Over the last several years, when cheap easily available energy obviously was in decline, there have been a lot of cures advanced for how to ameliorate the impact on society. The one idea that did take off with a vengeance was substitution of gas with ethanol.
Historically, Fords original cars were made to run on ethanol because the production of petroleum was not in full swing and gas was relatively scarce. As petroleum production in this country was developed, gas became more economical to produce than ethanol and the changeover began. Now, gas is becoming more expensive and petroleum is becoming scarcer because we have used it up at an amazing rate, and we are seeking alternative methods of keeping the nations rolling stock on the road. Ethanol has been touted as the substitute of choice for a variety of reason.
The principle reason for pushing for ethanol production as a substitute is its supposed pollution free use and it is renewable. I have some serious reservations about its being non-polluting that I will not address in this post. Renewability is obvious.
Palooka has pointed out that there are many means of producing ethanol; corn is just one of them. He further points out that an advocate of ethanol production, Blume, has researched this subject pretty thoroughly and he thinks this substitution is possible.
Now I actually don’t relish the prospect of being a naysayer and gloom and doom purveyor. In many respects I am not looking forward to the consequences of expensive fuel and harsh conditions as a result, and it would be to my distinct advantage to be able to drive and continue running much of our society as it is. I don’t have a whole lot of time left in this world, and being an old guy forces this realization. I would much prefer to live in relative comfort until I kick the bucket.
However, I would like to consider myself a harsh realist on many fronts and look at the reality of the situation with wide open eyes and fore go the dreamy eyed view through rose colored glasses. It is entirely possible that several alternate scenarios are possible since I can make no claim to having all the information that may or may not be available. We may indeed have enough petroleum available for some time to come and while driving will become more expensive but not impossible and all the stuff that is dependent on petroleum will be more expensive but available. It is also a possibility that an alternative form of energy that is dirt cheap will be found or developed and we will be in hog heaven again.
Now here is my generalized analysis concerning all that I have read about and heard about on substitution of ethanol for petroleum.
Indeed, there are alternative forms of energy, those that substitute for the liquid fuel and those that produce electricity. In my view they all have some fatal errors in thinking that involve wish fulfillment and another financial bubble that concentrates more wealth into fewer hands. Not one of these alternatives has been sufficiently examined for unforeseen consequences that I can find. All of these different methods involve large infrastructure changes, every one of them, even ethanol. Right off the top, look at the subsidized building of ethanol refining plants. I am talking about a national change over now. Whenever you go about making radical changes to infrastructure it involves huge investments and huge use of raw materials. On the investment side, this country is broke and has huge debt, so where is the investment money to come from? Fire up the printing presses? We know this is being done now and the result is that we have that passes for money loses its purchasing power thus demanding that more money has to be printed to make these investments. Plus, to be able to make the infrastructure changes, you have to have manufacturing facilities, which most have fled to other countries, and you need large workforces. With a pretty hefty segment our population about to retire, where is the workforce going to come from? More imported labor? I sure know that no matter how large a wage I would be offered, I simply cannot handle the long strenuous work days any longer. How about you? I will posit that extending the retirement age to 75 and the accompanying benefits is not going to solve that problem.
Getting back to the specifics of ethanol: To make a national changeover to liquid ethanol as a substitute for gasoline will not happen. Not because we would have to build new distribution infrastructure, but because the actual production would involve huge changes in production infrastructure. At the present, productive farmland is predominately used for some kind of food production. Decreasing that to make fuel would have a huge impact on food availability, rather obviously. Looking for other types of biomass that would not need farm land would be another infrastructure change I am referring to. The only other type of biomass I can think of that would fit the bill is surface water plants. Without huge disruptions to the eco system, we cannot either create enough surface water systems or utilize existing surface water systems to accomplish this. Further, I posit that we have neither the capital nor the resources to try this. Again, on a national level.
You might want to check out the huge amount of tax money that is right now being used to subsidize ethanol production. Last year, a bill was passed that sets 60 billion gallons of ethanol production by 2030, principally from corn. Further investigation shows that some supposed experts in this area calculated that it would take every bit of farmland in the
This means that at our present usage, it would take more ethanol than petroleum gasoline to drive the same miles.
On a small local level, yes we can use ethanol to drive. But to have that effective, certain conditions have to exist, or be built or changed, and large parts of the country are simply unfit for doing so. Take an examples: If we want to use corn for the raw material, there are very limited areas where this is possible. Where I live, the
So, let’s look at other crops as possibilities. Switch grass, soybeans, cattails, sugar cane, sugar beats, waste biomass and lord knows what else could do the job. No argument from me, as least from an experimental point of view. But, each crop takes the right conditions that do not universally exist. To grow massive quantities of anything is going to take water, lots of it. On a regional basis, having a variety of different crops utilizing a specific areas ability to grow that crop is the problem. Surface water based crops pose special problems and further pollution of waterways and surface water is virtually guaranteed, and damage to whole eco systems would be another nightmare. To complicate this, we are now just beginning to experience water shortages in this country. And, the further away we get from traditional crops the more infrastructures will have to be built to support that type of crop. Again, where will the investment money come from and the work force to support it?
So, from all of this I conclude it is going to be regional localized production if any at all, not national. In my neck of the woods where gardening all by itself is a severe challenge that not many are ready to try at this time, I have no idea what could be used for just our local community to produce ethanol, even if our local poor assed area could somehow come up with the money and materials to build a conversion plant. We were unsuccessful in our first attempt to get switch grass to grow here, for feeding animals, much less producing the tonnage for ethanol production. We are going to try again. While it is true that this area raises lots of cattle and horses and thus there is pasture land, it is limited. So I speculate that in our area we swallow the high cost of fuel imported into the area, or we just quit driving so much. I fully realize that other areas do not have these types of disadvantages, but I think that there are more areas that have these problems than not.
One other problem that is not addressed is the upsetting of the ecology by monocropping anything. We can already track the damage to eco systems and land fertility by monocropping. If we develop other monocrop non traditional farming, (like surface water plants) we will only be compounding the problems. We are already seeing the effects of this type of farming in pollution of the land and water. How much worse are we willing to make it to keep the nations travel miles intact?
From the above arguments, I have to conclude that the hard line advocacy of ethanol production to solve our liquid fuel problems is a futile attempt to keep what we have and is not based on the realities of our environment.
Now on to a not so popular view on this subject. One of my big concerns concerning finding any form of power on a vast scale that is affordable and easily available is the social consequences. Presently, I find our popular and mass culture in this country to be pitiful, disgusting, and irrelevant to what I consider important, and I would just as soon see it make some big changes. Any continuation of our present energy usage will not bring about that change, at least in my opinion. People are simply not going to get out of their comfort zones voluntarily. Peak oil and peak everything else will force it to change. I just hope it is for the better, and again, I would like to live long enough to see how it works itself out.