Based on the amount of hoopla I have seen lately on television, E-85 (that's 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) is going to save the North Americans and all their SUV's along with their cheap energy lifestyle.
In a word, NOT.
A brief review of the facts will dispel this unfortunate and very unhelpful myth.
1. Ethanol does not magically appear from nowhere. In north america it is almost entirely produced from corn. Pretty much like the old moonshiners. It takes energy to do that, mostly petroleum energy. Hmmm, I wonder how much?
2. I'm glad you asked. The standard way of evaluating alternative energy schemes is EROEI. It's an anagram for Energy Returned On Energy Invested. Under wonderfully ideal conditions, it takes one unit of petroleum energy to produce 1.3 units of ethanol energy, a net gain of ~30%. Some analysts suggest that the Big Agriculture lobby and their government supporters may have stretched the truth somewhat. The real number could be 1.1 or even unity. If these lower numbers are true, ethanol will never reduce our dependence on oil in any meaningful way, ever. By comparison, the EROEI for biodiesel runs from 2.7 to 6, depending on if they used virgin oil, or recycled restaurant oil. So, worst case, biodiesel nets 1.7x more energy than that invested, a 5.7 fold improvement over ethanol (1.7/0.3 = 5.7).
3. But why do I see all these wonderful adds for "Flex-Fuel" vehicles? Because GM or Ford can take a regular gas hog sedan, spend a couple hundred dollars for a sensor and a different fuel map for the computer, and Voila, an "environmentally friendly" vehicle. Here's another dirty little secret they neglect to mention on those glossy ads. Your fuel economy will drop noticeably if you run E-85 because it has far less BTU's per gallon. This is strictly an advertising campaign to make the Big 3 look like they are doing something substantive about the environment, without actually doing anything. Plus, the percentage of flex fuel vehicles that actually burn ANY ethanol, is pretty low. The fuel is not widely available outside of the midwest where the ethanol is primarily produced. Which brings me to...
4. In the U.S., ethanol is made almost exclusively from corn. Corn comes almost exclusively from the midwest. So, it will come as no big shock that most of the ethanol plants are located in the midwest. Now we come to the Achille's Heel of the whole ethanol fiasco. Our infrastructure to transmit gasoline and diesel is made up of pipelines and trucks and trains to a lesser extent. Most of the pipelines go north-south. Alcohol is needed all over the country not just in the midwest, and the pipelines are already busy pushing petroleum, and they run to the wrong places mostly anyway, so pipelines are out. That leaves us with truck transport and trains. We have recently exceeded the capacity of the trucking industry to move ethanol from the midwest to the various coastal regions and refineries. Plus, trucking the ethanol long distances makes the already marginal EROEI problem even worse. Some of the ethanol plants are now forced to run at less than full capacity.
This logistical problem was predicted by scientists some time ago, but to no avail. So now we have a dip in the price of ethanol because the midwest is pretty much flooded with the stuff, and we can't ship it fast enough to the rest of the country. Trains may gear up to provide some relief. But even if we solve all of the logistical problems, we're still faced with the fact that it takes almost as much petroleum to make it, as the amount of energy we get out as ethanol. A bigger truck (or more trucks) is not the answer.
About the only reliable solution to this whole transportation fuel problem is to drive less, and drive vehicles that are vastly more efficient. Both of these solutions are effective and proven. They're not sexy, but they work.
So, next time you hear some great "news release" about how ethanol is going to make the US energy independent, you may rest assure that one of the following conditions is true:
1. They are trying to make the big 3 automakers sound more enviro friendly, i.e. paid shills.
2. They are somehow associated with the big agriculture and/or the big corn lobby, i.e. paid shills.
3. They are members of our fine government leadership. Said person is either very bad with science and facts (scary), or they are lying to you for some other darker purpose (scary), or both. One could have an interesting discussion about how money and influence go hand in hand in Washington, and if the politicians are in fact, just more paid shills, but I digress.
4. They are some innocent bystander who has accidentally believed some or all of the hype/swill about how ethanol is such a great idea. Please educate these people, for their own sake, as well as the sake of our nation.
So, duly armed, you may now cast a skeptical eye at anyone's energy policy that advocates the expanded use of ethanol. Just ask them about the true EROEI of corn based ethanol and watch them run away or make hemming and hawing noises along with considerable hand-waving. Woe to you politicians for pandering to the corn lobby and making it sound like you were helping the country.
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