Ethanol is not the fuel of the future for U.S.

By Gerry Calhoun
March 22, 2010 , Tennessee Voices

The Tennessee Voices article on ethanol by Jaime Dachelet ("Ethanol provides many benefits," March 10) reads like a free advertisement for Eco-Energy, a business that markets ethanol.

The writer, their director of public relations, dismisses as "bugaboo" any engine problems related to this form of alcohol distilled from corn.

Yet, as my friend and mechanic of a decade says, "Think about the corrosion and melting of plastic parts by alcohol," including plastic components in some fuel injectors. The article also ignores the volumes of scientific data proving the inefficiencies of ethanol. A car that gets 21 mpg on gasoline gets only 14 mpg on E-85.

Ethanol lobbyists have big influence

If ethanol is so superior to gasoline, why do we pay a 51-cent per gallon subsidy to use it? Why do we have a 50-cent protective tariff on each gallon we import from Brazil? Why do we pay hundreds of thousands to subsidize building each ethanol distillery? Does anybody expect the farm bloc to allow these perks to expire this year as scheduled?

Instead, we have the ethanol industry lobbying our federal government to raise ethanol content in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent. The result: more taxpayer subsidies, lower mpg levels, higher gasoline sales and increased pollution.

When gasoline cost $4 per gallon, ethanol producers coined money. With prices and delivery rates down, co-op distilleries are closing all over the corn belt. Farms mortgaged to build these installations now face foreclosure, while Archer Daniel Midland buys them at pennies on the dollar.

When pump prices inevitably rise again, the farmers will be serfs to agri-business. Then the federal mandates that drove this ethanol experiment will become the villains.

Many already suffer from these policies. In Los Angeles, the American Lung Association tied increased asthma attacks to combinations of gasoline and ethanol consumption, especially E-85. Pulling CO2-absorbing fallow land back into production increases fertilization and enlarges the "dead zone" in the Gulf, further endangering marine life.

Substitutes needed, but not ethanol

Far worse, diverting 30 percent of a corn harvest to make motor fuel forces many people in undeveloped countries to go hungry. During peak fuel cost, UN officials estimate that a billion people could no longer buy food corn. The grain required to fill a 24-gallon SUV tank with E-85 could have fed one human being for a year.

Bypassing ethanol altogether by manufacturing gasoline directly from cellulose in switchgrass and wood chips is the goal of one federally funded research facility. As yet, that technology is not possible, much less economically feasible. And Tennessee’s own green projects focus firmly on ethanol.

Don’t get me wrong. Oil demand will overtake supply soon, and we must have substitutes to fill that void. But ethanol is not the fuel of the future.

Gerry Calhoun of Nashville is an energy consultant and a petroleum geologist.