Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ethanol vs. Oil Debate

Believe it or not, there was something good on The National. A report on the ethanol debate. [Watch from 41:15 to 52:15 (needs Real Player)]

A couple months ago I watched a segment on Dateline about Ethanol in Brazil and how wonderful it was. But I wondered if it was too good to be true about Ethanol. The CBC's National actually had a balanced perspective on the issue of Ethanol. There is no transcript, but I've highlighted the major claims/points:

-The narrator/reporter asks an important question: "But could our modern economy run on Ethanol?"

-John Riley is an agricultural economist at MIT and has studied the Ethanol debate for 25 years. "When you look at the current situation. The idea that somehow fuel ethanol will be a major replacement for oil demand, it's really not plausible."

-Ethanol has never really taken off because oil has always been cheaper.

-With all the investment in the ethanol industry will it become the a bigger part of the energy picture, but enough to end dependence on oil? The experts say, No.

-Will ethanol lower the prices at the pumps. Experts say probably not.

-But what about environmental costs? Is ethanol better for the planet? To answer that you have to do the math. It's called the Life Cycle Equation: Ethanol's life cycle begins with solar energy, the sun, the grow the plants. The plants also suck harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But crops need fertilizer and water which means adding chemicals and using fuel for tractors. And then more fuel to harvest the plants and then truck them to the factory , which also uses power to turn the crops into ethanol, which cannot be moved by pipeline, so it will have to be trucked to the fueling station, where it can finally be put into a car. So add it up comparing energy in with energy out, most experts agree there is only a modest gain.

-There are also land use concerns. In Brazil, where ethanol from sugar cane makes up 40 per cent of fuel used. There is concern about cutting down the Rain Forest to free up more land. Even if every bit of arable land in the world was used to grow crops for ethanol it would still only meet a fraction of the worlds energy needs.

-Scientists also say there is hope in genetically altering plants so they can grow faster and can be made into ethanol easier.


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