The Drive Is On To Find Alternative Fuel Sources

By Jerry Garrett

April 4, 2008 6 min read


The drive is on to find alternative fuel sources

By Jerry Garrett

Copley News Service

A recent report issued by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based global economic think tank, noted on the differences in greenhouse gas emissions from cars burning gasoline-only fuel and fuels made from various forms of ethanol:

- Corn ethanol: 0 to 3 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction.

- Sugar cane ethanol: 50 to 70 percent reduction.

- Cellulosic ethanol: 90-plus percent.

Which form of ethanol production is the United States, and in turn, its taxpayers, subsidizing? The answer is corn ethanol.

The government further helps America's corn ethanol producers by levying a 51-cent import tariff against every gallon of ethanol produced overseas from sugar cane.

The cleanest choice of ethanol production, cellulosic, is far from commercial viability; production of it is underfunded, insufficiently researched and the furthest from commercial delivery, the OECD report noted.

Corn ethanol has been blamed for raising costs of corn-based food crops, because food production is being diverted to ethanol production. Corn ethanol production also affects the price of other food crops such as wheat, barley and soybeans because it is economically more attractive for farmers to switch from those crops to subsidized corn-raising.

Corn ethanol is marginally less costly (some critics think it may even cost more) to manufacture than a gallon of gasoline. Corn ethanol actually requires fossil fuels to run the refineries that make it; so the business case for its production is also in question.

The cheapest, easiest to obtain and most readily available form of ethanol available is sugar cane ethanol from Brazil. But because of the import levies on sugar cane ethanol, very little of it is imported.

Stratfor, a strategic planning newsletter, pointed out in a recent article that Brazil "has developed a fuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and comes from a place that is politically stable and friendly to both the European Union and United States." And Brazil has a surplus of it, ready to export. But the government doesn't seem interested.

Brazil has perfected its ethanol production to such a degree that it no longer imports any petroleum.

But critics say that Brazilian sugar cane plantations sometimes employ unfair or abusive labor practices.

Meanwhile, the United States has done little to alleviate its fossil fuel dependence. The Bush administration has targeted the year 2022 as the date when domestic ethanol production is projected to be ramped up to levels significant enough to replace oil as the source for at least some of the nation's energy needs. Until 2022, it would appear the balance of the nation's energy appetite will continue to be quenched by oil.

The OECD report suggests government subsidies, such as "set-asides," should be ended for those growing corn for ethanol. The European Union has been giving farmers set-asides, wherein part of a farmer's available land is left fallow for a year or two to let the soil rest and to keep grain prices artificially high by keeping it in shorter supply.

Such set-asides have been especially difficult to justify this year, as widespread drought cut the yield of the crops that were actually planted, leading to a sparse harvest. Plus, a significant amount of acreage was diverted to corn-as-food to ethanol production instead. Prices of food crops worldwide have soared. The OECD said import tariffs on fuels, such as sugar cane ethanol, ought to be removed. Many have also called for a ban on using food crops for ethanol production.

Ethanol isn't fussy; it can be made any number of ways. And should meaningful cellulosic ethanol production ever get off the ground, it could easily be made from inedible crops like switch grass - or even garbage.

General Motors announced in January that it has entered into a partnership with a cellulosic ethanol start-up that could produce fuel without using food crops. GM has led the automobile industry with installing systems on its cars so that they may run on blends of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. So far, ethanol automobile fuel is available only in scattered regions of the country.

Other possible automotive fuels such as hydrogen, biodiesel and compressed natural gas are experiencing problems establishing marketplace presence, due to a lack of infrastructure (i.e., fueling stations) to make them available. BMW, GM and Honda have hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road in various test programs, but so far they can be refueled at only a handful of locations near major metropolitan areas.

The test vehicles also have very limited cruising ranges, so they can't stray too far from the few refueling stations available to them. Other "future fuels" that have been suggested, such as solar panels, water and even compressed air, have progressed little beyond the idea stage.

Ethanol remains the fuel closest to mass availability, but there seems to be a rising chorus of critics who say America is erring by supporting ethanol production from the worst possible choice - corn.

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