Ethanol is the Devil

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Rants
Tags: ,

Yeah, I said it.  Fuck Ethanol.  That stuff is a terrible terrible idea.  And I’m going to tell you why.

First off, ethanol is inefficient.  I’ll defeat the pro-ethanol efficiency argument right now – the argument for it is that the higher octane rating (about 104 octane for E85).  That’s all well and good if you’re running a car with extremely high compression, advanced timing, or lots of boost.  Unfortunately, most flex fuel vehicles don’t take advantage of this.  The reality is that ethanol has far less power than gasoline.

A gallon of E85 has an energy content of about 80,000 BTU, compared to gasoline’s 124,800 BTU, so you would need approximately 1.56 gallons of E85 to travel the same distance as you could on 1 gallon of gasoline, by the calculations.  The reality is that vehicles optimized for E85 don’t get quite as horrible fuel economy, but close.  The rule of thumb is that ethanol has about 70% of the fuel economy of normal gasoline.

But, you say, its cheaper than regular gas?  Really?  Not when you take into account the lower fuel economy.  In fact, recent testing indicated that running ethanol could result in costs that were 22.8% MORE than running gasoline, simply due to the fact that ethanol was cheaper, but not cheap enough to make up for its lack in energy content.

Now, you argue, so what – I’m willing to live with that just like some people are willing to pay a premium for a hybrid or electric car, even when the cost of purchase far exceeds the gas savings an average consumer would see.  There are further drawbacks.

First, its terrible for older vehicles.  Alcohol is a corrosive solvent; anything exposed to ethanol must be made of corrosion-resistant materials.  Now, E10 doesn’t seem to pose a huge problem to classic cars.  However, as ethanol content increases, so will the stress on parts that weren’t designed to run the fuel.  In fact, the Senate proposed a bill to switch from mandatory E10 up to E15.  Now, obviously, this was a push by the corn lobby as a way to get rid of their surplus ethanol which the consumer has clearly rejected.  In a free market, they would not need to mandate ethanol – we could simply have pumps that dispense E85, E10, E15, or pure gasoline in various grades and let the marketplace speak – in reality, the marketplace has spoken an uniformly rejected E85, and I suspect that the marketplace would overwhelmingly choose pure gasoline over E10 (which has resulted in diminished fuel economy even as we legislate improved fuel economy).  If E15 becomes a reality, the collector car enthusiast will be required to replace their fuel filter, fuel lines, carbs, and potentially even upgrade their fuel system to pump more fuel so that the car can receive enough energy, due to the diminished power of ethanol infused fuels.

Furthermore, ethanol is terrible for the environment.  Growing corn is an intensive process that requires pesticides, fertilizer, heavy equipment and transport.  Any of the clean air/carbon savings are getting eaten up in this process, even if it is reducing dependence on foreign oil.  Commercial Farming accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and 41% of that is directly attributed to agricultural production.   One just needs to take a look at the dead zone at the end of the Mississippi River Delta Dead Zone to see the effects of industrialized farming run off on the environment.

Satellite image of the northern Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi Delta showing hypoxic coastal water (light blue). This color change is due to excessive nutrients being washed into the sea.

Finally, ecological devastation aside, ethanol production has had a significant impact on food prices.  First, think about crop displacement.  A single acre of corn has the potential to produce 300 gallons of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace a small percentage of petroleum product usage, American farmers would need to dedicate more than 675 million acres, (over 70 percent) of the nation’s 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock.  Second, the reality is here – 24% of the United States corn crop is mandated to go to the production of Ethanol (no doubt a result of politicians rewarding support from their constituents).  The result?  Corn prices have almost doubled, from $3.49 a bushel in July 2010 to $6.10 in January 2011.

So there, I said it.  I’d rather have dependence on foreign oil.  Even if the US only gets 48% of its oil from foreign sources.  Until a real, viable alternative energy source exists I’ll take the lesser of two evils.

