may you live in very interesting eras
Help us Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria, you're our only hope.
Via ENN, a fine AP story:
America is drunk on ethanol. Farmers in the Midwest are sending billions of bushels of corn to refineries that turn it into billions of gallons of fuel. Automakers in Detroit have already built millions of cars, trucks and SUVs that can run on it, and are committed to making millions more. In Washington, politicians have approved generous subsidies for companies that make ethanol.
And just this week, President Bush arranged with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for their countries to share ethanol production technology.
Even alternative fuel aficionados are surprised at the nation's sudden enthusiasm for grain alcohol.
Proponents acknowledge the drawbacks of corn-based ethanol, but they believe it can help wean America off imported oil the way methadone helps a junkie kick heroin. It may not be ideal, but ethanol could help the country make the necessary and difficult transition to an environmentally and economically sustainable future.
There are many questions about ethanol's place in America's energy future. Some are easily answered; others, not so much.
IS ETHANOL BETTER THAN GASOLINE?
For all the environmental and economic troubles it causes, gasoline turns out to be a remarkably efficient automobile fuel. The energy required to pump crude out of the ground, refine it and transport it from oil well to gas tank is about 6 percent of the energy in the gasoline itself.
Ethanol is much less efficient, especially when it is made from corn. Just growing corn requires expending energy -- plowing, planting, fertilizing and harvesting all require machinery that burns fossil fuel. Modern agriculture relies on large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which are produced by methods that consume fossil fuels. Then there's the cost of transporting the corn to an ethanol plant, where the fermentation and distillation processes consume yet more energy. Finally, there's the cost of transporting the fuel to filling stations. And because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline, it can't be pumped through relatively efficient pipelines, but must be transported by rail or tanker truck.
In the end, even the most generous analysts estimate that it takes the energy equivalent of three gallons of ethanol to make four gallons of the stuff. Some even argue that it takes more energy to produce ethanol from corn than you get out of it, but most agricultural economists think that's a stretch.
BUT AREN'T THERE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS TO ETHANOL?
If you make ethanol from corn, the environmental benefits are limited. When you consider the greenhouse gases that are released in the growing and refining process, corn-based ethanol is only slightly better with regard to global warming than gasoline. Growing corn also requires the use of pesticides and fertilizers that cause soil and water pollution.
The environmental benefit of corn-based ethanol is felt mostly around the tailpipe. When blended into gasoline in small amounts, ethanol causes the fuel to generate less smog-producing carbon monoxide. That has made it popular in smoggy cities like Los Angeles.
WILL ETHANOL SOLVE ALL OF OUR PROBLEMS?
Ethanol is certainly a valuable tool in our efforts to address the economic and environmental problems associated with fossil fuels. But even the most optimistic projections suggest it can only replace a fraction of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline that Americans consume every year. It will take a mix of technologies to achieve energy independence and reduce the country's production of greenhouse gases.
"I think we're in a very interesting era. We are recognizing a problem and we are finding lots of potential solutions," said David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota.
But if we're serious about achieving energy independence and mitigating global warming, Tilman and other experts said, one of those solutions must be energy conservation.
That means doubling the fuel economy of our automobiles, expanding mass transit and decreasing the amount of energy it takes to light, heat and cool our buildings. Without such measures, ethanol and other innovations will make little more than a dent in the nation's fossil fuel consumption.
With ethanol, there's also a little problem of available space (supply) versus demand. There just isn't enough room for us to be us anymore.