Ethanol: Fueling debate

July 3, 2006

Is it our gasoline of the future, or just corn-pone hype? One thing is certain: It’s coming – sooner than you may think

Recently, NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’ “60 Minutes” touted Brazil’s ethanol “miracle” as the model for America’s solution to high gasoline prices. Some politicians sing ethanol’s praises as the home-grown fuel that will lessen our dependence on foreign oil. And the U.S. agriculture industry is gearing up for a lucrative “gold rush” to distill corn into fuel.

But ethanol has its detractors, among them some scientists, economists, politicians and even environmentalists. They say it’s too costly to produce, it’s far less efficient than gasoline, it pollutes, it will consume farm acreage needed for food production – and it will never meet more than a fraction of the nation’s fuel needs.

So is ethanol a boon or boondoggle? A little of both – and neither. Clearly, it’s not the “magic bullet” TV anchors and gung-ho investors rave about. Nor is it a pie-in-the-sky folly that exists only because of federal subsidies. Ethanol could give consumers real choice and flexibility at the pump, and could give our nation a cushion in the likely event of a worldwide oil crisis.

But here’s the real point motorists in Greater Cincinnati and the rest of the nation should keep in mind as we rev up for the Fourth of July: Ethanol is coming. In fact, it’s already here. Like the vehicles of three-quarters of Brazilian motorists today, your next car likely will be able to run on ethanol, gasoline or “E85,” an ethanol-heavy blend.

There’s no magic to ethanol. Producing it from corn or other crops is simple technology – moonshining, really. It’s a back-to-the-future kind of fuel – closer to what the originators of the automobile envisioned.

Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the engine that bears his name, ran his device on peanut oil at the 1900 World Exhibition. Henry Ford designed his early models to run on ethanol. But the industry soon switched to gasoline as it became cheap and plentiful. It no longer made sense to run on peanut oil, corn squeezings or any other crop-based fuel.

Today, ironically, even with oil prices sky-high, ethanol’s foes still score points by saying its economics don’t work. Ethanol benefits from big tax credits – and a mandate in the new energy bill that America use 7.5 billion gallons of it a year by 2012 (still a drop in the bucket, as we use 140 billion gallons of gas a year).

Without government’s thumb on the scales, ethanol couldn’t compete with gas yet. It doesn’t deliver nearly as much power as gas, gallon for gallon, and the infrastructure isn’t in place to deliver it efficiently to users.

But you can’t discount ethanol’s positive effect on the economy. Dozens of new plants are coming online, creating thousands of jobs and ancillary businesses. We can see it right here in Greater Cincinnati. For example, a Norwood firm, KATZEN International Inc., designs ethanol plants around the world.

Boosters point to the genuine success story in Brazil, where more than 70 percent of the cars are “flex-fuel” vehicles that can run on ethanol and more than 40 percent of the fuel consumed is ethanol. Brazil has declared itself free of foreign oil, and soon will be an exporter of ethanol. But Brazil’s fuel is from sugar cane, which is abundant there. Sugar cane is more easily converted to ethanol – more than five times more efficiently than corn.

Corn’s relative inefficiency is a source of heated debate. David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad Patzek of Berkeley have produced studies saying ethanol from corn takes more energy to produce than it delivers – their latest figure is a 29 percent “energy deficit.”

But their conclusions, although they’ve virtually become conventional wisdom in the media, may be suspect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Pimentel and Patzek used old, low corn-yield-per-acre figures, and Southern Illinois University researcher Martha Schlicher says they figured in the energy “cost” of sunlight needed to grow the corn in order to arrive at a negative number.

Corn-based ethanol even may be more energy-efficient than gasoline. The Argonne National Laboratory released a study last year concluding that while it takes only 0.74 BTUs of energy to make 1 BTU of ethanol, it takes 1.23 BTUs of energy to make 1 BTU of gasoline.

There’s ideology involved here, too. Patzek has written columns opposing the use of agricultural land to produce fuel, saying it should grow crops to feed the world’s poor.

This raises valid concerns. A tug-of-war is already developing between America’s food industry and energy over the resources ethanol production will command. Our food costs may rise as ethanol gains. And what if drought – a concern in our breadbasket states this summer – wipes out a season’s corn crop?

Then again, corn may be just a short-term factor, as scientists work on methods to derive ethanol from non-food “cellulosic biomass.” Yes, that includes the “switchgrass” that President Bush mentioned in this year’s State of the Union – and was derided for in some quarters. But it’s serious. The hearty native grass may prove several times more energy-efficient than even sugar cane.

It will take scientific innovation, but this may be a longer-term answer as America’s “second” fuel. MIT chemistry professor John Deutsch, a Cabinet member in the Carter and Clinton administrations, calculates that ethanol from cellulosic biomass could take the place of up to 2 million barrels of oil a day within 20 years. That ain’t hay.

In the meantime, some experts have suggested – and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., has proposed – that America jump-start its move to ethanol by importing the fuel from Brazil. That would enhance our trade and bring us ethanol more cheaply than we can currently produce it.

But if ethanol is ultimately to succeed, it ought to succeed on its own merits, in a free market. It must prove its efficiency, convenience and value without anyone trying to prop it up or sabotage it. Let American consumers vote at the pump.

Ray Cooklis is the Enquirer’s assistant editorial page editor; e-mail rcooklis@enquirer.com.

Source:  The Enquirer (Cincinatti)

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