- 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.