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Ethanol is a fuel that is derived from the digestion of sugars in plant material by bacteria. One of the most “popular” is ethanol. Now, you guys are all by now pretty familiar with how “un-green” ethanol is likely to be (if not, I can remind you in a later post). But let’s be charitable and assume that it is 100% green. After all, folks who like burning biomass to fuel our economy like to argue that photosynthesis of carbon dioxide makes biofuels carbon neutral. Never mind that the stuff has to be distilled, farmed and transported.

Even if we overlook the non-greenness of ethanol, and also overlook the fact that many industrial machines cannot actually use the stuff without being damaged (largely because of corrosion) it is still not a very effective way to power our economy going forward. Here’s why. Only 1 billion gallons of commercial ethanol were produced per year by the mid 1990s. By 2008, 9 billion gallons were produced. That is not very rapid expansion, even in the presence of subsidies and high gas prices. The Senate has mandated that 36 billion gallons of ethanol be produced by 2022 (or else!).

  • How much gasoline is consumed in the U.S. each year? Right now about 140 billion gallons.
  • Is ethanol a 1-for-1 replacement of gasoline? Nope. Ethanol has only about 65% of the energy content of gasoline.
  • So, this 36 billion gallon ethanol mandate can at best replace 23 billion gallons of gasoline.

However, gasoline demand is still expected to grow going forward. If it grows my a meager 28.5% between now and then, we’ll be using 180 billion gallons per year. Therefore the ethanol mandate will be able to replace at most 13% of the fuel we currently use in cars and tractors.

In other words, ethanol barely has the power to make a dent in OPEC (as if it matters) and even if it was 100% clean, replacing 13% of the fuel with clean energy is not much in the grand scheme of things. The transportation sector “uses” about 30% of the total amount of energy produced in the US. So, we are talking about “greening” 13% of 30% of our total energy production, or 3.9% of the energy in use in the entire US. We’d are likely to get a lot greener by doing nothing at all (US energy efficiency has been improving very rapidly).

2 Responses to “Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Ethanol Edition”

  1. Harry says:

    I know Wintercow does not like comments that are off-point, but I thought he might like to know the Pennsylvania governor has proposed fees to be charged, per gas well, to cover the adverse effects of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, to cover the costs of road repair, environmental quality assurance, and other costs that affect the people who might suffer loss. I believe the fee is $120,000 per well, paid each year, for ten years.

    The money goes mostly (I think 70%) to the affected counties and municipalities, and this has the politicians from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in a rage because they will not reap a bonanza of other people’s money. (Ironically, Allegheny County has banned drilling, so they took themselves out of collecting the fees.)

    Now, I do not know whether the dollar amounts are sufficient for the economic and environmental remediation required, but my guess is that they are probably on the high side.

    But Philadelphia and Pittsburgh cannot use this kitty to bail out their stadium projects or pay for their bloated civic payrolls.

    This is good news, Wintercow.

  2. […] Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Ethanol Edition […]

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