Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions: AP Report

A recent Associated Press article, republished in Wired magazine, Salon Magazine, and other popular internet sites, confronts some of the issues with using Ethanol. This, in the wake of Bush’s unwelcome visit to Brazil, making deals with the Brazilian government for importing sugar cane ethanol. The article is straightforward and honest, raising questions to the feasibility and efficiency of this biofuel political and economic scheme. Now I’m all for biofuels, but ethanol has already become riddled with corporate and lobbying interest and is being touted as a far better solution than it really is.
The article covers a great deal of the problems with using corn-based ethanol, as is being pushed politically in the U.S.. To break it down: The U.S. Government is encouraging the use of certain biofuels, especially ethanol made from U.S. grown corn, with a goal of 20% biofuel use by 2020. Production on this scale using present technology would take an estimated 100 million, or 12.5%, of the 800 million acres of farmland in the U.S. and supposedly is a realistic goal in some politician’s eyes.
A few issues:
1. Ethanol takes on water and is difficult to transport and store, requiring retrofitting to infrastructure and vehicles to use it.
2. Corn-based ethanol is extraordinarily inefficient to produce – it takes 3 gallons of petrol or biofuel to make 4 gallons of corn ethanol, a 1:1.3 ratio! By comparison, biodiesel is more on the order of 1:8, and sugar cane ethanol is 1:15!
3. Ethanol is approximately 10% less efficient than gasoline, meaning that we would be using 8.5% more E85 to go the same distance. This brings overall production efficiency down even further, to around 1.22 gallons of ethanol produced for every 1 gallon of fuel used!
4. Corn requires a large amount of water, chemical and petroleum-based fertilizers, as well as toxic pesticides to grow. More of these harmful substances will be used and will run off into streams, rivers, and water sources.
5. By losing 12.5% of American farmland, other produce and crops will increase in price, affecting millions of people and potentially leading to food shortages around the world. With the beginning of the ethanol boom in the U.S., tortilla prices in Mexico have already risen by 60%!
6. Cellulosic ethanol, that is, ethanol made from plants like switchgrass and straw rather than food crops, yields 3-4 times more fuel for the same input, but is more expensive.
7. The corn-growers and the American auto industry have a significant vested interest in making ethanol work. Growers stand to profit significant subsidies (misplaced though they may be). Auto makers are able to meet new fleet efficiency standards by making enormous, overpowered SUVs that are “flexfuel” and able to run on ethanol even though it isn’t even available in most areas.

There are many more problems with our current push towards corn-based ethanol. All of the promise and hooplah around CO2 offsets, CO2 sequestration, so-called “clean coal”, and even some of the biofuel and alternative energy technologies is being misrepresented and already corrupted by corporate involvement and political powerplays. CO2 offsets are simply a money-making trading scheme that may help somewhat, but money is often mismanaged and projects to fulfill the credits are poorly planned and lead to other environmental problems. CO2 sequestration is expensive, untested, and yet another temporizing method. “Clean coal” is an oxymoron but is being promoted in congress by coal miner’s union lobbyists and energy companies and is simply an excuse to build more relatively dirty power plants (albiet somewhat cleaner than traditional coal). Current ethanol policy is allowing automakers to “greenwash” their production of biofuel and gas-guzzling SUVs and promoting the least efficient biofuel technology that we have available. All of these misguided policies are actively being misguided by special interest groups and corporate interest groups that stand to make significant profits, rather than being guided by proper research, development, and use of technologies that will benefit us all.
What few seem to realize is that every single energy technology that we produce, is still much more resource intensive than the simple act of conservation. I propose that we as a country can decrease our fossil fuel use within the next 5 years by at least 25% simply by personal and community conservation and a transition to currently viable technologies such as solar, wind, and highly efficient building techniques. This requires an active participation by every American and a conscious effort to use, consume, and waste less. We use 8 TIMES as many resources per person than any other country in the industrialized world and by curbing our appetite, we will decrease our impact far more quickly and inexpensively than by falsely promoting poor technology as the U.S. is doing now.
Despite this, research into biofuel production is absolutely necessary as we grow closer to peak oil production and resources become more strained. Last summer, researchers in Minnesota found that biodiesel made from wildflowers and naturally growing field grass without irrigation or chemicals could yield a 15:1 ratio of production to input! Advances have been made in algae-based biodiesel and our incredible scientific knowledge can put transgenic technologies into growing highly efficient crops for biofuels rather than utilizing sorely needed food crops. There is much work to be done, but rather than relying on nascient or burdgeoning technologies, we can start our conservation now, individually, in our own homes and businesses.

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2 Responses to “Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions: AP Report”

  1. […] was the last time you saw E85 at the pump in most of America?  This in addition to the fact that corn ethanol is THE WORST BIOFUEL available!  For every 1 gallon of fuel you put into the process you only get about 1.3 gallons of fuel out. […]

  2. […] provides up to 20% less energy than petrol, ethanol efficiency drops into negative numbers. (previous seep post) If the numbers for corn-based ethanol are so bad, why are we subsidizing this horrific waste of […]

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