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Ethanol: What They Aren’t Telling You

Most information on Ethanol presents the corn-based fuel as a panacea for the worlds pollution woes, a green-jobs creator, and a needed boost to American farmers.  Digging into these claims brings some interesting data points to the surface.

The American Coalition for Ethanol touts ethanol as:

..a high octane, clean burning, American-made renewable fuel. Its production and use offer a myriad of benefits to the United States and its citizens.
The production of ethanol is an economic engine for the United States, adding value to U.S. agricultural products and bringing billions of dollars to the nation’s economy each year. The use of ethanol reduces harmful auto emissions, offers consumers a cost-effective choice at the pump, and decreases the amount of expensive crude oil needed to satisfy the nation’s thirst for transportation fuel.

Wow, sounds great doesn’t it, like the energy holy grail, until you dig into ethanol itself.  Examining the ethanol production process is somewhat revealing.

The number one crop used for Ethanol is corn. Uh-oh- now we have to divert corn to become our new Gasoline, but is there enough Corn?

The USDA Economic Research Service about corn:

  • Corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, accounting for more than 90 percent of total value and production of feed grains.
  • Around 80 million acres of land are planted to corn, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region.
  • Most of the crop is used as the main energy ingredient in livestock feed.
  • Corn is also processed into a multitude of food and industrial products including starch, sweeteners, corn oil, beverage and industrial alcohol, and fuel ethanol.
  • The United States is a major player in the world corn trade market, with approximately 20 percent of the corn crop exported to other countries.
  • ERS analyzes events in the domestic and global corn markets that influence supply, demand, trade, and prices.

That means that all of our corn is already in high demand in everything from Aspirin, to cereals, to livestock feed. If Ethanol replaced motor vehicle fuel, the principles of supply and demand would force almost all corn produced to be diverted to Ethanol production. This would skyrocket the price of all corn-dependent products including livestock fed from corn unless they find an alternative.

According to the Cato Institute in a January 2008 report titled “Food Fight” Ethanol has already had an affect on our economy.

The ethanol boom has knock-on effects in the rest of the rural economy. The growing use of cereals, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oils to produce ethanol and biodiesel is supporting crop prices and, indirectly through higher animal feed costs, raising costs for livestock production. As Table 1 shows, the prices for poultry, beef, and eggs have all increased by more than 5 percent this year. (Pork prices have risen relatively slowly because production has been very high compared to demand, although producers are expected to lower production during 2008 because of losses from low prices and higher feedcosts.[12]) Farmland prices in key corn-growing states such as Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota have increased by more than 20 percent in the last year.

So thats the economic impact, Choose between corn-dependent products or driving – you can’t afford to do both.

According to Elsa Steward in her article “What’s Wrong with Ethanol?” She points out that Ethanol by itself is not cost effective.

Ethanol is not likely to give us any relief from high gasoline prices. A gallon of gasoline produces about 1.5 times more energy as a gallon of ethanol. Because of this lower energy density, ethanol production and transport requires more production and transport capacity than gasoline. Ethanol also absorbs water, which is present in existing pipelines. Ethanol cannot be transported in these pipelines because the water would dilute the ethanol. The ethanol must therefore be carried over land by train or truck, a more expensive means of moving the ethanol from one place to another. Although the price of motor fuel sometimes increases due to problems with foreign and domestic oil supplies, the price of ethanol has historically been higher than gasoline prices and may remain higher for some time to come.

