Here Cometh Ethanol Revolution!

Posted by: Ishwar Khatiwada

Ethanol revolution in the U.S. is finally materializing. The rising oil prices, increasing aggression between the U.S. and oil producing Middle East, and much real and much talked about global warming are helping usher this revolution. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its much anticipated report on “Prospective Planting”. The report revealed that U.S. farmers are expected to plant 90.5 million acres of corn in 2007, up 15% from the last year. The 90.5 million …

………………acres of corn planting is the highest recorded since the World War II. This increase was solely led by an increase in demand for corn used in producing Ethanol. The undergoing Ethanol revolution is attributed to the aforementioned factors coupled with huge flow of venture capital investments in alternative energy, invention of new and improved technology in the production of Ethanol, and growing consumer demand for Ethanol.

Everybody from Wall Street to venture capitalists to investors is investing millions of dollars in alternative energy start-ups. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Vinod Khosla, Ron Burkle, Steve Case, and many other big name investors have poured millions of dollars in start-ups geared up in developing alternative energy. Recently, founders of Google Larry Page and Sergey Brin jumped into the Ethanol Bandwagon with Vinod Khosla. In Washington too, politicians are very vocal about promoting alternative energy producing companies by giving tax incentives, mandating auto makers to make fuel flexible vehicle, and making grants for research and development in alternative energy through U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The 2008 Presidential candidates are touting this issue as one of their main agenda in upcoming Presidential campaign. These positive developments in alternative energy fronts are very likely to make U.S. less reliant on foreign imported oil and ultimately make the nation, in the long run, self-reliant on energy.

Is it possible to produce Ethanol in such a large amount? If so, how could it be done? What are the current obstacles? What are the benefits from Ethanol? What critique on Ethanol say? Should investors put money in Ethanol producing companies? I have been following unfolding of Ethanol revolution for sometime and in the following section I will try answer each of these important questions.

It all started in Brazil in the 1970s. Brazil is the pioneer in the production of Ethanol and has a proven track record for making Ethanol the substitute of petroleum oil. Ethanol is not only environmental friendly but also cheap. In a span of few years, more than 80 percent of vehicles in Brazil run in Ethanol. The world is lauding Brazil’s astounding accomplishment in this sector. Ethanol market in Brazil in recent years is unfettered, not run in government subsidy but solely on consumer led demand. If Brazil can do this; U.S. too can do this. Ethanol production in the U.S. has increased exponentially recently. For example, Ethanol production has increased from 1.3 billion gallons in 1997 to slightly under 5 billion gallons in 2006, an increase of 285% in less than 10 years. This translates into annual growth rate of 16%. However, the consumption of 5 billion gallons of Ethanol account for only 3% of total annual petroleum oil consumption in the U.S. Currently, there are more than 114 Ethanol producing plants in the U.S. and many more are under construction. The forces of market are coming together to make it happen (except the big oil companies).

Currently, there are more than 5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the U.S. This is a promising statistics I did not know until recently when I watched video of Vinod Khosla’s presentation at Google. The U.S. has enough infrastructures for Ethanol production. The auto companies are willing to produce more flex fuel vehicles, but the Ethanol pumps are simply not enough. The big oil companies do not want Ethanol pumps in their place as the new fuel will kill their business. The oil companies know very well that even if they support Ethanol pump, their fat profit margin from imported oil will vanish.

The U.S. has sufficient capacity to supplant imported petroleum oil from Ethanol and other alternative fuel. The land is plenty for cultivation of ethanol and bio-fuel inputs. The land is already in existence for both celluloid (ethanol produced from other than corn such as prairie switchgrass, forest waste, construction waste, etc.) and non-celluloid ethanol input production. The costs in making flex-engine for automakers are extremely minimal. What is lacking is an additional Ethanol pump in gas stations.

