Ken's Project Blog

February 5, 2011

The Ethanol Myth

Filed under: In The News,Politics,Technology — Ken @ 11:42 am

Over at Consumer Reports they have a great article on Ethanol, with links to lots of interesting studies on the subject of turning subsidised food into “eco-friendly” fuel – here are three concerns they mention:

Yet university scientists for decades have raised questions about ethanol’s viability as a fuel source for three reasons:

  • They argue that it is unethical to produce fuel from a food crop, especially if it drives up food prices. Most of the ethanol in the United States is made from corn.
  • Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, and it takes a lot of energy to produce.
  • A variety of conflicting studies have shown that producing ethanol may—or may not—increase emissions of carbon-dioxide, a gas linked to global warming.

Source: Consumer Reports

The most interesting thing they mentioned, as far as I am concerned, is the diminished performance of blending ethanol into gasoline. In a study using E85 (the highest ethanol content currently marketed, consisting of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) the MPG performance for their test 2007 Chevy Tahoe FFV (Flex Fuel Vehicle) was severely impacted by the use of E85: instead of getting 21 MPG in their highway driving test on regular gasoline, E85 yielded only 15 MPG, an almost 30% decrease, with a similar drop on their city driving test from 9 MPG on regular gasoline to 7 MPG on E85. If you were going to drive 210 miles on the highway using E85, instead of using 10 gallons of regular gasoline your trip would require 14 gallons of E85. While studies have shown that E85 fueled cars emit 10-15% less greenhouse gases, they burn 40% more fuel for a comparable trip (14 vs. 10 gallons) resulting in a net increase of about 19% more greenhouse gases emitted.

If E85 fuels were equal in price at the pump (ignoring last year’s $7.7 billion in federal subsidies, etc. – focusing on retail price), say, $3.00 a gallon, instead of spending $30 on our 210 mile trip, we’d be spending $42.

Studies have shown that running even low-level Ethanol content fuels (E10/E15 – 10 or 15% Ethanol, respectively) in non Flex-Fuel Vehicles can cause serious damage to parts of the engine fuel system. But don’t worry, the EPA ruled on January 21, 2011 that E15 fuels are “safe” for all vehicles produced since 2001 (they had previously held E15 safe for vehicles produced since 2007). Much of the fuel pumped in America today is E10 (10% Ethanol), and the the EPA is pushing for an increase to 15% Ethanol gas at the pumps

There is also the issue of the energy consumed in making the Ethanol used to make E85 fuel – as the chart on Page 16 of this Argonne National Laboratory study shows, the total BTU spent to create one BTU at the pump is about 1.75 BTU per BTU at the pump, compared with about 1.15 BTU per BTU at the pump for petroleum.

So, E85 fuel is less efficient, which increases costs at the pump when compared with gasoline, produces more greenhouse gasses than gasoline, and consumes almost twice as much energy in production relative to the energy it provides at the pump – could things look any worse for Ethanol fuel? Let’s ask Eco-Activist and Green Energy Tycoon Al Gore:

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for (U.S.) first generation ethanol,” said Gore, speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank.

“First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.

“It’s hard once such a programme is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”
He explained his own support for the original programme on his presidential ambitions.

“One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”

Source: Reuters

The Congressional Budget Office has found that the use of corn to create government-mandated Ethanol fuels drives up the price of food, despite dramatic increases in the amount of corn harvested each year.

Could we please put an end to Ethanol subsidies? There are much better uses for the $7.7 billion in federal subsidies each year… I know the corn growers like it, and the politicians like the support of mid-west farmers in presidential elections, but this is unsustainable.

Media Research Center has a nice backgrounder on the media’s full-throated support of Ethanol a few years ago.


Consumer Reports: The Great Ethanol Debate and Test results: E85 vs. gasoline

Argonne National Laboratory: The Debate on Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impacts of Fuel Ethanol (2005)

Popular Mechanics: Can E15 Gasoline Really Damage Your Engine? How Does Ethanol Performance Compare to Gasoline?

Associated Press (via EPA approves more ethanol in fuel for cars

Reuters: U.S. corn ethanol “was not a good policy”-Gore

Media Research Center: Flashback: As EPA Approves E15, Remember the Media’s Infatuation with Ethanol

Congressional Budget Office: Implications of Ethanol Use for Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions An Inconvenient Truth (Movie)

The Telegraph: Al Gore could become world’s first carbon billionaire Barack Obama on Energy and the Environment (from Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign)


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