News: Ethanol's Truth and Consequences

No price break, but cleaner air

 
Woodrow J. Hinton



E85 can dramatically cut "greenhouse gases." True or false?

E85 will end U.S. dependence on foreign oil. True or false?

E85 is cheaper than regular gasoline because it's mostly made of corn. True or false?

Cincinnatians are facing a double whammy this summer — smog alert season and obscene gas prices. Most Tri staters are just like other Americans, unwilling to give up their gas-guzzling SUVs, join car pools or take buses.

So politicians as well as environmentalists are talking about ways to give us what we want and still protect the environment, our oil addiction and the economy. Enter E85.

E85 is shorthand for the biofuel ethanol, made up of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The ethanol comes from corn processed into sugar, its main ingredient. The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 calls for the annual use of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012.

The 2005 U.S. production level was about 4.3 billion gallons, second only to Brazil, which requires all gasoline to have a minimum of 20 percent ethanol and provides tax breaks for a blend utilizing 85 percent. "Flexible fuel" cars, vehicles that can use straight gasoline or ethanol, are also readily available there.

Ethanol is a more corrosive fuel, so putting it into a car that isn't E85-equipped can destroy hoses, pumps and other engine parts. Almost all major manufacturers are stepping up their production of E85-capable vehicles, with expectations of greater demand.

Ohio has 300,000 flexible fuel cars on the road, but only eight gas stations offer ethanol. The current price is $2.89 a gallon, so depending on gas prices it can be a savings or more expensive.

Cleaner burn
One estimate is that it will take 50 billion gallons of ethanol a year to replace the 1.6 million barrels of oil the U.S. imports every day.

Arguments for ethanol include reducing dependence on foreign oil and reducing emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Air quality in the Tri state area regularly violates standards in the federal Clean Air Act.

"The Greater Cincinnati area is in non-attainment for the eight-hour ozone standard — it's an average measurement of ozone over eight hours," says Ken Edgell, environmental administrative coordinator for Hamilton County Environmental Services (www.hcdoes.org/airquality/webpages/Smog.html). "Ethanol will help because it does burn cleaner. It will definitely help with the ozone standard."

That's the theory, but before you decide "true" is the correct response to the earlier questions, consider some of the counter-arguments.

Critics suggest that the increased planting, harvesting, manufacturing and transportation of corn, in addition to the gasses created when manufacturing ethanol, will create more bad emissions than the proposed reduction ethanol offers.

Edgell rejects the argument.

"I have heard that there is a negative energy balance," he says. "But that's not true. Ethanol has been shown to have a positive energy balance."

Stephanie Hines, county educator for agriculture and natural resources with the Ohio State University Extension in Clermont County, says the devil is in the details.

"The questions you have to ask are: Who paid for this research? Is this guy peer reviewed? What's the weight of evidence?" Hines says. "There are over 15 peer review studies that say ... there's a range on the energy balance, but it is positive."

Some critics say the volatility of ethanol actually creates more smog because it causes gasoline to evaporate into the air more quickly. But with the right kind of nozzles to capture vapors, similar to those used on gasoline pumps now, the concern is moot, Hines says.

E-85 will provide opportunity for farmers to grow and sell more crops, she says.

"It could impact (local farmers) in a positive way simply by increasing the demand for corn," she says. "Most manufacturers use locally grown corn because it's convenient."

Food fight
A renewable fuel source sounds like a dream come true. Need fuel? Grow corn. No more gloom and doom prophecies about depleted coal and oil supplies.

But those who watch the food supply foresee a frightening competition between food and fuel. If a farmer can make more money selling corn for ethanol than for food, the choice is obvious. Add the potential implications for one bad growing season, and both industries could be decimated.

But that prospect will diminish as the biofuel industry develops, according to Ohio Climate Road Map (www.theoec.org), published by the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC). The next step will be fuel from unused parts of the plant.

"The current stage is ethanol from corn," the study says. "With cellulosic ethanol, there's no competition between food and fuel. What you're using is not food; it's the stuff that ... wouldn't be used for other processes."

Cellulose — plant fiber found in stems, leaves and grasses not eaten by human beings — can be broken down into sugar. Cheaper to grow and harvest than corn, plants such as switch grass and straw, even agricultural waste, can be used.

The technology to create cellulosic ethanol is still a few years away. In the meantime, Kurt Waltzer, clean air strategy specialist for OEC, believes corn ethanol is a reasonable first step.

The Ohio General Assembly agrees. House Bill 245, signed into law July 5, will provide up to $1 million to assist service stations with installations and retrofit of existing tanks and pumps.

In addition, four permits have been granted for the construction of ethanol manufacturing plants in the state. When those are up and running, Ohio will have an annual production capacity of 500 million gallons of ethanol.

"There's no silver bullet technology solution to addressing greenhouse gas emissions," Waltzer says. "We're going to have to move toward many new technologies. By itself, corn ethanol isn't going to solve the problem. But when you combine greater fuel efficiency with cellulosic ethanol, you get some pretty substantial emissions reductions over time."



To find out if your car is a flexible fuel vehicle or locate the nearest gas station with an E85 pump, visit www.e85fuel.com.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.