Undercurrents: beneath the obvious

January 3, 2007

Ethanol — Is It Worth It?

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 10:18 pm

I just keep running across these kinds of articles — this time from Chemical & Engineering News:

… corn has many other negative environmental impacts: It erodes more soil, uses more nitrogen fertilizer, and uses more water than any other crop. “Corn is the prime cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the size of New Jersey,” he says, referring to an area off the coast of Louisiana that is depleted of oxygen due to high levels of nutrient-rich agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River. “These are serious problems,” he says.

Then there’s this part:

Meanwhile, today’s fuel-use patterns could be overhauled through vehicle efficiency. A 3% increase in efficiency would displace more gasoline than was saved through last year’s record ethanol production. The current vehicle efficiency standard was set in the 1970s and was required to be met in 1985, more than 20 years ago. In the future, a drive for better efficiency could force ethanol to compete with electric cars and fuel cells, as well as gasoline.

It bears repeating — a 3% increase in vehicle efficiency would solve many problems.

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  1. How about a 1000% increase in vehicle efficiency?

    Plug-in hybrids (100+MPGG) could provide us with such an option if they run on E85 (85% ethanol blend with 15% gasoline) yielding the equivalent of 500+MPGG where MPGG is miles-per-gallon-of-gasoline.

    None of this ethanol needs to be dependent on corn for feedstock – ag, forestry, or urban waste could be the ultimate feedstock for waste-to-ethanol emerging technologies.

    Check out James Woolsey’s commentary at http://biooutput.blogspot.com/2006/12/tale-of-two-auto-shows.html.

    Comment by CSMiller — January 5, 2007 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  2. Unfortunately the hype is all about corn.

    See here:

    Four ethanol plants have broken ground in Michigan since 2003, quadrupling the state’s production of corn-based fuel, according to state officials. The state also has joined with General Motors, Meijer, and CleanFUEL USA to make ethanol available at more gas stations.

    In a July press release, Gov. Jennifer Granholm called the construction of more ethanol refineries and availability of the alternative fuel at more gas stations “important steps to fulfilling Michigan’s next great destiny — making our state and our nation independent of foreign oil.”

    I’m all for more attention to fuel economy but that’s not were the politics are. Instead we continue to talk about corn / ethanol and are using tax subsidies to hide the true costs.

    Comment by nemo — January 5, 2007 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  3. I’ll echo the sentiments of CS, especially about ag/forestry waste. Particular to the Great Lakes, I just posted a guest column at the Great Lakes Town Hall ( http://tinyurl.com/tqffv ) that makes the case that activists, not just in the Great Lakes basin, but everywhere that ethanol isn’t right now, need to be informed and involved because ethanol will be coming to their area in the near future. My feeling is that it will be too much for the struggling timber industry to resist, and residents best be prepared. When cellulosic ethanol arrives, we have to make sure it is done right.

    A 3% increase would solve a lot of problems, but consumers don’t have much control. We didn’t choose ethanol as our alternative fuel, it arose as an industry. But cellulosic ethanol strikes me differently. It is entirely possible that we could rebuild the prairies of Southern Minnesota, build wetland “farms” and provide habitat, while also creating carbon-neutral fuel. A few of the details are provided in the post mentioned above, and I’ve went off on this a few times on my blog as well. There is a lot of potential, but there is no magic bullet.

    Comment by tom — January 6, 2007 @ 9:48 am | Reply

  4. Tom, the issue is this — everyone is looking to ethanol as a means to reduce our reliance on foreign oil but, at our current consumption rates, ethanol will simply be an add on. We must address consumption.

    Politics has already stepped in and proposed corn based ethanol as the magic bullet.

    Cellulosic ethanol may be different but it seems to me there’s too much infrastructure investment needed to make it a viable choice. My own opinion is that animal fat will be the next fad source of fuel.

    Tyson Foods announced in November that it had established a renewable-energy division that will be up and running this year. Perdue Farms and Smithfield Foods are making similar moves.

    btw, I’m a regular reader of your Sky Blue Waters blog and have included a link to it on my blogroll list.

    Comment by nemo — January 6, 2007 @ 10:41 am | Reply

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