News / Science & Technology

    Alternative Fuel Ethanol Hits a Wall

    Alternative Fuel Ethanol Hits a Walli
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    Steve Baragona
    May 10, 2014 10:55 AM
    With petroleum-based fuels contributing to climate change, advocates have backed plant-based biofuels as a greener source of energy. A 2007 law requires gasoline makers to add increasing amounts of the biofuel ethanol to the U.S. fuel supply. Home-grown ethanol has also been billed as providing American jobs and more energy independence. But some regulators are now proposing a reduction in the ethanol requirement. VOA’s Steve Baragona looks at why, and what it could mean for food, fuel and the environment.
    When U.S. drivers fill their tanks with ethanol, they are essentially buying fermented corn grown by American farmers. 

    A 2007 law requires gasoline makers to add increasing amounts of the biofuel to the U.S. fuel supply. With petroleum-based fuels contributing to climate change, advocates have backed plant-based biofuels as a greener source of energy.

    However, rising costs and competition for resources have led some regulators to propose a reduction in the ethanol requirement.  

    Ethanol boom

    The 2007 law sparked an ethanol boom that has boosted rural economies. 

    Another benefit, according to Bob Dinneen, head of the ethanol trade group the Renewable Fuels Association, is that corn absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as it grows. 

    “We are produced from agricultural crops and residues that are taking carbon out of the air, something petroleum can’t claim,” Dinneen said.

    But ethanol has a flock of critics. Poultry and other meat producers say their animals are now competing with ethanol for the corn supply. That has raised corn prices and costs for raising livestock.

    “Eventually these higher costs borne by the industry have to be passed along," said Hobey Bowen, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation. "So, this policy has contributed to inflation, food inflation.”

    Too much to handle

    Another factor may also put a lid on ethanol’s growth. 

    “There’s more ethanol in the gasoline required by the mandate than the vehicle fleet and fueling infrastructure can handle,” Patrick Kelly, a policy advisor for the American Petroleum Institute.

    Here’s why. Most U.S. gasoline currently contains 10 percent ethanol. Raising it to 15 percent would be one way to meet the law’s requirements. But some cars may not be able to handle a higher mix of ethanol.

    “If you have a car that was designed to use E-10, and that fuel pump [in your car] is not compatible with E-15, it could leave you on the side of the road stranded,” Kelly said.

    So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to lower the ethanol requirement for this year. 

    Going backwards?

    Dinneen, of the Renewable Fuels Association, says that's a bad idea.

    “It’s going backwards on our energy policy, not forwards,” he said.

    Dinneen says Congress passed the law intending to drive major changes in where the United States gets its fuel. One side effect, for example, is that car companies now make some models that can run on up to 85 percent ethanol.

    “If you’re going to have ethanol replacing gasoline, if we want to have options other than fracking and drilling deeper and deeper in the Gulf [of Mexico], we have got to assure investors that there is going to be a market for these new advanced biofuels,” he said.

    These new biofuels can be made from garbage, corn cobs, or other plant matter, which could end the food-versus-fuel debate. 

    What fuels our cars in the coming years may hinge on EPA’s final decision, expected in June.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Algenol Biofuels from: Florida, USA
    May 14, 2014 2:11 PM
    “When U.S. drivers fill their tanks with ethanol, they are essentially buying fermented corn grown by American farmers.” It does not have to be that way. Algenol Biofuels’ patented technology enables the production of the four most important fuels (ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel) for around $1.27 per gallon each by using proprietary algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater at production levels of approximately 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year.

    A yield that far exceeds the approximately 420 gallons of ethanol, per acre/per year produced by corn. Algenol’s novel, low-cost techniques have the added benefit of consuming carbon dioxide from industrial sources, not using farmland or food crops and being able to provide freshwater. As a result, the fertile farmland currently used to grow corn for fuel can be used to grow food, instead.

    by: Charlie Peters from: Hayward Ca
    May 11, 2014 2:47 AM
    The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) collects $billions$ using “Wallet Flushing” car tax. Is it time for CA AG Kamala Harris EPA GMO ethanol fuel waiver conversation?

    by: Erock Fisher from: Auberry,CA
    May 10, 2014 12:34 PM
    “We are produced from agricultural crops and residues that are taking carbon out of the air, something petroleum can’t claim,” Dinneen said. Yea after they removed the forest to plant corn.
    I think the forest was already taking the carbon out of the air.

    by: Phoenix Quill from: Vista, CA
    May 10, 2014 10:25 AM
    Any Engineer could tell you the Ethanol requirement was moronic from day one. Make bio fuels from farm waste, not the valuable grains people & animals eat. The mandate has never been anything besides the political corruption of Big Ag paying Big Government to force the purchase of their products & jack up prices.

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