numbers from (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Technologies) that we used to update on-farm energy usages. We took numbers from Christianson Benchmarking regarding the natural gas and electricity usage at ethanol facilities, and we provided an updated number to try to bring people up to speed on what the facts are.

“Fifteen years ago there were numbers out there that showed ethanol with 1.5-plus energy balance ratio. Over time in 2016 the USDA put out some numbers and we put out some numbers that showed the energy balance ratio was well over 2.

“If you look back on the studies, it shows a continued upward march over the last 15 years to where now ethanol is solidly energy balance positive. Hopefully it should put to rest any claims about that.

“We see accusations about that. We see accusations about indirect land use change. If you look at the trends and studies over time, the energy balance has gone steadily upward.

“The estimates of indirect land use change associated with ethanol have come steadily down.”


Producer members of RFA took a pledge last year to achieve 70% greenhouse gas reductions relative to gasoline by 2030 and achieve net zero emission by 2050.

In connection with the National Ethanol Conference in February RFA released a study conducted by Informed Sustainability Consulting showing multiple pathways by which ethanol can reach net zero by 2050.

“Despite some of the allegations that come up from time to time, we are on a good trajectory. We have a good positive story to tell about ethanol and it’s getting noticed,” Richman said.

“People are interested in using ethanol not only for road transportation fuels, but as key feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel, even for diesel engines, for renewable chemicals. It is all because it’s a versatile molecule and ethanol offers greenhouse gas reductions.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor