Biodiesel and Ethanol

Grassoline Biofuel Myths & Realities

April 2009, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Bruce Dale

The age of oil is ending. Even if we could afford to borrow more than $1 billion per day indefinitely to import oil, we just can't afford the cost of our oil addiction in terms of national security dangers, environmental damage, and economic losses. Biofuels are among a small handful of petroleum alternatives that can simultaneously provide enhanced national security, environmental improvements, and opportunities for broad-based economic growth.

Unfortunately, many myths and misconceptions exist about biofuels. I will deal with some of the myths about ethanol, by far the dominant current biofuel.

Ethanol Production Background

All fuel (and sippin') ethanol is the same. It is made by fermentation of sugars. The sugars can come from sugar cane (Brazil) or from corn grain (U.S.).

"Second-generation" (cellulosic) ethanol will be produced from the sugars in plant cell walls. It can be made from virtually anything derived from a plant, including wood chips, urban waste, straw, crop wastes, hay and yard trimmings, etc.  We can even grow "energy crops," such as trees (willow and poplar are promising species) and highly productive grasses such as switch grass and Miscanthus, for energy content and ethanol conversion.

Maybe a more picturesque and accurate name for cellulosic ethanol is "grassoline." Got the image in your mind? Your lawn clippings turned into fuel for your car? Yes, that's right.

Now let's deal with the four myths.

Myth #1: People are Going to Go Hungry

The idea of turning corn into ethanol conjures up visions of cars taking grain out of hungry people's mouths. Actually, well over 70 percent of the grain we grow is used to feed animals, not people. We really don't "grow food." We grow animal feed instead, and then we eat the meat, milk, eggs, cheese, etc. the animals produce.

We have about 800 million acres of cropland and animal pasture in this country, about 500 million of which produce animal feed, not food consumed directly by human beings. If you want to increase grain supplies (and decrease grain prices, thereby putting a lot of poor Third World farmers out of business), then become a strict vegetarian.

This issue of "food versus fuel" requires facts and logic, not emotionalism. A $3 box of corn flakes has about 5 cents worth of corn. Increased corn prices affect the cost of a few things at the store, but the cost of fuel to move all those groceries around affects the price of literally everything. Converting some surplus grain into ethanol will help hold down food prices. Actually, the use of corn to make ethanol is self-limiting. Increased demand for corn will cause prices to rise to the point where it will no longer be economical to produce ethanol from corn.

Increased ethanol production and the accompanying increase in corn prices from about $2.20 per bushel a few years ago to around $3.50 or so per bushel in 2008 was good. First, many of our rural communities near ethanol plants enjoyed a prosperity they had not seen in a long time. Second, many poor farmers around the world were able to get more money for their products, and thus provide better for their families.

Cheap, tax-subsidized U.S. grain has long been a key factor undermining agricultural societies around the world. The U.S. taxpayer has also benefited. Most of the tax subsidies paid to corn farmers have disappeared with rising corn prices, saving the U.S. treasury over $7 billion a year.

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