Many believe that alternative fuels are essential for a sustainable, energy-independent future. The U.S. uses 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually. By 2030, it could be 180 billion. The question is whether ethanol -- especially corn-based ethanol -- is a sensible partial solution to the need for alternative fuel sources. Critics suggest that ethanol is likely to create more problems than it solves, and they claim E85's current modest popularity stems from subsidies paid to agricultural combines, for growing ethanol-ready corn.
Here are some of the downsides of biofuels, concentrating on the most popular current alternative fuel, ethanol:
Corn-based ethanol contributes to global food shortage -- and skyrocketing prices
When corn is used for ethanol production rather than marketed as grain, it has a serious impact on food prices -- and on basic food supplies in Third World nations. It's a simple question of fuel versus food. Critics say corn-based ethanol is land- and energy-intensive and the positive energy yield is minimal or even non-existent.
E85 gets worse fuel economy than gasoline
Fuel economy has to be one reason for the current limited interest in and use of ethanol as a motor fuel. Because of its lower energy density, an engine running on E85 gets considerably poorer fuel mileage than one using gasoline. Range, in miles per tankful, can drop by 25 percent, if not more when filled with E85.
Examples from the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel-economy estimates tell the tale. When using E85, a Chevrolet Impala with the 3.5-liter engine gets 14 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway, versus 18/29 mpg on gasoline. Dodge's Durango SUV with 4.7-liter V-8 scores a meager 9 mpg city/12 mpg highway with E85, in contrast to 14/19 mpg with gasoline.
In most areas, E85 is hard to find
By mid-2008, only 1,563 ethanol-dispensing stations existed across the country. That's less than 1 percent of service stations. Worse yet, E85-equipped stations aren't evenly distributed geographically. Flex-fuel vehicles amount to only a small proportion of the total vehicles in use, and many are trucks rather than cars. And even among the millions of flex fuel vehicles on the road, no one knows how many owners ever put E85 in their tanks. Because E85 is not petroleum-based, many service stations see it as a competitor to gasoline, not a companion. Therefore, the petroleum industry isn't necessarily eager to invest in E85 pumps and keep their tanks filled.
E85 costs nearly as much as gasoline -- more, if reduced mileage is considered
Generally, on a per-gallon basis E85 has cost less than gasoline, but rather than offering real savings the differential only serves to partially offset the greater volume of ethanol that's needed to drive each mile. As gasoline prices skyrocketed in 2008, E85 remained cheaper than gasoline, but when E85's reduced fuel economy is factored into the equation, AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report demonstrates that the use of E85 actually costs substantially more than gasoline.
E85 has tangible shortcomings
Ethyl alcohol isn't a benign substance. For one thing, it's much more corrosive than gasoline. A flex-fuel vehicle must have alcohol-tolerant fuel-system components. Except for race cars and farm equipment, it's illegal to use 100-percent ethanol. At least a modest proportion of gasoline is needed to overcome cold-starting problems. It's a safety requirement, too, as pure alcohol burns with an invisible flame-an obvious hazard in an accident.
Cellulosic ethanol isn't here yet in significant quantity
"Technology is ready today," according to Coskata, GM's partner in development of reasonably-priced cellulosic ethanol. But even if that is true, the first pilot plant won't be running until 2009. Not until 2011 is the first commercial-scale facility expected. Setting up conversion plants is expensive, so a substantial network-complete with a workable distribution system-seems a long way off.
That's half the story. Here's the other:
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