January 12, 2006

Good News for Ethanol, Bad News for the Environment

In their perpetual quest to catch up to the Europeans and Japanese in automotive technology, Detroit has decided to aggressively market “flex fuel” vehicles—those that can run on either gasoline or E85, a special 85% ethanol and 15% gas blend. The motive for doing so is clear: consumers have pegged Ford and GM as laggards in creating fuel-efficient technology. Both companies have been late to hybrid technology, which is now dominated by Honda and Toyota (Ford did introduce the first hybrid SUV, but still pays royalties to Toyota for its hybrid patents). The Americans have even been beat at their own hydrogen-car initiative—Honda produced working prototypes of a fuel-cell hydrogen car over two years ago.

The flex-fuel vehicles aim to take advantage of consumer ignorance over the true cost of ethanol. Ethanol is a grain alcohol that is created from the fermentation of sugars, which in the U.S., comes namely from the heavily subsidized Midwestern states. Proponents proclaim that adding it to gasoline blends will make it burn cleaner on a per-gallon basis; this is true. However, the claim that ethanol is energy efficient is questionable at best. While it is nature’s way of channeling solar energy for tangible use, the method by which the corn is transformed into ethanol uses gargantuan amounts of energy itself.

In U.S. agriculture, we use fossil fuels on the farm—the plow, for fertilization, irrigation, pesticide application, and harvesting. After air-conditioned tractors gather the corn, we then transport it via fossil-fuel semis to processing plants. More energy is used to process it, refrigerate it (condense ethanol into liquid) and then transport it yet again. What is the true impact?

David Pimentel of Cornell University has published controversial papers expounding ethanol’s net cost. That is, for every joule of non-solar energy (the sun is essentially free energy) inputted, the end-user is outputted only a fraction of that joule. While additional studies conclude that there might be a tiny net benefit, we can only conclude that E85’s efficiency highly uncertain. Physics tells that energy is lost as heat (friction and the like) over longer transmission distances, which begs the question: if we use fossil fuel to grow an “alternative fuel” to provide energy, why not just use the fossil fuel directly?

Moreover, what is absolutely certain is that when E85 is added to any car, E85 engines have around 25% lower fuel-efficiency. For example, a Ford Taurus using E85 is much less efficient than the same Ford Taurus using regular gasoline (Hwy mileage: Gas, 27; E85, 20).

Given Ford and GM’s financial problems, pursuing technology with very little demand doesn’t make sense. Their R&D dollars would be better spent on creating the fuel-efficient vehicles that Americans now want (hybrid growth is astronomical). Few people have access to rare E85 stations, which won’t change in number unless the government creates lavish subsidies. Midwest politicians are sure to love bringing in the pork under the guise of “increasing energy security” when in fact they do nothing but exacerbate the situation—increased ethanol use only drives up demand for even more fossil fuels. There are no real winners here, except perhaps Archer-Daniels-Midland, who will be rolling in liquid gold.


  1. Anonymous10:51 PM

    I enjoyed this article.

    I'm a fan of the theory that fuel blends such as E85 are the achilles heel of the Peak Oil crowd.

    Thanks Joseph.


  2. Ethanol is a giant scam on the taxpayers, and a diversion from the ultimate goal of actually reducing our dependence on oil.

    The math is simplified here, but, its pretty much the most carbon-intensive fuel in the world

  3. E85 is working just fine, here, thanks.

    See for yourself at www.CleanAirChoice.org