Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The 2.78% Solution

There's a terrific article in July's Car and Driver magazine titled Ethanol Promises. For the most part, this has been a one-sided argument where ethanol sounds like the holy grail of alternative fuel. I must admit, ethanol sounds very compelling as a fuel source. It's made from corn or soy. What better place in the whole world is there for growing acres upon acres of corn than in the huge corn and wheat belt of the United States (Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, etc) ? It sure sounds better than importing smelly, pollution-causing oil from the world's trouble spots (and they are trouble spots mostly because of oil). Before we Americans get too convinced that ethanol is the salvation of all our transportation fuel issues, let's look at these "promises" of ethanol. (From Car and Driver)
  • Ethanol will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.
  • Ethanol will cut out dependence on foreign oil.
  • Ethanol will protect us from gas price shocks.
  • Ethanol will clean up the air.
  • Ethanol will save us from global warming.

Ethanol will reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.

This is very unlikely. First of all, the government is currently mandating that gasoline sold in the United States is to comprise of 2.78% ethanol. It's not to hard to figure out that our expanding car-driving population is consuming more gasoline every year, even in this age of hybrids and the return of the small econo-car (Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit are the primary examples), and $3 plus gas prices, Americans are going to burn 5 to 10% more gasoline this year than last. Very simple math tells us that the 2.78% is not going to cover this increase. What's more is that it takes fossil fuels (mainly coal or natural gas) in order to produce ethanol. More on that further on.

Ethanol will cut out dependence on foreign oil.

The same arguments generally apply here. Car and Driver even states that if we devoted all our production of ethanol to replace foreign oil, we would reduce foreign oil imports by a mere 1.4%. That's assuming, of course, that our demand for energy stays the same, which is not happening. I know, I know, you're asking by now; "Why not produce a lot more ethanol, then?" Read further, I'll get to that.

Ethanol will protect us from gas price shocks.

The arguments shown above indicate why this is very unlikely to be true. Ethanol isn't that cheap to make. In fact, it is only because gasoline has gotten to the $3 mark that justifies even using ethanol.

Ethanol will clean up the air.

Nope. With ethanol, you're substituting one pollutant for another. Ethanol produces less carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide than gasoline. However ethanol produces a relatively large amount of acetaldehydes that quite harmful to the environment. Don't forget that coal and/or natural gas are required to make ethanol and they are capable of contributing plenty of CO (carbon monoxide) and other nasty stuff to the air.

Ethanol will save us from global warming.

Assuming that human-produced emissions really are significantly warming the planet (this is a highly contestable assertion that I will discuss another time), ethanol's carbon dioxide output is only about 4% less than gasoline's. If we assume that your gas tank is 3% ethanol, that means your car is outputting 4 percent of 3 percent which equals .12 percent less carbon dioxide. That's hardly a big deal.

What Car and Driver Didn't Say

Anyone who has ever studied thermodynamics knows the first rule of energy. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred. Your car, for example, cannot generate enough electricity to run itself and it never will. It's totally impossible. This basic rule is why fossil fuels have such appeal. The amount of energy needed to extract and refine fossil fuels is minimal compared with the amount of energy yielded by the fuel. That's because the energy was already there, having been absorbed over millions of years of just sitting there. The problem with ethanol and most other alternative energy sources is we must use significant amounts of energy to get the energy we want.

Ethanol comes from corn. To make corn requires fertilizing soil. Let's think about that one for a minute. Fertilizer comes from manure. There is already a pollution issue in the nation's heartland from all the cows and pigs. When you concentrate these animals, as we have, you get a major source of methane and carbon dioxide, not to mention one hell of a stink. This has been a rising issue in the nation's corn production before ethanol came into the picture.

Ethanol doesn't just squeeze out of the corn. It has to be processed. This is similar to refining oil and here is where we need ovens powered by oil, natural gas, or coal. Wait! you say. Why not use ethanol-powered ovens? If you are thinking this, you've forgotten the first rule of thermodynamics shown above.

Ethanol is not as energy efficient as gasoline. You can expect a small mpg hit when using fuel that is laced with ethanol.

I have to wonder how big an incentive it will be for farmers to start producing corn for ethanol production. I suspect we will see a rise in food prices that will offset any savings (if any) we would get from ethanol.

So who benefits from increased use of ethanol? It appears to be the farmers and the politicians being lobbied. It's not likely to be most of us.


Robert E Wilson said...

I found another article here. It's another person's opinion that ethanol will raise our fuel costs.

Erik said...

YOu take the train to work I take the busway and Subway as often as I can. Until gas prices come down (which will not be for awhile and never to what they were under Bill Clinton) that's the best way.

Erik said...

As far as alternative fuels that will not happen in our lifetime and maybe the next. I don't see any politition, democrat or republican, wanting to lose the donations from the oil and automotive industry.

Robert E Wilson said...

If you are waiting for fuel prices of any kind to lower. It is almost certainly not going to happen. Every single alternative fuel costs more than gasoline. It is only because gasoline is going to get to $4 or $5 per gallon that we are even considering alternatives.

So, if you want cheap, you are in favor of sticking with gas.

Erik said...

As I said even if the prices of gas do drop they will never be to sane levels.

Whatever happened to the electric car anyway?

Robert E Wilson said...

Electric cars run on oil. In case you forgot (and many seem to have), we get electricity from oil. The other problem with electric cars (this includes hybrids too), is that the batteries are loaded with toxic chemicals. The pollution in the air that we aren't getting from those vehicles will be going into our ground and water. Don't be fooled by the hype, hybrids and electric cars pollute just as much as gasoline-powered vehicles.