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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Ethanol: Green Fuel of the Future?

Lately, there seems to be as much feverish hype around corn ethanol as there was around a certain other treasure that gleamed gold.  Praised as an alternative fuel that is renewable, clean, and domestic, ethanol is making strange bedfellows of environmentalists and industry.  Or is it?

If you look around, you might see some environmentalists dodging away, leaving only the familiar partnership of industry and government.  There are many reasons why those with the green of nature on their minds are getting out, while those with the green of money on their minds are staying in.

Back to Basics

Ethanol is an alcohol; in fact, it is the same alcohol found in your favorite wine cooler.  It’s used as a fuel or fuel additive, substituting for gasoline or MTBE.  Ethanol combusts more completely than gasoline does, resulting in fewer emissions, particularly of carbon monoxide.  No sea birds will be losing their insulation to an ethanol spill, for ethanol is easily water-soluble, non-toxic, and biodegradable.

However, ethanol contains only two-thirds the energy per unit volume that gasoline does – this means that any ethanol in the fuel mix will prove detrimental to fuel economy.  While engines designed to run on pure ethanol can compensate for that loss with higher compression ratios, those engines would be incompatible with gasoline.  Ethanol is usually mixed with gasoline not only because of limited supply and distribution, but also because it evaporates poorly at cold temperatures, rendering your car nigh unusable during Minnesota winters.

Ethanol-gasoline mixes are known as “gasohol,” and are characterized by the amount of ethanol in them.  For instance,Alt Fuel Sign gasohol that is 10% ethanol by volume is known as “E10”.  Because ethanol is corrosive to the metal and rubber in cars, manufacturers typically only warranty up to E10.  Higher proportions of ethanol call for engine modifications, though there are some brave (or reckless) enough to run their unmodified engines as high as E30.  For those of us averse to risk, there are flex-fuel vehicles, those cars specially designed to handle mixtures as high as E85 in the U.S. and E100 in Brazil.  The websites for the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Clean Air Choice campaign all provide lists of flex-fuel vehicles.

You probably fill up with E10 and don’t even know it.  40% of all gas stations in the U.S. sell E10, and some states and cities require it.  E85 gas stations, on the other hand, are few and far between – there are only 600 of them across the U.S., which has 168,000 gas stations in all.  The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition provides a map of those 600.

Ethanol is made by fermenting sugar (i.e., brewing) to produce alcohol, distilling and dehydrating to remove water, and denaturing to make it unfit for consumption (otherwise ethanol producers would be slapped with an alcoholic beverage tax).  The source of the sugar is known as the feedstock, which can be sugary (sugarcane), starchy (corn), or cellulosic (switchgrass).  Starchy and cellulosic feedstock must undergo additional processing to break down the starch or cellulose into sugar before fermentation.  Which feedstock is used and how that feedstock is grown matters a very great deal to the net environmental effects of ethanol as fuel.

Samba, Football, and Sugarcane

Brazil is known internationally not only for the samba and its football success, but also for its sugarcane ethanol.  Sugarcane is one of the best feedstocks for ethanol because it is easy to extract sugar for the fermentation process.  Sugarcane grows well in Brazil’s tropical climate, and Brazil produces more of it than any other country.  Moreover, Brazilian ethanol factories burn the waste material from processing, known as bagasse, efficiently and cleanly to provide enough electricity not only to power the factory, but also to sell to the grid.  In 2006, Brazil achieved energy independence through its sugarcane crop and oil resources.  Certain other countries might be turning green with envy at this point!

U.S. administrations that care more about national security than environmental security get to shoot two birds with one stone of mutual reciprocity: promoting a domestic source of energy and simultaneously scratching their donors’ backs.  Never mind that if Americans turned all corn production over to ethanol, they could only displace 15% of their annual gasoline consumption.

Brazil’s path to independence wasn’t easy; it’s a story of massive government subsidies creating a successful market.  In 1975, the Brazilian government instituted the National Program for Alcohol, known as Pró-Álcool, in response to the oil crisis of 1973.  Pró-Álcool funded low-interest loans to build ethanol distilleries, guaranteed the purchase of ethanol by the state-owned oil company, regulated the price of ethanol, and provided tax breaks for E100 vehicles.  Pró-Álcool also mandated the manufacture of cars that could run on pure ethanol, leading to the construction of a national distribution network.  Cheap gas prices and ethanol shortages caused a relapse in the 1990s, but the infrastructure had been built, and the private sector could pick up where the public sector left off.  Between an E23 mandate and the advent of flex-fuel vehicles, ethanol now displaces 40% of gasoline consumption in Brazil.

