Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ethics of Ethanol...Tuesday, June 3. 2008

There has been much discussion lately on the use of ethanol as a fuel to replace gasoline to power our vehicles. I have many questions about the use of ethanol for automobiles.

How is ethanol made? Ethanol is a liquid alcohol made of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon and is obtained from the fermentation of sugar or converted starch contained in grains and other agricultural or agri-forest feedstock. In North America, ethanol is presently made primarily from corn and wheat. Ethanol can be produced for different applications, for example, industrial ethanol or fuel grade ethanol. There are different grades of ethanol used for fuel. E85 is a blend of gasoline and ethanol that is 85% ethanol by volume. E10 is a blend that is 10% ethanol by volume. In North America it is common to blend ethanol with gasoline at concentrations of 7 to 10 percent by volume. All cars built since the 1970s are fully compatible with up to 10 percent ethanol in the fuel mixture. From a vehicle performance and fuel consumption perspective, low-level ethanol fuel blends are equivalent to gasoline. Ethanol can be used in much higher proportions - up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E-85), however many cars in North America are not equipped to use this. Biofuels are considered by some as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy security by providing an alternative to oil and gasoline.

In the United States and other countries farmers have been given grants to use their farmland to grow corn and grains used for ethanol. For some farmers it is more profitable for them to grow crops for ethanol than to grow crops for food. In the United States for example, the ethanol industry is supported by government incentives. A mandate that urges refiners to use an increasing amount of ethanol each year, and a 51-cent-per-gallon tax credit for refiners that add ethanol to gasoline are a few examples. Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute states that increased biofuel production is responsible for 30 percent of the higher cost of corn and other grains since 2000. How can we fuel our cars with an energy source made from crops that are normally used for food amidst a global food shortage? In North America most of us really don't know what starving is all about. So we think nothing of it. But stop and think, if you have an E-85 powered vehicle and fill it up to take a pleasure trip, a few children on the other side of the world just died of starvation while you had that nozzle in your car to fill it. Across the world today one billion people live below the international poverty line, earning less than a dollar per day. Every day, approximately 15,000 children die from hunger-related causes--one child every six seconds. They certainly are not concerned about what type of fuel should power their vehicles. They are struggling just to get a portion of food and water to stay alive for another day.

I think that production of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) should be more encouraged. However, North American governments don't seem to be doing enough to promote and encourage this. Currently, there is not much of a choice as the type of vehicles available to us in the North American market. The majority, whether fuel-efficient or not, are powered by gasoline. Without gasoline, billions of dollars would be lost in tax revenue. Both gasoline and ethanol are substances that can be easily measured and sold through authorized dealers only. That means they can easily be taxed. In Canada, for example, the government collects close to 8 billion dollars from gasoline taxes per year. The United Kingdom has a gasoline tax equivalent to $2.80 per gallon. Ethanol would probably be taxed in a similar way. It would be very hard for them to tax electric battery recharges. The government is afraid to lose a huge cash cow.

Newer technology converts biomass forestry by-products, such as wood chips and non-compostable trash such as municipal waste into ethanol. This type of cellostic ethanol is a promising development, as our food supplies are not used as fuel. A Canadian based company, has been working for a few decades on technology that can produce gas from heaps of trash. Canadian ethanol producers estimate that there is enough garbage, without the recyclable materials, to fuel three million cars a year. Ethanol will likely be widely used in one form or another as an energy source in the near future.

Ethanol should only be made from waste products and nothing else. I can see ethanol playing a part of our future energy sources in a minimal way. If we are diverting crops and farmland away from food sources we are heading down a dangerous and unethical path. Also we should not be chopping down trees to satisfy our hunger for fuel. Ultimately, human greed and profit motive will ultimately play a huge part in the future role of ethanol as a fuel source.

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