Monday, January 29, 2007

Myths About Ethanol

It's not uncommon to hear about Ethanol in the headlines. I previously blogged about a segment of The National that addressed the Ethanol vs. Oil debate:

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.

This article out of Chicago Sun-Times and the Cato Institue today examines the myths about Ethanol.

Ethanol reduces air pollution. A review of the literature by Australian academic Robert Niven found that, when evaporative emissions are taken into account, E10 (fuel that's 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, the standard mix) increases emissions of total hydrocarbons, nonmethane organic compounds, and air toxics compared to conventional gasoline. The result is greater concentrations of photochemical smog and toxic compounds.

Ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions. At best, E10 reduces greenhouse gas emissions by from zero to 5 percent; pure ethanol by 12 percent. The International Energy Agency, however, estimates that it costs about $250 to reduce a ton of greenhouse gases this way, or more than 10 times what Yale economist William Nordhaus thinks is economically sensible given the economics of climate change. Ethanol as an anti-warming policy is what academics refer to as "crazy talk."

I was watching Jim Cramer's Mad Money the other night and he, too, was explaining why ethanol is not the be all and the end all. A few months ago I watched a Dateline episode that was very pro-ethanol.

While there are some merits to ethanol debate, it's good to consider if it is really worth it economically and environmentally. While I don't know a lot of about the techincal scientific and economical calculations, it is clear that the solution to energy is not an easy one.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The largest benefit, and the one conveniently ignored by all of the detractors, is that ethanol (unlike oil) is a short-term renewable resource. All of the evidence so far says that oil is non-renewable (or very long term renewable at best according to some speculation not yet verified). This is ignored b/c detractors are typically funded by oil companies and this simple fact is extrememly devastating to their case.

A sustainable energy strategy requires renewable resources.

Mon Jan 29, 02:40:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But you can't grow corn without huge amounts of fertilizer and chemicals (all made from oil) and corn has to be dried before it can be stored and used and the only way that can be done right now is with huge amounts of propane. This makes ethanol not a renewable resource because once the oil runs out to grow the corn and dry it etc., no more ethanol.

Mon Jan 29, 07:42:00 PM EST  
Blogger Spitfire said...

Anon # 1: I agree that we have to be aware of who is sponsering/funding any type of study or report. While I agree that sustainable energy requires renewable resources, which ones do you propose? Wind does not nearly have enough power to produce the kind of energy we consume. I'm not asking for a challenge, I'm just truly curious, because I don't know everything on the topic.

Anon # 2: I agree. If you read the Cato/Chicago Sun articles I linked it supports your statement:
MYTH:
Ethanol is a renewable fuel. According to a group of academics from UC Berkeley who published in Science magazine last year, 5 percent to 26 percent of the energy content of ethanol is "renewable." The balance of ethanol's energy actually comes from the staggering amount of coal, natural gas and nuclear power necessary to produce corn and process it into ethanol.

Tue Jan 30, 11:34:00 PM EST  

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