American farmers and ethanol producers are both the most productive and most efficient of any across the globe. As the Renewable Fuels Association pointed out last week , American farmers are producing twice as much corn on the virtually the same acres as a generation ago. The same kind of productivity and efficiency gains are being mirrored across domestic ethanol production as well.
In this week’s installment  of the RFA’s series on efficiency, RFA Vice President Geoff Cooper takes on the critics who contend that both farming and ethanol production is simply too energy-intensive. Critics of farmers, and by extension ethanol production, will immediately tell you that the tremendous growth in corn production is due to increased fertilizer use.
As is often the case, such critics are not using facts. Data from USDA show that 2010 application rates of the three common macronutrient fertilizers (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate) were the same--or below—the application rates seen in the early 1980s. Thus, nitrogen application per bushel of corn produced is down more than 30 percent since the early 1980s, while potassium and phosphate usage per bushel are down some 40 percent. Likewise, according to a landmark study by the Keystone Alliance (a group including both farm groups and environmental organizations, such as Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy) the amount of water, energy, and land required to produce a bushel of corn were substantially reduced between 1987 and 2007.
These same critics will also contend that the growing production of ethanol at the more than 200 biorefineries across the country is due to increased resource use as well. As with their “facts” about farming, such critics are not using 21st century data.
For example, the energy requirement (measured in British Thermal Units or BTUs) to produce a gallon of ethanol has fallen by 28 percent since 2001 to just under 26,000 BTUs. That compares to the 77,000 BTUs contained in a gallon of ethanol. Such improvements alone completely undermine and render dishonest claims that ethanol production uses more energy than it produces.
Similar reductions in electricity demand and water use have been even more impressive, with both falling 32 percent and 47 percent respectively.
“As the data clearly demonstrate, America’s ethanol producers are mirroring the efficiency gains of the American farmers upon whom they rely for feedstock,” said Cooper. “As existing processes evolve and new production technologies emerge, ethanol production in the U.S. will not only increase in volume, but also in efficiency. Without a doubt, today’s ethanol industry is high-tech and increasingly energy efficient.”