Husky Business: EthanolJosh Lee, Tuesday December 5th, 2006
"Live green, go yellow." totes the new GM slogan about ethanol -- fuel made from corn and other biomass. Oil companies and auto manufacturers, backed by the Bush administration, have pointed to Ethanol as the solution to our nation's energy woes. By 2010 over two million "flex fuel" vehicles (FFV's), able to run on either ethanol or regular fuel, will be on the market thanks to government support. But what is the result of the Bush administration's support for ethanol?
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Nothing. Essentially they are pointing to ethanol whenever accused of being anti-environment. "But we support ethanol to get America off of foreign oil!" It is an easy scapegoat. Car manufacturers love making FFVs because they are allowed to actually LIE about the mileage per gallon since the vehicle could conceivably be run on ethanol. For example, the flex fuel version of the Tahoe gets 14mpg on gasoline, 10 mpg on ethanol, and it is advertised at a whopping 30 mpg (National Highway Traffic Saftey Administration). So while ethanol is actually much cleaner burning than regular gasoline, support for it has actually increased the amount of harmful pollutants being pumped into our atmosphere. Cars are allowed to become increasingly inefficient on the premise that a user could choose to use clean fuel, but the fuel isn't even available!
To power our nations vehicles on ethanol, over 98% of the nation's surface would need to grow corn (Cornell). Never mind the fact that not all of that land is arable, would it really be wise to clear-cut almost our entire nation? Proponents of ethanol point to Brazil, where nearly all vehicles are run on ethanol made from locally grown sugar cane. This isn't a viable option for the much more densely populated U.S.
Some of you may now be piping up saying "But Josh, ethanol is cheaper than petroleum!". This is mostly a hoax. Ethanol is cheaper to the consumer due to heavy government subsidization, but why do you think the processing plants are burning petroleum instead of their own ethanol? Because they can't afford ethanol; It's too expensive! Even at a discount of fifty cents per gallon, the inefficiency of ethanol and flex fuel vehicles counters out any potential savings. According to a Consumer Report, the effective cost of E85 (85% Ethanol, 15% Gasoline) was $3.99 per gallon in August (when regular gas was $3.00 per gallon).
Earlier I have mentioned several times that ethanol is inefficient. This is true not only while it is burning in your vehicle, but also while it was being distilled. According to Cornell University, it requires 131,000 BTU to process an acre of corn into 328 gallons of ethanol, which would yield 77,000 BTU, a net loss of 54,000 BTU. A report from the US Department of Agriculture found just the opposite to be true, stating that ethanol yielded 125% of the energy required to make it. Because we can't grow enough corn ourselves, and we're possibly even losing energy by converting it into fuel, ethanol cannot be said to relieve our dependence on foreign oil.
Many companies are currently researching cellulose ethanol, which can be produced from waste products such as corn husks and switch grass. It is much more expensive than regular ethanol, but could be a viable alternative for large farm machinery and other industrial applications. It's not going to get you to work every day though, as there simply isn't enough volume.
Ethanol is the solution. It's the solution to world hunger and mass starvation, the rich getting richer, H4 Hummers that stall just before you get to work because they get 8 gallons per mile (not miles per gallon), and solving the dependence on foreign oil by claiming the foreign oil in a series of "holy crusades" against the middle east.