Alt FuelBrazil’s success story might be an inspiration (or a goad?) to the U.S., but there are important differences.  In Brazil, a centralized authority provided substantial government subsidies to birth the industry.  In the U.S., ethanol subsidies are widely scattered and lacking in direction.  Sugarcane is a far superior feedstock than corn, the dominant ethanol feedstock in the U.S.  Sugarcane returns 8 to 10 units of energy for every unit of energy invested in it, while corn returns only 1.3 (if it returns anything at all).  In other words, Brazil can produce more ethanol more cheaply on less land.  Moreover, the U.S. appetite for fuel dwarfs that of Brazil’s.  Naturally, feeding a person is easier when he eats less.  A lot less.

Go Yellow, Live Yellow

Corn is by far the most popular feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S.  Unfortunately it has, at best, dubious value as ethanol feedstock.  There’s been a lot of controversy over whether or not corn has a positive or negative energy balance – that is, whether or not you get more out of it than you put into it.  As the dust attempts to settle, an oft-quoted number is 1.3 – you get 30% more energy back than you put in.  But no matter what that number is, corn is a bad idea.

Conventional production of corn in the U.S. epitomizes environmentally destructive industrial agriculture.  It is characterized by monoculture cropping and an intensive use of many natural resources.  Fertilizer needs call for synthetic nitrogen, made from natural gas that disrupts the nitrogen cycle and whose runoff wipes out life in rivers, lakes, and oceans.  Pesticides pollute surface and groundwater, and annual ploughing results in soil erosion.  The intensive agricultural practices also demand more water as corn production moves to drier areas, resulting in aquifer depletion and other serious environmental degradation.  Even if the energy balance of corn were positive, it’s negligible and downright irrelevant in the face of corn production’s catastrophic effects on our planet’s ecology.

The problems don’t just stop at the production of corn (which is bad enough), but continue on to the food vs. fuel conflict.  Corn-as-food no longer means just corn on the cob.  The massive overproduction of corn in the U.S. has resulted in pervasive use of it throughout the industrial food system, from feed for beef, hog, poultry, egg, and dairy production, to sweetener for everything from soft drinks to cereal.  Increasing the price of corn increases the price of meat, milk, cereal, and other staples beyond the reach of many people’s budgets.

Does it make sense to burn in our cars what we, or the things we eat, could eat?  25 gallons of ethanol uses 600 pounds of grain, the global average annual per capita consumption of grain — the ethanol you drive through in one week could feed someone for one year.

If using corn is so bad, why does the U.S. keep doing it?  For the same reason high fructose corn syrup is the dominantCorn sweetener in soft drinks, and for the same reason that nearly anything happens: because somebody’s going to rake in a lot of money from it.  Big Corn is more than happy to sing their yellow tunes in venues other than food and feed, and they think their next big hit will be in fuel.  In return for lavish political donations, politicians give out magnanimous government subsidies to agribusiness (a pretty sweet way to make money, actually – get paid to spend money that’s not yours).  U.S. administrations that care more about national security than environmental security get to shoot two birds with one stone of mutual reciprocity: promoting a domestic source of energy and simultaneously scratching their donors’ backs.  Never mind that if Americans turned all corn production over to ethanol, they could only displace 15% of their annual gasoline consumption.

“Switchgrass,” says Bush

Cellulosic ethanol as an alternative feedstock is a much less repellent option than corn because its feedstock source can be almost any plant material, from waste to hay to switchgrass.  That means we can pick and choose feedstocks that make sense from an environmental, social, and economic standpoint – feedstocks that aren’t food, are low-impact, and don’t compete with food for nutrients or space.  The problem is that we haven’t solved the nitty-gritty of production process details yet.  Cellulose is harder to break down into sugar than starch, and we don’t have a cost-effective method right now.  We might be closer to a solution than we are with nuclear fusion power, but cellulosic ethanol isn’t yet commercially viable, and probably won’t be for another decade.  Even if we do resolve production issues and this alternative lives up to its promise, there’s only so much land for the production of the feedstocks, whatever they may be.

There’s no such thing as a yellow-hued (or green-hued) silver bullet — no alternative fuel plan is complete without conservation.  In order to produce enough ethanol in a reasonable way, we need to demand a reasonable amount., which means:

Increasing Fuel Economy

  • Increasing our individual fuel economy by driving less aggressively.
  • Maintaining our cars.
  • Buying smaller cars or hybrids and getting a mileage gauge.

Driving Less

  • Cutting back autos on the road by walking or biking more and sharing rides.
  • Making use of good, local public transportation systems.
  • Voting against sprawl.

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