Scientific American Questions Ethanol

Last summer brought many stories about the success of ethanol in Brazil during the times gasoline prices were peaking in the U.S. My hopes for the future were boosted by those reports, but the January, 2007 issue of Scientific American has brought me back down to reality. Matthew L. Wald reports in “Is Ethanol for the Long Haul?” that the numbers don’t add up for E85, the ethanol/gasoline mixture planned for flex fuel cars. Ethanol made from sugar cane and cheap labor may be economically sound in South America, but ethanol made from corn, expensive labor, and fossil fuels, will probably not be a practical choice. Nor is ethanol made from corn more environmental friendly than gasoline.

Ethanol made from various cellulose sources, including corn stalks, have a better chance of being an economic alternative to gasoline, but the technology has not be perfected yet. It’s a complex issue. If you grow corn just to convert it into ethanol, all the production costs have to be considered in its comparison to gasoline. If you grow corn for food, and then consider the stalks a byproduct, they can play with the books and make cellulose ethanol look like a better value. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to make and distribute ethanol, so the gain in freedom from the Middle East might be a desert mirage. If we used all the corn we grow for ethanol it will only replace seven percent of gasoline usage. There are more sources for cellulose, so it has a better chance at helping us get off the gasoline addiction.

What bothers me is the attitude that we want an alternative fuel to allow us to live in the same manner we do now. Car companies are showing flex fuel SUVs. The real reality we have to face is driving cars very different from what we drive now, and I don’t think Americans are ready for that. Just think, making cars more efficient by seven percent, which is easy enough to do, could replace the whole concept of corn based ethanol. Making cars twice as efficient would stretch oil supplies twice as long. The key immediate solution here is conservation and efficiency – not alternative fuels. Given time we should be able to perfect an alternate source of personal transportation energy, but I don’t think that time will be short.

This is the last day of 2006 and I marvel at living in the future. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought the 1980s was the future, and the years after 2000 would be amazingly futuristic. And there have been lots of amazing changes, but I’m also surprised how so much has stayed the same. There are more people and cars, more technology and wealth, but people and their basic habits seem the same. Our television shows, if broadcast to 1950s TV antennas, would shock the Ozzie and Harriette watching nation, but they would understand everything and recognize the common basic human motivations and instincts.

Real change to help the economy and environment will have to come from leadership at the White House. I think the President will have to ask America to make sacrifices like they did during World War II. And I think making real changes in how we live with the enviornment will eventually bring about a new kind of prosperity. Looking for energy substitutes that allow us to continue living in our energy wasteful ways that hurt the enviornment are not good solutions.

There are thinkers out there that see other solutions, like Rocky Mountain Institute. I’d like to think that by 2027 many of these ideas would be in place, and it would be the dazzling future I expected the future to be when I was a kid.

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