Critics argue that Ethanol takes equal or even more energy to make than it does produce, i.e., energy returned on energy invested in equal to one- not efficient. Ethanol production also generates environmental harm through overuse of land resulting in land degradation and increase in food prices. In addition, production of Ethanol from corn is not sufficient to supplant fossil oil. Nonetheless, there are emerging new technologies to help produce ethanol more efficiently. A recent DOE report concludes that environmental and energy benefits from ethanol are much more superior than petroleum based fuels.

Growing Ethanol market is win-win for all. The U.S. government will save billions on farm subsidies as farmers will in fact make profits from cultivating Ethanol inputs. The Midwest states and rural America, which lag economically, will reap windfall prosperity as farms are concentrated in those regions. The U.S. government will save $250 billion dollar that it spend annually in importing oil from the foreign countries. The consumer will benefit from low cost fuel.

Investment in alternative energy market looks promising. According to Bloomberg, top 10 eco-friendly funds posted annual return of 39 percent last year. In the U.S., Boston based Winslow Green Growth, Winslow Management, posted an annual return of 37 percent recently. So, here cometh Ethanol revolution from the Midwest not from the Middle East!

Here Cometh Ethanol Revolution! was last modified: March 31st, 2007 by Ishwar Khatiwada

Blog Comments

  1. SmithGFan

    SmithG, producing in US and feeding to rest of the poorer world is nuisance. IF US productions can raise fuels, that can be used in development of poorer countries as an aid than corns itself.

  2. SmithG

    Yes, it is too early to jump onto the Ethanol van. Do not yet invest into this yet based on some acadamic BS. People are still debating whether we should use corn to feed poor people in Africa and Asia or use this to produce cheap fuel so that peopl ein western countries drive 8 cylinder SUV. There is enough fuel in the world outside of Ethanol. We should be thinking on how to build fuel efficient and environment friendly vehicles. How about a car which can run 100 miles per gallon of gasoline? Let us think out of the box. Someone will build this kind of vehicle then Ethanol fuel becoem way too costly.


  3. Ishwar

    Thank you everyone for your inputs. Many of you have expressed valid concerns on Ethanol as an alternative source of petroleum oil. My opinions in this piece were based on my personal observations and some research work I am doing on alternative energy for sometime. I am not an expert in this arena. My analysis in this blog was confined to the U.S. from economic perspective.
    I understand that Ethanol is not a complete solution for energy. However, it is the most viable option for the U.S. (at least for now) to make itself more responsible on global warming, to lessen foreign oil imports (which many believe is threat to U.S. national security), to help consumers with much clean, environmental friendly, and low cost fuel.
    Tashiji, I wrote growing Ethanol market is win-win for all for the following reasons:
    1. To begin with the global perspectives, expert believe the use of Ethanol will offset effects of global warming. New technology will help extract Ethanol from switchgrass and other non-edible products and hence the production of Ethanol will be from sources other than food corps.
    2. As you know the U.S. is often rebuked for its policy on agricultural subsidy. As I mentioned in my analysis that farmers in the U.S. will earn enough from Ethanol input farming and do not need government subsidy. So, all parties- WTO, farmers, government- win here.
    3. Rural America and farmers will prosper from Ethanol.
    4. As the market for Ethanol grow, investors benefits as well. Overall, Ethanol will have spillover effects.
    The market is ripe for alternative energy in the U.S. Look at the players in this field, the VCs, politicians, emerging alternative energy support groups, recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of global warming emissions, and many more. There are thousands of technologies in pipeline, not all of them will fail. Recent ABC News/Time magazine/Stanford University polls show that 85% of the people in the U.S. believe that global warming is happening. Many investors believe that recent alternative energy market is similar to early 1990’s internet revolution. There were skeptics then, there are skeptics now, and there will always be skeptics before the emergence of new inventions. But, I believe skeptics will be proven wrong once again. Alternative energy market is here to stay.

