Ethanol: the fix that probably isn’t

It seems to make sense. Create ethanol from crops, then you have a renewable, cheaper substitute for gasoline. But maybe not. According to some scientists, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than you get from burning it. Also, the process of creating ethanol often uses fossil fuels, including petroleum-based fertilizer.

Well then, grow it organically, right? Hmmm. I’m guessing that to feed the gasoline jones of the world with ethanol, huge areas would have cleared so ethanol crops could be grown. The whole thing seems unworkable. If it’s not an energy drain, and if non-petroleum products could be used in producing it, and if clearing or converting vast tracts of land to grow corn (the primary ethanol crop) can be done without impacting other agriculture, and if…

Other researchers say ethanol can be produced net energy positive by using different methods. But that still doesn’t address the mega-agriculture that would be needed to create enough of it to be used on a mass scale.

All of which demonstrates how serious our energy problems are and how real, lasting solutions are hard to find.

Meanwhile, self-serve regular at nearby gas stations is $2.35-2,45 a gallon.

  • Bill Perry

    David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

    The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser.

    Ethanol poses other serious difficulties for our energy economy. First, 8 billion gallons of ethanol will do almost nothing to reduce our oil imports. Eight billion gallons may sound like a lot, until you realize that America burned more than 134 billion gallons of gasoline last year. By 2012, those 8 billion gallons might reduce America’s overall oil consumption by 0.5 percent. Way back in 1997, the General Accounting Office concluded that “ethanol’s potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security.” That’s still true today.

    There’s another problem: Ethanol, when mixed with gasoline, causes the mixture to evaporate very quickly. That forces refiners to dramatically alter their gasoline to compensate for the ethanol. (Throughout the year, refiners adjust the vapor pressure of their fuel to compensate for the change in air temperature. In summer, you want gasoline to evaporate slowly. In winter, you want it to evaporate quickly.) In a report released last month, the GAO underscored the evaporative problems posed by ethanol, saying that compensating for ethanol forces refiners to remove certain liquids from their gasoline: “Removing these components and reprocessing them or diverting them to other products increases the cost of making ethanol-blended gasoline.”

    There’s a final point to be raised about ethanol: It contains only about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. Thus, when it gets blended with regular gasoline, it lowers the heat content of the fuel. So, while a gallon of ethanol-blended gas may cost the same as regular gasoline, it won’t take you as far.

  • I recently read where the actual cost of ethanol is around 100-200 a year more than gasoline. That sounds close enough, don’t you think?

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