Blog from Jane Marsh: The Role of Ethanol in Renewable Fuels

Most people in the U.S. who drive a car use ethanol daily — a popular biofuel that has been in use in petroleum gasoline for decades. What role does it play in the future of energy as the U.S. pursues renewable energy technologies? Ethanol may be cleaner than fossil fuels, but new types of sustainable power could be better for the planet.

Why Is Ethanol a Renewable Fuel?

While ethanol may be in non-renewable gasoline, it is a renewable fuel source. Ethanol is made from biomass. Starch found in corn grain is the most common source, but other types of biomass can also produce ethanol. At the most basic level, ethanol is a renewable fuel simply because more of it can readily be made using inexhaustible natural resources.

Does this make ethanol a sustainable fuel source? Possibly. Ethanol is certainly more sustainable and less environmentally harmful than fossil fuels. However, ethanol’s environmental impact varies based on how it is produced. Studies have found corn ethanol produces the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions out of the most common sources of ethanol. The emissions impact of ethanol production has gone down over the years, though, thanks to innovations in agriculture and technology.

It is also worth remembering sustainability is not the only reason for using or investing in renewable fuels. Ethanol and other renewable fuels are helping the U.S. become energy independent by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels. This benefits the environment, helps keep fuel costs low and creates jobs in America.

How Ethanol Compares to Other Renewable Fuels

Ethanol is certainly a step up from fossil fuels. Transitioning away from them is critical for several reasons, including reducing evaporation rates and surface pollution, as well as fighting climate change. While ethanol is better for the environment than fossil fuels, it does have a few disadvantages.

The main advantage of ethanol is its wide availability. Since it has already been in use for decades, ethanol is produced all over the country. Ethanol companies have their production and refinery processes streamlined and production is only getting more efficient year after year. Ethanol is arguably the renewable fuel people have the most knowledge of and experience with.

Biodiesel is another type of renewable biofuel. As the name suggests, it is intended to replace conventional fossil fuel diesel. While biodiesel can be made from several biological materials, like vegetable oil or animal fats, it is often made from soybeans. While this might sound better for the environment than fossil fuels, there are some critical drawbacks.

For example, the production of biodiesel results in net energy loss since it requires more energy — often powered by fossil fuels — to create than the energy biodiesel generates. Additionally, growing soybeans for biodiesel is land and resource intensive, often resulting in the destruction of forests and high amounts of GHG emissions.

Other sources of biodiesel such as algae or palm oil are far more energy efficient, but soybeans remain the most popular source. If this changed, biodiesel would be a much more environmentally friendly renewable fuel.

Recent innovations in renewable fuel technology are bringing new fuels to the forefront, specifically hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen has become especially popular in electrifying large vehicles like tractor trailers. Hydrogen fuel cells have a few advantages over ethanol and other biofuels. For example, hydrogen produces no greenhouse gas emissions, only water vapor and heat.

Fuel cells can power vehicles as well as buildings. In cars specifically, hydrogen fuel cells allow automakers and consumers to leave combustion engines behind without sacrificing convenience. While batteries take hours to charge, hydrogen fuel cells can quickly refill with liquid hydrogen, like a stop at a fossil fuel gas station. Plus, hydrogen fuel cells are easier to scale for larger vehicles than batteries and do not rely on the environmentally harmful cobalt or lithium industries.

The main drawback of hydrogen fuel cells is the need for more infrastructure to produce them today. Ethanol benefits from having a mature supply chain. In contrast, hydrogen fuel is still a relatively young technology, but this will hopefully change in the years ahead.

Powering a Renewable Future

Transitioning the world to renewable energy is complicated, but it is not impossible. Every renewable fuel helps, including ethanol. While ethanol may not be the most environmentally friendly renewable fuel to produce, it can help make the U.S. energy independent and is less harmful than fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel cells could provide a long-term solution, but more development is necessary for hydrogen to become a mainstream fuel source.

About the author: Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of

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