Why Ethanol Alone Won’t Solve U.S. Energy Problems

Although it’s debatable whether transforming a percentage of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol is responsible for recent hikes in global food prices, even the most enthusiastic industry supporter must admit that, in the long run, domestically-produced ethanol is not a viable substitute for 100% of the crude oil currently being imported.

Ethanol proponents point to the “Brazilian miracle” with the inference that, if transportation fuel independence can be achieved there, it can also happen in the United States. However, the situations of the two nations are totally different and cannot be used as any basis for comparison.

The Brazilian Solution

Brazil achieved transportation fuel independence in 2006 through domestic production of ethanol and crude oil. Although that latter is often overlooked by advocates, aggressive deepwater exploration by Petrobras and some massive offshore oil discoveries in the first few years of this century have contributed at least as much as ethanol production toward achieving this goal. Among South American nations, only Venezuela has larger crude oil reserves than Brazil, which is now one of the fastest growing oil-producing nations in the world.

For light domestic use, Brazilian refiners cut gasoline with at least 20–25% ethanol made from sugarcane. The Flex-Fuel technology operating on 87% of local vehicles allows them to burn any mixture from pure gasoline to pure alcohol, thus freeing drivers to purchase the most economical fuel available at any given time. Because ethanol only offers 70% of the efficiency and therefore only 70% of the miles per gallon of gasoline, drivers have learned that, unless it’s at least 30% cheaper than petrol, ethanol is actually more expensive in operation. On long roads with few filling stations, gasoline remains the fuel of choice.

In Brazil there are around 85 cars per 1,000 people, restricting the demand for gasoline, as opposed to fuel oil for industrial purposes and electrical generation, or diesel fuel, which cannot be mixed with ethanol as gasoline can. For this reason, despite producing 327,000 barrels of ethanol per day in 2007, Brazil also consumed 2,307,000 barrels of oil per day. Despite the substitution of ethanol for 50% of Brazil’s light transportation needs, the greatest part of their economy is run on domestically produced crude oil.

The U.S. Situation

The United States, on the other hand, possesses approximately 765 cars per 1,000 people, leading to a much higher demand for gasoline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, during the week ending September 5, those cars required 9,090,000 barrels of oil per day, down from 9,393,000 during the same week in 2007. However, the U.S. mainly uses coal and natural gas for electrical generation and industrial purposes, leading to a lower reliance upon fuel oil, which is why the U.S. possesses nine times as many cars as Brazil but only uses four times the amount of crude oil.

U.S. ethanol is fermented from corn, which is much less productive than sugarcane for the purpose, requiring an additional step in the process and providing one-seventh of the energy. While sugarcane does grow in the most southern and tropical of the states (Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana and Texas), it’s not a viable crop elsewhere, leaving the U.S. mostly dependent upon corn for ethanol.

The Renewable Fuels Association says that one bushel of corn makes 2.8 gallons of ethanol, while Purdue University informs us that the 2008 U.S. corn crop will average 155 bushels per acre. Based upon these production figures, there’s simply not enough cropland even in the U.S. heartland to produce enough ethanol to replace all the transportation fuel needed on a daily basis—not if we want to eat, too.

Although a nascent technology under development is capable of producing ethanol from any form of cellulosic matter from weeds to woodchips, even that won’t be sufficient to drive much more than 30% of America’s vehicles, according to a recent report jointly authored by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy.

All-Inclusive Solution

Replacing imported oil for transportation purposes in the U.S. is not a one-step process, and more than one substitute fuel will be required. Although ethanol is a piece of that puzzle, it cannot be the entire solution.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from Brazil—not necessarily to run cars on ethanol but to be flexible in the choice of fuels. Beyond Flex-Fuel vehicles arises the possibility of hydrogen, electrical and natural gas-powered cars. Perhaps our final choice should be all of the above.

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