Sunday, September 7, 2008

Alternative Energy - Part 4 of 4 - A Look At Four Different Options

With the rise in the price of conventional fuels (namely oil and natural gas) earlier this year, there was a shift to look at different energy alternatives. Many people have pointed to the need for green energy, while others have talked about the U.S. dependency on foreign countries for oil. Whatever the reasons may be, alternative energy sources are going to become a growing part of our lives.

Today's post will be the fourth in a series of four posts discussing different alternative energy sources - nuclear, solar, wind, and ethanol. As Joe Rollins discussed in his August 15th post "Energy Crisis Resolved!", all possible technologies should be reviewed. While none of these sources to be discussed are new, the importance of each over the next 10+ years should grow.

We have already discussed nuclear power, solar energy, and wind power, so this week will be ethanol.


This is the one alternative fuel that has drawn the most interest during this series. I have received more e-mails and calls about discussing ethanol than anything else, so I have tried to address many of the questions and concerns that were asked.

First, ethanol is probably the alternative fuel that touches the most Americans since it is a common additive in gasoline. The blended fuel (gasoline and ethanol) has similar combustion characteristics to pure gasoline, so as a fuel it is really nothing more than something to reduce the use of oil.


Since the 1850's, ethanol has been used as a fuel. In the beginning, it was used primarily for lamps, but that changed when taxes on it increased (Civil War liquor tax). Suddenly, kerosene and methanol were substituted.

In 1896, Henry Ford built his first automobile, the quadricycle, to run on pure ethanol. In 1906, the liquor tax was repealed, and Ford declared ethanol the fuel of the future. Ford designed his Model T to run on a mixture of gasoline and ethanol.

From there it seemed that ethanol would continue to be used, but the need for harvest foods due to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II led to a decline in ethanol. Finally its use decreased even more with the realization that cheap oil made gasoline less expensive than ethanol.

It was not until the 1970's that ethanol started to be revitalized again after oil prices shot up but then faded away again. Over the last few years, as the green movement started to grow, ethanol once again became more important. With the rise in oil this year, it started drawing even more interest.


There are several ways to make ethanol from crops. One process uses yeast to ferment the sugars and starch in crops like corn, barley, wheat, rice, sorghum, sunflower, potatoes, sugar cane and sugar beets.

Since ethanol is created by fermenting sugar, sugar crops are the easiest ingredients to convert into ethanol. Brazil, the world's largest producer of ethanol, makes most of its ethanol from sugar cane. Many cars in Brazil are engineered to operate entirely on ethanol made from sugar cane.

Comparisons to Gasoline

Unlike gasoline, ethanol is biodegradable. It quickly breaks down into harmless substances if spilled. When small amounts of ethanol are added to gasoline, usually less than 10 percent, there are many advantages. Ethanol reduces the emissions of carbon monoxide and other toxic pollution. It keeps engines running smoothly without the need for lead or other chemical additives. Because ethanol is made from crops that absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, it helps reduce the total volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ethanol does not get even close to being as efficient as gasoline. A study focused on the new flex fuel 2007 Chevy Tahoe SUV. The Tahoe can either run on gasoline or e85 ethanol, which is a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. The report found that the Tahoe averaged 14 mpg on gasoline and only 10 mpg on ethanol - 29% less. This decrease in mpg is expected because ethanol contains less energy than gasoline. This means that using e85 fuel will cause drivers to refuel more often than gasoline.

Beyond just the mpg issue, there is the fact that you must find a gas station that will sell e85 (only 1,500 nationwide). Plus each time you fill up, you pay the same gas taxes. There is also a wide range of prices for e85. In some states, there is more than a 30% difference between e85 and gasoline, but in other states, the difference is only 2%.


Overall, the basics of ethanol sound like a viable alternative, but unless it becomes easier to produce, more readily available, the auto manufacturers accept it, and ultimately cheaper, it will not be a long term solution.

The production issues are being researched. There is currently a study analyzing "cellulosic ethanol" that can be produced from trees, grasses, and crop waste. The grass (switchgrass) is the most interesting item. Since it seeds itself, is perennial, and can grow on marginal land, it looks to be a very, very cost efficient alternative to corn, wheat, etc. If the process can become efficient, this could drive down ethanol prices and drive up production.

The distribution and auto manufacturing issues will be the last to fall. Gas stations must see a demand, and without a number of flex fuel vehicles, there will not be much demand. There are vehicles (approximately 2 million) that are flex fuel vehicles on the road, but how many of their drivers take advantage? How many owners live in states where the difference in price does not make it economically beneficial to use ethanol?

In a search around my house (Norcross), I found 8 gas stations within 20 miles that sold e85 gas. The price difference between e85 and regular gasoline was only about 13%. This is a nice, environmental option, but it is not economically feasible for most people especially when prices are so high.

In the end, if the issues raised can be solved, it could definitely be a good solution. Will they be solved and when?

Sources: Consumer Reports, GM, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Oklahoma State Department of Education,

No comments: