Ethanol May Not Be Energy Panacea

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Construction will begin soon on another ethanol plant in Ohio. Governor Taft praised the project’s future economic benefits this week at a groundbreaking. Ethanol’s proponents say it’s a major solution to America’s petroleum dilemma. Critics, though, say it’s too expensive and requires too much energy to produce to be a viable alternative.

With ever-rising gas prices, the ethanol band wagon is getting more and more crowded. At a groundbreaking ceremony near Coshocton, Governor Taft reeled off a list of ethanol’s benefits.

“This project is good for Ohio farmers,” Taft said, “It’s good for Coshocton County, it’s good for Ohio’s economy. It’s good for our environment and it’s good for our country as we lessen our dependence on oil imports from unreliable parts of the world.”

For years, politicians have been pushing ethanol, a domestically produced fuel that’s usually made from corn. The Agriculture industry sees ethanol as a new market for American farmers. Ohio is the fourth largest ethanol consuming state in the U.S. But to date, there’s not a single plant producing ethanol in the state, though one did operate briefly. And fewer than a dozen gas stations statewide sell E85 to the public. Just last week Governor Taft signed into law a bill designed to boost ethanol demand. It requires that state agencies purchase only flexible fuel passenger cars and light trucks. FFV’s can run on gasoline or a blend with up to 85% ethanol.

At a state parking lot in west Columbus, Jeff Westhoven, a deputy director at Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services, gets behind the wheel of a new 4-door sedan.

“This is a 2006 Dodge Stratus, it’s a flexible fuel vehicle, and it runs on E85 or straight unleaded gasoline or any combination of the two.”

Westhoven heads to one of only two state-owned E85 filling stations. But both are located in Columbus, which means that the 2,300 flexible fuel passenger cars now in the state fleet must use gasoline when they’re away from the Columbus area.

“When we’re accelerating here as we pull onto the freeway,” Westhoven says, “You don’t notice any difference in acceleration. The National Renewable Energy Lab did some studies on power and determined that the ethanol version actually had 3% more acceleration power than gasoline.”

But that subtle boost comes with a tradeoff. Ethanol critic and Duquesne University professor Kent Moors says gasoline delivers more energy than the same amount of ethanol.

“Ethanol provides on average 71% of the energy output that gasoline does,” Moors says. “So for each one gallon of gasoline we’d be replacing with ethanol, we’d need at least 1.4 gallons of ethanol.”

There’s also the expense involved in production. Raising corn requires energy for tilling, planting and reaping, fertilizer, hybrid seeds and the tractor. A researcher at Cornell University, David Pimentel, says it takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. Duquesne’s Professor Moors says a large scale conversion to ethanol would require a massive increase in cultivated acreage.

“If half the cars in the United States were switched from using gasoline to ethanol we would need over two and a half times the amount of cropland in the United States merely to produce corn and merely to produce corn for fuel,” Moors says.

Most corn grown in the U.S. today is used as livestock feed. But could local ethanol production be a future panacea for Ohio’s farmers? Coshocton County Agent Paul Golden doesn’t think so. At best, Golden says, local farmers would only receive 10 to 15 cents more per bushel, and that’s only because shipping charges will be less for Ohio farmers.

“What we’re going to see is a transportation advantage,” Golden says, “Because it’s going to cost so much to transport grain here from all over the Midwest.”

Most corn will arrive from distant markets because local growers won’t be able to provide the huge quantities the ethanol plant will need when it begins production about a year from now.

“They’re going to use about 28,000,000 bushels of grain and we grow 3,000,000 bushels,” Golden says. All the surrounding counties don’t grow enough. So they’ll still have to bring in grain from outside the area.”

The American consumer may still be counting on ethanol for relief from escalating gas prices. But the national average for ethanol recently approached $4 a gallon, almost $1 higher than for a gallon of gas. Ethanol’s proponents believe increased ethanol production will bring the price down.

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