It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

Not all new ideas are good ideas.

Some new ideas, of course, are good ideas, and some we don’t know whether or not they work until they are tried, but there are also definitely bad ideas that get implemented and then never go away.  I am sure that Pandora thought it was a good idea to open that box, and then it was too late.

I am not entirely sure which category the addition of ethanol to gasoline (commonly called gasohol) falls into, but I think it is probably in the “nice try, but no” category.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it is not clear to me that the technology to produce it is as efficient as once believed.  To meet the demand for the amounts of ethanol required produces negative impacts such as less corn for food and animal feed and the conversion of farm land now growing other crops into corn.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 implemented the requirement to mix ethanol into gasoline produced in the United States.  This was further expanded through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  What was once a voluntary program became a mandatory one.  The 2007 Act created subsidies for producing ethanol and banned the importation of ethanol from outside the US.  Two groups that are very happy with this new windfall are the large agribusiness companies and the lobbyists that pushed to have the law enacted.  As a result, it is a matter of faith for members of Congress from the farm states that this is a crucial element to our national security.   This notion is re-enforced every few years by candidates for President that have to make their way through the Iowa caucuses.

To meet the sudden demand for ethanol, corn was the easiest and most logical source.  Ethanol is alcohol, something well-known for a very long time by those using corn in their stills to make a little “home-brew”.  When mixed with gasoline it can provide an alternative fuel that reduces US consumption of oil.  Currently, most gasoline sold in the US is 10% ethanol although in some areas it can be as high as 15%.   (There are a few remaining sources of pure gasoline, but they are few and far between.)  Many new vehicles can use “flex fuel” or a blend of up to 85% ethanol (E85) resulting in more demand for the product.

The original idea was a good one — the search for alternative fuels to lessen American dependence on oil, especially oil from politically unreliable sources.  In fact, ethanol can be made from a variety of other plants (the next two most used sources are sugar cane and sorghum), but so far alternative bio-mass sources do not provide the same yield, which is part of the problem.  With the establishment of corn as the primary source and a near monopoly, there is less incentive for research and development for alternative sources.  Although touted as a renewable energy source, it is doubtful that large-scale use of bio-mass fuel is currently economically feasible.  Some day — but not yet.  For the long haul, there needs to be much more diversity if we are serious about developing large quantities of fuel from plants.  As new sources of oil, and especially natural gas, are discovered in the US, there is even less incentive to develop alternatives.  Yet ethanol from corn continues to be subsidized.

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to the use of gasohol and sourcing it primarily from corn.  However, the benefits expected are so far turning out to be much less than they were originally thought to be.

The positive impact of burning gasohol rather than pure gasoline may be over-stated when taking into account its production and delivery costs.  For example, ethanol is hygroscopic (absorbs water) which cannot be totally eliminated.  Therefore it cannot be transported long distances via pipelines (goes by truck) and causes corrosion and water slugs in fuel lines of engines not operated often (such as boat motors, lawn mowers and other small engines).  One must also take into account the farm equipment, fertilizers, trucks, production plants and other sources using energy to grow and harvest the corn and then to  generate ethanol.

Vehicles get less gas mileage with ethanol.  In most cases it is about a 3-4% reduction in a 10% ethanol/gasoline mix and up to 30% with E85.  This means we are filling our tank more often, costing more in a tight economy.

With the advent of the mandates to supply ethanol in our gas supply, and the subsequent decreased availability for food and feed, the price of a bushel of corn has increased significantly.  This increases the cost of everything from Frosted Flakes to beef.

The original idea was a good one and it was a noble and valid experiment.  Now, however, it appears to have become a cash cow for agribusiness and those that support it.  Most small farmers, of which there are actually very few left,  do not much benefit because they cannot produce the mass quantities required.

The basic idea of using bio-mass as an alternative renewable fuel source continues to have great promise but it is not yet really commercially feasible.  To be a truly effective alternative fuel source, which we will need in the years ahead despite our currently expanding fossil fuel sources, more research and development is needed.

In the meantime, remove the subsidies for the production of ethanol and the requirement that 10% or more of our gasoline must be made of ethanol.  The industry will catch up and we’ll have a more sustainable path to the future.

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