Is Ethanol (E85) Good or Bad?

ethanol good or badYou’ve probably heard of E85, or maybe you’ve even seen a few gas stations selling this stuff. Perhaps you’ve read that it’s the new, greener alternative fuel for cars that’s supposed to help wean us off our foreign dependency on oil. After all, anything that can achieve that is a good thing, right? Well, maybe not.

Ethanol is basically a high proof alcohol (just like we drink) which is created by fermenting organic matter such as sugar cane, corn, wheat, grains, and even our trash (source: Technology Review) and turning it into a fuel we can burn in our cars. This is done in large refining plants all across the country, but mostly near large farms. Because ethanol burns “clean” (no residue), we can mix it with gasoline and use it in most internal combustion engines with no ill affects to the vehicle. In fact, some states mandate that gasoline contain at least 10% ethanol to reduce the affects of smog and as a substitute for the additive MTBE.

Things in Moderation is usually good. Most cars can safely burn gasoline that has 10% ethanol mixed in, also called E10. But problems start to arise when we increase the ethanol content of our fuel to 85%, also called E85, as a substitution for regular lead-free gasoline. What once seemed like a good idea, suddenly takes on a more sinister role and has some pretty serious consequences attached to it. Proponents of the E85 craze are blinded by money and are not fully disclosing all the problems associated with mass producing large quantities of ethanol.

For some, E85 isn’t a solution because their car is not a flex-fuel (FF) vehicle, which means it cannot burn the fuel.

More importantly, though, creating ethanol requires a lot of energy. Some reports have shown that the whole creation process results in a negative net energy balance, that is, more energy is required to create ethanol compared to what we get out of it. This will do nothing to lessen the energy draw on our powers grids. Furthermore, most of our energy generated by our power plants comes from burning coal, a fossil fuel. In other words, we are by and large substituting oil/gasoline with a lot more coal when it comes to producing ethanol.

The fermentation process by which ethanol is created is not as clean as you’d think. During this process, a lot of carbon dioxide is created, which is the same gas some think is responsible for global warming. The proponents of ethanol argue that the amount of plant material grown to produce the ethanol consumes the carbon dioxide that is released in the fermentation process, but no scientific evidence has proven that as of this writing. However, carbon dioxide isn’t the only problem.

Official U.S. government federal records show a single Archer-Daniels-Midland Company corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa produced nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004. The EPA considers an ethanol plant as a “major source” of pollution if it produces more than 100 tons of any one pollutant per year.

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Brief exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause asthma like symptoms with tightness in the chest and wheezing. Prolonged exposures in children can have long term consequences because it can alter the lung’s defense mechanisms. Nitrogen oxides can cause acid rain which has implications on the environment, vegetation and the acidity of lakes and rivers. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short and long-term adverse health effects. That’s not to say oil refining plants produce any less pollution, but it does show that ethanol production is not as “green” as some make it out to be. In fact, last year the Environmental Defense, a national environmental group, ranked the Clinton plant as the 26th largest emitter of carcinogenic compounds in the U.S. As our production rates of ethanol increase, so will these specific types of pollutants.

The other problem is …

when ethanol is burned, a greater amount of ozone is created as compared with burning the same amount of gasoline.

Environmental Science and Technology

Ozone is a huge component in city smog and has serious affects on human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone can irritate your respiratory system, causing you to start coughing, feel an irritation in your throat and/or experience an uncomfortable sensation in your chest. Ozone can aggravate asthma, and can inflame and damage cells that line your lungs. Ozone may also aggravate chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system. Lastly, ozone may cause permanent lung damage. These effects can be worse in children and exercising adults. In large cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Houston where there could be a large number of E85 cars on the road, ozone levels will skyrocket.

Moreover, ethanol contains approximately 34% less energy per unit volume than gasoline, and therefore will result in a 34% reduction in miles per US gallon (source: Wikipedia). In other words, if a car gets 20 mpg using gasoline, it will only get about 15 mpg when using the same amount of E85. So, more ethanol is needed to drive the same distance then had gasoline been used. Any cost savings between gasoline and E85 is wiped out.

The other consequence is that much more farmland will be needed to grow the crops required for the production of ethanol, and space is very limited.

ethanol good or badThe ethanol craze creates a direct consequence in that the price of corn, wheat, grains and beef will start to increase. In 2006, U.S. production of ethanol reached 4.8 billion gallons, exceeding the previous year’s total production of 3.9 billion gallons by 23%. And in 2007, ethanol production capacity currently stands at 6.8 billion gallons. In order to make more ethanol, farmers have to plant more crops, but with land being the limiting factor they are left with two choices; plant a crop for food consumption which yields less money, or a crop which fetches top dollar due to the demand for ethanol and government subsidies. Farmers operate a business, and they will plant the crop that makes the most money.

President Bush announced plans to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years, and ethanol is a keystone in that plan. This objective along with the increase in corn prices creates a strong incentive for farmers to cash in on the ethanol craze. In doing so, they sacrifice plating other crops in favor or corn, which causes a shortage in their supply. This in turn drives the price for commodities made from these crops such as corn tortillas, breads, cereals and other basic food items, higher. Sugar has already doubled in price from last year due to the demand for ethanol made from sugar cane and wheat as well as corn are also starting to rise in price. If this trend keeps its pace and the demand for ethanol keeps getting stronger, we are simply substituting our foreign dependency on oil for higher food prices, which will have much greater and devastating consequences.

Furthermore, a gallon of E85 isn’t any cheaper than a gallon of gasoline at this point in time. For this reason, state governments provide subsidies to lower prices and encourage the use of E85. As an example, Illinois doesn’t charge a sales tax on E85, which in turn brings the price for a gallon of E85 close to that of gasoline. As the usage of E85 becomes more prevalent, state governments will have to forfeit more money in subsidies to encourage its use.

It’s crunch time. Gasoline supplies are running low and the price for oil has already exceeded $120 a barrel. We need a solution, but we need a solution that makes sense and doesn’t substitute one problem for another. Ethanol is not a good solution and will never supply our needs when it comes to fuel. It’s just not feasible. Even it we replaced every crop in the U.S. with corn and used the harvest to exclusively produce ethanol, it wouldn’t even come close in replacing gasoline made from oil. If we truly wanted to replace gasoline with ethanol, we would have to import it from other countries, just like we do oil now.

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