04 Aug Last ethanol article you'll ever need to read, Part II
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part opinion piece on ethanol. Read part one.
Madison, Wis. – The environmental arguments surrounding ethanol are plentiful and confusing.
There is some evidence that ethanol increases nitrous oxides and ozone. These studies were based on computer models. Studies of the actual environment by the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board and others show that in the real world, ethanol use decreases ozone pollution.
Additionally, it is unquestioned that a switch to ethanol use is one of the most successful industrial means of reducing greenhouse (CO2) air pollution. The American Lung Association has backed ethanol initiatives because of its soot-reducing capabilities. Other studies show that ethanol use reduces benzene and formaldehyde pollution, substances shown to cause cancer. Less is more in pollution comparisons, and ethanol wins.
Ethanol does have fewer BTUs per gallon of fuel than gasoline, and in some cars this results in fewer miles per gallon. The offsets to this are that ethanol has higher octane, is a better oxygenator, and is cheaper. In some engines, turbocharged engines for instance, ethanol can get better mileage because those engines utilize the octane.
A recent study of 10, 20, and 30 percent ethanol blends (E10, E20, E30) showed that in common, late model cars (not flex-fuel vehicles), the cars did get somewhat lower mileage – ranging from 1.5 to 5.1 percent fewer miles. This loss of mileage, however, was more than made up by the reduction in cost. On a $20 bill, drivers in the study could travel up to 15 miles farther on the ethanol blends.
There are some price anomalies in the ethanol market due to the switch from MTBE to ethanol as an oxygenator, but even today E10 blends at mid-grade octane levels sell for less in Iowa than regular, grade-pure gasoline.
Ethanol – what’s not to like?
In my view, there are only two practical reasons and one political reason not to like ethanol. The first practical reason is that modern industrial agriculture does have an environmental impact. More corn means a larger dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and fewer shrimp fishermen.
The second is that a single feedstock approach to ethanol covers only a small fraction of our transportation energy needs – three percent in 2005 and only 10 percent even if we expand production to 15 billion gallons, an optimistic projection.
The political reason is that currently ethanol carries a 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy to the producer. Some don’t like encouraging one product over another with subsidy favoritism. I would much rather temporarily favor my farmer-owned ethanol co-op than see subsidies flow to the mega oil companies and the foreign countries that supply them.
Given any of these drawbacks, however, I still feel that Americans and Wisconsinites should support biofuels and ethanol. That is because any negatives concerning ethanol are far out weighed by the benefits for the country and, specifically, for this state.
There are several things about the world situation that seem obvious and that negate any downside of planting more corn. The first is the fact that petroleum is in limited supply in the world, and that we are forced to buy much of it from unstable regions, from people that hate us, from people that use our petro dollars to attack us, and from others whose seemingly noble social uses of their country’s petro dollars have degraded the production capability of their country’s petroleum industry – further destabilizing the world petroleum market.
We should be thankful for the Canadians who supply us with a majority of our imported oil. At least they are still easy to get along with. Fuel security and national security are inextricably tied.
A single-feedstock ethanol program will not free us from these concerns. It will take other ethanol feedstocks, other biofuels, and other alternative energy sources. But as a country, we cannot use ghost arguments to keep us from going down the alternative-fuels path.
The use of other ethanol feedstocks will never occur without a healthy ethanol industry based on corn. Corn is the gateway to using lower-value, lower-impact feedstocks to produce energy.
Corn ethanol is the first step on the path to investments in other forms of alternative energy. Venture capital and other investment firms are now being formed to invest in biofuels and alternative energy sources. Their first investments may be in ethanol technologies, but their last won’t be.
More specific to Wisconsin, I have a farm. I like the fact that my farm neighbors can put their harvested corn on a truck, send it to Monroe or Stanley or Friesland, and have it turned into fuel. The fuel isn’t shipped from half way around the world, and my neighbors are seeing the best corn prices they have seen in 10 years due to the demand pressure from ethanol.
Wisconsin has a great opportunity in the emerging shift from hydrocarbons to carbohydrates. Wisconsin has a great corn, soybean, and dairy cattle agriculture base – key ingredients for both ethanol and biodiesel. Corn and soy are substrates for biofuels, and the cows eat the feed co-product. Neat.
Wisconsin also has a great forest products industry of people who know how to grow and process biomass. This will be important as the biofuels industry moves its fuel production to biomass feedstocks, and as processes are developed that make chemicals from home-grown ingredients instead of petroleum.
The key Wisconsin ingredient that adds value to all of this, however, is knowledge. Wisconsin is ideally situated to provide the basic research and the biotech know-how to drive this change. No other state has such a great combination of agriculture, forestry, a world-class research university, and strong biotech.
I don’t want to see Madison become Palo Alto, but a booming economy based in part on what we grow and the knowledge we possess that adds high value to what we grow sounds like a good deal – and a good deal that spreads the wealth beyond Madison and around the state.
So the next time you pass a filling station with a sign that brags that they are selling “100 percent gasoline, no ethanol,” keep driving.