  4. Tashi Sherpa

    Rudra ji – I tend to somewhat disagree with your statement that “America won’t do this at the cost of poor people in the world”. I think America will do whatever it is in the long term interests of America. There will be some cost-benefit analysis and if the benefits to America are substantial and the costs are not, then America will do it.
    I am not anti-American, in fact I am quite pro America, though I do not see America as a great benevolent brother to the world.

    I agree with you whole-heartedly that we should not be “anti-America – rahter be anti-poverty and anti-autocracy”. I commend you for the positive attitude. I would also like to add – let us not be “anti-development”. Each technological advance that survives the market forces benefits the human race as a whole. Though it can impact some communities within human race rather adversely. For example because of Internet, D2HawkEye is able to carry out some of its work in Nepal. Some Americans must have been negatively affected by this form of “outsourcing”. But as whole, D2HawkEye impact has been positive, for both American and Nepalese economies. If Ethanol succeeds as a fuel alternative, then it will have similar consequences.

    Ethanol is of interest to me exactly for same reason that Rudra ji expresses – in that it is one of the alternative sources of energy. It is not the final solution or the only solution. The solutions are going to be many.

    In the context of country such as Nepal, some solutions are already being tried out – such as micro hydro, solar photovoltaics, bio gas. As cultivable land is rather precious in Nepal, corn based ethanol may not ever be a solution to Nepal. But if some of the newer research in this field bears fruit, then substitute for corn might evolve.

    In any issue like this, there are engineering, social, political, economic impacts. Ishwar’s article approaches this issue from an economic (investment opportunities) standpoint – perhaps because he is an economist himself.

    So sticking to economics, I would like Ishwar to defend his statement “Growing Ethanol market is win-win for all”.

    Really friend?

  5. Rudra Pandey

    Ishwar – geat wrtie-up and this has been topics of the town lately. There are people excited about this idea and there are group opposing this for reasons stated in the comments below. When we talk aboit alternative energy, people should not just think of corn. Alternative energy can be generated even using heat stored in the inner core of mother earth. Actually, a couple of companies in USA are already working on this. There are a lot of creaitve ways and let us be optimisitc. America won’t do this at the cost of poor people in the world. Next generation of America will be much more open and benevolent. Let us not be anti-America – rahter be anti-poverty and anti-autocracy.


  6. AmericaBasneNepali

    Some of the folks who are commenting on this blog either arrogant or they are trying to kiss Ishwar’s b… Particulalry, I do not like the style of Shuvakamana – she/he thinks everyone else is negative and superficial. Who is this Shuvakamana? Ishwar’s what?

  7. mabi

    I think we should keep discussing even though we do not specialize in the field as greenhouse effect is emminent.

    Other than corn, non-petroleum sources are being tested like soybean, seitch grass, municipal waste, wood pulp, left over husks and used cooking oil to produce cellulosic ethanol which contains more energy than corn

    Some other stats:

    114 ethanol plants in US.

    Nearly half of 11 billiob bushels of corn produced is turned into ethanol and capable of running E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gas) (Petrol is called gas in US)

    1. use of coal of natural gas to produce ethanol in plants.
    2. 51 c per gallon tax break

    (ref Time april 9th 2007 page 70).

    So I am for ethanol produced other than Mexican Corn.

  8. Geeta

    hey Tashi, do not get too serious. I was not stereotyping. It is always odd to see a Brahmin hiking to Everest and Sherpa reading Bhagabadgita. You are different type of Sherpa. I fell in love in Hinduism and even changed my name to Geeta. I am different too – so do not worry.

    Ishwar – you may be right. But, who knows? Only one of thousands great ideas comes to reality.

    Geeta – the Geeta Lover!

  9. getalover

    yes pawan, tashi is tashi, no more. Geeta karma, Duty reveals that nepalese should raise corns,beans, and thus alchol industry by promoting alcohol as fuel. IF US goes for Ethanol we go for methanol. Whose father what vitamin?

