January 23, 2007
To the untrained eye, ethanol looks like God's gift to the world. Ethanol is made from corn - so we're helping American farmers. It emits significantly less CO2 than gasoline - so it is good for the environment. We get it from America - so we don't have to import oil from some jerks who are out to get us. Thousands of GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler vehicles already run on ethanol - so the infrastructure is maturing. Brazil is now energy independent because of ethanol - so we know it works! How could it get any better? Ethanol will solve all of our energy problems, right? Wrong.
The ethanol that your Chevy Impala burns emits less CO2 than gasoline, but ethanol isn't sucked up out of the ground like oil - we have to make it from corn. Consider the agricultural process: First, a farmer plants some seed using some farm machinery that runs on oil. Then the farmer sprays fertilizer (made from oil) and pesticide (made from natural gas) all over the field. When the corn is finished growing the farmer uses an oil powered machine to harvest the corn, then he puts it on an oil powered big rig so that it can go to the ethanol production facility. In order to turn corn into ethanol, big machines powered by electricity (which comes mostly from natural gas) convert the corn into sugar and then into ethanol. Then another big rig (again powered by oil) drives the ethanol to Speedway, BP, Sunoco, or wherever you buy the ethanol. The amount of energy (all from oil and natural gas) used to create that ethanol that you put into your Impala is so high that we did virtually nothing to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, nor did we do anything to clean up the environment.
With so much corn in demand, the price skyrockets. This is problematic for many reasons. First, higher corn prices translate into higher prices at the grocery store for corn based products or any food that relies on corn in any way. The ham and turkey that you buy will cost more because they eat corn-based feed. The eggs and milk you buy will cost more because cows and chickens eat corn-based feed. The list of foods that will experience price inflation is endless. Realizing how valuable corn is as a commodity, farmers will switch out a lot of their soybean crops and other crops for corn. That means the price of soybean skyrockets and anything that relies on soybeans. Not only do our crops go up in prices, but we have less available to export and what we do export will be relatively expensive compared to other crop exporting countries. That hurts the value of the dollar and economic effects from a weak dollar will ensure. Economically, ethanol is bad news.
So how did Brazil do it? They made ethanol from sugar, which has an energy density about 8 times higher than corn. That means for every unit of sugar they put in, they get 8 units of ethanol out; for every unit of corn we put in, we get only one unit of ethanol out. In order to feed America's energy addiction we would have to harvest far more corn than we have, thats a problem. There are a lot of reasons why ethanol is bad for consumers, but I won't go into that now. I think the October 2006 issue of Consumer Reports sums it up best. Ethanol is merely a myth that will never account to much of anything.
Bush should continue to support plug-in hybrid vehicles but he needs to abandon ethanol. Its only a matter of time before the media catches on to the fact that ethanol is not sustainable and only a matter of time before ethanol loses support from consumers. We shouldn't waste time, money, and resources now to promote a technology for political gain. Start investing in plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles as an alternative to the internal combustion engine. We're not going to solve the energy prices by switching from one fuel to another - we can make a more significant change by reducing the amount of fuel we use. Ethanol won't do that - plug in hybrids will.