Will Blog for Experience: Emily

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ethanol...Not quite the White Knight.

My other posts have touched on rising demand for oil, peaking production, instability in the Middle East and urban sprawl so it’s not surprising that President Bush labeled the U.S. as a nation “addicted to oil”. Following Bush’s declaration of our addiction he explained that ethanol was here to save the day. But as with most energy topics there is a lot of debate over ethanol’s potential. I see two main areas of argument: 1) ethanol’s energy return on energy invested (EROEI) and 2) the ability for ethanol to cure our oil addiction.

EROEI is common statistic used to compare the amount of energy invested in an energy resource versus its net output. However, people disagree on which variables should be included in this calculation and thus there are huge discrepancies with regard to the EROEI of ethanol (among many other energy processes). I don’t know enough to come to my own consensus on the EROEI of corn-based ethanol but there is a general consensus that ethanol derived from sugar cane is easily twice (or even four times) as energy efficient as corn-based ethanol. Sugar-based ethanol is also less carbon intensive since it requires less industrial input per unit of output.

As some of you may be aware, Brazil recently achieved “energy independence” when their oil imports equaled their oil exports. Moreover, Brazil was able to displace 40% of their petroleum consumption with ethanol. So if they’ve done it, we can too…right? Wrong. For starters, our agricultural industry is grounded heavily in corn whereas Brazil is a large producer of sugar cane, which enables Brazil to rely on a more efficient energy resource.

So why wouldn’t we just use ethanol derived from sugar cane? The political and social obstacles involved in importing an agricultural resource over using our own domestic product (corn) are large. Yet, there are a host of others reasons why it is unreasonable to think we can follow in Brazil’s footsteps. The U.S. population has 62% more people than Brazil, all of whom (on average) consume over six times the amount of oil per capita annually as compared to Brazilians. Brazil produces 4.8 billion gallons of ethanol per year and by doing so, displaces 40% of their petroleum gasoline consumption. The U.S. is expected to produce an equal 4.8 billion gallons of ethanol this year, which will only displace about 3% of our gasoline use.

Despite the fact that ethanol can’t single-handedly cure our oil addiction, it definitely can help and can be used as a bridge-fuel until we are able to transform our current energy economy into a renewable one. I see ethanol as one of many steps in the right direction, but it’s not the panacea that I fear many people believe it to be.




(To the few who check in regularly, my apologies for the infrequent posts – now that finals are over I will be posting at least twice a week…thanks again for all the support!)

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