The Department of Energy’s Genomic Science Program

  • Can one gallon of ethanol displace one gallon of gasoline?
    • No. Ethanol has about 70% the energy content of gasoline per unit volume, so for every gallon of gasoline consumed, 1.4 gallons of ethanol would be needed to displace it. Ethanol, however, has a higher octane rating than gasoline — about 113 for ethanol compared to 87 for regular gasoline. The higher the octane rating, the better a fuel is at preventing engine “knocking” caused by inefficient fuel combustion. In other words, the higher-octane fuel provides better performance because it is used more efficiently to generate power rather than heat. If engines were optimized to take advantage of the higher octane rating of ethanol, they could achieve fuel economy more similar to that of gasoline engines.
  • Can ethanol be used by existing fuel-distribution infrastructure?
    • Ethanol and gasoline-ethanol blends cannot be transported by existing pipelines that carry gasoline. Water present in petroleum pipelines can pull ethanol out and cause ethanol-gasoline blends to separate into two phases. Ethanol must be transported by train, barge, or truck within an independent distribution system to ensure handling separate from the ethanol-production facility to distribution terminals, where ethanol is blended with gasoline just before delivery to retail stations.
  • Can ethanol be used in colder northern U.S. climates?
    • Due to ethanol’s lower vapor pressure, engine ignition is more difficult in colder weather for vehicles running on fuels with high ethanol content. During winter months, gasoline is added to E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline blend) to make E70 (70% ethanol and 30% gasoline), which has a vapor pressure that improves starting in cold weather. Although current practice is to “blend-down” E85, the cold-start issue is a technologically solvable engineering problem for vehicle manufacturers.

I can’t afford a bowl of cereal, probably can’t afford to get very far in my car, if I’m up north, I can’t drive in the winter and ethanol has to be trucked in which means it burns more ethanol to get ethanol. But wait theres more. If you act now on this “Clean-Burning” fuel we will include free pollution with every purchase.

Oh gee did we leave that part out? So sorry, ethanol is not “clean burning” nor is the process to make it.

From Gas2.0

The Des Moines Register reported the other day that Iowa’s ethanol plants contribute 15 Percent — 7.6 million metric tons out of a total of 52 million metric tons — of greenhouse-gas emissions found in the state’s new inventory of major manufacturers, businesses and power plants
Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources found that the largest portion of the state’s overall emissions came from fermenting grain at the plants and not from burning natural gas or coal. In addition, burning biomass such as switchgrass at various industrial plants added another 0.13 million metric tons.

Uh-oh Ethanol production produces more greenhouse gas than coal plants, not very clean is it. Imagine the effect Cap & Trade would have on this industry. Lets just say you’ll be better off with a bicycle.

But I digress, lets look at the burning of Ethanol itself.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) fought against the EPA granting Ethanol a Clean Air Act waiver for an increase from the 10% Ethanol Gasoline to increase from 15% to 50% (Note now its 10% Ethanol and 85% Ethanol) in May of 2009 due to, among other reasons, Ethanol production’s propensity to “degrade water quality, worsen emissions of some air pollutants and escalate health risks for children and other vulnerable people, according to scientific studies by the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, National Research Council, independent academic researchers and EPA scientists”

An environmental watchdog group is telling us that increasing the amount of ethanol used will increase air pollution and lead to health risks based on Government studies, and yet its that same Government trying to force it upon us.

In short, widespread use of ethanol only creates more problems than it is supposed to solve. IIt is not the holy grail of green energy, if anything its more pollutive than standard fossil fuel use.

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Comments (4)

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  1. doug says:

    You are absolutely right. Ethanol is only presented as a green fuel source by a few wealthy and powerful corporate entities, similar to the push for natural gas right now. Our tax $$ are used right now to subsidize this expensive, dirty, and inefficient product, and these subsidies to industrial agriculture should be ended today.

  2. justmeint says:

    Imagine a world where there is no reliance on dirty fuel! Imagine a world where energy is affordable and clean. Imagine a world where a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Gusher will never happen again – guaranteed! There are many things we can imagine….

    I leave it to your own imagination.

    What can you do right now?

    You can learn as much as you can about these new innovations and technologies. You can start asking pertinent questions of your governments and authorities. You can find out why this information has been withheld from you personally, and the world as a whole. You can push for openness and transparency, and see to it that starting immediately – research takes place to develop these sources of future energy supplies.
    http://just-me-in-t.blogspot.com/

    • 4TimesAYear says:

      @justmeint – Maybe you should start asking what our forests would look like if we hadn’t turned to oil and coal. You seem to have totally ignored the part of the article that showed how ethanol plants produce more pollution than coal and natural gas plants do? Ah, but that would be an inconvenient truth….