  1. Eric says:

    Your argument leaves alot of holes which I am not going to exploit now, but for the basis of corn ethanol you are entirely correct. On the contrary there are much more efficient means to come by ethanol (sugar cane, algae, etc) that yield much high/greater results and don’t have the extent of the negative impact corn based fuels do.

    As for the collector car market, thats another poor argument from a car enthusiast (I am with you). But logic/economics would state that the majority of car owners own cars newer than the E10 switch which in most cases has made cars ethanol compliant. Collect/Classic make up much less than 1% of the fuel market place, I am sure the lobbyists, environmentalists, other stupid groups don’t care.

    The fundamentals are in place for non-corn based ethanol to be produced at a cost (sans infrastructure) of 60-70% of gasoline based fuels, and it burns cleaner. There is a ton of pros to ethanol based fuels and they greatly outweigh the cons. Get the corn lobbyists out of Ethanol and there is a bright future, in my opinion.

  2. Alex says:

    You’re both correct. The problem is not with ethanol per se, but with corn. You can derive the same amount of ethanol from flaxseed, for instance, without using anywhere near the acreage of corn. Like Eric said, lots of other alternatives exist.

    But of course, the corn lobby has little regard for the big picture, and I suspect they will do what they can to make sure THEY are the primary source of ethanol. Who cares if the end consumer gets shafted, as long as they’re raking in the cash and their shills are in Congress? I fear this web is far too tightly woven now to take it apart.

    And let’s not even get into climate change – it’s obvious to anybody that the government is merely looking for ways to control the energy that we use, and when some volcanic eruption releases more greenhouse gas in one day than all the world’s cars for a century, the idea that we’ve had, or can have, some significant impact on climate is laughable. People need to wake the hell up. Meanwhile, I’ll keep driving on dinosaurs for as long as possible.

  3. 91z says:

    If you engineered an engine to run only on E85 or even E100, it would be able to get very close to the gas mileage that a gas motor can achieve. The higher octane rating would allow you to run higher compression, and potentially use a smaller displacement motor to achieve the same power figures as a gas motor of larger size. Also, a small turbocharged motor may be engineered. Being in Wisconsin, I know multiple people who setup their cars to run E85 only. Now, this is for performance not efficiency. But they have nothing but good things to say about E85. I will say that I completely agree with the arguement against corn derived ethanol.

  4. 91z says:

    Forgot to mention, the Automotive X Prize winner used……………..E85!

  5. Cmiller998 says:

    Ethanol would be comparably cheaper if it weren’t for all of the financial incentives (and enormous profits) had by the oil industry — plus the oil industry has our army to protect their interests all around the world. . .what are the costs associated with supporting and protecting the oil industry? You reference the “corn lobby”. . .the “corn lobby” is hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the big guns of the oil lobby.

    The efficiencies of growing corn have dramatically improved. Corn yields have doubled since 1980 all while using less fertilizers and pesticides. This is due in part to improved seed genetics. Today’s seeds have built-in pest resistance which decreases or nearly eliminates the need for pesticide use.

    You say that the price of corn has doubled from July 2010 to January 2011. . .what does that have to do with ethanol production? Not much changed with ethanol production during that time period of the last half of 2010. The price increase is mainly due to increased demand from the Asian market due to their economic growth. Along with that, US beef and pork exports to the Asian market are on track to have record exports this year.

    Ethanol from corn will not be the perfect answer to solve our energy needs, but it is a step in the right direction to finding a more sustainable / renewable fuel.

    Long and short if it is I would rather support the American farmer than the (domestic or foreign)
    oil industry.

  6. Seth Stewart says:

    You are comletely correct.
    I used to advocate the use of ethanol, but then I did some test.
    Ethanol decreases fuel economy. Ethanol is screwing up food production. Ethanol is very corrosive. Ethanol absorbs water into the fuel.
    I appreciate you realizing that Ethanol is Terrible.

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