  10. Tashi Sherpa

    Geeta Ji – Now you are stereotyping. But then I do not know many or even any Stephanie who loves Geeta.

    In this day and age, it will be too easy for anyone to copy and paste a verse (and its meaning) from Bhagavad-Gita. Just have to google for it. So maybe we should stick to Ethanol and its relative merits here. How about you post an article about Gita/Geeta – and then we meet and discuss over there?

    But first I would like to retract my statement about Ishwar’s posting being unsuitable for this forum. Comments from “Mabi” and “suvakamana” clearly indicate otherwise.

    I am sorry I lashed out. Everest Uncensorsed is one the better blogs targeting Nepali diaspora. Somehow I must have forgotten the reason I chose to hang out here.

  11. pawan

    Yes US is trying to find other source of energy(not alternative) and trying to divert source from Arab and Muslim countries to some other places, I am not sure if they put high value on bio-oil. Does anyone know about annual gas consumption and bio gas production in Unisted States? Thats just around 2-3%. US is also funding new nuclear technology to make it more safer. But currently oil has no alternative, and it make sence that US is trying to scare the Arabs. Just look at Iran, Syria. How many bloggers think that they are interested in business? Arabs has less interest on business and making profit, they use oil as a bargain cheap. They are almost black-mealing the rest of the world. US’s interest in Arab is to make the flow of the oil as smooth as possible. And rest of us should show some gratitude to US.

  12. suvakamana

    Good article by Ishwar that arouses intellectual curiosity. I am truly amazed by how people start giving negative comments in any articles without knowing the subject contents in detail. Having a healthy dialogue in any issue brings out solution. I have seen the feedback in other articles as well. There are so much negativity and criticism made without knowing the subject matter. We should change such habit.

    I guess any new innovation has both positive and negative impacts. We don’t know the impact of new technologies or products unless we use it. I think Ethanol is not perfect, but it is the best substitute for other oil and for mitigating U.S. oil imports (at least for the short term until other more advanced technologies emerge).

    When U. S. has so much land and resources that could be used to produce ethanol and the U.S. government spends billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies, ethanol might bring good results from its uses.

    Keep the blog rolling!


  13. Geeta

    Well, little awkward here. I knows many SHERPAs and they usually are either climbers or traders. I have not met Sherpa loving Geeta. This makes me question if you really are a Sherpa. Is Tashi Sherpa is your blogging identity?

    I think I am the only one disclose my true name (Stephanie) aroud here. People are firing words with fake identity.

    Hello EU admin, do sth with these fake people.

    Tashi – what do you know about Geeta lesson if you love Geeta? Please write one of them?

    Geeta – the Geeta Lover!

  14. Tashi Sherpa

    Geeta ji – me different? – well yes actually – I do have three eyes and four hands. Just Kidding.

    But you are mistaken. I made two comments in the “Pushkar Shah” article. First was against the authors use of words like “please stone him”. In the first comment I had left out a “NOT”, so I made the correction in the second one. I have never supported Pushkar Shah – I do not know anything about this guy firsthand to be able to comment on his deeds. I just didnot like the authors choice of word. I understand the author is the “patron” of this site, but since when not liking the authors choice of words became equivalent to supporting the deeds of “supposed” cyclist.

    Going back to this post – I am only questioning the intelligence of the two of the bloggers. I do not even want to go into “fuel of darkness”. But I truly hate it when people start seeing “propaganda” and “consipiracy” everywhere and start dismissing things.

    When the discussion was based on the merits of the technology and its potential advantages or disadvantages, I have been supportive at the least and argumentative at the most. If you do not believe me now, then reread my comments to “Yestai Ho” and “food and fuel”.

    May I infer from your comment that you think I am rude? Am I rude in general? Care to be more specific? Since you are accusing me – do you care to elaborate?

    Geeta ji – your turn.

    BTW – I love Geeta too. And I do mean the Book.

