New perspectives on the energy return on (energy) investment (EROI) of corn ethanol
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Research on corn ethanol is overly focused on whether corn ethanol is a net energy yielder and, consequently, has missed some other fundamental issues, including (1) whether there is significant error associated with current estimates of the EROI of corn ethanol, (2) whether there is significant spatial variability in the EROI of corn ethanol production, (3) whether yield increases will translate linearly to increases in EROI, (4) the extent to which assumptions about co-product credits impact the EROI of corn ethanol, and (5) how much of the ethanol production from biorefineries is net energy. We address all of these concerns in this research by: (1) performing a meta-error analysis of the calculation of EROI, (2) calculating the EROI for 1,287 counties across the United States, and (3) performing a sensitivity analysis for the values of both yield and co-products within the calculation of EROI. Our results show that the average EROI calculated from the meta-error analysis was 1.07 ± 0.2, meaning that we are unable to assert whether the EROI of corn ethanol is greater than one. The average EROI calculated across 1,287 counties in our spatial analysis was 1.01, indicating that the literature tended to use optimal values for energy inputs and outputs compared to the average conditions across the Unites States. Increases in yield had a trivial impact on EROI, while co-product credits had a large impact on EROI. Based on our results from the spatial analysis and the location of biorefineries across the United States, we conclude that the net energy supplied to society by ethanol is only 0.8% of that supplied from gasoline. Recent work indicates that only energy sources extracted at EROIs of 3:1 or greater have the requisite net energy to sustain the infrastructure of the transportation system of the United States. In light of this work, we conclude that production of corn ethanol within the United States is unsustainable and requires energy subsidies from the larger oil economy.
KeywordsCorn Ethanol EROI Net energy Gradients Spatial analysis
The authors would like to thank the Santa Barbara foundation for financial support. We would also like to thank 3 anonymous reviewers for many helpful comments.
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