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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Rolling Stone: Ethanol Scam

by Ken Newquist / August 3, 2007

I'm glad to see that some of the more mainstream publications are coming to the realization that ethanol is a boondoggle that's going to end up costing us billions, both at the gas pump and at the dinner table, without making a significant impact on global warming emissions. The latest of these articles is by Jeff Goodell at Rolling Stone , and here's the point that I think everyone needs to understand:

Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World.

Amazing eh? And yet when I talk with people casually about ethanol, they think the biggest problem is that Big Oil is blocking its production and adoption. That's crap; the real problem is that every productive acre of farmland in the U.S. would need to grow corn in order to begin to meet our gasoline needs. While it's true there are alternative crops being considered that are easier to turn into 21st Century moonshine, none come close to meeting the efficiency of gasoline and still require us to plow under vast stretches of farmland to meet our energy needs.

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No one seems to consider the tons of fossil fuels that must be used to produce ethanol, electricity, lubricants, etc.. So we really wouldn't be doing our selves much good. Every one is spending so much time worrying about the goal they aren't looking at how we will get there or the potential consequences.

One of the many problems with ethanol is that, depending on how you do the math, is that you end up using even more energy to create the fuel than you get from burning it. And even worse, it's less efficient that regular gasoline, so while it costs more to produce, you only get something like 80% as much energy as you do from regular gas.

So it's a lose-lose proposition, but it sells to large portions of the population, so politicians are running with it. The hydrogen economy is almost as big of a potential snafu, because moving, storing and managing hydrogen is freaking hard and wishful thinking doesn't make it any easier.

Ultimately, I think the folks who say that there isn't one solution to this problem are the ones that have it right. There's no magic bullet that's going to replace fossil fuels in the short term, and maybe not even in the long term.

From what I've read, there's only one power source that we have today that could make a significant impact on fossil fuel consumption and emissions, and that's nuclear power.

But no one wants to talk about that.

We've come a long way in the development of more efficient batteries and I think that is a viable, short term solution in regards to automobiles. Unfortunately most people won't give up their 8 cylinder gas guzzlers because the electric cars only have 75-100 miles of charge and usually don't reach speeds in excess of 120.
Honestly how often do you need to drive more than 100 miles on average and when do you ever need to go 120?
Granted we would still have to have gasoline powered cars for longer trips because they do happen, but for most people who just do regular day to day driving, electric would work just fine. That would probably take 1/2 the gas powered cars off the road each day.
While Nuclear is another very good alternative, we still need to learn how to properly deal with the down side and waste. The average person fears anything Nuclear. Chernobyl is still too fresh in the minds of the general populace for any thing with the word nuclear attached to have a chance.
There is a lab in New England, I think, that has developed a plasma powered generator that uses garbage to fuel it. It could completely replace standard electric producing facilities and power more homes. It not only would give us a cleaner power source, but it would deal with the millions of tons of garbage we produce each day. There may be downsides to it as well, I honestly haven't researched it too deeply, but what I read seemed very promising.

Wired had a great article on nuclear power about two years ago, talking about next-gen nuke projects and how today's nukes are very different from yesterdays in terms of waste storage, chance of catastrophic failure, etc.

You're right that it's a very much a PR issue; Three Mile Island is also fresh in people's mind, but what they don't realize is that Three Mile Island was a *success*. The problem was contained, and it didn't turn into Chernobyl, which was a worst case scenario (in terms of both design and maintenance).

There are some prominent Greens who are starting to realize that if you want to get serious about emissions, and do it in a timely manner, you're going to have to have nukes. And it is doable -- France produces 80% of its power from nuclear power plants. Granted, it's a smaller country, but even if 50% of America's power was produced by nukes, it would make a hell of a difference.

I think the region probably makes the difference with regards the viability of using an electric car for day to day transport. I used to commute into New Jersey, driving 100 miles round trip for seven years, in stop-and-go high way traffic. And that's not unusual around here, which is probably why you see a lot more hybrids.

That said, having an electric car as a secondary vehicle seems like it could be a viable strategy.

I want to talk about nuclear power!

I've been a big (as in BIG) proponent of nuclear power for more than a decade, still being a loyal supporter even when the Ukranian exchange students in college shouted down my support in International Relations class.

But yes, making ethanol from corn is silly: doesn't make good energy sense, and it doesn't make good economic sense. The reason's why countries like Brazil can successfully produce ethanol (IIRC I recall producing ethanol from sugar cane is something like 7 times more efficient than corn) is due to deliberate governmental influence, and climate. I don't have any idea how much Brazilians drive, but I would bet its less than Americans (even with Brazil's relative prosperity).

That being said, you don't hear too much about this:

While I'm not sure if this would be a perfect solution (and while the idea of electric cars is an interesting one, the only way it's going to be "green" is if the power used to charge the batteries similarly is not reliant of fossil fuels...besides which, what is the "carbon" footprint of making an electric car -- that is also important), I think a hybrid solution -- one incorporating several different parts of the puzzle, will be the best and most efficient means...


In this day and age secondary cars are common place. Most people I know have 2-3 cars, so having 1 electric around to take the kids to school, go to work (if it is close enough), do the shopping, etc.., would not be outside the realm of possibility. I commute 57 miles roundtrip to school each day and could definitely use an electric for that.
Did you hear about the car, I think it was a school project in Japan, that ran on 195 AA batteries? I reached speeds of, I think, 75 mph. I don't know how long it was able to run, but still on AA batteries a couple of hours is impressive.

I think the article I read on the Plasma generator was in Wired. I'm not positive, but other than Wizard, Comic Buyers Guide, Dragon, Dungeon(I just received my last issue in the mail the other day), Discover and Skeptic, that's about the only other mag I read regularly.