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Published on June 21st, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Ethanol: The Good, the Bad, and the Eco

It wasn’t so long ago that researching and developing sources of alternative energy were considered “fringe issues” that preoccupied the minds and energy of only extreme environmentalists. Now, everyone is included in the search for a solution. Gasoline and its staggering cost are driving a U.S. recession, a world food crisis, and a warming planet; yet without it, life as we know it would come to a standstill.

The consequences of using fossil fuels as the lifeblood for our economy are becoming more apparent everyday, as the private and public sector alike scramble to find a substitute.
The development of most alternative fuels is still in its infancy. Some show promise in the long run, but are not immediately viable. Others, which can be brought to market immediately or in the near future, may ease our oil dependence only slightly or not at all. Let’s take a look at how various forms of ethanol shape up as viable options to fuel transportation…

Fields of Corn for Ethanol Fuel

Starch Based Ethanol (Corn, Sugarcane, Rapeseed, et al.)

The most publicized source of an alternative renewable energy is starch based ethanol, which is produced largely from corn. Many gas stations around the country already offer ethanol-gasoline blends at the pump—such as the widely marketed E85—and there are positives for using ethanol to fuel your car:

  • The infrastructure is already in place. Most modern automobile engines can run on a blend of gasoline and ethanol without problems and gas stations can make the switch with ease.
  • The price of ethanol at the pump is considerably less expensive than many other alternative fuels because the infrastructure is in place and the enzymes used to turn sugars into ethanol are very cheap.

Upon further examination, however, corn and other starch based ethanol turns out to be a poor substitute for fossil fuels. The U.S. government has poured huge subsidies into corn ethanol to the tune of about $1 billion per year. While this makes the price at the pump cheaper, the consumer is still charged in the form of tax dollars and higher food prices as the cost of corn rises. The price of commodities such as meat, milk, eggs, and cheese rises because most livestock are corn fed.

The world food crisis we see today is driven largely by high gas prices. On the other hand, it is aggravated by turning edible grain into ethanol. These consequences are especially harmful to the poor, who spend a greater percentage of their income on food. It is neither sensible nor cost effective to use prime food stocks and agricultural land for producing ethanol.

Furthermore, corn ethanol is energy inefficient and does little to negate global warming. The amount of energy it takes to produce a gallon of corn ethanol is roughly equivalent to the fuel’s energy output. The huge amount of fertilizer needed to grow corn contributes to this problem.

Corn ethanol does little, if anything, to mitigate global warming and our dependence on oil because the process is so energy intensive and fossil fuels are used in the conversion process. Fertilizer and pesticides used on the corn crop also have a tendency to flow into nearby waterways, turning them into “dead zones” where most life cannot survive.

Cellulosic Ethanol

Cellulosic ethanol
is one of the most promising sources of green, renewable energy. It is derived from fibrous plant matter, such as switch grass, woodchips, or corn husks. The key to its potential is low energy input

  • These crops can be grown with little fertilizer and on marginal land—even along the freeway. This leaves prime land for the production of food, little damage to the surrounding ecosystem, and a net reduction in greenhouse gasses.
  • In addition, agricultural waste that would normally be thrown away can be turned into fuel if the proper infrastructure is built.

While corn ethanol does nothing to help with the issue of climate change, switching from petroleum to cellulosic ethanol would amount to an 85 percent reduction in carbon emissions across the board. That means substantial shrinkage to our carbon footprint.

The U.S. government has handed billions of dollars in subsidies to agribusiness for the production of corn ethanol, yet has done comparatively little to jumpstart cellulosic ethanol. As a result, the enzymes required for its conversion to ethanol are expensive and there is little infrastructure in place. Consequently, the price at the pump is currently not competitive and consumers will not see it on the market for some time.

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