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Don't Look to Ethanol to Solve Energy Woes

Don't Look to Ethanol to Solve Energy Woes

Ethanol, fuel from corn. (George Bailey/Dreamstime)

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Monday, 11 June 2018 03:53 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The Independence and Security Act of 2007 decreed that the U.S. use 36 billion gallons of biofuels, including corn ethanol, by 2022. We Americans were not only mandated to use ethanol, but were subjected to pick up the bill for a bewildering set of tax credits, subsidies, tariffs, grants, loans, and other government meddling in order to support ethanol.

Tax credits alone between 1978 and 2012 cost taxpayers as much as $40 billion.

Ethanol, we were told, should be worth the effort and cost, and was marketed to Americans as the ecologically-friendly alternative to gasoline. That advertisement, it turns out, has fallen far short of the promise.

There’s good reason for the failure, most basically due to the fact that corn is one of the worst candidates of any crop for conversion to biofuel. The amount of energy that goes into producing one gallon of ethanol from corn, as opposed to the extra amount liberated at end, gives out a truly pathetic calculus: an additional 28 percent.

Almost four-fifths of a gallon of fuel is spent in producing a single gallon of ethanol. Compared to sugarcane — which yields seven gallons of ethanol for every gallon of fuel invested — corn is outdone by sugar 25 times over.

But even sugar can be bested. Cellulosic ethanol, made from shrubs and trees is far more energy efficient than sugarcane, and biofuel made from algae, the process currently in its infancy, might be the appropriate choice when all is said and done.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that for algal oil to replace all petroleum fuel in the U.S. — while making use even of wastewater and saltwater — only a small fraction of the landmass currently given over to corn production would be required, turning out perhaps up to 100 times what the comparable unit land area now yields.

Americans are let down in other ways as well with ethanol, getting fewer miles per gallon than with gasoline, and spending an extra $10 billion per year on that account according to the Institute for Energy Research. And since ethanol devours 37 percent of our corn crop, the artificial scarcity created winds up costing consumers an additional $3.5 billion on their grocery bills.

Automobile repairs are on the rise too thanks to ethanol, which is more destructive to engine parts than gasoline. Automobile manufacturers have raised the alarm for years about the 10 percent ethanol blend and its corrosive effect on their products.

Now that the government is pushing for an even higher blend of 15 percent ethanol BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen and others are declaring in very plain language that consumers’ warranties may be voided. The American Automobile Association (AAA) has also warned drivers about the risk to their cars posed by ethanol.

Aside from poor gas mileage, higher food bills, and more frequent auto repairs there is a looming global problem that puts these inconveniences in proper perspective: a world food shortage by 2050. In just 32 years the planet’s agricultural output will need double if the expanding population of the world is to be fed by mid-century.

Avoiding malnutrition in developing countries in the coming decades is going to be a task demanding humanity’s full attention and best efforts rather than being sidetracked into dead-ends foisted upon us by dogmatists and special interests. The U.S. should certainly be taking the lead in staving off this potential food crisis.

Making the decision to feed machines rather than people isn’t an improper one, just so long as those machines add exponentially to the total sustenance available for the human race at end. Currently, producing one gallon of ethanol exhausts an amount of corn equal to that needed to feed one adult for two weeks, and that is an unacceptable equation.

Every year the developing world’s economy strengthens and increases the demand for America’s agricultural exports. The breadbasket of the U.S. is a great bulwark against famine and hunger worldwide, and should continue to be into the far future. Its purpose should be to feed humanity — not destroy engines, burden taxpayers, hike up grocery prices and certainly not to be the means to align wrong-headed eco-activists at the EPA with subsidy-crazed lobbyists in Washington.

David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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DavidNabhan
Corn is one of the worst candidates of any crop for conversion to biofuel. The amount of energy that goes into producing one gallon of ethanol from corn, as opposed to the extra amount liberated at end, gives out a truly pathetic calculus: an additional 28 percent.
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