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Out of Our Minds
Tuesday, January 10, 2006 3:01 PM
Here Come the Alternatives
Kevin Salwen on Environment & Sustainability

While Toyota and Honda are pushing harder into hybrids, Ford and GM are now moving aggressively into alternative gasolines, namely ethanol. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. automakers are putting more of their effort into blended gasoline vehicles, which are easier to adapt from gas engines than to create new hybrid (gas-electric) engines.

Ford and GM plan to build a combined 650,000 vehicles this year that can run on a gasoline-ethanol mix. The main reason: A test gasoline version of a Chevy Impala emits an estimated 7.6 tons of greenhouse gas per year compared with 5.6 tons for the mix including ethanol (which is a corn and grain derivative). But they cost more to operate (because of lower mileage per gallon), and I'll be interested in seeing if the American public is eager to go that route.

One big selling point beyond cleaner emissions: Because ethanol is made in the U.S., a major shift in this direction could reduce American demand for foreign oil. Expect to hear plenty about that from GM and Ford.


Gary Dikkers - 1/12/2006 11:14:42 PM
'Plus, I’d be tempted to argue that in time farmers could be running their tractors on bio-diesel. In that case, the net scenario could be reasonably sustainable.'

Could be, but I wouldn't bank on it.

The ultimate proof will be the day the corn-based ethanol industry can grow corn and turn it into ethanol using only bio-fuels instead of needing to consume fossil fuels. If that day ever happens, then farmers and Big Ethanol can actually call ethanol a 'renewable' fuel.

But right now, corn-based ethanol is not even close to being sustainable and renewable. Without a continual, massive influx of fossil fuel energy, the corn-based ethanol business would rapidly wither.

The most critical of those fossil fuels is natural gas. Corn farmers could not grow corn without applying massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. And unfortunately, we need to import more and more nitrogen fertilizer made overseas with foreign natural gas. (If you want to read some scary stuff, put 'nitrogen fertilizer natural gas ethanol' into Google.)

Until corn farmers break their reliance on imported nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas, we can never say corn-based ethanol is a renewable, domestic fuel.

Paulo N ery - 1/11/2006 8:49:34 AM
Perhaps it's a minor point but about 85% of US Natural Gas consumption is from domestic supplies. And most of the imports are from Canada.

Plus, I'd be tempted to argue that in time farmers could be running their tractors on bio-diesel. In that case, the net scenario could be reasonably sustainable.

On the other hard, the skeptic in me would also mention that one of the main reasons the automakers are producing cars to run on gasoline-ethanol mix (E85) is that they get significant breaks on the mileage requirements for the rest of the cars they manufacture. I believe, most of the E85 cars manufactured so far run primarily on gasoline.
Gary Dikkers - 1/10/2006 10:10:44 PM
Kevin said, 'Because ethanol is made in the U.S., a major shift in this direction could reduce American demand for foreign oil.'

How sure are you of that Kevin?

At every step of the production process, 'renewable' corn-based ethanol consumes unrenewable fossil fuels:

1. Natural gas to make the essential nitrogen fertilizers corn farmers must have.

2. Diesel fuel for farmers to cultivate, plant, harvest, and transport their crop.

3. Diesel fuel to transport fertilizer, seed, and finished ethanol.

4. More natural gas on the farm to dry corn; more at the ethanol plant to mill and distill corn into ethanol; and still more to dry the waste distiller's grains after fermentation.

The unfortunate fact is that making corn ethanol is unsustainable without burning irreplaceable fossil fuels. Until corn farmers and ethanol plants show they can use ethanol instead of fossil fuels to grow corn and make ethanol, it is incorrect to think corn-based ethanol will reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

Do you know that if corn ethanol ever became our primary liquid fuel, we would still be dependent on an overseas fossil fuel -- natural gas.

Almost all ammonia fertilizer is now made from natural gas. What is not widely known is that an increasingly large percentage of that fertilizer is made overseas and must be imported into the U.S. I've even seen estimates that within five years we will be importing 100% of our nitrogen fertilizers, all made overseas from foreign natural gas.

Using ethanol made from 'renewable' corn sounds great until one looks more deeply and sees what goes into growing corn and turning it into ethanol.

Do you think it makes sense to replace our dependence on foreign oil with an equally ill-advised dependence on corn ethanol that must use imported fertilizers made from foreign natural gas?
Jenny - 1/10/2006 9:07:46 PM
One big caveat: Expect bigger-than-ever subsidies for corn growers and more clout for the corn/grain lobby. So, we're trading dependence on foreign oil for dependence on domestic corporations who can barely keep themselves out of bankruptcy? Seems like 6 of one, half dozen of the other to me.


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