  15. Geeta

    Tashi – you are different. I know you supported Pushkar Shah when every other blogger in this site thought he deserved to be questioned and exposed for lies and cheating.

    Now you are trying to question intelligence of other bloggers for questioning Iswhar’s article. Bloggers do not need to support certain views or arguments. They can oppose and question without being rude.

    I personally do not believe on Ehanol revolution. It disturbs eco-system. It is not natural. Side-effects will be huge and no one can challange natural phonemenon. Think of the world when every car in America is running on ethanol. It can’t go that far.

    Geeta – the Geeta Lover!

  16. Tashi Sherpa

    Judging by the initial comments alone – Ishwar, it looks like you are posting on a wrong forum.

    “Yestai Ho” – it will NOT take 100 years. Using the current trajectory of growth in energy demand, ethanol is a proposed solution for next couple of decades maximum. So if people cannot make ethanol work well before that, then it will never work.

    “fUELlOVER” and your “fuel of darkness”- You should think about marketing whatever you are smoking.

    “AmericanPropaganda” – I guess then Ishwar is an agent planted by Bush Administration to write on Everest Uncensored. You should go and take a dip in Tukucha. Or did the Bush Administration made that disappear too.

    “food and fuel” – I am sympathetic to your observation that usage of ethanol can raise food prices and affect poor people everywhere. But I do not see anything in this post that promotes “hi-fi” lifestyle. And I disagree with your negative conclusions.

    I do hope that you realize a lot of energy is needed for the world to run and for human beings to develop further. This post shows the current state of affairs in tackling growth in energy demand and tells us about a proven resource. I like Ishwar’s positive attitude.

    It will help poor countries like ours, if instead of “negatively” attacking the idea, we start to think about how we can use it to our benefit and the benefit of our beloved motherland Nepal.

  17. AmericanPropaganda

    This is all American propaganda to scare Arabs. There is huge OIL and GAS lobby in U.S. and they are making billions in current arrangment. Bush and his friends are part of this lobby. They are not going to let any creative ideas take any shape. If not was for this lobbying group, Anerica would be way ahead of Europe and Brazil in alternative energy. Ok guys be real and do not day dream. Where are you?

  18. mabi


    Great Article.

    I would like to add some negative aspects of Ethanol to the southern neighbor of the US i.e. Mexico.

    Grain based biofuel- Ethanol has caused the rise in corn price making culnary staple like tortilla and even pita bread in Mexico, out of reach to some of the poorest. Tortilla prices have tripled and quadruples in Mexico. They have corn related product as many as five -six servings as we Nepalese have भात and related products and this biofuel revolution may bring about changes in the culture of one the oldest civilization of Mayans.

    Here is a link to an article in Washington Post:

  19. fUELlOVER

    The days will not be far when Ethanol will be a byproduct like Plutonium 232 i.e. ethanol producing sth. that again is a fuel to a super engine. Even nuclear power run TRUCKS, JEEP,cars, bikes, aeros will not be far as nuclear powered ships have been a reality for long. Even if all plants vanish from earth, and all fuels eloped to vacuum, human brain has capability to produce such machines that run from input fuel of sand or darkness itself if sun were to disappear by too much usage!!!

  20. food and fuel

    thing is, to make the US less dependent on middle eastern oil, millions of poor peoples lives are going to be sacrificed. with starvation rife in the world, we are excited that americans can now drive with FUEL extracted from FOOD. i guess almost everyone who visits this blog is more concerened about their hi-fi lifestyles than with hunger.

  21. Yestai Ho

    It will take next 100 years before something like this take the front seat. We all will be dead by then. Go0d to be excited, but far from reality when it comes to replacing middle-east oil by ethanol.

    We will be better off thinking more about solar and hydro energy than Ethanol. Remember there is limited land in the world to produce Ethanol sources and production will be weather dependent.

    Yestai Ho

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