Ethanol has made its way into the global markets and has been adopted my automobile makers. Being ethanol has the advantage of having a partial acceptance by consumers and the auto industry it does make sense to continue to develop that technology.
The biggest issue with ethanol in America is the source used to make it. As far as the amount of gallons per acre that can be produced by a plant, corn is very inefficient. This directly causes farm land prices to go up. Other plants like hemp, switch grass, and sugar cane are far more efficient than corn. In addition, corn requires a lot more fertilizers to grow which can pollute out lakes, streams, and ground waters. Plus, using corn, which is a primary food source for people, raises food costs and lowers humanitarian aid. Mother Jones has an interesting flow chart that shows the effect of using corn as a fuel source.
Why do we, as a country, use corn for ethanol production when there are so many better sources out there? Sugar ethanol burns over twice as clean as corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol from sources like switch grass, hemp, and forestry waste, burns over 4 ½ times cleaner. Right now, we could import ethanol made from sugar cane directly from Brazil for much cheaper than we could produce ethanol from corn. Our government, however, chooses to tax those ethanol imports so much that they no longer make good economic sense. Some scholarly discussions have implied that this taxation is being done to keep the prices of corn in America artificially high.
I came across another blog article by Ali Sakhtur, entitled Brazilian ethanol is the best hope for replacing oil, says BP’s Bob Dudley. In this article Sakhtur says that “
Ethanol derived from Brazilian sugar-cane offers the best hope of replacing oil as the world’s main source of fuel when it runs out, according to Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive. […] The alcohol extracted from sugar cane is cheaper, less polluting and more efficient than that from corn, for example, produced in the US. […] Brazil also has a huge advantage in relation to its competitors. The climate and soil are ideal and the sugarcane crop does not have to compete for areas with food crops, as happens in the case of America. […] BP is channelling its research into renewable fuels accordingly, with 40pc of its $1bn (£625m) annual spend in this area targeted at Brazilian ethanol, Mr Dudley told the weekly Brazilian news magazine Veja.
Below is a chart that the EPA put out. It shows the difference of greenhouse gases that are emitted when creating an equivalent amount of energy, compared to gasoline.
As you can see in the chart, switching to an ethanol made from corn does create 21.8% less greenhouse gases which is great. Ethanol made from sugar reduces the amount of greenhouse gases by more than twice that of corn, at a rate of 56% reduction. However, using ethanol that was made from a cellulosic plant source (such as hemp, switch grass and forestry waste) has the biggest effect and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by 90.9%.
Switch grass is another excellent cellulosic source for making ethanol, much like hemp is. I’ve scoured the internet and cannot find any good reason why we are not using switch grass for making ethanol. It seems to have been dismissed as a crop all together.
According to Biello, “[switchgrass] ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies. […] Vogel and his team report this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that switchgrass will store enough carbon in its relatively permanent root system to offset 94 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted both to cultivate it and from the derived ethanol burned by vehicles. Of course, this estimate also relies on using the leftover parts of the grass itself as fuel for the biorefinery”.
Switchgrass doesn’t need prime farm land to grow either, so it doesn’t compete with food crops for land. Biello states that we could use the “[more] than 35 million acres (14.2 million hectares) of marginal land that farmers are currently paid not to plant under the terms of USDA's Conservation Reserve Program”.
Hemp would be a great option for cellulosic ethanol production because it grows really fast, it burns much cleaner than corn, and it produces a lot more gallons per acre than corn. Unfortunately though, industrial hemp is classified as an illegal drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, despite its very low THC levels. You couldn’t get high off of industrial hemp if you tried. This forces us to import hemp, in which case it gets taxed at a much higher rate than it would if it was grown right here in the U.S.I agree that we need to move off of fossil fuels and onto renewable fuel sources. Ethanol is a great start to this and has a lot of potential. I just don't agree with using our food sources for fuels. We could start importing ethanol derived from sugar right now, and then start moving to a cellulosic ethanol source like switch grass or industrial hemp.
Mad Money: The Best Trade on Ethanol. CNBC. 28 Jul 2010. Edit. Tom Brennan, Perf. Jim Cramer. 9 Apr. 2011. < http://www.cnbc.com/id/38448335/The_Best_Trade_on_Ethanol_Growth >
Shakhtur, Ali. “Brazilian ethanol is the best hope for replacing oil, says BP’s Bob Dudley”. 16 Feb 2011. 9 Apr. 2011. < http://alishakhtur.com/2011/02/16/brazilian-ethanol-is-the-best-hope-for-replacing-oil-says-bps-bob-dudley/ >
Biello, David. “Grass Makes Better Ethanol than Corn Does”. 8 Jan 2008. Scientific American. 9 Apr. 2011. < http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=grass-makes-better-ethanol-than-corn >
“Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Expanded Renewable and Alternative Fuels Use”. Apr 2007. Environmental Protection Agency. 9 Apr. 2011. < http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/news/pdfs/greenhouse_gas_impacts.pdf >
Jones, Mother. “The Corn Ethanol Effect”. Diminishing Marginal Utility. 6 Nov. 2007. 9 Apr. 2011. < http://www.diminishingmarginalutility.com/blog/hydrocarbon_issues/ >