The US is currently the world's largest ethanol producer. An increasing percentage is used as transportation fuel, but debates continue on its costs competitiveness and energy balance. In this study, technological development of ethanol production and resulting cost reductions are investigated by using the experience curve approach, scrutinizing costs of dry grind ethanol production over the timeframe 1980–2005. Cost reductions are differentiated between feedstock (corn) production and industrial (ethanol) processing. Corn production costs in the US have declined by 62% over 30 years, down to 100$2005/tonne in 2005, while corn production volumes almost doubled since 1975. A progress ratio (PR) of 0.55 is calculated indicating a 45% cost decline over each doubling in cumulative production. Higher corn yields and increasing farm sizes are the most important drivers behind this cost decline. Industrial processing costs of ethanol have declined by 45% since 1983, to below 130$2005/m3 in 2005 (excluding costs for corn and capital), equivalent to a PR of 0.87. Total ethanol production costs (including capital and net corn costs) have declined approximately 60% from 800$2005/m3 in the early 1980s, to 300$2005/m3 in 2005. Higher ethanol yields, lower energy use and the replacement of beverage alcohol-based production technologies have mostly contributed to this substantial cost decline. In addition, the average size of dry grind ethanol plants increased by 235% since 1990. For the future it is estimated that solely due to technological learning, production costs of ethanol may decline 28–44%, though this excludes effects of the current rising corn and fossil fuel costs. It is also concluded that experience curves are a valuable tool to describe both past and potential future cost reductions in US corn-based ethanol production.

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W.G. Hettinga
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Author: 
W.G. Hettinga
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