Peak Oil News: Debate: Is the ethanol boom about to bust?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Debate: Is the ethanol boom about to bust?


By Will Kester

I worked in the oil industry during the seventies. As fuel prices soared too quickly for American budgets to adjust quickly to absorb, and cars waited in line at service stations due to the OPEC oil embargo, I began to explore ethanol alcohol as an alternative.

I lived in a grain producing area, where we built one of the first ethanol fuel refineries in the U.S. and tried to get the Gasoline Manufacturers to mix ethanol into the gasoline. We met much resistance. Jimmy Carter created a fast track' effort to help those with our problems but it reacted too slowly to save the operation, which was forced into bankruptcy.

I learned, then, that ethanol alcohol was not energy efficient, however. It requires almost as much fuel to create as it produces, and it drives up the cost of food in more ways than just turning food into fuel. Recently, it has made raising raw product more profitable for farmers, which was part of what we were trying to accomplish in the seventies. That was when we were losing most of the small farms to large corporations. Now, most of them are gone.

I moved on to bio-diesel, which doesn't require as much fuel to produce as ethanol, but still has the problem of turning food into fuel. As America became SUV obsessed, I wrote editorial pieces and tried to get people to realize that the low fuel prices were temporary. We needed to find other ways to fuel our lifestyles than imported oil, for our security, self-sufficiency, our economy, and for the environment.

Now, with the support of the current administration, we are subsidizing ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. Our net gain in energy is almost negligible. It raises the price of grain, corn, and anything that requires grain: cattle, breakfast cereal, chicken, even other foods that would be grown but are converted to grain production to fuel the ethanol industry.

Were ethanol production not subsidized, it would fail for economic reasons. I support the concept of subsidizing an emerging industry if there is a viable future, but ethanol will eventually become the "Great Boondoggle" of this period in America's history of fuel consumption.

As electric cars, not hybrids but all electric, become viable, which we are close to achieving, the ethanol industry will become extinct. How long will that be? I'm guessing it will be less than ten years from now. By the time enough plants are built and the government realizes that we are subsidizing a doomed industry and withdraws its support, most will not be paid for and there will be a bankruptcy crisis in the ethanol industry, which we'll have to bail out or continue to support with subsidies. Farmers, who are investing in ethanol co-ops will lose their farms to corporations ready to consume the farm land, as more farms are turned into cash cows for corporations who will use imported laborers at low wages, deplete the land's nutrients and then build residential sprawl across former farm land.

What is a better alternative? There are abundant sources of clean, renewable energy. If we subsidize battery powered autos, and encourage development of electric cars and bio-diesel trucks and trains, improved mass transit, and create a new Green industry, rather than wasting our resources on a boondoggle industry, we could have cleaner fuel self-sufficiency in under twenty years. We will waste the next ten years and eventually arrive where we should be by now, based on our experience of the seventies but wasted the last thirty years, driving behemoths run on Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil. Hopefull it won't be too late.

(suggested reading: "Castle in the Wind," and "Shifting Sands; A Clash of Cultures," available through, Barnes and Noble, etc.)



By Ganesh Sharma

Need is mother of invention. Ethanol or bio-fuel, which is produced by fermentation of sugar, can be one of the best possible replacements of the gasoline-based fuels. Ethanol (E100), which has around 4% of water, is used widely in Brazil and USA to run vehicles and it had established its base now.

Due to the following advantages I would say that Ethanol fuel is promising and its usage would certainly increase in near future.

1. Various footstock like sugar cane, sugar beet, sorghum, grain sorghum, barley, hemp, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, sunflower, fruit, molasses, corn, grain, wheat, straw, cotton, other biomass, as well as many types of cellulose can be used to produce Ethanol so there is no raw material scarcity
2. Most of the existing vehicles can consume Ethanol without any modifications
3. The by-products produced by combustion of Ethanol are environment friendly. Carbon Dioxide is the major bi-product which can be used by the plants which are used to produce the Bio-fuel
4. It is recyclable! Yes it is, as the bi products are used for the generation of raw material
5. Ethanol combustion produces more power and torque in comparison to gasoline fuel

Due to the above advantages the Ethanol is being already used in Brazil, USA, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, China and Iceland.

The only and the major problem, which can hinder the growth of Ethanol usage, is the production of raw material. It requires enormous water and land to produce the quantity of raw material required.

In the end I would say that Ethanol seems very promising and Ethanol boom cannot be called as a bust.


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