Fuel's Gold

Okay, it was lame, that State of the Union speech. A little blip about “global climate change” (woo-hoo!), a few nods to ethanol. Nothing epic like last year’s “addicted to oil.” But the news that George Bush likes biofuels, combined with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s renewed interest in alternative fuels for California cars, has got everyone talking about ethanol again. Is it the fuel of the future? Will it slow the pace of climate change by reducing car pollution? Will it cause the price of tortillas to go through the roof in Mexico? And why does Chevron like it so much?

Answers: Maybe. Maybe. Probably not (ethanol and tortillas use different kinds of corn). Because they can still make money on it.

I’ll make it easier for you. Corn-based ethanol: Evil. Grain-based ethanol: Bad. Cellulosic ethanol (made from the same stuff of cat litter — waste husks, sawdust, paper pulp, etc.): Good. Cellulosic ethanol + biodiesel from rapeseed and waste oil + plus forcing automakers to produce cars that get better mileage + bike lanes + living closer to work . . . aw, forget it. It’s too good to ever be true.

Way back in 2001, Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel did the math on corn-based ethanol, and came up with this: An acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that acre of corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre.

In other words, corn would have to be even more heavily subsidized than it already is to produce cost-efficient energy crops, and it would take so much petroleum to grow it the net carbon load on the atmosphere would hardly decrease at all.

Ethanol from other crops, like soy, isn’t much better: You can’t get much ethanol out of feed stock. For every unit of energy invested in producing it, soy ethanol yields only about 1.6 units; soy biodiesel gets roughly 3.4 units from every unit invested. But if you make biodiesel from rapeseed, eight big units of energy emerge from just a single unit invested. Why aren’t we doing it? I mean, besides the nitrogen issue (biofuels emit more nitrogen, which turns to ground-level ozone in the sunlight), something that can be eliminated with better emissions-control technology?

The problem is that we’re looking for the One Big Thing that can solve all our energy problems and allow us to live the same lives we live now — drive the same big cars, commute the same miles to work. But only if we attack our energy consumption on a number of fronts will we kick our addiction — and at the same time address a whole slew of other problems, including obesity, pollution, traffic congestion and the intense isolation and fracturing of communities that has caused us to welcome surveillance cameras on every corner.

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