The Great Big Lie That is Ethanol

A few weeks ago, a family vehicle suffered a fender bender from a driver sliding into it at a traffic light and, as usual during the winter, the quality body shops were booked solid. So, it took a couple of weeks before we could drop off the vehicle for repairs.

We ended up with a rental that was capable of burning ethanol. Initially, I was excited about this development because, after all, the tank could be returned full at minimal cost.

But some was amiss. A few years ago, when ethanol E85 appeared at a number of gas stations in the area, every pump had an E85 nozzle. Now I discover that not only have a number of stations dropped E85 but if they still offered it, only one pump had an E85 nozzle. With a “savings” of $0.49 per gallon, why wasn’t there more demand for ethanol?

Next, after finally finding a station with E85, I pumped a tank-full of ethanol in the vehicle. In around-town driving, I noticed the fuel gauge seemed to drop rather rapidly.

Over this past weekend I had to make a trip out of town, and a road trip makes it easy to test the fuel mileage I was getting from the E85 ethanol. I filled the tank, reset the trip computer (there’s an onboard computer with fuel economy data, but I wanted to test the accuracy of it as well) and drove off.

The trip to my destination consumed most of the tank. I filled the tank with regular 87 octane gasoline for the return trip, noting the gallons pumped and resetting the trip computer again, I headed home. What I discovered upon arrival was a shock.

To round off the fuel economy numbers and keep the discussion simple (the round offs were equal between the E85 and gasoline, so I’m not introducing inaccuracies), the vehicle returned 20 mpg on E85 ethanol, 25 mpg on 87-octane gasoline (and BTW, the onboard computer showed 0.65 mpg better fuel economy than actually realized).

This means that for every four gallons of 87-octane gasoline pumped, I would have to pump five gallons of E85 ethanol. Based on local prices, four gallons of ethanol versus four gallons of gasoline “saves” one $1.96. But in terms of equal fuel economy, five gallons of ethanol versus four gallons of gasoline costs one $1.24.

In other words, using ethanol costs the owner of a E85-equipped vehicle more money than simply using 87-octane gasoline.

In 2011, the Federal government subsidized the ethanol industry to the tune of $6 billion dollars. After three decades of these ethanol subsidies, the Federal government finally allowed the subsidies to quietly expire in January, 2012.

But the ethanol production goes on, unabated.

In the U.S., ethanol is largely refined from corn. Commodity corn requires large inputs of synthetic fertilizers, particularly nitrogen from ammonium nitrate. This is a “flash” fertilizer, design to give new corn plants a boost to help grow quickly. The problem with ammonium nitrate, however, is that it’s highly dissoluble. With spring rains, this creates rapid runoff of ammonium nitrate, creating massive algae blooms in ponds, lakes and rivers. The industrial agriculture companies are fighting this fact, attempting to blame the nitrogen runoff on livestock manure rather than fertilizers (and farms with high-density head counts do represent a problem, but that’s a separate discussion). So our waterways continue to suffer.

Next, industrial farm management requires commodity crops be grown in large fields, with large tractors and tillage equipment for planting, and large combines for harvesting. All this equipment requires large amounts of energy just to grow and harvest such corn, and more energy to turn the corn into ethanol.

Finally, industrial farm management techniques are rapidly depleting our farmland topsoils, creating a not-too-far-off day when topsoils will collapse and food production will come to a halt. I won’t get into the details of why at present, but for those who are interested in more, see page 20 of my paper on Scribd, Urban Redevelopment for Agriculture (see pp. 15-16 on how farming should be pursued, sustainably).

Ethanol is a lie, and it delivers no value to the owner of an E85-etahnol equipped vehicle. Ethanol delivers no value along the processing chain either, and its carbon value is also negligible, considering how much energy input is required to get ethanol to market. And to pour salt in the wound, the Obama Administration has steadfastly refused to rescind the ethanol production floors set by law.

Making matters worse, in the wake of the 2007-08 debt crisis, Wall Street investors poured into commodities, particularly food, energy and metals. This drove synthetic inflation, driving up food prices and creating a crisis in the global food chain that was not based on real demand. (The Arab Spring, one must remember, was sparked by high wheat prices.) Siphoning off more farmland for energy production, while food prices are already elevated, is simply unconscionable.

We have no rational, comprehensive energy policy in this nation, save the one set by narrow, special interests set by fossil-fuel and industrial agriculture industries. And while ethanol may not be the biggest energy issues facing us today, it is certainly one of the biggest farces in energy policy.

There is no reason, whatsoever, for ethanol to exist.

We need to be channeling our all-out efforts and funding on real alternatives, such as hydrogen. We haven’t the time nor money for another farce.

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