(The following post was written by a friend of mine. You will never hear me defend corn ethanol as an intelligent energy source in North America.)
At a point where almost everyone has jumped off the ethanol bandwagon of the early 2000’s, I find myself debating the issue more and more, with an increasingly diverse crowd.After last night’s chat with an elderly lady at the bar about tea party politics and ethanol, I figured it was time to post my defense of ethanol.
Biofuels reached the spotlight in the late ‘90’s when a combination of rising gas prices, political climate, climate change, and farming surpluses abounded.Alcohol powered vehicles were theorized to only require minor modification to vehicles, and thus, a subsidy program was emplaced that mixed all the factors together for form the ethanol program, much like the combination of grain, water and yeast have been making alcohol for thousands of years.
By 2007 America was making 7 billion gallons of ethanol a year, much of which going to standard (and subsidized) E-10 gasohol.Brazil was nearly energy independent from a combination of energy sources (including a large portfolio of alcohol) by this time.… and skepticism in the U.S. was growing.An economic downturn was hitting, and prices were rising on food and gas.
Negative argument 1.) Ethanol raises food prices and didn’t do its job lowering gas prices.
Refute:America is the world’s breadbasket.In fact, the world’s population is completely dependent on American food exports.Additionally, prior to ethanol, some practices were encouraged such as burning of crops or leasing land NOT to farm in efforts to keep food crop prices artificially high so that farmers could survive.Ethanol was (and continues to be) a beneficial use of these surplus/waste crops to solve a different problem.
E10, straight up, replaced much of the country’s oil demand by 10% without huge infrastructure installations, automotive modification, or environmental exposés.Nothing else has been able to do that.Much of the infrastructure to handle ethanol was already in place and/or was generated more locally than gasoline, so the distribution system was easy.This paved the way for E-85, which, despite its problems (and 15% gasoline) is as close to a mass marketed alternative fuel vehicle that there is.
I admit, ethanol was, and still is subsidized, so I don’t really know how much it has done to lower gas prices, as the price drop is artificial.I’ll save my argument on this fact for a later point.
So, as skepticism started to grow, people started to research the fuel, and didn’t like what they saw.People saw complaints of car problems caused by alcohol’s higher burning temperature, the potential to dry and crack rubber and plastic seals, and that alcohol’s lower energy density than gas that would lead to lower gas mileage than non-ethanolated gas.Add to this list the affinity of alcohol for picking up water, and ethanol plants continuing to pop up across America’s backyard, and people started voicing out against the system.Carbon sequestration became less of an issue, and even the hippies started voicing out that ethanol isn’t as clean as it was lead on.
Negative argument 2:Ethanol can cause damage to your vehicle, and the lower energy density and/or water content decreases the fuel economy, making ethanol an inefficient fuel.(A parlor trick, not a miracle)
Refute:People have very short memories.Do people remember Heet?There are products out there that you used to have to add to your fuel system to prevent or stop ice from building up in your fuel system (also used to de-gel diesel systems).In the winter, people were advised to keep at least half a tank at all times because warming and cooling naturally causes condensation in your gas tank.This ice/water could cause ice buildup, rust, and fuel line stoppage, which are all bad news.What’s in Heet?It’s like… 100% alcohol.The same reason that alcohol picks up water is the same process that REMOVES water from your gas tank and cleans it out before it causes rust, ice, and blockage.
I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but just about everything has lower energy density than gasoline.Ethanol is a band-aid(or a full body cast, in parts of Brazil’s case) for our gasoline problems, not a replacement.Unfortunately, the same people that complain about huge gas mileage drops are the same people that claim that leaving your truck’s tailgate open saves you 6 mpg.
The main difference between an E-10 vehicle and an E-85 vehicle, from what I understand, is a computer that can handle the ‘weird’ readings high alcohol fuel tells the sensors and compensates for the different air/fuel ratios required, and seals that can take high percentages of alcohol exposure.Ethanol says that E10 is very mild on your seals.It’s been years, and the complaint flood of the 90’s has slowed to a trickle.
So, it turns out that ethanol is pretty much carbon neutral, not as carbon negative as was led on in the early days of ethanol.Oh well – it’s still cleaner than gas, and we don’t have to import it or fight wars over it.I’ll take carbon neutral energy over fossil energy any day.
Finally, I can’t believe people complain about ethanol plants, especially in rural areas.There has been an exodus from rural areas for the last few decades because of, among other things, the lack of high paying, technical jobs.Ethanol did its part to revitalize rural America AND it reduces the transportation cost of whatever local grain they use.
That brings us to today.Where you’re reading an article that you probably thought was some hack that has missed the last 7 years of negative press ethanol has been the target.Really, ethanol still has a very defined place in America, and the potential of future advances in ethanol chemistry are promising.Cellulosic ethanol, bio-methanol (possibly straight to hydrogen), increased automotive engineering, etc. could have huge implications for future energy, and we’re much closer to these technologies (E-85, Brazil) than we are to supporting transportation based on electric, natural gas, or hydrogen vehicles.Future technologies may remove the ‘food’ object from ethanol’s roots, instead working on true waste products, or higher efficiency, easier to grow waste crops.Any of these advancements will place today’s ethanol as a stepping stone, so stop complaining, and start refermenting your love.