Pros and Cons: Ethanol

Like many things in the green world, the viability of ethanol as an alternative fuel all comes down to who you listen to, and whom you want to believe. This subject has received nearly exhaustive coverage on TreeHugger (hey, who doesn’t like a good, lively argument, right?) so today we break it down a little bit. Here are some of the pros and cons of ethanol.

1) This report [] states that use of ethanol as a transportation fuel offers a positive life cycle energy balance (when considering how much energy it takes to grow and produce the fuel), while producing slightly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum fuel use.
2) Ethanol can be brewed at home [], which, while handy, is tricky, a bit dangerous, and, at the moment at least, is illegal.
3) In this ethanol vs. biodiesel debate [], ethanol came out ahead on availability and ease of use, given our current transportation infrastructure.
4) An ethanol car beat out a bunch of fuel cell rivals [] to win an eco-marathon car race, showing that it can stand up to other technologies under real-world conditions.
5) The increased cost of corn (thanks to the increased demand for the golden kernels) has at least one positive environmental impact: more vegetarianism. That’s right; increased corn prices mean increased feed prices for farmers, which means increased meat prices and decreased meat consumption. This is a good thing for the planet, given the huge amount of resources needed to raise meat (but that’s another post).
6) Even NASCAR has shown signs of interest [] in the fuel, which could be a huge coup for the popularity of ethanol and alternative fuels in general. But it ain’t all sunshine and roses…

1) The high price of corn (appreciating more quickly than a loft in SoHo!) is driving up lots of other prices [] and artificially raising costs, which is not a sustainable way to build the economy (and could have long-term damage to both the planet and the US economy).
2) The “ethanol dominoes” continue to fall, far beyond the farm: Starbucks is raising prices again [] (for the second time this year) because of the skyrocketing price of milk. Here’s why: cows need food to produce milk; cows eat corn; corn costs more than it used to (and now, so does milk). This has repercussions for everyone (even if you aren’t a coffee drinker) because of the huge volume of milk in demand by the rest of the country.
3) As noted above, corn-based ethanol can hurt as much (if not more) than it can help. To wit: [] “Is turning food into fuel as millions starve to death really the ethical answer to our oil addiction?” Probably not…
4) To make a gallon of ethanol, you need 4.5 gallons of water [], which is one of the liquids on this planet that might worth more than oil in the long run.
5) An important point to remember in all of this is that there is also more to life than just having fuel for our tanks and more to the environment than just greenhouse gases. Ethanol production is still often powered by coal, oil and other greenhouse gas-intensive energy sources []; a single ADM corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004, according to federal records.
6) Some more numbers to ponder []: currently, ethanol uses about 20% of the corn produced in the US; under the best efficiency and yield-increase circumstances, this could be upped to the equivalent of 60%, which would still only replace approximately 10% of our gasoline use. Further, ethanol’s vaunted reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is usually a simplistic model that doesn’t account for things like nitrogen-based fertilizer, which produces nitrous oxide, which is 300 times as potent a global warming gas as carbon dioxide. So, round and round we go…stay tuned for more on the future of ethanol later this week.