Unfashionable thoughts about ethanol

If you want an exercise in social unacceptability, try telling people that you think ethanol is a pretty good idea — no matter what the oil industry says.

Only a few years ago they would smile and agree. Today they will gasp – Oh my Gawd… You want people in the third world to starve? You want to bring on the end of civilization as we know it? Are you trying to blow up your car?

The relatively recent turn of public opinion seems unfortunate, and shows just how far away we are from Thomas Dewey’s ideal of public participation in science. And yet, that’s not to say that the ethanol industry is right. For one thing, the ethanol industry rivals the TVA for total incompetence in public relations. It is unaware of its own history and unable to respond with serious explanations when it is criticized. In addition, EPA and the CARB are taking necessary first steps to standardize low carbon yardsticks.

Nevertheless, the fact is that today’s grain ethanol industry was not created as a way to shift to low-carbon fuels. Ethanol from grain is an octane boosting additive for gasoline that is far cleaner and safer than what we had before — lead and benzene.

The need for a non-toxic octane booster was clear from the early days of the automobile, and people once hoped that high octane alcohol fuel would mean engines that were so much more efficient they would hardly need fillups (as the cartoon shows to the right).

Despite this alternative, between 1926 and 1976, nearly all gasoline was sold with three to four grams of lead per gallon, and so-called “leaded gasoline” is still being phased out in different parts of the world.

The oil, chemical and automotive industries were repeatedly warned by scientists at the world’s leading universities (Yale, Harvard, and others) that this historically well known poison was extremely hazardous to public health, but they undermined independent research and adamantly refused to admit the damage they were causing.

The technical excuse for phasing out leaded gasoline came in the 1970s, when cars with catalytic converters came on the market and leaded gasoline had to be phased out. The public health reasons for phasing out leaded gasoline had long been forgotten, but had re-emerged. The oil industry chose benzene (and benzene-related compounds) to replace lead, but benzene is highly carcinogenic.

Then in 1990, Congress and the Bush administration got together on the Clean Air Act. Two new fuel additives would be encouraged — MTBE, which the oil industry said was perfectly safe, and ethanol, which the oil industry didnt like but admitted was perfect safe.

As it turned out, MTBE was a very serious contaminant in water systems, and today many billions of dollars are being spent cleaning up after the MTBE mistake.

Which left ethanol, the last non-toxic, non-carcinogenic octane booster. Yes, it is somewhat more volatile, which means that the other toxic components of gasoline can be released at higher levels. But on balance, this is a minor problem in comparison to the toxic nature of other octane boosters.

Food or fuel?

One other issue that comes up constantly is that we should not be taking food from the starving children of the world and feeding it to the Cadillacs.

I agree — Starvation in the world is a great evil, and it should be fought. Doesnt ethanol from grain make the problem worse? The answer is complicated, and the ethanol industry has never wanted to admit that its critics have a point here.

Ethanol is made from the starch in grain, not the protein. The leftover distillers dried grains (DDGs) are used for human and livestock feed, just as the corn would have been if the starch had not been extracted. There is as much or more protein in DDGs per pound than in corn. And most US grain is fed to livestock in a system that has plenty of environmental problems that have nothing to do with ethanol. So on one level, ethanol gets a pass.

In a larger sense, the critics are right — It is not a good idea for energy to compete with food in the marketplace, and there is a case to be made for some legal restraints to be built into the system.

But right now, ethanol is being made from the same grain that is eventually fed to livestock, its just that when the cows and chickens and pigs get the DDGs, there is a little less starch in the mix.

No children are actually starving today because of ethanol. Its something that might happen if the corn ethanol industry continues to grow or goes badly off track.

Replacing petroleum ?

Ethanol from grain was never intended to be a complete substitute for petroleum, a goal that everyone knew from the beginning (the 1920s and earlier) would have required more sustainable systems. It was only intended to be a blending component for gasoline.

It also had some national security benefits, in that it could be produced quickly from local resources in an emergency.

American farmers developed ethanol for their communities and their country at a time of crisis, and they deserve to be understood rather than undermined.

Most critics of the ethanol industry are very well intentioned; they have the right yardsticks. They are concerned about the poor, and about energy independence, and about the climate.

But they are measuring the wrong thing. They want to know why the grain ethanol industry doesnt measure up to high standards of sustainability. But that’s not why the grain ethanol industry was created.

Low-carbon energy sources that preserve biodiversity and enhance long term food security for the poor — these are worthy goals. But they were not the original goals for the ethanol industry, and they need to be seen as relatively new requirements that will take time. We have only recently elevated our vision — it takes time to elevate an industry.

So my question is this: If we do away with the modern grain ethanol industry, will we have to go back to lead and benzene in our gasoline? Will we allow the oil industry to use MTBE or MMT other toxic additives? What is the alternative to ethanol as an octane booster?

Critics can say the ethanol industry has rested on its laurels too long, has been too profitable at taxpayer expense and has not delivered on second generation biofuels as it should have. I think that’s reasonable. But if you want to talk about environmental catastrophe, think about returning to benzene or leaded gasoline octane boosters.

We tend to think of modern problems as stemming from older technologies, but often forget that the older technologies were sometimes developed to address problems that were even older.

True, we need to keep looking down the road into the future; but once in a while, we need to glance in the rear view mirror.


2 Responses to Unfashionable thoughts about ethanol

  1. Harry Stokes says:

    Ethanol will provide the answer to cooking in the Developing World in much the same way that it will provide the answer to our need for liquid fuels here in the U.S. At Project Gaia (www.projectgaia.com) we have been working to show the way to alcohol fuels, produced on a small or relatively small scale, for cooking, heating, lighting, refrigerations and small scale power generation. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves estimates some 3 billion or more people depend on solid fuels today. These fuels produce dangerous levels of pollution in the household. Ethanol is a clean fuel that can be produced locally. It helps to shift the burden of fuel supply away from forests that are not managed to small scale agriculture that is intensely managed. And, very importantly, it gives the farmer access to what is often the second most important cash market next to food–and this is fuel. This access to markets helps the farmer to survive and plant another year.

    Thus the biofuels debate should be looking at household energy as well as transport fuels, and the rest of the world, as well as the developed world. The energy crisis in Africa is acute. The scarsity of fuels for cooking is a problem that is swiftly worsening.

    • Bill Kovarik says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Cooking fuels for the developing world are a critical problem, and it is not to the credit of the US ethanol industry (or US engineering in general, for that matter) that it is so strongly oriented towards centralized systems rather than smaller systems that serve more people. In terms of solid cooking fuels, Harry LaFontaine and Tom Reed of the Biomass Energy Foundation have done some interesting work on downdraft gasifiers for wood stoves. But then so has the Global Alliance you mention. Also on this site there are videos of gobar type gas generators in India and Vietnam, as well as village scale photovoltaic systems to replace kerosene lighting. For transportation at the village scale, I would think that vegetable oils as diesel replacements would be more appropriate than ethanol, which involves relatively complex medium scale industries to fuel standard gasoline type engines.

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