Ethanol – Boon or Bane? Depends on who you ask
Last update: February 2009 - 10:58 PM
So, which is it?
The quest for alternative fuel sources, particularly ethanol, raises a complex set of questions with a variety of perspectives that need to be considered. Even within each of these perspectives, the pros and cons of ethanol can be difficult to sort out.
Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, is a renewable, not-from-petroleum gasoline substitute. While ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline the standard ethanol fuel, E85, uses 15% gasoline to the 85% ethanol. The gasoline is needed to give the fuel enough volatility to start the engine readily. These flex-fuel vehicles are being considered by many automakers.
Andrew Goodyear, an auto dealer at Wilson Ford, outlined the advantages, and disadvantages of E85 as a fuel. “Flexible Fueled Vehicles may see a performance improvement since ethanol has a higher octane rating (100 to 105) than gasoline,” stated Goodyear, “but ethanol produces less energy than gasoline. There could be up to a 25 percent decrease in fuel economy, depending on operating conditions. So your car won't go as far on a gallon of E85.”
Your geographic location is also a consideration, according to Goodyear, “E85 sells for nearly 30 cents less per gallon than conventional gasoline, but only in the Midwest which is close to ethanol production facilities. On the coast you’d be paying 35 to 44 cents more per gallon over gasoline.” Geography affects not only price but availability, “Right now, there are just over 1,000 E85 stations in the entire U.S., most of them in Midwestern corn producing states. That’s out of 150,000 gas stations nationwide.”
One of the strong incentives for developing alternative fuel sources is the goal of greater energy independence. According to Ford Motor executives, if just five percent of U.S. vehicles were powered by E85 hybrids, oil imports could be reduced by about 140 million barrels a year. Mike Johnson, spokesperson for the Renewable Fuels Association, said, “We believe that flexible fuel vehicles that can use gas and / or ethanol could be the answer to fuel shortages and large spikes in pump prices. Rather than releasing petroleum from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, more ethanol can be produced once adequate production facilities are in place.”
No new oil refineries have been built in the U.S. in nearly three decades but new ethanol-production facilities are coming online at a rate of almost two per month. Currently the 92 ethanol plants operating across the country have a total production capacity of 4 billion gallons of fuel annually. There a two dozen more plants now under construction which will provide an additional billion gallons of ethanol.
For some communities the construction of an ethanol processing facility has been welcomed as an economic boon. An average-sized ethanol plant costs approximately $65 million to build and will employ nearly 40 people. These positions are good paying, high-skill jobs—chemists, engineers, managers, marketers.
The plant’s $56 million in annual operating costs circulates throughout the community many times, benefiting everyone from the farmers who provide the corn to make the fuel, to the local businesses that supply goods and services for the production facility.
An ethanol plant will increase tax revenue for local and state governments by at least $1.2 million annually.
But the environmental concerns both about ethanol production and growing the corn used in production are broad. While ethanol does burn cleaner than gasoline, it impacts air quality in other ways.
Larry Greenwood is an environmental activist who has been tracking ethanol’s impact. “Ethanol plants give off an odious smell and increase local air pollution and traffic from trucks servicing the plants. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is the water usage required.” Ethanol processing takes between three and six gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol. “Add to that the incentives to farmers to grow as much corn as possible, and you get even more stresses on the water supply,” said Greenwood.
Even the corn farmers who stand the most to gain by increased production of ethanol are concerned about the environmental impact. Jonas MacDonald and his wife Maggie have been farming corn for 23 years. While he appreciates the government incentives to grow more corn, he has concerns. “Modern farming relies heavily on diesel-powered equipment that emits greenhouse gases. Distilling ethanol is also an energy-intensive process that often uses electricity generated from coal, another source of greenhouse emissions,” said MacDonald.
The Department of Energy has calculated that if 100 BTUs of energy are used to plant corn, harvest the crop, transport it, and so on, 138 BTUs of energy are available in the fuel ethanol produced—a 38 percent increase in energy availability.
There is an alternative to using corn for ethanol production. Cellulosic ethanol could be produced from feedstocks such as switchgrass and wood chips. This would result in 88 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the use of fertilizers and herbicides that corn production requires. Greenwood thinks this could be beneficial to the environment, “Demand for corn has led to over-cultivation. Phosphorus runoff from eroded soil leads to the eutrophication of the nation’s waterways, including the 7,900-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorus runoff also settles into fresh water sinks, resulting in algae blooms and fish kills in places like Lake Pepin.” He believes that switching to cellulosic ethanol could alleviate some of the detrimental farming practices.
It could also soothe the concerns of those worried that the incentives for growing corn for ethanol are impacting food prices both domestically and internationally.
Holly Holman is the executive director of Hunger Hurts International. “Higher prices for corn because of increased demand from ethanol producers means higher prices for livestock farmers who feed their animals corn,” Holman said. “The farmers have to pass the higher costs along, which means people have to pay more for beef, pork, poultry and eggs. According to a study by Iowa State University, this will be at least $47 per person annually. That may not sound like much to someone with a steady paycheck, but for many people in the world, that’s the equivalent of a month’s earnings.”
Ethanol was made a high priority when President Bush signed the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The new law gives a 51-cent per gallon blending credit to ethanol refiners and mandates production of 36 billion gallons by 2022, quintupling current levels.
But the part of the 2007 law that most concerns hunger advocacy groups is the mandated doubling of ethanol made from corn, even though it already consumes 20 percent of the nation’s corn crop. With the new mandate, that is estimated to rise to a third of the crop.
America’s farmers responded to Bush’s proposals by planting more than 93 million acres of corn in 2007, the most since 1944. Corn prices surged to $4 per bushel and then fell into the mid-$3.50 range after languishing around $2 for most of the time since the 1970s.